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.