Thursday, October 14, 2010

[Review] Blood Moon Rising

Authors: Peter C. Spahn.
Contents: 32 portable document format black and white pages, 1 title page, 29 pages of adventure, 1 page of  advertisements, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Small Niche Games.
Product Code: SNGLLA001.
Retail Price: $4.95.


An adventure for 3-6 characters of levels 1-3, Blood Moon Rising takes place in and around the small village of Garanton. It consists of a description of the settlement, short history of the locality in which it is situated, a five day festival itinerary, and three short encounter areas that become of interest during the course of the celebrations. The electronic product appears to use relatively large verdana font and spacing, which is easily legible, and presents the text in two columns with half inch margins and a header and footer decorated with a narrow celtic border pattern. Each page contains about 600 words, giving the whole document a total count approaching 18,000 or so. There are four maps, one of the village and three of the encounter areas, and four illustrations, the best of which is reproduced on the front cover and has a very gothic feel. Of the other three, there is a very dark and almost indiscernible image of warrior with an axe, a crudely drawn moon symbol, and what appears to be an image culled from a medieval manuscript of two Germanic knights duelling. The writing is clear and workmanlike, rarely dwelling needlessly on ancillary topics or over lengthy descriptions, which makes for agreeable and uncluttered reading.

Whilst the method by which the player characters are introduced to the village of Garanton is left up to the game master, the adventure unavoidably takes place against the backdrop of the five-day Feast of Saint Garan, whose tomb is nearby. The events and random encounters likely to take place during the course of the festival take up eleven pages, and the six pages of character descriptions and statistics towards the end of the module largely pertain to those individuals associated with these. As the festival progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that something untoward is occurring in the vicinity of the settlement, the result of the excavations of an inquisitive soul, whose actions accidentally reopen a portal to another plane, unleashing a plague of "night demons" and result in his own disappearance. Meanwhile, a number of orcs are attempting to open the long sealed tomb of Saint Garan, having been set to the task by their shaman, prompted by signs, portents and visions related to the impending release of the night demons. Active and motivated adventurers may drive off the orcs, uncover the secret of the saint in his tomb, reclose the portal and rescue its hapless victim, not to mention become embroiled in acts of murder and thievery in the village itself.

This is an adventure with a strong timeline, and keeping the action moving over the course of several days of game time will require more than the contents of the module, even with its robust selection of random and scripted encounters. However, there is plenty to build on, and it should pose little problem for a seasoned game master acquainted with settlement based adventures. The broad selection of non-player characters is diverse and occasionally amusing, such as "Big Annamar", a large barbarian woman with an affection for “little folk” and a poor reaction to rejection. Opportunities for role-playing abound, particularly with some of the relatively unsavoury rival adventuring groups present for the festival. The local inhabitants are of similar interest, and the larger world context is hinted at in the fact that there are no clerics amongst the local priests, all of whom are presented as fighters. Should the player characters be successful in putting an end to the night demon attacks, the village of Garanton would make a good base for further adventures, and in the traditional style it is hinted that the encounter areas already discovered may lead to larger underground complexes with greater evils to be faced and treasures to be won.

Technicalities and Errors

Happily there are very few editing errors to be found in this module, and it is particularly pleasing to see a true minus used over the less aesthetically pleasing, but more usual, hyphen. The only typographical errors that were noticeable was the occasional missing space as in the case of "battle axe+1”"on page twenty-four, but it seems to be applied so consistently in the text that this may be a house style, though it looks ungainly to my eye and a space is used on page eighteen outside of a statistics block. As noted above, an experienced game master should have no problem keeping the pacing, but there should perhaps have been some advice for the neophyte. The maps are not pretty and two appear to be crammed into the columns, but they seem to be useable enough, though the scale of one square to twenty feet is perhaps slightly overly ambitious. Whilst in line with the random charts in the rulebooks, the amount of treasure available does seem rather a lot, resulting in very quick advancement for low level adventurers, and it might have been a good idea for Spahn to have addressed this in some way. Finally, the name of the new monster seems rather unimaginative; "night gaunts" immediately leapt to mind as an alternative, but others can no doubt do better!


Non-dungeon based adventures are difficult to write, as they lack the structure that a restricted environment provides. Spahn has taken a reasonable approach here in using a timeline to substitute for that lack and has created an interesting locale for the players to explore. The night demon attacks are a little flat as written, but their execution is really largely in the hands of the game master anyway. Where this adventure falls short is when it comes to dungeon exploration, and that is admittedly a subjective criticism given the nature of the module, but expanded subterranean areas beyond the sparse four pages provided could only have improved the whole, even if left relatively incomplete. By the same token, more information on the plane of the night demons would have been welcome, particularly what lies beyond their mausoleum sanctuary. Of course, the inclusion of such additional material might also have driven the price beyond the target range, and there is little that could be reasonably omitted that was provided, save perhaps the details of the back story. All in all, this is a well thought out adventure, well edited, and worth the price. Last of all, it is worth noting that player characters who do too well may find an unexpected drawback in the prize!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

[Review] AA6 The Chasm of the Damned

The Chasm of the Damned

Author: James C. Boney
Contents: 16 saddle stitched black and white pages, 1 title page, 13 pages of adventure, 1 page of OSRIC advertisements, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Product Code: XRP6106
Retail Price: £7.00 or $12.00


An adventure for 4-6 characters of levels 6-10, the Chasm of the Damned consists of eight relatively short dungeons, each accessed from the titular location, some of which are interlinked. As with previous offerings in the series, the physical product has a glossy cover stock and is clearly printed on durable paper with black and white interior maps, but with a spine that appears to be susceptible to wear. The cover art is by Bradley McDevitt and appeals to the traditional aesthetic associated with the game, as well as being reflective of the subject matter. Both the front and back illustrations depict atmospheric scenes from the module that are easily recognisable. There are six interior pieces by John Bingham, including a particularly evocative depiction of a new monster that features in the adventure, and as with the cover illustrations almost all self evidently refer specifically to the content of the module. With regard to the writing, James Boney is typically economical and clear, rarely dwelling overlong on a description, and preferring to provide only enough to spur the imagination of the reader, which is of course in keeping with the methodology of traditional swords & sorcery adventure module design.

What has earned the chasm its ominous appellation is that it is a well known but randomly located plane shifting occurrence, appearing regularly every thirty-seven years for four and a half days. Rumours abound that great fortunes are hidden in the caverns it harbours, which is a natural draw for adventurers of all sorts, but commensurate dangers await and few are said to escape unscathed. The module presents two possible ways in which to get the player characters involved. In the primary scenario, it is common knowledge that the chasm is due to appear again and they are competing with several non-player character groups to locate and raid the caverns before the allotted time is up. As the alternative scenario, it is suggested that the player characters are employed by an enterprising cleric or magician who has determined the location the chasm will appear at in advance, and are engaged to prepare an expedition in secret. Of course, if they are incautious there is an ever increasing chance that a local guild of thieves or assassins will get wind of what they are up to and lay an ambush for the treasure laden party upon their return. A collection of rumours of varying degrees of veracity are provided for the party to glean about the chasm in advance.

There is a map of the chasm provided; it is about a mile in length and divided into three levels, each of which has access points to two or more of the eight dungeons. Several additional access points are provided in order to alert the game master to the possibility of expanding the chasm. The caverns entered from the first level are fairly straightforward, offering some relatively standard monster encounters, a few strange objects to interact with, the opportunity to rescue and recruit some non-player character associates, and the possibility of negotiating for a place to rest. From the second level, the caverns accessed are stranger and feature three new monster types denoted bogwings, madsome gargoyles, and faceless ones. One area is home to a powerful middle eastern inspired character known as the Gray Sultan, who has quite a lot of potential for a thoughtful game master. There are also some more familiar monsters that may be encountered or avoided as fortune dictates. Should the player characters reach the final level of the chasm, which is somewhat inaccessible, they will have the opportunity to explore the last set of caverns and uncover the mystery of the chasm, perhaps earning themselves a powerful enemy or patron in the process.

