Thursday, December 31, 2015

Writing B/X Stuff with LaTeX

A few weeks back I started rewriting my B/X house rules and I wanted to make things look roughly like the original B/X books. Note the roughly! I took some liberties with the original layout where it seemed appropriate.

Then Alex Schroeder said he'd maybe use such a LaTeX style as well, so I spent a few hours extracting things into a little LaTeX class file. Here's what documents formatted with bxart look like:

You can get the relevant files from my Google Drive. I am sure that this thing needs more work in the future, so I'll probably slap it on sometime in 2016. Happy to hear your feedback!

Update 2016/05/03: I've finally pushed this onto so I am going to take down the Google Drive link to encourage folks to contribute. Of course to the best of my knowledge I only have one user anyway...

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Basement Delving: Tékumel

In a very dark corner of my old basement I discovered a few of my Tékumel purchases from years ago. I have to admit that I never got very much into Professor Barker's creation. Don't get me wrong, I always thought that his work was most impressive as far as I understood it. But I was very much distracted by the chaotic publication history of the darn thing: I could never really figure out which of the many books from all those many publishers is supposed to fit where. In any case, here's what I found:

I don't know about you, but when I saw this thing in my FLGS back in the days, I just had to buy it. I mean come on, has there ever been a cooler looking RPG supplement? Ever? I just wish they had released a leather-bound hardcover written in actual blood! Even better, it had the following warning on the back:

Not for children? Sorcerously explicit? Demons and shit? Very clever marketing indeed! I don't think I ever did more than flip through this thing, but I'll put it on my "should really be read soon" list now. The good professor even shows us what the "original" book looked like before he translated it into English:

The language thing is after all the most obvious Barker-Tolkien connection. Barker's languages always seemed more exotic and scary to me, how very fitting for this particular book. Next we have what I think is the original Tékumel game system in the combined re-release from Different Worlds? But what do I know:

And check out the cool "The Professor Approves" logo on the back! I wonder what Gygax's equivalent would have been? Presumably something a little less Playboy-like? I mean all he needs is a smoking jacket, right?

Speaking of Gygax, the man himself actually wrote a Foreword to the original Empire of the Petal Throne which is also included in this reprint:

I cannot tell how much of this is Gary being honest and how much of it is Gary being jealous. Maybe the truth is neither and it's really just a marketing blurb. The format of the book is quite curious, check out the table of contents:

An interesting approach to numbering chapters and sections to say the least! Looks like a pretty complete system: character generation and advancement, combat, encounters and the underworld, magical items, gods and divine intervention... What's not to like? And hey, even a city is included (albeit not with a lot of detail):

Finally one of the "newer" reincarnations of the game system, and honestly I have absolutely no idea why I bought this after already owning the version above:

I feel a little bit like Alex Schroeder did back in 2009: Fascinated by the potential of this stuff, not entirely convinced that there's enough of a chance that I'll ever play it to dedicate more time to it. I am happy to give away the last one up there to someone who'll give it a good home, just email me if you're interested. I'll hang on to the other two for now hoping to find some bits and pieces to roll into my regular D&D gaming.

Basement Delving: Thieves' Guild

I have to admit that this post is mostly for me: I could never remember which of the various Thieves' Guild volumes I already had lying around in Germany, so I never ordered what I am missing from Different Worlds. Now I can finally complete my collection!

I have a thing for the products that Gamelords Ltd. used to put out in the 1980s. The quality of most of their products is remarkably high although some of the "desktop publishing" from back then is pretty sad. (If someone gave me the raw text files I'd probably do a new layout for free!) Heroes and Other Worlds has a fascinating article (including further links) on Gamelords and Thieves' Guild as well.

Basement Delving: War Cry and Battle Lust

I am in Germany again (yay!) so I can go into my old basement and hunt around for weird gaming crap that might be hiding down there. Today I found this little booklet between a whole bunch of other strange stuff I never actually played:

War Cry and Battle Lust: Cover

As you might guess from the cover, this is a war game and not a role-playing game. On a quick browse it seems to be suitable for about the same kind of thing as Gygax and Perren's Chainmail. Although War Cry came out seven years later (1978) it doesn't seem more advanced in any particular way. Better organized maybe? But of course I am hardly an expert on these kinds of games. Here are the combat tables (presumably the core of the game) from the center of the thin booklet:

War Cry and Battle Lust: Combat Tables

The Acaeum reports (and the preface to the game admits this as well) that it's a very streamlined system: Maybe not overly realistic, but with reasonable outcomes and useful for resolving large battles more quickly than comparable systems.

I'd love to hear from people who have used both Chainmail and War Cry. Sadly I won't have time for a thorough comparison myself, I am mired too deeply in the role-playing part of the hobby, just not enough interest in the war-gaming part. Hey, here's an idea: If you know Chainmail well and want to explore War Cry, I'll mail the darn thing to you for free. You just have to promise to write a blog post about how the games compare. Good deal?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Exceptional B/X Characters

Enough about average characters. We learned a bunch, but most of it was fairly obvious anyway. Let's talk briefly about exceptional characters instead. Out of a million characters rolled up, how many are exceptional? Well, what do we mean by exceptional? Maybe a good approximation would be the total sum of all ability modifiers? For simplicity let's just use the "standard" scale from -3 to +3 for all abilities. Here are a few examples for "amazing" characters as well as the chance for rolling one:


You may have guessed it, rolling up one of these monsters is basically impossible. The best result (certainly not a systemic issue, just a bunch of lucky rolls) is that 16 out of 1 million thieves are this awesome. That's not a lot, certainly not enough to ever actually see one of these characters in your games. But let's scale back a little bit: A character is pretty decent already if you get a total of +3 or more in terms of modifiers (and pretty bad if you get -3 or less) so what's the chance of rolling that? Better it turns out:

ClassChance >= +3Chance <= -3

It's a little surprising (for me anyway) that human characters have a better chance of being "bad" than "good" according to my simulation. Demi-human characters, on the other hand, have a better chance of turning out "good" as it were. Halflings are especially lucky in this regard, so maybe the next time you roll up a character who actually qualifies for being a Halfling, you should really go for one of those little buggers?

(Sorry, I am sitting at my dad's weird Windoze box in Germany, so I don't have access to my usual Python toolbox of visualizations. I was going to plot the actual distributions for you, alas I'll have to add those things at a later date. I hope you still enjoyed reading what I have.)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Average B/X Characters

I've been fooling around a lot with rolling 3d6 lately. I don't roll them myself, I have a little Python script roll them, but it's a lot of fun to look at what happens. Nothing too surprising actually, but still, worth a little post I thought.

Normally you roll 3d6 in order and see what you get. Well, for this post I am turning that around a little: I'll roll 3d6 in order as long as necessary to get 1 million characters for a certain class. Of course for clerics, fighters, magic-users, and thieves there's actually no difference: None of those require minimum ability scores in B/X. But when we get to dwarves, elves, and halflings you need to keep in mind that we're not looking at 1 million totally random characters, but one million totally random dwarves, elves, and halflings. Subtle difference? I hope you're still with me in any case.

Just rolling 3d6 in order is not enough. In B/X you get to perform prime requisite adjustment: Once you pick a class, you can increase a prime requisite of the class by 1 point if you in turn lower some other ability score by 2 points. That's somewhat of a subtle process because sometimes you might choose not to add another point to your prime requisite to keep a nice modifier elsewhere. For example, you may decide to keep Strength 17 and Wisdom 13 for a fighter instead of going for Strength 18 and Wisdom 11. True, in terms of overall modifiers you'd still be at +3 but maybe you really like to get that +1 to saving throws against magic? I have not modeled such subtleties directly because they seem too specific to the whims of a particular player. What I've done instead is to order the attributes that can be lowered by what I think most players would agree is reasonable:

ClassPrimeLowered in orderRationale
ClericWisdomIntelligence, StrengthPreserve melee potential
FighterStrengthIntelligence, WisdomPreserve saving throws
Magic-UserIntelligenceStrength, WisdomPreserve saving throws
ThiefDexterityIntelligence, WisdomPreserve saving throws
DwarfStrengthIntelligence, WisdomPreserve saving throws
ElfStrength, IntelligenceWisdomNo other choice
HalflingStrength, DexterityIntelligence, WisdomPreserve saving throws

Yes, the result of this is that I err on the "dumb side" of character generation, but since there's no simple mechanical game effect of high intelligence that seemed to be the reasonable thing to do. (One could make the point that thieves should reduce wisdom first because they need to be smart cookies and taking large risks during a heist would correlate with low wisdom, but that's beyond what the rules give us.) In any case, given these "lowered in order" rules, once I have a character that qualifies for a certain class, I use prime requisite adjustment to attempt to get those abilities pumped up as far as possible: First to get the best XP adjustment, then to get the best modifier.

