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.