Technicalities and Errors

Besides the occasional editing error, such as "shortsword+1" (p. 6), and the somewhat vexing, but hardly unusual and in any case consistently applied, tendency to use compound words such as "chainmail" and "shortbow" there is little to complain about. The use of hyphens for minuses (e.g. p. 10) is worth commenting on, since a true minus does appear (p. 14) and I would like to see that practice extended to all instances. Oddities like "2-4 +2 turns" (p. 3) occasionally crop up, and mixed use of terms like "footman’s mace" (p. 6), "mace", and "war hammer" (p. 14) are maybe questionable in the context, since it seems inconsistent to specify the former, but not indicate whether a shield is intended to be small or large (p. 14). Hardly an issue for any game master more than passingly familiar with the system, but worth mentioning all the same if simply overlooked. The large efreeti bottle (p. 10) is also of interest, since it is not bolded, leaving the reader to wonder at its significance, but perhaps that is the intent. On the whole, the module is an improvement stylistically on its predecessors, suffering from fewer inconsistencies and hopefully future instalments will continue to ensure there are very few nits to pick.


Chasm of the Damned is a good example of James Boney’s work. It has a strong and innovative adventure hook, is engagingly written, and features plenty of interesting encounters. As with his previous modules, there is a tendency towards the eclectic, with a number of seemingly randomly selected monsters appearing as the result of what amount to traps, and no fear of including creatures capable of  draining life energy levels. The author shows excellent understanding of the system, and knows where to provide mechanisms for adjudicating otherwise undefined actions, as well as knowledge of how elements of the adventure are likely to interact with typical and experienced players. His modules feel like they are very much in the tradition of their predecessors without being simple retreads of the past, and have a definite identity of their own. That said, this adventure was less tightly themed than his previous two, and ran the risk of amounting to a number of dislocated set piece encounters. A more fully integrated theme and, as always, more content would have improved the whole, but it is nonetheless a very good module.

Friday, August 20, 2010

[Article] Henchmen & Hirelings

Whilst a player in a swords & sorcery adventure game typically generates and plays the role of only one character at a time in the context of a single campaign, he is also well advised to recruit hirelings and henchmen into his service when possible. These individuals provide the character with additional resources, look to his interests when he is unable, and may eventually serve as replacement player-characters in the event of his retirement, incapacitation, disappearance, or death. Clearly, then, it can be desirable for a player to enlist both hirelings and henchmen, but there is also a downside. Such characters are a drain on resources, requiring payment, upkeep, and a part of the treasure seized, not to mention being apportioned a share of the experience points gained. This last aspect is often particularly contentious amongst players of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, since the Dungeon Master’s Guide implies that hirelings count for the division of experience, yet gain no advantage from it, whilst henchmen gain only half the benefit, and that amounts to "wasted" experience points (DMG, p. 85). Of course, the root of the idea is that player-characters are awarded experience in proportion to the difficulty of gaining them.

In the original Dungeons & Dragons game (1974), there is only a brief mention in Men & Magic (p. 11) of the difference between ordinary hirelings and "hirelings of unusual nature", but the idea that charisma limits the number of the latter, whilst the former can be employed in unrestricted numbers, is present. Even a player character with a charisma of one is entitled to enlist a single henchman, whilst an eighteen allows for up to twelve. The text notes that  players "will, in all probability, seek to hire Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and/or Clerics in order to strengthen their roles in the campaign", and also that "charisma will aid a character in attracting various monsters to his service." Further elucidation is provided on the following pages (pp. 12-13), where it is explained that monsters with the same basic alignment as the player-character may be "lured into service", but otherwise they may be charmed or subdued. In this context, it is also made clear that men count as monsters and that high-level characters can be enlisted in a similar way. Furthermore, subdued monsters can be sold, presumably even men if there is a market for them. A loyalty check is made for groups or individuals so enlisted, which affects all subsequent morale rolls.

Unsurprisingly, these somewhat brief guidelines were expanded for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1979) and a formal distinction drawn between hirelings and henchmen. The former group was subdivided into "standard" and "expert" types, the idea being that experts were more suitable for employment after the construction of a stronghold. That these included the various mercenaries available seems to contrast with the idea put forth in the original game that a player-character might wish to hire such a band to "participate in and share the profits from some adventure" (M&M, p. 12). Nonetheless, some provision was made for recruiting men-at-arms to participate in the danger of exploring a dungeon, though in restricted numbers, and the random non-player-character adventuring parties generated using the Dungeon Master’s Guide are noted as containing such hirelings only on the upper levels of the dungeon (DMG, p. 175). Subsequent versions of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the second edition of the advanced game, downplayed and discouraged the use of mercenaries outside of the context of strongholds and domain management. This coincided, it is often noted, with the increased emphasis on small parties of four to six player-characters.

As with hirelings, henchmen are divided into two types for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which is to say standard and exceptional. The former are down on their luck adventurers of first to third level, arriving with little but themselves by way of possessions, whilst the latter are higher level characters who may agree to become permanent or temporary henchmen, depending on their level relative to that of the player-character seeking their service. Alternatively, they may agree to become associates, which is presumably similar to the relationship between player-characters. Indeed, the Dungeon Master’s Guide notes that henchmen operated independently tend to become associates, or even rivals, of the player-character (p. 38). The potential for a henchmen to become an associate or rival is somewhat analogous to the possibility of a player character being permanently rendered a zero level character as a result of life energy level drain (DMG, p. 119) or of the textually unmentioned, but otherwise well attested, capacity of a zero level and classless hireling to receive a battlefield promotion and attain the rank of henchman. Movement between hireling, henchman and associate, then, is a feature of the game.

The concept of a non-player-character associated adventurer is interesting, as when a player fails to turn up (and even the best campaigns invariably suffer from scheduling issues sometimes) this is what the character they would usually play essentially becomes, assuming some alternative device is not employed. It is also possible that a player whose character is slain, incapacitated, lost, or simply not present at the scene of action, will be asked to take the part of a non-player-character, such as an associate. This recourse seems most successful with experienced players, as they are usually better able to divorce the persona and aims of one character from another, or even capable of running multiple characters at once, but it is also a good exercise for neophytes and often a welcome change of pace. In the Shadow Peaks campaign there was a considerable amount of role-changing as player-characters were frequently incapacitated or removed from the action, and there were often several associated non-player-character adventurers accompanying the party. Such individuals were recruited to assist in difficult expeditions, allotted equal shares of treasure and received full experience, but had their own agenda.

Since each of these had their own personality and opinion of the party, the players grew to like and trust some of them more than others, which was rather gratifying. In fact, they had their beginning as the nine pregenerated player-characters for the Twisted Tower of Mordras introductory adventure (and can be downloaded here), but ended up as an integral part of the campaign, supplying the players with information and many role-playing opportunities, as well as accompanying them on adventures from time to time. For their part, the players seemed interested in the fortunes of these characters, even seemingly trying to impress them from time to time (their own reputation was a frequent source of concern to them). This did not discourage them from taking on hirelings and henchmen, though, so the party was usually comprised of four to six player-characters, two or three henchmen, two or more associates, and half a dozen hirelings. In fact, the difficulty of their adventures encouraged it. In retrospect it is interesting that at the time it seemed unusual to me, because my earliest campaigns were very similar, but at some point four to six characters became my normal expectation.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

[Article] Thieving Ability

Analogous to, and in contrast with, fighting ability, the concept of thieving ability usually refers to a discrete subset of "skills" typically only available to thieves, and the probability of their success. In the first edition Player’s Handbook it is referred to when describing the limitations of the multi-class thief (pp. 16 and 33), indicating the reduced capability of the assassin in the same regard (pp. 28-29), the monk (pp. 30-31), and the limitations on the bard (pp. 117-118). By contrast, the Dungeon Master’s Guide uses thieving ability in the sense of thief experience level when referring to life energy level drain (p. 119). A rendering of Conan as an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons character, authored by Gygax and published in Dragon #36 (April, 1980, pp. 10-11), makes use of both terms in the wider and narrower senses, also noting that his exceptional ability to move silently and hide in shadows (which Conan can naturally accomplish as though a tenth and fourth level thief, respectively) allows him to surprise opponents fifty percent of the time. So, as with fighting ability, the term appears to be employed loosely, but can be usefully applied to the collection of ten abilities that differentiate the thief class from the other three.