Alright, now that I've explained how the characters get generated, let's get to the point of this entire post: What does the average B/X character look like? It's probably not too surprising for many of you, but here we go (I abbreviate Charisma with X).


It is perhaps not hard to understand how these numbers come about. Take the cleric for instance. The average roll on 3d6 is 10.5 so we start out with roughly the same average everywhere. Then we try to increase Wisdom at the expense of first Intelligence and then Strength. Note how in the average character, Strength is slightly higher than Intelligence. Starting at 10.5 we have a good shot that we actually rolled an 11 in both Strength and Intelligence. That would give us 2 points to raise Wisdom by, roughly anyway, so from 10.5 Wisdom we get to 12.2 Wisdom. All makes sense, doesn't it?

For demi-humans we first have to remember that we re-rolled all characters that didn't qualify for the class. Observe, for example, that for both dwarf and halfling the Constitution is higher than the expected average of 10.5 precisely because all rolls of less than 9 were removed before we even started. For elves we have an even higher Intelligence because not only did we enforce a minimum of 9 as part of the experiment, we're then able to increase Intelligence further because it is a prime requisite. If you compare halflings and elves you notice furthermore that the average halfling is stronger than the average elf. This is because halflings can reduce Intelligence and Wisdom to increase their prime requisites, whereas elves can only reduce Wisdom.

I should mention at this point that thieves in B/X are only allowed to reduce Intelligence and Wisdom. In BECMI, however, they are also allowed to reduce Strength. That leads to a slightly different average thief:

S 8.84   I 8.79   W 8.91   D 12.98   C 10.50   X 10.49

In a strange way, thieves are therefore "better off" in BECMI when it comes to their average dexterity score (their skills are a different matter). And hey, not only do they finally beat halflings, they also become the class most likely to have a 13+ in an ability (on average).

That's it for now on "average" characters. Of course there's an equally fascinating question in the air: What about "exceptional" characters? If you roll up a million dwarfs, how likely is it that you get an amazing dwarf? Sadly, since I am about to hop on a plane to Germany, that'll have to wait for another time. Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ability Score Minimums in B/X (Part 2)

I've been looking at ability score minimums for humans in an earlier post, suggesting that we can impose them without too much trouble if we so choose. Today I want to look at the existing ability score minimums for demi-humans briefly. If you check the B/X Basic Rulebook, pages B9-B10, you'll find the following:

  • Dwarves require a constitution score of 9 or higher.
  • Elves require an intelligence score of 9 or higher.
  • Halflings require a constitution score and a dexterity score of 9 or higher.

What's the effect of this? Well, if we roll up a million characters using 3d6 in order, we find that about 74% of those could be dwarves or elves and about 55% could be halflings. Let's not worry too much about the details here, what's important is that without futher consideration, a player is least likely to roll up a halfling.

If we go a little further and for each of our one million characters pick an actual class uniformly at random (out of all the classes a character qualifies for), we find (approximately) the following:

  • 17% Clerics
  • 17% Fighters
  • 17% Magic-Users
  • 17% Thieves
  • 12% Dwarves
  • 12% Elves
  • 8% Halflings

I don't know about you, but this doesn't sit right with me when it comes to the demographics implied by B/X. I always thought that elves should be rarer than dwarves which in turn should be rarer than halflings. The only thing that does work out as expected is that humans are the most populous: we get about 68% humans and 32% demi-humans.

Curious side note: Before I ever ran these simulations, I came up with a house rule to randomly determine race. I did this because I got tired of parties that were mostly demi-human. (I am with Gary that demi-humans should be exotic, not commonplace.) The rule I "guesstimated" was this:


In other words, 70% humans and 30% demi-humans seemed mostly reasonable to me. Now I'd be hard-pressed to say why exactly. I seem to recall fiddling with the d20 numbers for a while and this seemed to be the simplest way to make sure that elves are rarest, followed by dwarves, followed by halflings. So it may just have been an accident. (End of curious side note.)

If we wanted to tweak the resulting population by only modifying the required minimums, where should we start? If we added strength as a minimum to dwarves and elves all we'd achieve would be that each of those populations will be about the same as the halflings. Here's the (approximate) breakdown:

  • 18% Clerics
  • 18% Fighters
  • 18% Magic-Users
  • 18% Thieves
  • 9% Dwarves
  • 9% Elves
  • 9% Halflings

Not really what we'd want. But how about now tweaking the actual numbers? Let's leave halflings at strength and dexterity 9+ but move dwarves to strength 9+ and constitution 12+ and elves to strength 9+ and intelligence 14+. What do we get (approximately)?

  • 21% Clerics
  • 21% Fighters
  • 21% Magic-Users
  • 21% Thieves
  • 10% Halflings
  • 5% Dwarves
  • 2% Elves

That's more like it, at least it's closer to what I would expect. So if you feel like I do about what the population mix should be like, I'd suggest going to these stricter requirements for dwarves and elves. (Or you could do intelligence 13+ for elves, then you'd get slightly more of them, roughly 3%, but still not too many.)

Keep in mind that we've dealt only with minimum requirements here. It turns out that B/X has many more mechanics (prime requisite adjustment, XP adjustment, etc.) that impact the actual demographics implied by the rules. But that's for another post...

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Ability Score Minimums in B/X (Part 1)

At the end of my post on strict spell books I complained that B/X allows magic-users that cannot read. To quote:

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.

Now I've finally had time to think through what such a minimum requirement would mean. And I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised when I found out that it means almost nothing.

Let's assume that the B/X world is populated with "3d6 in order" humans only. What's the chance of rolling a 9 or greater on 3d6? Answer: 74.07% So almost three quarters of all attributes will be 9 or greater.

Now if I wanted to add a minimum intelligence requirement for magic-users, I should probably add one for clerics, fighters, and thieves as well, right? So let's say that all four human classes have such a minimum requirement. What's the chance that out of the four rolls determining strength, intelligence, wisdom, and dexterity not a single one would be 9 or greater?

Let me not bore you with the math, it turns out to be 0.45%. So out of a million humans, roughly 4,500 would no longer be able to qualify for any class. Yes, it's tough, those 4,500 would have to remain "normal humans" for the rest of their lifes.

Not trusting my math I hacked a quick Python script to roll up characters and evaluate them, so we can actually look at a sample of these poor sods:

{'C': 6, 'D': 4, 'I': 8, 'S': 8, 'W': 8, 'X': 11}
{'C': 12, 'D': 7, 'I': 8, 'S': 8, 'W': 7, 'X': 11}
{'C': 17, 'D': 8, 'I': 8, 'S': 7, 'W': 7, 'X': 13}
{'C': 7, 'D': 5, 'I': 6, 'S': 7, 'W': 6, 'X': 10}
{'C': 9, 'D': 8, 'I': 8, 'S': 4, 'W': 8, 'X': 12}
{'C': 8, 'D': 6, 'I': 8, 'S': 8, 'W': 8, 'X': 17}

Some have "redeeming" features, take the one with a constitution of 17 and a charisma of 13 for example. Presumably there is a player somewhere who'd have fun playing this character: A healthy and charismatic (leader-type?) magic-user who has a hard time writing down notes. But let's be honest, just how many players are we talking about here?

So here's my verdict: Adding a minimum requirement of 9 for the prime requisite of a class is totally fine. True, if we look at individual cases, there may be some characters that we could still find a player for. Overall, however, I don't see how 0.45% of rolled up characters contributing to nothing but entropy are a problem. I'd much rather be sure that magic-users can actually speak/read/write, that fighters can actually carry their armor and weapons into battle, etc.