It is worth considering that there are a number of objections to the thief class, these often being rooted in, or deriving legitimacy from, the fact that the thief was not included in the original three booklets that composed the Dungeons & Dragons adventure game, but was introduced only afterwards with the Greyhawk supplement. These run from at best perceiving the class as superfluous to requirements, to at worst as a usurper of activities that ought to lie in the domain of the fighter. In fact, though, as soon as one steps away from the simple abstract dichotomy of the fighter and the magician, the result is intrusion or surpassing of a sort. Moreover, and as Robert Fisher pointed out to me several years ago by ways of his writings on the subject, thief abilities are not just colourfully named skills, but frequently duplicate spell effects, such as silence, invisibility, knock, find traps, and spider climb. The fighter class lost nothing in this regard, even if the perception was created that they could not be stealthy or search for traps. Indeed, it seems to me that the quartet of classes, fighter, magician, cleric, and thief, are fundamental to the identity of the game in a way that the subclasses and, even the races, are not.

Whilst objections on the grounds of aesthetics or misunderstandings have little weight, a more substantial criticism of the thief class is its relative weakness in comparison to the other three. As has been demonstrated elsewhere, the starting fighting ability and progression of the thief has varied across editions, and even the relatively speedy level advancement that he enjoys will not serve to make him the equal of the fighter nor often that of the cleric. Much like the magician and cleric, then, we must look to the special abilities of the class in order to seek justification for its inclusion. Unfortunately, the probabilities of success for most thief abilities start out exceedingly low and then rise rapidly until almost certain by around twelfth level in the original and classic versions of the game. For the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the starting probabilities were slightly increased and then the rate of advancement reduced by a relatively more significant amount, so that by the same point several abilities compared very unfavourably with earlier versions. With second edition an entirely new approach was taken making use of point allocation so that the player determined the probabilities within certain defined limits.

The benefit of this approach was that a single ability might start at around forty percent, higher if racial and dexterity modifiers were favourable, and be increased by up to fifteen percent at each level. The obvious problem with this was that the abilities of any given thief were unpredictable, depending on what the player had decided to specialise in (or not, as the case might be) and relatively less useful abilities were sacrificed in favour of high scores in more desirable ones. Less obviously, the allocation of points substantially increased character creation time, most importantly for non-player characters, and required an entire extra statistic line for each individual entry. This may seem like a small price to pay for a resolution to the problem of the underpowered thief, but it is more of a redistribution of power than it is an actual solution to the underlying issue, which is that the class starts out with very limited usefulness and then rapidly rises in capability in uneven steps, much like the non-advanced fighter does with regard to fighting ability. A comparison of the various approaches taken to thief abilities in different editions and versions can be downloaded in pdf format here.

However, there is one major difference between the first edition version of the thief and all of the others, and that is the seeming lack of a limit on the number of times a thief can try some abilities. In the case of move silently, hide in shadows, and climb walls there are obvious immediate repercussions for failure, but none that prevent further attempts under the same conditions, assuming life still remains of course! The asterisks in the Greyhawk supplement indicate that only hear noise may be retried, but the actual note only refers to pick pockets, so it could conceivably be an editing error (pp. 11-12). The rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons put no absolute limit on the number of times that characters may listen, nor seemingly on the number of times they may attempt to open doors, or search for secret doors (DMG, pp. 60 & 97). In particular they contrast with Greyhawk by explicitly allowing repeated attempts at picking a pocket (DMG, p. 19). On the other hand, more than one attempt to open a lock is prohibited and restricted to one attempt per thief (PHB, p. 28). More significant is the time consumed for each attempt, as this increases the probability of being interrupted by wandering monsters.

For my Silver Blade campaign the concept of thieving ability has suggested a different approach to the problem. Many tasks are rated by thieving ability (or thief level), so certain secret doors can only be found by a third level thief, for example, and the same applies to hearing noises, opening locks, as well as finding and disabling traps. In some cases no ability check would be required, in others repeated checks permitted, though obviously the dice roll must be hidden from the players so that they remain uncertain as to whether they have failed or there is simply nothing to be found. The probability used is a base thirty percent plus five percent per level, though it can be adjusted if the situation requires. With regard to stealth, lightly or unencumbered parties have an increased three-in-six probability of achieving success, medium encumbered parties two-in-six, and heavily encumbered parties a reduced one-in-six chance. A magically silenced party, silently moving and lightly armoured thief, elf, scout or ranger would thus have a four-in-six probability of surprising enemies. I remain in two minds as to whether to follow the example of Conan in forgoing the move silently roll in favour of overall increased surprise.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

[Article] Void Elementals

The “great wheel” cosmology of Dungeons & Dragons was not something that particularly concerned me until the introduction of the Planescape campaign setting, and even then its impact was confined largely to extra-planar adventuring within official game worlds and products. As written, the “blood war” seemed an enticing concept, but the differentiation between demons (or daemons) and devils was not something that I cared for. Nor can I say that the four elements as discrete planes of existence really made much sense to me conceptually. Whilst the illustration that adorns the cover of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, depicting adventurers doing battle with an efreet on the Elemental Plane of Fire in the vicinity of the City of Brass, which “can be seen floating over a flame-swept sea of oil”, is evocative, it hardly speaks to a realm of existence primarily comprised of the element of fire. Indeed, such an idealisation of the elemental planes of existence is less than readily imaginable, mainly because the four elements hardly describe everything that there might be in existence, nor clearly define what exactly they do encapsulate. This, of course, led to such things as the para-elemental planes in second edition.

Elementals as monsters are initially found in the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement, using the traditional earth, air, fire, and water typology. Interestingly, at this juncture air elementals were almost entirely synonymous with djinn, and fire elementals with efreet. That is to say, they were imagined as conjured spirits closely associated with a particular element, but not necessarily exclusively comprised of that element in the way they literally later came to be; they were also divided into two classes, those subject to flame (earth and fire) and those subject to lighting (air and water). All four types are impervious to normal attacks, but have different movement rates and fighting strengths. The air elemental has a move of twenty-four, fights as four light horse, and adds two to its dice score in aerial combat; the water elemental has a move of six on land and eighteen in water, fights as four light horse on land, but as four heavy horse in water as well as adding two to its dice score in such combat; the earth elemental has a move of six, fights as four heavy horse, and adds one to its dice score against earth-bound opponents; the fire elemental has a move of twelve, fights as four medium horse, and adds two to its dice score against fire using opponents.

It would seem that the fire elemental is the odd man out in the above schema, as its abilities rely not on the environment, but the attack forms of the enemy. By the time of Monsters & Treasure (1974) djinn and efreet were separated out from the elementals. The elementals were rendered more powerful than previously in terms of hit dice, which vary in number between eight, twelve and sixteen, depending by what means they were summoned. As before, the combat effectiveness of the earth, air, and water elementals increases if fighting in a favourable environment, but the conditions for the fire elemental are reversed so that it does more damage against normal opponents than against fire using enemies. This suggested that affinity for fire made one less subject to its attacks, rather than more vulnerable as a result of using its element. Movement rates remain the same except that the speed of the air elemental is increased to thirty-six. As with Chain Mail, elementals will run amok if not successfully controlled. The advanced versions of elementals are very similar, the main difference being the requirement to use magical weapons +2 or greater in order to be able to harm them.

Many other creatures are native to the elemental planes, and the Monster Manual alludes to the existence of beings of greater and lesser power or intelligence not documented, but the elementals seem to be the “purest” standard form. However, the idea of creatures and places that purely exist of one element is more limiting than it needs to be, and when it comes down to it fire seems fundamentally different from the other three, in that it is largely energy rather than substance. In perhaps pseudo-philosophical terms, earth, air, and water can all be hot or cold, and their form may change by the application or absence of energy; creatures eat, drink, and breathe, and they are hot or cold, but energy is active on each, rather than separate. At first it seemed that an “ice elemental” might fill the gap, but frozen water is not an opposite of fire. Reading around the subject it seemed that perhaps Buddhism might suggest a solution in the form of void as a fifth element, but that has more in common with the Aristotelian conception of aether as a sort of heavenly substance than with the presence or absence of energy. Indeed what is translated as void from the Japanese godai (五大) system is better understood as a form of divine or pure otherworldly energy.