Appendix: Once I had the Python script, I couldn't resist running it a few more times. Say we wanted to make sure that characters are actually good in their chosen class by requiring a 13, what would that mean? How about requiring 16? Here are the results for each 9, 13, and 16 when generating a million characters:

 Prime Requisite

Obviously the higher minima have a huge impact on who can join a class and who has to remain a "normal human" as it were. Those higher minimums are certainly not recommended for standard B/X, although I have a feeling they'll help me in my house rules regarding multi-classed characters.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Demi-Human Abilities in B/X

Neat ideas always hit me when I should really be grading. No matter, let's write it up. Quickly! If you check pages B9-10 in your B/X Basic Rulebook, you'll learn that dwarves, elves, and halflings can do some very special things:

  • Dwarves have a 2-in-6 chance to find slanting passages, traps, shifting walls, and new construction.
  • Elves have a 2-in-6 chance to find secret doors.
  • Halflings have a 2-in-6 chance to hide in shadows. (Let's ignore the wilderness version.)

That's awesome stuff of course. The only problem is that it stays that way forever. You can scan the B/X Expert Rulebook all you want, those special abilities don't improve! Doesn't matter that your dwarf is level 12, your elf is level 10, and your halfling is level 8: 2-in-6, 2-in-6, and (cynical drumroll!) 2-in-6. Depressing. Possibly one of the worst oversights in all of B/X?

Luckily it's easy to fix: Just tie those chances to the demi-human's level and you're done! There's already one (and only one!) 2-in-6 ability in B/X that improves with level: the "hear noise" ability for thieves. It goes to 3-in-6 at level 3, 4-in-6 at level 7, and 5-in-6 at level 11. So just declare that demi-human abilities also improve at those levels and you're done! You now have a better, more demi-human-friendly B/X to please your players with. Yay!

Of course using "hear noise" has the strange consequence that elves and halflings don't get to "max out" their special ability. I can live with that, but just in case you can't let's try to find another way to read B/X that might make you happier. One idea could be to look at XP instead of levels. Thieves reach level 3 at 2,400 XP, level 7 at 40,000 XP, and level 11 at 400,000 XP respectively. What do those numbers mean in terms of demi-human levels?


Alright, so halflings still get the shaft and never reach 5-in-6 for hiding. Worse than that, elves now start with 3-in-6 for finding secret doors. I don't actually like this better than the first approach, but hey, maybe you do?

In my house rules levels 4, 8, and 12 are "special" because they coincide with the level limits and level progressions used. So there I reuse those numbers to determine when demi-human special abilities get upgraded.

Of course the important point for me is not which progression to use, it's much more about adding another small way in which characters improve over time. Take it from someone playing a level 12 dwarven fighter in AD&D every week: Nothing is more boring than (apparent) lack of progress!

PS: I don't think that any of the other "general" d6 skills should improve with level. But for demi-human special abilities, I find the idea rather appropriate (and indeed appealing).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Justifying Exploration Movement

I seem to spend a lot of my idle cycles (too many maybe?) thinking about D&D, and one topic I keep coming back to with some regularity is movement rates. I started this post with the goal of doing something about the atrociously slow pace of D&D character in those dark and deadly dungeons we all love. Of course it turned into something a bit more involved: A historical survey (at least for the versions of D&D I care about) of the player-facing differences regarding movement. I focused on movement in the dungeon, and I ignored whatever differences there are between player characters and monsters. (My friend Delta has written a wonderful post about wilderness movement in AD&D/OD&D that you'll want to check out as well.) So without further ado:

  • OD&D gives movement rates primarily in inches which makes sense considering its wargaming roots. In the section on encumbrance (volume 1, page 15) we find that player characters move 12", 9", or 6" depending on how much they carry. Somewhat confusingly the same page also gives an example of a fully armored character moving at 6"/turn. Why is that confusing? In the section on underworld exploration (volume 3, page 8) we first learn that 1" equals 10' in a dungeon. But then we find that there are actually two moves in one turn of approximately 10 minutes. The fully armored character from the previous example is therefore given a rate of 120'/turn, not 60'/turn. The rules note further that movement is doubled for flight/pursuit so the same character can "run" 240'/turn. By the same rationale an unarmored character should be able to explore 240'/turn and "run" 480'/turn.
  • Holmes Basic gives movement rates primarily in feet which makes sense because it's more accessible and we're dealing only with dungeons anyway. On page 9 of the rules we find the same 120'/turn for the fully armored character and the same 240'/turn for an unarmored character. The good doctor characterizes this as a "cautious walk" and agrees with OD&D that it's the appropriate movement rate for "exploring/mapping." However, he then introduces "normal movement" as well, at twice that speed. This notion is never explicitly explained, but it's presumably there to cover movement through areas that have already been explored/mapped. The obvious "problem" here is that OD&D uses this "normal movement" speed for "flight/pursuit" which implies "running" and not just a regular walk. Holmes then introduces an explicit "running" movement rate at three times the exploration rate. So a fully armored character can now "move cautiously" at 120'/turn, "move normally" at 240'/turn, or "run" at 360'/turn.
  • AD&D gives movement rates in inches again, presumably because Gygax just cannot stop himself. Page 101 of the Player's Handbook lists out the basic 12", 9", 6", and 3" movement rates for various levels of encumbrance. On page 102 we find the same 1" = 10' dungeon scale as in OD&D, however gone are the two moves per 10-minute turn. So now our fully armored character can only move 60'/turn while exploring/mapping a dungeon! But of course it doesn't stop there: What Holmes called "normal movement" now seems to happen at five times the "exploration/mapping" rate so 300'/turn for our fully armored character whereas "flight" or "running" happens at ten times that rate, so 600'/turn.
  • B/X D&D gives movement rates in feet again, doh. On page B20 of the Basic Rulebook we find that characters move at 120'/turn, 90'/turn, 60'/turn, or 30'/turn depending on encumbrance. The fully armored character now moves at the AD&D rate of 60'/turn. On page B19 we are told that this "assumes that the players [sic] are mapping carefully, searching, and trying to be quiet" so this is once again the "exploring/mapping" speed. There are no concrete guidelines for "moving normally" through already explored territory. Running speed is given as the same number of feet per round. Turns out that B/X keeps the 10-second rounds Holmes introduced, however those are now given an explicit relation to the 10-minute turn: there are 60 rounds per turn. So the running speed for a fully armored character would be 60*60'/turn = 3600'/turn! (Page B24 comes to the rescue by stating that running speed can only be maintained for 30 rounds before requiring a rest of 3 turns, but that doesn't change the fact that B/X characters run a lot faster than characters in any other version of D&D considered here.)

I think I can leave it at that, neither BECMI nor the Rules Cyclopedia do anything different from B/X regarding basic movement. (Well, the encumbrance tables are slightly different, but hey.) We should probably conclude with a table summarizing all of the above? I want to keep things simple, so I'll use an unencumbered character for this:

Exploring 240'240'120'120'
Walking -480'600'-
Running 480'720'1200'7200'

This level of variation is moderately scary. Not that it matters in practice: You always just play one system after all. But it's still a little bizarre that closely related versions of D&D come down that far apart on this simple question. So what's the basis in "reality" if there is such a thing?

The average human walking speed seems to be around 3 miles/hour. There are 5,280 feet in a mile, so that's 15,840 feet/hour. There are 60 minutes in an hour, so that's 2,640 feet/turn. Wow, even those versions of D&D that have a notion of "moving normally" are really far off from that.

Jogging seems to happen at about 6 miles/hour, maybe a little less. If we assume that D&D characters are not highly-trained sprinters, only joggers, that still leaves us with a "running speed" of 5,280 feet/turn and only one out of four versions of D&D is even in the right ballpark.

Or look at it the other way: Those 120'/turn (from AD&D or B/X) for an unencumbered character exploring/mapping translate to 720'/hour or 12'/minute or 2'/round (in B/X terms). Two feet in ten seconds? Two feet is less than a single step for an adult!

I can already hear half the OSR shouting "It's a game, just play it!" in my direction. Sorry, not good enough, things are simply too far off to sweep under the rug. So let me propose a strawman that I'll shoot down again in a few paragraphs.

Start with that average walking speed of 2,640 feet/turn. Round off to get a nicer number, let's say 2,400 feet/turn. Set that as the movement rate for an unencumbered player character walking normally, for example down one of the few paved city streets in your favorite fantasy metropolis.