Nonetheless, the more prevalent usage of void and connotation of cold suggests another possibility within the cosmology of Dungeons & Dragons, which is to say the negative energy plane. Indeed, it is possible to conceive of the planar layout as a three-part cylinder with the energy planes extending it in the two opposite directions, negative and positive. These would not represent physical places, however, but rather how negative and positive energy might relate to the other three elements, or states of being. The City of Brass could be located on a plane of existence suited to seas of fire, pitiless wastelands, and dry, hot air; an environment typically hospitable only for certain sorts of otherworldly beings, but visitable by those with the means, or misfortune, to find their way thither. Inhabitants of such a place would not normally be natural creatures, but rather spirits of varying powers, whether diabolic, angelic or somewhere between; garbed in terrestrial raiment, they may appear to be composed chiefly of earth, water, or air (or metal or wood, for that matter), but their true form might appear more like a burning white fire or an icy black void. The idea is that the physical manifestation of the spirit need not be a reflection of its nature.

These thoughts are admittedly incomplete ramblings, and present their own problems in equating heat with life and cold with unlife, whilst associating them with good and evil respectively. In its own way it makes sense for otherworldly evil beings to be closely associated with negative energy in Dungeons & Dragons, since clerics are able to turn or command them. But, by that logic, an evil cleric ought to be able to “turn” living creatures and good clerics be able to “command” them, though I suppose that is not too far from the truth. Still, part of the point is to allow elementals to be potentially more than simply the brutish personification of one of four elements and become more akin to the djinn or efreet otherwise closely associated with them. Whatever the case, a plane uncompromisingly comprised of a single element does not represent much of an adventuring locale, nor does it seem to correspond with renderings of the elemental planes, so that concept can be usefully discarded. As envisioned here, then, a void elemental would be a neutrally aligned spirit comprised of negative energy, exuding cold, and perhaps manifesting as an icy blue-black flame; a draft version of this monster can be downloaded here.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

[Article] Fighting Ability

Also known as “fighting capability” and “combat ability”, fighting ability in Dungeons & Dragons is used in the general sense to denote the combat abilities of a fighter and also in the specific sense as a measure of the probability of a character scoring a hit in combat. That is to say, a character with a fighting ability of six is sometimes said to fight as though a sixth level fighter, but this usually does not encompass the hit die size, saving throws, and rate of attack that the fighter class enjoys. For instance, the Boot Hill and Gamma World conversions in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide distinguish fighting ability from saving throws and hit dice, but seemingly not from attack rate. On the other hand, the “experience” entry in the glossary uses fighting ability in the more specific sense of an increase in effectiveness on the attack matrices, and that is often the usual sense intended. Interestingly, this statistic has not remained very consistent across editions, neither with regard to classes nor monsters. The cause can probably be traced to its occurrence as a bridge between Chain Mail and Dungeons & Dragons, where fighting ability is expressed in multiplications of “men” and in terms like “hero” and “wizard”.

In the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement it is stated that a hero has the fighting ability of four figures and a superhero that of eight figures, which is fairly straightforward, the value of a figure depending on armament; all other fantasy unit classifications, including wizards, have specific ratings. For Dungeons & Dragons, ten levels of fighting ability were allocated to the fighter, corresponding to ten experience levels. At first level a fighter was rated as “man +1”, at second level “2 men +1”, at third level “3 men or hero −1”, and so on. The exact significance of the “+1” at levels one and two remain elusive, but magicians, clerics, and thieves all start out with the rating “man” before advancing to “man +1” at level two. By way of analogue, monsters simply attack as their hit dice, with any plus or minus added to one roll, as explained on page six of Monsters & Treasure, meaning that a goblin (HD 1−1) attacks once and deducts one from the roll, whilst an ogre (HD 4+1) attacks four times and adds one to a single roll. This only applies when they are fighting “normal men” or the equivalent, however, and the fantasy combat table is used whenever more powerful types face off against one another.

The alternative combat system takes a different approach, with fighters advancing in ability every three levels, clerics and thieves every four levels, and magicians every five levels; normal men are treated as first level fighters, and this first bracket is equivalent to THAC0 19. Similarly, orcs (HD 1) and goblins are rated at the same level of fighting ability. With Swords & Spells this was changed with normal men, orcs and goblins being rolled back to THAC0 20, though first level magicians, clerics and thieves remained equivalent to the fighter. This also resulted in monster THAC0 being capped at ten on reaching fourteen hit dice, as opposed to nine in the original game, and reflected a one-hundred percent success rate against armour class nine. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that this was also the THAC0 of fighters of levels thirteen to fifteen, though they were themselves capped at nineteenth level with a THAC0 of six. The classic versions of Dungeons & Dragons (B/X, BECMI, and the simulacrum Labyrinth Lord) adopt the change made to normal men, but class everything up to one hit die as THAC0 19 and do not distinguish between fighters and the other classes with regards to starting fighting ability.

With the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, though, there was a rethinking of the situation, so that first level thieves, magicians, and normal men were classified as equivalent to monsters of lower than goblin fighting ability, which is to say THAC0 21; fighters and clerics were rolled back to THAC0 20, equivalent to a goblin, whilst orcs and other single hit die creatures were classified as having the original THAC0 19 once common to all. Even with their relatively speedy level advancement, it appears that Gygax calculated the fighting ability of thieves so that it would never overtake that of clerics with the same experience point total, a significant demotion. The cleric, thief and magician could advance until they had a THAC0 of nine, ten, and eleven, respectively, but the fighter could continue to advance in fighting ability up to level seventeen, when he achieved a THAC0 of four. Despite a strong start, monsters were capped at sixteen hit dice with a THAC0 of seven, though for every “plus three” after their hit dice they moved up a bracket. The intent seems to have been to make fighters stronger at higher levels, but also make all classes somewhat weaker at lower levels relative to monsters.

That the result was not very satisfactory to Gygax seems fairly obvious from the changes he instituted in Unearthed Arcana, particularly the introduction of weapon specialisation. With second edition all the classes were brought into line with goblins at first level, as well as men-at-arms and all other monsters of less than one hit die. The fighting ability of thieves was increased in advancement granularity at a ratio of 1:2 to levels, with the result that they became erratically related to clerics, sometimes ahead, sometimes equal and sometimes behind. Similarly, the fighting ability of magicians was increased in advancement rate at a ratio 1:3 to levels, but with less noticeable effect. The advancement rate of monsters was also made cleaner by hit die, though for some reason did not take the obvious step of 1:1 granularity, which OSRIC eventually adopted. With the virtual integration of weapon specialisation into the second edition fighter class his previous ability to attack as many creatures of less than one hit die (one hit die or less in the original game) as he had levels was eclipsed and that last vestige of the multiple men approach taken by Chain Mail was removed from the default rules and became truly optional.

It has often seemed to me that the system can be improved upon without going much beyond any of the paradigms already explored. That a fighter ought to start with a better fighting ability than the other classes seems desirable and the Chain Mail approach suggests as the equal of a 1+1 hit die monster. Considering the frequent complaints about the combat viability of low level thieves, it would also be a small matter to return them to their previous standing relative to clerics. So, if all classes start off at level one with a fighting ability of one (FA 1) and if this is equivalent also to a single hit die monster, then the rest almost writes itself. HD 1−1 indicates FA 0, equivalent to level zero, and HD 1+1 indicates FA 2, with fighters similarly having the equivalent +1 to hit mirroring the effects of weapon specialisation in that regard. In fact, HD 1+1 could also denote FA 1(2) with +1 damage and the standard statistic shorthand of the game would be largely unaffected. Advancement for each class would be 1:1, 1:2, and 1:3 with respect to fighters, clerics as well as thieves, and lastly magicians. An overview of the changes between editions and comparison with the potential aforementioned alternative can be downloaded here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

[Article] Yggsburgh Coinage

One of the more troublesome aspects of the Castle Zagyg campaign setting is that its economy seems to exist in isolation from both that of Dungeons & Dragons (any iteration) and Castles & Crusades. As I understand it, the underlying reason for this was that Gygax approached the design and development of Yggsburgh from the point of view of his Lejendary Adventure system and Fantasy Worlds series, which is to say he used nonstandard terminology for the equipment lists and assessed everything in dollars. The issue was further problematised during editing by the erroneous conversion of dollars to gold coins at a rate twenty-five times that intended, and the smoothing over of any resulting inconsistencies. So, for example, a long sword at Elite Arms & Armour is valued at 4,200 gold pieces in the Yggsburgh campaign setting book, but was supposed to cost only 168 gold pieces (or $3,360 in the original manuscript). This compares quite disproportionately with Castles & Crusades and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, where a long sword costs a mere 15 gold pieces, but it is perhaps an unfair comparison given that hafted weapons at the same location cost generally less than 2 gold pieces at the correct price (that is less than $40 in the original manuscript).

At first it seemed simply a matter of going through the text and correcting the numbers, as the conversion error was apparently consistently applied throughout. However, because the setting book was only meant to be a starting point, it being expected that the game master would add detail either from his own imagination or using the then projected twelve town expansions, some frame of reference is necessary, and neither the listed prices in Gary Gygax’s World Builder, nor those in the Castles & Crusades or Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, accord with what is found in Yggsburgh. Frustratingly, the town expansions that did see publication refer the reader to the Castles & Crusades equipment lists, which even after a degree of conversion are wholly unsuitable. The only really viable solutions are to either discard the Castle Zagyg price lists in favour of those of another system, or else to attempt some sort of integration. Whichever of these is attempted, it is first desirable to correct all of the erroneous calculations in the Yggsburgh text in order to get an idea of what the original manuscript intended; having had cause to do so myself I have made the results available for download here.

Whatever his ability as a game designer and author, numismatics appears to have been of only passing interest to Gygax. The exchange rates of gold to silver he provided for the Castle Zagyg campaign setting are the same as those that appear in his Fantasy Worlds series, and according to those volumes are based on renaissance exchange rates. Unfortunately, there is little to support this assertion, possibly his understanding of inflation and coinage for that period was flawed, but it is also notable that the ratio looks very similar to the contemporary market at the time of writing (about 50:1 silver to gold), which may have influenced his thinking. As with Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax envisioned the “gold piece” of Yggsburgh to be quite heavy (437.5 grains) by comparison with medieval coins, perhaps modelling them on the extremely rare late fifteenth century gold double sovereign (480 grains), the more well known silver guldengroschen (491 grains), or the sixteenth century silver thaler (450 grains). He also suggests that smaller coins might circulate, perhaps worth a half or a tenth of a gold piece, which rather makes one wish he had stuck more consistently to decimals for the purposes of game play.

It is worth noting at this point that several different exchange rates and coin weights have been used in Dungeons & Dragons. The original game (1974) used a 1:10:50 ratio of gold to silver to copper, whilst Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1979) used a 1:20:200 ratio. It was not until the Moldvay edition of Dungeons & Dragons (1981) that the more straightforward 1:10:100 ratio was adopted, which was rather sensibly embraced for the second edition of the advanced game (1989) and later for D20/3e. Encumbrance was originally measured in coins, and it was strongly implied that one coin was equal to a tenth of a pound (700 grains), even though also stated that the measurement encompassed bulk as well as weight. When second edition switched to using pounds directly as the measure of encumbrance the weight of the standard coin was also set at a fiftieth of a pound (140 grains), accompanied by a brief and somewhat inaccurate overview of ancient and medieval monetary systems. These largish coins would be roughly equivalent in size to the ancient stater, tetradrachm, or aureus, which would in turn be roughly twice the size of the drachme, denarius, or solidus. A brief and incomplete overview is available for download here.

The fact of the matter is that ancient and medieval coins could come in extremely variable sizes and denominations, not to mention purity. Whilst a weight of 1-10 grams seems to have been the most common range for coins intended for circulation, the gold piece need not be regarded as anything more than a unit of account, which is how the dollar is treated in the Lejendary Adventure system. Exchange rates are less readily dealt with; although a 1:20 gold to silver ratio is not entirely unreasonable, a 1:50 ratio seems faintly ridiculous for any setting looking to evoke the ancient or medieval world. As a compromise between verisimilitude, aesthetics, and simplicity of play the 1:10:100 ratio seems the most suitable. In the same spirit, the default coin would be best fixed at either ten or one-hundred to the pound. That ten to the pound is probably unsuitable is evident from a brief survey of the jewellery and other items of precious metal that appear in prominent Dungeons & Dragons modules. As early as G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief we are faced with a belt buckle (albeit giant sized) specified as containing one-hundred gold pieces worth of gold (ten pounds) and a large golden hairpin worth five-hundred gold pieces (fifty pounds).

None of the above is intended to invalidate any given approach to coinage in the East Mark or swords & sorcery adventure games more generally, but rather represents a short exploration of the relationship between the value and weight of precious metals in Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax famously noted in the Player's Handbook that the prices quoted reflected a “boom town” economy, the idea being that large amounts of treasure liberated from a dungeon would drive up prices locally. In fact, though, even relative costs are highly variable in the game system, some things are simply over or under priced for whatever reason, and the frequent appearance of multiples of “100 GP” are suspicious. The disparities have led some to suppose that there may be two economies reflected in the game, one “big” and intended for adventurers and the other “small” and representing more normative costs. When the wages of a captain outstrip that of the total for his entire company it is hard not to notice these issues, and yet one supposes these were interlinked design choices. At any rate, it is neither a relationship Gygax perpetuated for his Castle Zagyg campaign setting, nor a precedent I propose to emulate.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

[Article] Saving Throws

The concept of a saving throw both predates and appears in Chain Mail. Of course, the Fantasy Supplement contains several references with regards to spells and dragon breath (pp. 31 & 35), but its first appearance in Chain Mail in general is in the siege rules, where a “rock dropped down a ladder will kill the first climber, and the second and third men on the ladder must roll a die to see if they survive, 1-3 saving the second and 1-5 saving the third” (p. 23). This idea that the defender makes a roll to save himself, rather than the attacker rolling to determine if a kill is scored, takes the onus away from the aggressor and assigns it to the victim. In most cases the ability of the attacker is of no consequence, he is assumed to either be one-hundred percent effective, or else the probability of his action failing as a result of his own insufficiencies is accounted for in the saving throw. A notable exception to this is found in Supplement II: Blackmoor and the monk class, which can make a saving throw to negate a successful enemy attack roll with a missile weapon; these rolls are not opposed, however, and the probabilities of success are largely independent of one another.

Analogous to class based saving throws are the various other fixed probability rolls in Dungeons & Dragons, such as the chance of springing or detecting a trap, detecting and opening a secret door, and gaining surprise, for example, all of which are described together in Monsters & Treasure (p. 9). Indeed, initiative and just about any action that has a probability of failure and success could be described as a form of fixed “saving throw”, the consequences of failure being usually undesirable. However, the five class based saving throws (Death Ray or Poison, Wands, Stone, Dragon Breath, Staves and Spells) are differentiated from these in that the probability of success differs by class and increases as characters advance in experience levels. The categories were somewhat changed for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but are otherwise pretty much the same. It is very likely that these categories were organically developed and represent specific things that Gygax or Arneson thought of as particularly within the realms of heroic ability. Indeed, who can hear of the “death ray” and not think of Conan in Red Nails facing off against Tolkemec and his jade-hued wand?

Further elucidation, or perhaps post facto rationalisation, as to the meaning of saving throws, and indeed fighting ability, hit points and other improving characteristics, is provided in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, where it is explained in no uncertain terms that “the accumulation of hit points and the ever-greater abilities and better saving throws of characters represents the aid supplied by supernatural forces” (pp. 111-112), which is also related to the idea that “whether or not the character actively professes some deity, he or she will have on alignment and serve one or more deities of this general alignment indirectly and unbeknownst to the character.” (p. 25). That is not to say that saving throws are entirely unaffected by natural ability, since dexterity and wisdom certainly affect saving throws, and they can be entirely based on an attribute score, as with a system shock roll, which is specifically denoted as a saving throw in the Player’s Handbook (p. 12). Indeed, both the spells dig (p. 76) and phantasmal killer (p. 98) have saving throws that are simply attribute tests, where the player is required to roll under the relevant attribute on a specified number and size of dice.