Now let's "weigh them down" with encumbrance. In the versions of D&D that deal with encumbrance at all, movement rate goes down by about one-fourth per encumbrance category. Alright, so we'll get 2,400 feet/turn, 1,800 feet/turn, 1,200 feet/turn, and 600 feet/turn. For running we'll double those (but we'll assume a pretty short duration for runs just like B/X does). For exploring on the other hand we'll divide by two for each complication we can think of. Let's see, there's mapping (its own reward), searching (presumably for treasure), being quiet (presumably to avoid random encounters), being cautious (presumably to avoid traps), and that's about it. So we'll divide by 16!

That leaves us with 150 feet/turn, 112.5 feet/turn, 75 feet/turn, and 37.5 feet/turn for four levels of encumbrance. Pretty close to the (slightly slower) 120 feet/turn, 90 feet/turn, 60 feet/turn, and 30 feet/turn in the existing rules! In fact, it's close enough to simply round off again and use the existing movement rates. (Maybe it would be slightly better to use 150 feet/turn, 120 feet/turn, 90 feet/turn, and 60 feet/turn instead? See below for reasons not to.) However, let's remember how we got here: We took a realistic version of "normal walking speed" and divided by 16. That's a huge decrease and probably overestimates things quite a bit. But to keep things simple, let's forget about the 16 and just say that from the usual movement rates we get back to "normal walking" if we multiply by 10: So 1,200 feet/turn, 900 feet/turn, 600 feet/turn, and 300 feet/turn. Seems reasonable enough, what's not to like?

I shall tell you what's not to like. Suddenly armored parties move 60 squares per turn in my dungeons instead of 6 or 12 squares. Among other things that destroys a lot of the fun that can be had when parties desperately try to escape from a dungeon after an encounter that left them almost dead. I either have to make all my dungeons a lot bigger, or I have to turn up the frequency of wandering monster checks. It requires that I rework lots and lots of stuff, especially monsters who (presumably) are familiar with the dungeon and move at "normal walking" speed instead of "exploration speed" now. Overall, I'd much rather find a fix that let's me keep things as they are numerically, but that offers a better deal to the players nevertheless.

So here is my actual proposal (remember the above was a strawman): If the ridiculously slow movement is in fact because the party is ridiculously cautious, careful, quiet, etc. then the reward should be that they have a chance (only a chance!) to notice interesting things without having to explicitly ask for them:

  • When they approach a trap, they automatically have the usual 1 in 6 chance to spot it.
  • When they pass a secret door, they automatically have the usual 1 in 6 chance to spot it.
  • Before they open a door, they automatically have the usual 1 in 6 chance to hear some interesting noise.

And so on, and so forth. Yes, in a very roundabout way I am arguing for "passive perception" as I believe 5th edition calls it. Seems like a very fair deal to me: If the explanation for why the player characters crawl like snails is their meticulous dungeon delving expertise, why the heck would players have to poke the DM about those things?

Of course this might not feel like D&D to you anymore, but it still feels like D&D to me. And since it's just a chance, I really don't think I am giving too much away. In fact, I am probably adding a 1 in 6 chance for magic-users to spot magic as well as a 1 in 6 chance for clerics to spot evil. And you know? I'd much rather make a few more rolls for them than have my players miss fun things in my dungeons just because they never asked.

Update 2015/11/11: Turns out I got my initial math wrong, sorry. Thanks to Todd Haynes for spotting it! I fixed the numbers and things are less extreme now in the strawman proposal. (Sadly I had to cut my Traveller/Star Frontiers quip as well.) I stand by my actual proposal in any case: A reduction by a factor of 16 should have more benefits for the players than what is given by the rules as written.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Other Missing B/X Spell

Most B/X fans know that there's no spell description for Detect Invisible in either of the 1981 rulebooks. While this makes for a great pun (maybe it even was intentional on Tom Moldvay's part?) the "completionist" in me had to import the spell description from Frank Mentzer's 1983 basic set to be satisfied. (Turns out that I could have imported the spell description from the original 1977 Eric Holmes basic set as well, but I only realized that recently.)

Well, today I noticed that there's another spell "missing" from B/X. It's a tad bit more debateable I guess, but here we go anyway. If you turn to page X49, you'll find the Staff of Power which (among other things) can be used to cast Cone Of Cold. And sure enough, there's no spell with that name in B/X. From the way the spell is characterized in the magic item description it seems to fit right in with Fire Ball and Lightning Bolt, the other two attack spells a Staff of Power can create: A d6 of damage for each level of the caster.

Of course that's not a complete spell description, but luckily we find the Wand of Cold further down on page X49 which states that the cone is 60' long and 30' wide at the far end. Now we're almost done with reconstructing the spell, but we should still double-check the details with other sources. So let's look at OD&D and AD&D. We're in for a surprise because OD&D doesn't have Cone Of Cold either! It does have both the Staff of Power and the Wand of Cold but not the spell, just like B/X. AD&D of course has the spell, but it's a tad bit different than what you'd expect from the B/X items:

  • The AD&D spell is level 5 and not level 3 as would fit with Fire Ball and Lightning Bolt. That's presumably justified by Cone of Cold having fewer complications regarding area of effect or rebounding?
  • The AD&D spell description doesn't give the exact dimensions of the cone, however it does explicitly state that the cone starts from the caster's hands (so the range is 0).
  • The AD&D spell does d4+1 damage per level of the caster which guarantees a higher minimum damage but falls short of the possible maximum damage a d6 would provide.

So we'll have to "pick up the pieces" a bit. Personally I find level 5 to be too high, after all that's the same level as Cloudkill which potentially insta-kills creatures of less than 5 hit dice. So let's say it's level 4 instead. Also let's adopt the clear dimensions given for the Wand of Cold and let's make it d6 per level as implied by both B/X magic items. We arrive at the following:

Cone of Cold
Range: 0
Duration: instantaneous

This spell creates a cone 60' long and 30' wide at the far end that originates from the magic-user's hands. It does 1-6 (1d6) points of cold damage per level of the caster to all creatures within the cone. A saving throw versus spells will reduce damage by half if successful.

Sounds like a decent B/X spell to me? Also by adding a cold attack spell to the list we can get a little more mileage out of the cleric's Resist Cold, a neat side-effect.

I am sure there will be those who'd argue that the spell is not in fact "missing" at all, it's just that in the B/X world cold attacks only come from White Dragons or magic items. I don't know, I think there should be a spell because wizards have to create those magic items based on something, right?

And if you feel like adding this spell is a bad idea without taking something else away, may I suggest removing Growth of Plants from the magic-user's spell list and giving it to the cleric instead? Seems sensible anyway...

Monday, October 19, 2015

Fixing Magic Jar in B/X?

Trigger warning: This post contains suggested modifications to B/X D&D. If you feel strongly about the "artistic integrity" of B/X D&D, read at your own risk.

In my recent post about the spells in B/X D&D,  Magic Jar was listed as being particularly confused and confusing. I've since arrived at what I think is a rather simple solution for just about all its problems. Furthermore that solution requires none of the even more complicated AD&D machinery. I actually quite like the resulting spell, but your mileage may obviously vary! Let's start with the original spell itself, straight from the B/X Expert rules (in all probability "fair use" applies):

Magic Jar
Range: 30'
Duration: special

With this spell, the caster puts his or her body in a trance and transfers his or her life-force to an inanimate object (magic jar) within range. From this object, the spell caster may attempt to possess (take over) any one creature within 120' of the magic jar. If the victim makes a successful saving throw, the possession has failed and the caster may not try that victim again for one game turn. If the victim fails the saving throw, the creature is possessed and its body will do as the caster wills. While under the control of the spell caster no spells of the possessed may be used. If the possessed body is destroyed, the magic-user or elf must return to the magic jar. From there the caster may try to possess another body or return to his or her own. The caster can be forced out of the possessed body by a dispel evil spell.

Destroying the magic jar while the caster's life force is in it kills the caster. Destroying the magic jar while the caster's life-force is in another body strands the life-force in the possessed body. Killing the caster's real body strands the life-force in the magic jar until the caster can possess another body! Once the caster returns to his or her real body the spell is over.

The first complaint I had was about the two ranges used by the spell. I now think that those are fine provided we interpret them as follows: The caster's body has to be close to the magic jar to initially transfer the life-force. Once in the magic jar, the caster has completed "the hard part" and now has a somewhat larger range to find victims in. However, any "soul traffic" between victims and the magic jar must happen in that 120' radius. Finally, the "traffic" between the jar and the caster's body must happen in that 30' radius, including on the "way back" at the end of the spell.

This solves two more questions I had: What range counts for returning to the jar, the 30' or the 120'? What happens when a Dispel Evil pushes the caster out and the magic jar is too far away? It also solves a question I didn't explicitly pose, but one that's implicit in the spell as written: What happens if the possessed body dies and the magic jar is too far away? With the "strict ranges" interpretation, both of these result in the casters immediate demise. Neat!

But I had a lot more questions. Turns out that most of these become equally easy to answer when we add the following to the spell description (paraphrased):

The victim's life-force gets sucked into the magic jar while the caster has possession of the victim's body.

Let's see what this solves. Can the caster "chat" with the victim? No. Does the victim remember anything the caster made his possessed body do? No. Does the caster gain any of the victim's knowledge, spells, skills, etc.? No. Can the victim attempt to "push out" the caster's life-force, maybe similar to what Charm Person allows? No. See how easy that is? No need to write several unsatisfying paragraphs (and a custom "add wisdom and intelligence of victim and caster, then compare on this really complicated table" rule) like AD&D did.

It also solves a related, although mostly metaphysical problem: If the victim's life-force doesn't go into the jar, we now have two "souls" in one body. Can that be? Wouldn't the universe implode? (Don't complain, I said it was a metaphysical problem, didn't I? Actually there's a deeper one too, namely "Do souls that hop around bodies exist at all?" but let's not go there.)

Maybe least obvious is that our little addition explains (indirectly) why the caster should be allowed to make use of his or her spells while in the victim's body. (Always assuming that the body is capable of performing the necessary verbal and somatic activities those spells necessitate.) If what we're dealing with is essentially a "soul swap" that includes whatever is "stored in the brain," well, then the memorized spells of the caster should go with him. Just like the victim's spells (if any) go into the jar together with the victim's life-force and are hence not available to the caster. While the caster (or the victim) is in the jar, though, spells cannot be cast because there's no way to perform those verbal and somatic elements. And while the B/X version doesn't mention the caster using spells in the victim's body, AD&D clearly allows it. So there's predecent.

That leaves only one of my original questions, namely whether the caster can leave the victim's body and return to the magic jar voluntarily. I think that has to be a resounding "Yes!" because if it's possible for the caster to get stuck in a beetle by accident, well, presumably that's not where our hero wanted to end up, is it? If he or she now had to commit "beetle suicide" as the only way out, that's just too depressing.

But I have two twists left, at least one of which I hope you'll appreciate (I try so hard to write pleasing D&D posts).

First it seems pretty sad that the victim of Magic Jar can do nothing but sit in the magic jar until the caster decides to return. Imagine the victim's body (and the caster's life-force with it) dying miles away: The "poor soul" would be in the magic jar forever. Literally. (Unless someone casts Dispel Evil on the jar by accident, of course killing the victim in the process.) How do we solve this?

Let's add a chance that the victim can take over the caster's body! 

Where do we take it from? Charm Person of course! After all a "smart soul" should be able to figure out what's going on much more quickly than a "dull soul," right? (A scary alternative would be to allow the victim to use the magic jar just like the caster did. Think it through, hilarity would ensue for sure as entire cities start swapping bodies and souls.)

Twist number two is only applicable if you import certain BECMI spells into your B/X game like I tend to do: A cleric can use Speak with the Dead to communicate with the life-force trapped in the magic jar. Why? Well, it's a "disembodied soul," right? Potentially the "disembodied soul" of someone who is actually dead as well. Seems perfectly sensible to me! And in terms of the game it also gives players a way to communicate with that evil wizard in the magic jar to maybe negotiate some kind of deal. More options are always better!

Alright, that was a lot of talking. I now give you my version of Magic Jar written up in B/X style (well, as much as I am able to copy that style anyway):

Magic Jar
Range: special
Duration: special

The caster puts their body in a trance and transfers their life-force into an inanimate object within 30'. From this magic jar, the caster may once per round attempt to possess any creature within 120'. If the victim saves against spells, the possession has failed and the caster must wait one turn before trying that creature again.

If the victim fails to save, the victim's life-force is transferred to the magic jar as the caster's life-force takes control of the victim's body. The caster's life-force can return to the magic jar (and thus reverse the process) only if the magic jar is within 120' of the victim's body. This applies whether the caster leaves voluntarily, is forced out because the victim's body is killed, or is forced out by a Dispel Evil spell. If the caster's life-force cannot return, it perishes. While in the victim's body, the caster may use any memorized spell as long as the body is in principle capable of spell-casting.

While in the magic jar, the victim's life-force gets another save against spells as per Charm Person: Intelligence 13-18 once per day, 9-12 once per week, 3-8 once per month. If successful, the victim's life-force can take over the caster's body. Destroying the magic jar kills any life-force within it and possibly strands the caster's life-force in the possessed body. Killing the caster's body prevents any life-force from returning to it. Once a life-force returns to the caster's body from within 30', the spell ends.

Okay, so it's a little longer than the original, but I think it's worth it. Let me know what you think of the new version! And maybe someone even notices the one thing I totally left open to interpretation despite it being addressed in the AD&D version of the spell. Anyone?

Update 2015/10/19: There's one big tradeoff I forgot to discuss, sorry. Allowing the caster to cast further spells in the victim's body means that he or she could cast Magic Jar again! Visualize this as a "trail of bodies and magic jars" if you wish.

I didn't want to add a restriction of the "any spell except another Magic Jar" kind because that seems petty. On the other hand, repeated casting of the spell requires that we fix which body counts as the original. The simplest story is probably to just use the body the caster was in for a certain Magic Jar as the original for that spell. So the caster could return from the second victim to the body of the first victim for example, thereby ending the second Magic Jar spell.

This works for the most part, except if the truly insane is attempted: The second (or tenth, or onehundredfortyseventh) Magic Jar is used to "possess" the original caster of the first Magic Jar again. (In other words, the caster is trying to "imprison" a whole bunch of people in magic jars and come out "on top" by possessing himself again.) Two things help to avoid that:

First, note that I didn't specify whether the caster can memorize spells while in a victim's body. True, the way I interpreted the rest I guess it would be natural to allow it, however that would mean that no upper bound on the length of the "chain of jars" exists, a spooky proposition. So the concerned DM could certainly use that to keep things "managable" as it were.

Second, note that the original body of the first Magic Jar does not contain a life-force. Since we described the process of possession as an "exchange" of life-forces, the concerned DM could rule that the original body cannot be possessed again: it lacks a life-force to imprison in turn.

And if all of this sounds like a huge hassle to you, the line "The caster's life-force can only participate in one Magic Jar spell at a time." would also fix everything. (At least if we ignore that the caster of one Magic Jar could be the victim of someone else's Magic Jar as well. Dicey!)

All three options work for me. Now I wonder if I should I rewrite the spell for this or just leave it as commentary? Hmmm...

Concentration in B/X D&D

This is a first follow-up to yesterday's post about B/X spells. Instead of going spell-by-spell I'd like to point out a few more general issues with the spell descriptions in B/X and propose some small fixes. This will no doubt take several posts, so today I am starting with...


A number of spells such as Phantasmal Force, Wall of Fire, Insect Plague, Conjure Elemental, and Control Weather use the notion of "concentration" as part of the spell's duration. There are also several magic items that make use of "concentration," for example the Ring of Animal Control, Helm of Telepathy, Medallion of ESP, and Wand of Illusion. And of course there's the general rule (B47) that using magic items requires "concentration" as well.

However, there's no real definition of what "concentration" means anywhere, it is defined more-or-less "ad-hoc" in every spell or item description. The glossary of the Basic Set does provide a definition as well:

A character putting all his or her attention on an object or action, during which the character may do nothing else, and which, if distracted (attacked) will cause the concentration to be lost.

That's all fine and dandy, but it doesn't jibe with all the other definitions. Here, in the "official" definition, it's enough to be attacked to become distracted. In the Phantasmal Force description, nothing is said about concentration. The Ring of Animal Control and the Helm of Telepathy are in agreement that the user cannot move while concentrating. However, the Medallion of ESP does allow regular movement while concentrating, just not casting spells or fighting. Insect Plague and Wall of Fire require the caster to remain stationary again. Conjure Elemental and the Wand of Illusion allow half movement but neither casting nor fighting. The Wand of Illusion also states that a successful attack that does damage or a failed save (against charm for example) breaks concentration.