Testing an attribute became a standard method for task resolution from around 1985 and was included as an optional rule in second edition for making saving throws. The recategorisation of the five specific instances to the three broader defences of fortitude, reflexes, and willpower in D20/3e represents a further move away from sheer chance or divine sponsorship towards emphasis on the importance of physical ability, neatly tied into the core mechanism of that iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. Direct magical protections can significantly improve saving throws in any edition of the game, but it is also interesting that regardless of the measures taken, class based saving throws always succeed on a 20 and always fail on a 1, which was an idea later borrowed for the attack roll as well, though interestingly not for skill checks. Personally, I am not inclined towards the “there is always a five percent chance” model, though the attraction is understandable there is a not inconsiderable case to be made for “assured results” as an alternative. Certainly, some of the most potent or powerful magical spells and effects do not allow saving throws and are rendered considerably more fearsome thereby; sleep, slow, and energy level drain are of this order.

As with many things in Dungeons & Dragons, saving throws are abstractions and lend themselves to interpretation and rationalisation after the fact. If a giant spider scores a hit on a fighter, but does not slay him by hit point damage and he makes a successful saving throw versus poison, then that can represent anything from a spider bite that failed to inject its venom to the character successfully fending off the attacks of the monster. The Dungeon Master’s Guide devotes a good page or so to the subject (pp. 80-81), with a lengthy preamble concerning the game function of saving throws and alternative ways to rationalise them by class and level. A section of interest concerning the potential modifiers follows, giving the example of a character standing in a pool of water as potentially more susceptible to lightning attacks and less vulnerable to fire attacks. In general, the game master is encouraged to adjust saving throws however he sees fit in accordance with what he feels is balanced, but urged not to remove all chance of failure or any chance of success, though such is permitted. Anecdotally, it would seem that such adjustments are little used, but perhaps this is something that should be more widely encouraged.

When it comes down to it, a saving throw is much like every other abstract and randomised element of the game, a roll of the dice to decide an uncertain outcome by means of probability. There is no reason that the game master could not simply assign the probability in every case on an individual basis, the charts are there as a guideline and aid to reduce his workload, as well as promote a sense of consistency and fairness to the other participants. It is somehow more acceptable for a base probability to be established by level, class, attributes and equipment, subsequently altered by the game master to account for circumstances, than it is for him to assign it out of hand, a sense of lesser arbitrariness, perhaps. Whilst there are aesthetic reasons to murmur against the concept of a single saving throw, modified by the above factors, there is little by way of practical effect. Even within the seemingly esoteric saving throw tables of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons there are quite simple mathematical patterns to be discerned and it is questionable as to whether there is much more to them than that. There is certainly something attractive to me about the idea of an unspecified generic saving throw as a baseline concept.

Friday, March 5, 2010

[Article] The Shadow Peaks Campaign

It was probably the Summer of 2001 when I decided to get back into playing Dungeons & Dragons; the exact course of events is somewhat hazy in my memory, but I recall that we used the First Quest boxed set initially. Things developed organically from that starting point, and soon we were digging back through the various “complete” supplements and the like, searching for memories and new visions of past knowledge. Eventually I went looking for my old campaign notes, having decided that the campaign needed a world and knowing that I had one ready to hand. The world of Silver Blade was what I was using in my early to mid teens, and the material hardly seemed suitable to me in my early twenties. After all, I had been sporadically adventure role-playing and world building in the interim, just not using any of the various Dungeons & Dragons systems. My studies kept me mainly in Surrey at the time, so play was intermittent and related to the holidays, as that was when the members of our old group were located together and had sufficient time to spare. However, that grew increasingly difficult to arrange and unsatisfactory, so in the Autumn of 2002 I decided to put together a new group in Surrey.

And that was the beginning of the Shadow Peaks campaign. Having taken part in the earlier games, my girlfriend Maki was persuaded to participate, along with Chris and Phil, who we met through the university gaming society, both of whom would be regular players for the following three years and have remained good friends of ours ever since; rounding out the initial group was our housemate, Ajit, who had always wanted to try Dungeons & Dragons, but was too near the end of his studies to participate regularly. In order, the characters they created were a human magician/thief, a half-orc barbarian, a dwarf cleric, and a human knight. The adventure was set against the backdrop of the Calthornian reconquest of the eastern territories, which had been lost during the Talisasian invasion, and the assumption was that the player-characters had fought, or been present, at the decisive Battle of Black Crag, and subsequent pursuit of the enemy into their own territory. So, when the Calthornian army began dispersing to winter quarters, the adventurers find themselves in a fortified camp on the edge of the new frontier, and at the feet of the ill reputed Shadow Peaks mountains.

The background of the Talisasian invasion goes back to the first Silver Blade campaign I ever ran, which was set in the aftermath; the Calthornian reconquest was begun in earnest by one of the few player-characters to reach the heady heights of ninth level, a human fighter named Cirin, and was played as an amalgamation of Dungeons & Dragons and a strategic war game, with varying degrees of success. We did not have access to Battle System, so largely improvised the rules, utilising other miniature and counter based war games with which we were familiar. Naturally, once the new group were made aware of this, it leant the campaign world a sense of history and continuity, and in being furnished with an idea of what others had accomplished they seemed more greatly enthused about the potential deeds of their own characters. That only came up in conversation later, at the outset of things the main aim was to play an enjoyable game. It is not clear to me whether I wrote the campaign introduction before or after the first session, but if the latter then most of the content must have been explained at the table. A somewhat rewritten version of what eventually made its way to the players by electronic mail is available here for those interested.

Since the group was new, the hook was written to both get the player-characters swiftly into the action and to provide them with an immediate initial focus. As envisioned, the adventure was not easy, so the addition of an allied non-player-character, a second level fighter, and his four zero level men-at-arms seemed reasonable. The idea was to give the party some extra muscle, provide opportunities for role-playing, and alternative characters to play if theirs were incapacitated or killed, but it was otherwise designed largely for expediency. Despite being the one to have propositioned the adventurers, Ulius was treated as though an exceptional henchman of associate status. He turned out to be well liked by the players, his services being engaged fairly regularly over the course of the campaign. The adventure itself was tentatively titled the “Shrine of Sirke”, being partly inspired by a few lines from the Odyssey, and the premise was that a band of kobolds were operating out of the shrine aided by some powerful magic. These were, predictably, responsible for the disappearance of the survey party and various other mischiefs, it being left it up to the adventurers to find a way to the lair and deal with the problem.

From this small kernel grew the campaign; a number of clues to wider mysteries were present from the start, though their meaning had not at that time been fully thought out. It took two or three sessions to complete the initial adventure, and against all the odds the player-characters survived. With Ajit unable to play regularly, we canvassed for another player, which turned out to be Ed, and the following year we were joined by Ian, after Maki found herself having to divide her year between Japan and England. As with Chris and Phil, they were recruited through the university gaming society, were regular players for the rest of the campaign, and remain good friends outside of that context, which I think is the key to success with these sorts of games. If it matter, they both started at first level. We had a number of guest and temporary players over the course of the campaign, and in the last year Matt joined us as a regular player, again starting at first level. There were twelve major adventures, which I have been looking at publishing using OSRIC or some variant thereof, and a number of more minor encounters, locations, and settlements that I am undecided about how to present. I am also thinking of putting together a Silver Blade Adventures companion supplement of some sort.

Most of the adventures are already written in large part, though they will have to be edited for compatibility, since they were written with the proficiency system strongly in mind, and there is a lot of boxed text, both of which have since fallen out of favour with me. The least developed of these is the oft mentioned Twisted Tower of Mordras, which was initially conceived of as an introductory module for the university gaming society and a method of recruiting players, but because it was not really needed it never got fully developed. As a result, it may well turn out to be the most challenging instalment to write of this, admittedly, rather ambitious project, but it may also serve as the best testing ground with regards to feasibility. On the other hand, it was also intended to be played with pregenerated characters in one four-hour session, somewhat on the model of a tournament module; as long as the need for relative brevity is born fully and prominently in mind, it should be within my ability to complete before the end of Spring. That seems like a long time away at the moment, but there are many pressing matters to attend to in the meantime, and there never seems to be quite enough time in the day, so we shall see!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

[Article] Attributes & Abilities

A fundamental characteristic of every edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and the simulacrum games that it has spawned, is that each player character is defined by a set of six ability scores: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. There was an abortive attempt to add comeliness in the mid-eighties via Unearthed Arcana, and an equally ill received attempt to introduce twelve subability scores in the mid-nineties by means of Skills & Powers. The majority of adventure role-playing games use a similar concept, though the number and nomenclature vary, as does the scale on which they are measured and the impact they have on the character. The traditional spread of numbers for each ability score is from three to eighteen, randomly generated on three six-sided dice, though it is thought that in Arneson’s proto-Dungeons & Dragons Blackmoor campaign the spread was two to twelve, using two six-sided dice. Many alternative generation methods have been presented over the years, the most popular seeming to be four six-sided dice, drop the lowest. Numbers outside the spread could also occur in various circumstances, the complete range prior to third edition being one to twenty-five.