What gives?

The default answer to all complaints about B/X is of course "this is how it is, it's magical, you're wrong to even think there's something wrong here, move on and play the game" but I don't find that very satisfying. I want B/X to be simple enough for me to memorize, and that requires some "regularity" to the rules. So call me dense or something, but I think "concentration" should mean exactly one thing, not five different things.

At least all the various definition of "concentration" agree that it's not possible to concentrate and cast a spell or attack someone at the same time. So we can start from there.

Next movement. The majority of definitions seems to require remaining stationary, but this doesn't scale to all applications. For example, it is essential for the utility of the Phantasmal Force and Conjure Elemental spells that the caster can move with them to some degree. Think illusion of an ogre moving down a dungeon corridor with the party trailing behind at a distance. Think elemental conjured to help excavate the wizard's dungeon complex. However, I think full movement is too much because then there's literally no penalty that must be paid. Half movement seems quite appropriate though. On top of that, it's in line with "Fighting Withdrawal" in regular combat. The only thing it doesn't line up with is casting a spell in the first place: the rules don't allow for any movement. But I think that "maintaining a spell" should be less stressful than "casting a spell" in the first place, so that's alright with me as well.

Which leaves the question of whether an attack is enough to distract or whether the attack has to do damage. Luckily the expert set comes to our rescue because it finally has a rule for interrupting spell casters (X11):

The caster must inform the DM that a spell is being cast and which spell will be cast before the initiative dice are rolled. If the caster loses the initiative and takes damage or fails a saving throw, the spell is interrupted and lost.

I feel in pretty good company accepting this as the rule for concentration as well. If we don't require damage or a failed save, it is way too easy to interrupt spell casters. The same should be true for concentration which (as I said above) I consider "maintaining a spell" and therefore easier. And distracting someone from an easier task should be harder, if anything. So here's my revised definition for what "concentration" means in B/X and I am happy to apply this rule for all situations where concentration is called for.

A creature concentrating on maintaining a magical effect cannot cast another spell or perform an attack. The creature can move at half speed though. If the creature takes damage or fails a saving throw, however, concentration is lost.

Note that with this understanding of "concentration" as "maintenance" the use of the term "concentration" for casting spells or activating magic items in the first place has to cease. Those things do not allow movement in line with the existing rules. I guess a new question that comes up now is whether someone activating a magic item can be interrupted just like a spell caster, but I'll leave that for another post...

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Debating B/X Spells

I've been working on my little side-project: producing a concise "cheat sheet" for all the spells in B/X D&D. In the process I ran across a couple of slightly confusing things that I would love to get feedback on, especially from other "B/X fanatics" across the interwebs. I'll just organize this spell-by-spell for now, general themes will probably be dealt with in a later post. Let's start with cleric spells:

  • Bless: Does the reversed version, Blight, also only work if cast before melee is joined?
  • Hold Person: For the group version, does the caster pick who gets affected? Or should there be a rule similar to the Sleep spell that lower HD creatures are affected first?
  • Resist Fire: Why is the duration so much shorter (2 turns versus 6 turns) than for Resist Cold, a lower-level spell? (AD&D gives them both 1 turn/level.)
  • Create Water, Create Food: These two are listed with a range of 0' which usually means "self" or "touch" but I presume that neither does the water "come out of the cleric" nor does he or she have to "touch" all the food that everybody else will eat later. A close range like 10' seems more reasonable, no?
  • Cure Serious Wounds: A spell that's three levels higher but only does twice the healing of Cure Light Wounds? Doesn't seem quite fair, especially since Neutralize Poison is the same level and potentially much more helpful. (Alas AD&D has the same problem.)
  • Speak with Plants: This spell allows for "favors" similar to Speak with Animals but doesn't explain how to determine whether a favor is granted; the latter spell uses a reaction roll, why not do the same here? Or should we just assume that the favor will be granted to make up for the much shorter duration?

Alright, and on to the magic-user spells. Here I have a lot more questions, and many are a lot more complex as well:

  • Invisibility: First the duration is "permanent until broken" which begs two questions: Since objects cannot "attack or cast" they simply stay invisible forever? Seems a tad powerful for a level 2 spell. Also, no other spell uses "permanent until broken" they usually say "special" or "indefinite" for their duration. Second the description says that a "person or object" can be made invisible, but I guess that the intention really is "creature" right? Shouldn't I be able to make my kobold retainer invisible as well? Or really just folks with character classes?
  • Knock: The spell description is written in plurals. Does that really mean all the doors/locks in the area will be blown open for 1 round?
  • Wizard Lock: When they say "magic-using character (or NPC) of three or more levels greater" do they mean to include clerics as well? And what about magic-using monsters with 3+ HD over the caster?
  • Dispel Magic: Does it really dispel all spells in the area? It cannot be targetted any better? Also, it's listed as effective against "magic-user, elf, or cleric" spells but it leaves out spells created by spell-casting monsters like Dragons?
  • Haste: Does the caster get to pick the recipients or are all creatures in the area, up to 24, hasted?
  • Confusion: Shouldn't undead be immune since this is a kind of charm or at least mind-altering?
  • Growth of Plants: What does "all but the largest creatures" mean exactly? Giants? Rocs (ignore flying for the moment)? Purple worms? Maybe we can just put a HD number on it to be clear?
  • Hallucinatory Terrain: Unlike Phantasmal Force this doesn't require concentration. So once cast, it just "sits there" as an illusion. Now it says "touch by intelligent creature dispels" which presumably means that insects and foxes and so on can stumble through the illusion with no effect even if observed. A goblin passing by, however, who touches the illusion by accident will ruin it. Not just for itself mind you, but totally ruin in. (This may be a more general complaint about illusions and how to handle them.)
  • Animate Dead: There is no upper limit to the number or HD a magic-user can control. So cemeteries should be amongst the most well-guarded places in any civilization? And all evil magic-users should be awash in skeletons and zombies.
  • Wall of Ice: Doesn't say "up to" in the spell description, unlike Wall of Fire. So it's always exactly 1,200 square feet? But what's to stop the caster from making whatever is "left over" really long and really low? The wall can be "any other shape the caster desires" after all. Shouldn't we just add the "up to" to the spell description?
  • Feeblemind: Can only be used against magic-users and elves, nobody else? Not against dragons or other magic-using monsters? Not against clerics? Hmm.
  • Magic Jar: Wow, what a complicated spell. First it has two ranges, 30' and 120', and it's not 100% clear which one is which. But then the hard questions start. Is the victim's soul displaced into the jar or not? If not, where does it go? Can the magic-user "chat" with the victim's soul while his soul is in the victim's body? Does the victim remember the actions the magic-user forced his body to take? Does the magic-user have access to the victim's memories or languages or skills? The spell description says that the magic-user cannot cast the victim's spells, but can the magic-user cast his or her own spells while inside the victim's body? Can the magic-user leave the victim's body and return to the jar voluntarily? Should the victim get more saving throws to "push out" the magic-user's soul, similar to what happens for Charm Person? What range counts for returning to the jar, the 30' or the 120'? What happens to a "pushed out" magic-user when the jar is too far away? (The AD&D version answers some of these questions but it also makes the spell even more complex in other ways, something I'd like to avoid.)
  • Wall of Stone: Unlike the other wall spells, this one says 1,000 cubic feet instead of 1,200 square feet. However, it also says the wall is 2' thick. What gives?
  • Invisible Stalker: There is no upper limit to the number of stalkers a magic-user can have concurrently. True, there cannot be complex long-term missions without a risk of the stalkers "reinterpreting" their instructions (see X34), but what's to keep a level 14 wizard from traveling with a revolving retinue of about 21 invisible stalkers guarding him or her? Dismiss the three that are getting grumpy, summon three more, off we go on another day of adventure...
  • Projected Image: Does the position of the image determine the effective range of a spell or does the actual position of the real caster? The description says that the real caster must be able to see the target, but it doesn't detail range issues.