By the time the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide was released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax had decided that the overwhelming majority of non-player characters would have ability scores ranging from six to fifteen, indicating that such scores should be generated by rolling three six-sided dice and rerolling dice that came up with a one or a six. As is often noted, though, the advanced version of the game put more emphasis on the importance of attributes than the original incarnation. In Original Dungeons & Dragons, strength, intelligence, and wisdom only had an impact on the number of experience points earned by player character fighters, magicians, and clerics, respectively. A constitution higher than fourteen granted one extra hit point per hit die, or one less if below seven; a dexterity above twelve granted a plus one bonus to hit with missile weapons, but if below nine resulted in a minus one penalty (thus, the two significant ranges of nine to twelve and seven to fourteen were established in the earliest edition). In play, ability scores affected the game and were certainly tested in various unspecified ways, as little guidance existed to that effect in the booklets themselves.

The importance of ability scores rose dramatically with the release of Supplement I: Greyhawk, which presented the reader with most of the information regarding their impact that would become familiar in the advanced version of the game. Interestingly, it was slightly more lenient with strength, a score of eighteen being no different to eighteen with an exceptional strength roll of one to fifty, and a score of thirteen to sixteen providing a plus one to hit. This at once made a score of thirteen to fifteen of impact in combat and a higher score more desirable. The Greyhawk supplement also introduced the thief class, and with it a whole new slew of special abilities, such as move silently and hide in shadows, previously only achievable by the use of spells or magical items. Prior to that only three class abilities had really been described, fighting, spell casting, and turning undead, though it was noted that non-human races had bonuses to saving throws, attack rolls, and detecting traps and secret doors. As subraces, subclasses, kits, proficiencies, and rules supplements proliferated, new abilities came to be expected and were often linked to ability scores, such as by requiring a certain minimum score or by modifying the effectiveness of the ability.

Whilst the advanced system expanded on Greyhawk, the original system was revised and reinterpreted for an, arguably younger, audience. The impact of attributes was more strongly codified into discrete ranges that followed a “one, two, three, four, three, two, one” pattern, which has subsequently been adopted for Castles & Crusades. That system has also taken the logical step of discerning between abilities and ability scores by changing the nomenclature and using attribute scores to distinguish the latter, since it strongly emphasises the role of abilities in defining each class. When I initially returned to my Silver Blade campaign, the second edition of the advanced system formed the basis of the rules, but within a few months I had switched to an ascending armour class and started using attribute modifiers similar to those found in the basic game. On discovering Castles & Crusades and being exposed to the larger community via such forums as Giant in the Playground, Dragonsfoot, and Knights & Knaves, I dropped the somewhat clunky proficiency and skill system I had developed and returned to using a descending armour class. However, I retained my distaste for the organic disorder of the advanced attribute tables.

Early on in the design process for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, it was decided that the Labyrinth Lord attribute tables were slightly too powerful, and those in Swords & Wizardry slightly too weak, for what was desired. Part of the reason was to leave us with some room when determining the abilities of the four main classes and sixteen or so subclasses to be included in the game, but also because whatever method of generating the scores we recommended, we know that most veteran players have their own preferred methods. Limiting the impact of attributes on the effectiveness of a given class without going quite as far as a simple trichotomy of “good-average-bad” has been a challenging design goal. How far to go in limiting class options by attribute scores has also been of interest, as has been what to do about exceeding the normal range of three to eighteen. The unlimited cap of many recent adventure games seemed unfitting, leading to such oddities as dragons with a strength of forty, and so on. As things currently stand, the range is one to twenty-five, with scores above eighteen indicating superhuman ability, such as the strength of a giant or the wisdom of a sphinx, and so on.

For the last few years I have been using a modified version of the basic attribute tables for my Silver Blade campaign, borrowing ideas occasionally from the advanced tables when it seemed appropriate. Initially, the bonuses derived from attributes were quite high, with thirteen representing a plus one bonus and eighteen a mighty plus four bonus, but the benefits of a seventeen or higher were restricted by class. That proved a conceptual problem similar to exceptional strength when dealing with attributes outside of the normal range, but switching to a range more congruous with the basic tables and embedding bonuses in the classes has proven to be an excellent solution. It seems to be quite normal in my campaign for a player character to have a sixteen in his primary attribute, a seventeen is unusual and an eighteen is rare. I do allow adjustments during creation on a 2:1 basis, but not above sixteen or below nine, which may account for that observed tendency. Anyway, for your entertainment and edification, here are the attribute tables I have been using in a format compatible with OSRIC, along with some related notes to give an idea of how they interact with the game system and a hint of what we are doing in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

[Article] Weapon Class

As with many war games, the Chain Mail mass combat rules uses a troop classification system that governs fighting ability, movement speed, morale, and so on. The concept of discrete classifications appears to have been carried over into the man-to-man system with reference to the arms and armour of the individual combatants. Instead of a verbal descriptor of type, such as “elite heavy foot, each classification of weapon and armour conceived was allocated a number. In the case of armour, a number from one to eight roughly indicated the degree of protection afforded, with a higher number being generally better. The list of weapons follows a similar pattern, but size, and perhaps also speed, appears to have been the final determinant, with spears and pikes most prominently disrupting the low to high values. Gygax diversified the list of pole-arms in issue #2 of The Strategic Review, and in issue #4 he introduced three new weapons that no longer had one class, but rather separate length and speed ratings. With a view towards a more precise representation of the capabilities of a given weapon this separation is entirely understandable, but it was a step away from the simple abstraction and utility of weapon classification.

Neither the Original Dungeons & Dragons alternative combat system, nor the Greyhawk expansion featured any element of the weapon class concept, though the infamous inverted armour class rating was by contrast an integral factor, that of the defender being compared to the fighting ability of the attacker to determine the probability of his scoring a hit. The Greyhawk expansion does introduce one new feature, though, which is the space required to either side of the character to make effective use of his weapon. This idea is of more import in the Swords & Spells supplement, where it has an impact on the spacing between soldiers and thus the number that may fight in a given frontage. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons combat system took note of all of this and assigned each weapon an individual rating for length, space, and speed. As with the Chain Mail man-to-man combat system, length determined which combatant struck first at the point of contact, but weapon speed was reduced to a tie breaking mechanism, though there are vestigial rules and indications in the text that suggest it was at one point envisioned as having a more significant and wide ranging role; the effect of space was left unexplained beyond its inclusion.

One of the stated design aims of the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was to simplify the combat system and make it more dynamic. It included all of the many weapons available in its predecessor, but left out any rules governing their length or the space required to use them effectively. Each weapon was categorised as one of three sizes that determined whether and in what manner it was usable by differently sized creatures; as to space, it was simply stated as a general guideline that two fighters with long swords and shields could fight side-by-side in a ten foot space. Nonetheless, speed factor was kept as an optional rule, elevated in importance as an initiative modifier and ignoring any ramifications with regard to “first strike”. Detail was added in the Complete Fighter’s Handbook, the Arms and Equipment Guide, various other supplements, and articles in Dragon magazine, but little that addressed the shortcomings of the underlying rules, mainly having the effect of expanding the weapon list into an unmanageable, unbalanced, and undesirable morass. The D20/3e weapon tables were, by comparison, a much needed reduction, but that system eventually fell prey itself to the same phenomenon of addition.