Sorry, I realize this is a lot of spells and a lot of questions. I hope you, dear reader, will take the time to at least set me straight about those closest to your heart? It would be much appreciated! I really hope I get lots of feisty opinions about these things!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Linux on Lenovo z585

The Lenovo z585 is literally a piece of shit when it comes to installing Linux. Just google around for a bit, you'll see lots and lots of frustrated users almost ready to give up, some even ready to use Windoze instead. I'll never buy one of these again, not ever. But I am stuck with one for now, and I had to finally replace my old Lubuntu 13.04 install with 15.04 today.

Of course I had forgotten about all the pain that is involved in getting this thing to boot a Linux LiveUSB. But this time I swore I'd write this blog post so I won't forget again how to make it work. So here's how I got Lubuntu 15.04 to boot just fine from an old USB pen drive:

  1. Power the darn thing off and stick your USB drive into one of the USB 3 ports. Yes, for some reason it didn't work for me on the USB 2 port, go figure.
  2. Right after switching on power you should get a "Lenovo" logo on your screen. Hit F2 quickly to enter the BIOS. If you have an admin password set, I hope you remember it. Luckily I remembered mine.
  3. Under "Configuration" make sure that you have "USB Legacy" enabled. I also have "WLAN" enabled and "SATA Controller Mode" to "AHCI" but that shouldn't matter. Nevertheless, if things don't work for you, you might as well try setting those two as well.
  4. Under "Security" you'll first have to "Set Administrator Password" to enable some other options. Make sure you use a password that you'll remember easily! Once you've done that, you can switch "Secure Boot" to "Disabled" and that's what you want.
  5. Under "Boot" first you'll want "Boot Mode" set to "Legacy Support". Then you want "Boot Priority" set to "UEFI First"; yes, I am aware that this sounds insane, but without this setting I cannot boot a single Linux LiveUSB. Obviously you want "USB Boot" set to "Enabled". I also have "ESATA Boot" enabled, but that shouldn't matter. See above regarding shouldn't. You should have your USB stick plugged in already when you get here, just move it all the way to the top in "Boot Priority Order".
  6. Under "Exit" select "Exit Saving Changes" and voila, your crappy laptop should finally boot that LiveUSB and let you install a reasonable OS.

I doubt there's any rhyme or reason to this, the entire machine is crap, the BIOS is crap, etc. But the only thing that matters is that it works now. At least on my machine. If you get yours to boot Linux, whether with these BIOS settings or different ones, please leave a reply below. I am curious how others made it work, maybe I can learn something.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Them B/X Celebrities

I noticed a curious thing about some of the "celebrities" of the B/X Basic Rules, specifically Morgan Ironwolf, Black Dougal, Fredrik, and Sister Rebecca: Apparently they were actual PCs in someone's AD&D campaign before becoming world-famous in those B/X "Examples of Combat" and "Sample Dungeon Expedition" sections.

If you grab yourself a copy of the 1980 AD&D Dungeon Masters Adventure Log supplement, you can check for yourself. There's a filled-out example sheet at the back that has the following:

The only elf in that product is "Elron Hubbard" (male elf fighter/magic-user) played by Lawrence Schick, and presumably that was changed to "Silverleaf" because nobody wanted to get sued by Scientology? :-)

Now granted, there's no way of telling whether these were really really really player characters short of asking (and I might be able to ask Dave when I see him next) but I find that to be a pretty reasonable assumption.

Also funny: Black Dougal is listed as "slain by a fire giant" in the Adventure Log so that poor guy always seems to end up dead. Sadly Sister Rebecca is also listed as "falls in valiant combat with a black dragon" so I am kind of glad that she survives in B/X.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

B/X Trollery Continued

See this post for some background on how easy it is to be "peer-pressured" in the OSR. So here's part two, again inspired by Alex Schroeder's answers, again to questions that Random Wizard originated as part of an evil scheme to take over the Trolls of the world.

Should energy drain take away one level of experience points from the character? Yes or No? If no, what should level drain do? I've actually never run into this. I guess I don't play enough D&D? I've had characters turn into werewolves and eat the rest of the party, I've had characters die while riding into town to start their adventuring career, I've had all kinds of bad stuff happen to characters in my games. But not this. So I'll put on my "player hat" for a second and say that I hate energy drain. Not because of the loss of level and XP mind you, but because of the book-keeping horror it entails. I'd rather just fail a save and have the character die instead! Wanted to try playing a halfling bard anyway...

Should the oil used in lanterns do significant damage (more than 1 hp in damage) if thrown on an opponent and set on fire? Yes or No? If yes, how much damage should it do? I realize that for all kinds of somewhat scientific reasons, lamp oil should not be the cause of an inferno that sets entire dungeons on fire. But it's sometimes fun to set shit on fire (in game mind you!) and I've had my share of laughs with players fumbling attack rolls and dropping the darn things on their own party instead. Good times! The B/X standard of d8 damage may be a bit excessive, but I'd probably stick with it just for the heck of it. Also holy water does d8 to undead, so at least it's consistent with that. BTW, many monsters can toss those things right back at you if you fail to hit...

Should poison give a save or die roll, with a fail rolled indicating instant death? Yes or No? If no, how should game mechanics relating to poison work? I think that should depend entirely on the poison, don't you? There are different kinds after all, at least in my worlds. The real question trolly-troll hid here is "Should there be save-or-die rolls at all?" so I'll go with that instead. Sure, there should be "save-or-die" rolls, at least every now and then, at least for certain very powerful monsters, at least for (some) climactic encounters. Those saving throws on your character sheet get better for a reason: They measure how much work you've put into your character so far and how sad it would be to lose that character. It's a perfectly fair setup and you sat down to play the game. Now roll up another character! That said, I am not opposed at all to converting "save-or-die" things written into a module to something completely different if it suits me better. There's little point in tricking noobs with yellow mold spores for example. They just don't know, so they'll have their first character die on entering that room without really having a say in the matter. Not fun at all. So I'd replace that with a huge coughing fit that attracts monsters, maybe some minuses for 6 turns, etc. Oh, also important: If you use "save-or-die" stuff on player characters, be fair and allow them to use it on your favorite villain as well.

Do characters die when they reach 0 hit points? Yes or No? If no, then at what point is a character dead? The house rule from my "Expedition to the Borderlands" open-table game is pretty representative of what I usually do: "Characters are unconscious at 0 hit points and dead at their negative constitution score. Serious injury (negative hit points) can have permanent effects such as scarring, broken bones, missing limbs, etc." I don't specify a particular table, and usually I don't do evil things like letting the player roll for their character's new disability. Maybe I should? After all there's an entire blog dedicated to this stuff! (As a side-note, I am not too fond of critical hits. Most players aren't either once their character has been on the receiving end of a Stone Giant who crits his thrown rock.)

Does the primary spell mechanic for a magic user consist of a "memorize and forget system" (aka Vancian)? Yes or No? If no, what alternative do you use? Yes. In my "home game" however, I am giving wizards a permanent "detect magic" and priests a permanent "detect evil" as it were. I'd roll it, like finding secret doors or something, but those things wouldn't be spells. They are silly as spells. (Also here's a cursed sword for the fighter-types who keep complaining about that "one-shot" wizard in the party.)

Should all weapons do 1d6 damage or should different weapons have varying dice (1d4, 1d8, etc...) for damage? I know I'll get at least one "but you're double-dipping" comment for this, but anyway. Let me quote another house rule from my open-table game (which I just noticed I had never posted to our G+ group, something I'll have to remedy): "Damage is primarily class-based: Fighters do d8, Clerics do d6, Thieves and Wizards do d4. Light weapons (dagger, sling, etc.) get -1, heavy weapons (two-handed sword, pole arm, crossbow, etc.) get +1 to damage." The "home game" would differ on a few details (I give Thieves d6 hit-dice so they'd do d6 damage), but overall the system would be the same.

Should a character that has a high ability score in their prime requisite receive an experience point bonus? Yes or No? Depends. If I run B/X straight then there's an XP bonus. In my "home game" there wouldn't be.

Should a character with an constitution of 18 get a +3 bonus to hit points, or a +2 bonus to hit points, or a +1 bonus to hit points or no bonus to hit points? And should other ability scores grant similar bonuses to other game mechanics? Depends again. I am so fickle! "Moldvay knows best." is what Alex says and for B/X RAW I agree. The "home game" is again a special snowflake because I use standard deviations (strictly speaking 2.9581 but I round up to 3) from the "average 9-12 range" as the measure for bonuses: 13-15 is +1, 16-18 is +2, and the same on the other end.