For my ongoing Silver Blade and Dunfalcon campaigns I have been experimenting with the introduction of a basic weapon class system as a parallel to the armour class system previously discussed here. Initially the idea was to simplify the weapons tables to a short list of reasonably balanced choices, which was connected to my thoughts on weapon techniques, and appeared in the Castles & Crusades society electronic Domesday magazine, after being reasonably well received on the Troll Lord Games forums. The document itself seems to have been a relatively popular download and can be accessed here for anybody curious. However, after becoming somewhat enamoured of the idea of armour class as a numerical classification that described more than just the defence rating of a combatant, I began seeking ways to apply the same principle to weapon class and revised the document to accord with that idea. Initially there were something like twelve classes that broadly accorded with the speed ratings in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but a recent revision has reduced the number to ten, prompted by an aesthetic sensibility for symmetry, but in practice a suitable solution to what had become something of a design conceit.

During the development of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, which has often prompted me to consider what lies behind my own assumptions, it became apparent that in swords & sorcery adventure games there is a frequent oscillation between the abstract and the specific, both in terms of design and in the course of game sessions. This creates a sort of “zoom in” and “zoom out” effect where, depending on the preferences of the participants, a specific interaction may be role-played out or a die roll used to determine the outcome in a more abstract way. A similar thing can be observed in the class and subclass system, where a fighter or magician encompasses a very broad archetype, but their subclasses concentrate on much narrower subtypes, such as illusionist, necromancer, knight, or barbarian. This principle is selectively applied to weapons as well, to the extent that Gygax could write that the short sword “includes all pointed cutting & thrusting weapons with blade length between 15” and 24”, and yet have separate entries for the long sword, scimitar, falchion, broad sword, and bastard sword. Once recognised, though, it seems possible to adapt these disparate levels of granularity to better serve the game.

The general observation that there are at least two levels of abstraction in traditional swords & sorcery adventure games suggests a potential design paradigm for races, classes, equipment, exploration, and combat. For example, at the lower level of detail a player character might be described as a third level elf fighter with mail armour, large shield, and long sword, whilst at a higher level of detail he could become a third level wood-elf ranger with mail hauberk, large kite shaped shield, and leaf-shaped long sword. Of course, it is possible to get considerably more precise, but the greater level of abstraction is both the least information required for play and the most portable between systems and campaigns. This concept has come to a degree of fruition in the current draft of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, which is divided into basic and advanced (or expert) rules, especially with regard to classes and combat actions, though we remain somewhat undecided about its viability with regard to equipment. Nevertheless, for your entertainment, I have put the basic weapon class system that I have been using in my own swords & sorcery campaigns into a form compatible with OSRIC that can be downloaded here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

[Article] Fighting Techniques

Broadly speaking, the Chain Mail man-to-man melee combat system presents two kinds of weapons, those that can be wielded with one hand, and therefore in combination with a shield, and those that require two hands, meaning that the combatant must forgo such protection. A two-handed sword will generally score a kill on a 5+ or a 6+ on 2d6 with only plate armour and shield requiring a 7+, whilst a halberd requires an 8+ to achieve the same. By contrast, a one-handed sword requires a 10+ to score a kill against a plate armoured combatant and an 11+ if that same opponent bears a shield. However, the difference in weapon classes makes a big difference in what initially appears to be a relatively clear cut advantage. Because the one-handed sword is class 4 and the two-handed sword is class 10, a fighter wielding the former weapon has three options after the initial round. He can choose to attack twice, once before and once after his opponent with a two-handed sword (or, indeed, halberd); he can choose to reduce his opponent’s roll by 2 and attack after him; or he can choose to attack first and reduce his opponent’s roll by 1. The net result being that the weapon combinations are roughly equal, depending on the situation. However, the mace is the better choice, requiring only a 7+ to hit a plate armoured target and never needing more than the sword to hit any other class of armour.

This interestingly balanced system was largely thrown out for the alternative Dungeons & Dragons combat system, and by all accounts was never used by Gygax in the context of his own campaign. It is not hard to understand why, given that the man-to-man system was not written with monsters in mind and that the fantasy combat table was not designed to accommodate groups of heroes. However, in reducing all weapons to doing 1d6 damage and having a hit chance based on the fighting ability of the attacker, the alternative combat system made two-handed weapons redundant. A character could either use a one-handed weapon and shield, improving his armour class by one and doing 1d6 damage, or he could use a two-handed weapon, improving his armour class by none and doing 1d6 damage; not a particularly difficult choice. The Greyhawk supplement attempted to rectify this by introducing variable damage dice for weapons, and a weapon type versus armour class modifier to the attack roll. The solution was overcomplicated for the task at hand, which really only called for a +1 to hit for two-handed weapons, but it was probably seeking to address a wider range of interconnected concerns that had developed over time.

Notably, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons combat system builds on the Greyhawk solution as well as incorporating bits and pieces of the Chain Mail man-to-man rules. One major innovation, though, was the introduction of a seemingly innocuous rule for fighting with two weapons, allowing characters to use a dagger or hand axe in addition to their primary weapon. A character utilizing this technique suffered a −2 to hit with his primary weapon and a −4 to hit with his secondary weapon, but the penalties could be mitigated to as low as 0/−1 if the character had a high enough dexterity. More significant as a balancing factor was that the dagger and hand axe had fairly poor modifiers versus armour. On the surface, this meant that the design of the game encouraged using two-handed weapons against large or heavily armoured enemies and fighting with two weapons against more lightly armoured small or medium opponents, whilst a one-handed weapon and shield combination occupied the ground between them. In practice, many game masters ignored the optional weapon type versus armour class table or failed to apply it to monstrous opponents, and perhaps more importantly many players recognised fighting with two weapons for what it was, a force multiplier.

Once it was realised that the associated penalties for fighting with two weapons were vastly outweighed by the potential advantages, the exploitation became obvious, particularly at higher levels where the modifiers to hit could be combined from many sources. The second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons took a much needed step towards reducing the potency of the technique in the default rules by explicitly limiting a second attack to one per round and preventing the doubling of attacks occasionally inferred from the first edition rules. However, the simplification of the weapon type versus armour class rules undermined the advantages previously enjoyed by two-handed weapons and removed the disadvantages that had been placed on secondary weapons. The simultaneous release of the Complete Fighter’s Handbook, authored by Aaron Allston, compounded these problems, making it possible to mitigate all the penalties associated with fighting with two weapons and allowing any one-handed weapon to be used in a secondary capacity. Allston also identified four fighting “styles”, or techniques, labelling them “single weapon”, “weapon and shield”, “two weapon”, and “two hander”, but they were less than equal.

Although the techniques were not equal, they required a significant expenditure of character building resources to acquire. A character specialising in single weapon technique could improve his armour class without a shield or secondary weapon by one for one proficiency slot, and by two for two proficiency slots; not a great deal when using a shield the first benefit is gained for free. A character specialising in two-handed weapons reduces the speed factor of the weapon by three and gains a +1 damage bonus when wielding one-handed weapons two-handed; so no reason at all to ever really choose the bastard or two-handed sword over the long sword. A character specialising in weapon and shield technique is able to attack with his shield as though fighting with two weapons for one proficiency slot, and reduce the penalties for doing so to 0/−2 by expending two proficiency slots, though when he does so he forgoes the improvement to armour class he would otherwise enjoy from utilising a shield; far better to invest one proficiency slot in two-weapon fighting and be able to use any weapon in a secondary capacity at a 0/−2 penalty, and switch between the two techniques as the situation demands.

The Player’s Option series and, as I understand it, the Birthright campaign setting took the idea of style specialisation even further, for example introducing the “shield proficiency”, which allowed fighter to expend one proficiency slot to improve the armour class bonus from a large shield by two, making it an instant sine qua non. Of course, D20/3e rather overreacted to the legacy of fighting with two weapons and the mid edition revision turned two-handed weapons into its successor. It is often noted that in actual play the underlying mathematics are not noticed or have less importance than as theoretical design elements, but the more robust the system the more likely it is to avoid breaking down in other areas. So, for your entertainment and convenience, here are my current campaign rules for fighting techniques along with a few combat actions for use with OSRIC. Obviously, some of these ideas will find their way, or have already found their way, into Astonishing Swordsman & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.