Should a character have 1 unified saving throw number, or 3 saving throw types based on ability scores (reflex, fortitude, will), or 5 types based on potential game effects (magic wand, poison attacks)? or something else? Finally one of these questions really gets to me. Of course the B/X answer is easy, just roll with the five classic saves and we're good. I've looked at saving throws in different editions and various clones before, trying to figure out what I really like. But those posts didn't help in the end because I'd still really like a simpler approach (or better rationales for the existing numbers). As per usual, Daniel Collins has a good answer. But I am still hopelessly undecided.

Should a cleric get (A) 1 spell at 1st level  (B) no spells at 1st level (C) more than 1 spell at 1st level? Straight B/X for the open-table game, although all characters start at level 2 in that one so it's not something that bothers people. Priests in the "home game" would use the same progression as wizards, the one I first suggested here and later compared across various systems. (Back when I still had clerics, they would have used a slower progression to compensate for their "martial" aspects. Alas that's now taken care off by my strange approach to multi-classing.)

And done?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

B/X Troll-ol-lol

I posted a link to Jeffro's blog on G+ the other day. Now Alex Schroeder insists that I shouldn't be allowed to just post stuff, I have to work for it and answer the Trollish Questions myself. Much like he did here and here. Well alright then!

Race (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) as a class? Yes or no? Depends on the kind of game I run. For my current "Expedition to the Borderlands" open-table game I use B/X as written. I might tweak it if there was a reason for it, i.e. if the players went to the Dwarven Clan in the West and begged to recruit a cleric of Moradin or something. For a "real" campaign, the ominous "home game" I keep dreaming about, I'd go with my own version that splits race and class although the "chassis" of the rules would still be B/X.

Do demi-humans have souls? Does anybody? Under the weirdo D&D-esque assumption that the dead "transcend" to a plane according to their alignment, sure. Whatever it is that "does the transcending" could be called a soul. Doesn't really matter though, I don't run planar games. (Wait, maybe I would. If the only way to get to the planes was if the characters killed themselves, that would be kinda cool.) What matters is that you can resurrect everybody just fine, doesn't matter if they are human, demi-human, humanoid, or intelligent mushroom. And nobody even gets a saving throw against it. :-)

Ascending or descending armor class? I really don't care, plays more or less the same. But Target20 works great with descending AC and I grew up with descending AC and I use resources that have descending AC listed so that's what I use. (I only get annoyed by the silly little difference between D&D and AD&D.)

Demi-human level limits? Sure. It's only fair. Again, it depends on the kind of game I run. In the "home game" I'd use my own version with my own crazy "rationale" behind it all. You should try inventing your own rationale as well!

Should thief be a class? Sure. If you don't like them, don't play one! But anybody can attempt to do what a thief is able to do, they just never get much better at it. Wizards can fight with swords too in my game, they just suck at it so it's a really bad idea for them. And if a halfling decided to cast a spell from scroll? I'd probably give them a chance! A very, very low chance. With hilarious consequences if they mess up.

Do characters get non-weapon skills? Sure. But it's not really formalized. If you want your character to be good at something that's not in the rules, ask me: Maybe I'll let you write something down. I won't let you write things down again and again, not even if you're playing an elf who could have learned 27 different trades by the time they turn 314. (And of course it's easier to convince me that your halfling can cook and that your dwarf is a decent smith than to convince me that your elf is a deadly assassin and that your fighter can fly.)

Are magic-users more powerful than fighters (and, if yes, what level do they take the lead)? Sure. Wait what? Troll-trolly-troll left out thieves and clerics and all the other fun things like Balrogs and Gargantuan Purple Worms. Useless question. Next!

Do you use alignment languages? Not as they are usually defined in D&D. So let's just say "No!" and be done with it.

XP for gold, or XP for objectives (thieves disarming traps, etc…)? I use B/X RAW for the open-table, so XP for gold and some for monsters overcome. I'd probably switch to "XP for money spent" for the "home game" I keep talking about. Sometimes I like "objectives" but they are so anti-sandbox. (I hate AD&D2 in this regard, so that's a total no-no. But I suffer through it for the game I play in.)

Which is the best edition; ODD, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia, 1E ADD, 2E ADD, 3E ADD, 4E ADD, Next? I grew up on BECMI and really liked RC for a good long while. But that was because I never knew about B/X, it wasn't available in Germany when I got started. There's no question in my mind that B/X is the best overall package, period. I do like AD&D as well, but only Gary's and only in mild doses. So I guess what I am saying is I tend to like some of the AD&D classes (hence probably my fascination with this thing). AD&D2 is horrible, just horrible. I'd probably play AD&D3 if it's just the core three books, but I wouldn't touch 3.5 or 4. I have no real opinion on 5 yet. I like some mechanics and I appreciate that they rolled some nice options into character generation. But really it's B/X for me. OD&D and Holmes win special prices for being, well, special. But I don't play them.

Unified XP level tables or individual XP level tables for each class? This was Jeffro's bonus question. Again, depends on the game. In my "home game" I would use a unified XP table, the 2000/4000/8000/... Fighter table. Edit: Should have linked to this post.

And done?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Better be at least this paranoid!

So you've prepared the disk in a way suitable for your level of paranoia, now it's time to actually create the encrypted file system on it. Luckily that's an increasingly simple task, at least if you are using a moderately well-equipped kernel. If you didn't build your own, then it probably has everything you need already; if you did build your own, you should know how to fix things if something is missing. So we're good to continue.

I start by partitioning the disk. Note that if you want to be more mysterious you can encrypt the entire thing without partitioning it, but I like to at least get some kind of message that's not "disk not formatted" out of most systems I am likely to connect the drive to. So I partition. Since this is a pure "data disk" there's really no need for more than one partition, therefore no need for GPT. I simply make an old-school MBR partition table. But then I create two partitions. The first one (/dev/sdX1 say) is tiny, just 1 MB in size for example, and it'll get formatted with ext2. I like to put a small disclaimer and a few related files (such as the Bill of Rights) on that one.

The rest of the disk gets allocated to the second partition (/dev/sdX2 say). Here's how I then set up the encryption layer:

cryptsetup --verbose --cipher aes-xts-plain64 --key-size 512 --hash sha512 --iter-time 5000 --use-random luksFormat /dev/sdX2

Alright, that's quite a long command, so let's see. First I explicitly pick a cipher that is reasonably secure as of this writing. It's actually the same cipher that cryptsetup would default to anyway as of 1.6.0 or so. But I turn up the key size to something higher than the default and I also replace the hash function used for key generation to something more likely to survive a few more years. Finally I tell it to iterate for 5 seconds instead of just 1 second when computing the key. It's hard to say what kind of improvement that is, but in general the assumption is that if you spend more time generating the key, it'll be "better" in some way. Oh, I also use /dev/random instead of /dev/urandom, something you may not want to do if your system doesn't have enough entropy built up. Overall I think those are fairly conservative options that should result in decent security for the next few years. Or so one would hope...

Pick a good, long, cryptic, etc. pass phrase!

But we're paranoid, right? So let's make sure that we actually got what we requested from the command. Here's how to see that:

cryptsetup luksDump /dev/sdX2

This will spit out some interesting information I don't want to get into, but it'll also show you that the cipher, key size, and hash function are as requested. Good to know, right? Now it's time to actually attach the encrypted device to the system. Here's how we do that:

cryptsetup luksOpen /dev/sdX2 encrypted

The name "encrypted" will be used to create /dev/mapper/encrypted which is the name we use to refer to the encrypted version of the partition. (Remember that /dev/sdX2 is the raw, unencrypted partition and that we're "simulating" an encrypted layer above that.) Now I go ahead and create an ext4 filesystem as follows:

mkfs.ext4 /dev/mapper/encrypted

And after mounting that sucker, we're set: We can now write data to the ext4 filesystem on top of the encrypted disk on top of the actual raw partition. Win! After your backup, unmount the whole thing, issue an

cryptsetup luksClose encrypted

and finally store the disk in a safe place. You have succeeded. More or less anyway. Good luck in that military tribunal!