Showing posts with label Grognardia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Grognardia. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Rethinking Dungeons & Dragons: An Alternate "Original D&D" Combat System

As you might have noticed, I've been on a bit of a Dungeons & Dragons history and prehistory kick of late. My past two posts have discussed articles from the old British Miniature Soldier Society's Bulletin and the Society of Ancients Slingshot Magazine and how those relate to the early development of D&D. I'll be returning to that series of pre-D&D influences in the British gaming scene soon, but I recently read a very interesting conversation over on the OD&D discussion boards regarding the combat system for David Arneson's Blackmoor Campaign.

As most of you know, Dungeons & Dragons is over 40 years old and though the game has changed a lot over the decades one thing has remained the same. In every edition since the Little Brown Books first introduced the "Alternate Combat System" the basic mechanic of the game has been for players to roll a Twenty-sided die to determine success or failure when attacking in combat. That term "Alternate Combat System" has always intrigued me. While the original Little Brown Books recommend using Chainmail as the combat system for D&D play, it isn't evident that this was the system that either Arneson or Gygax were actually using in their pre-publication D&D games. Writers like Jason Vey, Jason Cone, and Daniel Boggs (as Alderron) have all examined how to run D&D using the Chainmail system. Jason Vey's Spellcraft & Swordplay Core Rulebook and Daniel Boggs' Champions of ZED: Zero Edition Dungeoneering have gone even further an attempted to create and play games that are similar in style to the game David Arneson may have played in the pre-publication days of D&D.

The recent conversation on the OD&D discussion boards was started by Daniel Boggs who was inquiring what David Arneson's post-Chainmail game sessions might look like. According to Boggs' post, Arneson's crew may have played using rules adapted from an Ironclads rule set Arneson had designed for American Civil War ship to ship combat. I initially confused Arneson's Ironclad rules with Tom Wham's Ironclad rules and some large sum of cash spent at Noble Knight Games later, I discovered that these were not the rule Boggs was referencing.

The discussion board conversation inspired me to play around with a "pre-D&D-esque" combat rules set of my own based on a system of rolling 2d6-2 for the combat rolls. If you read the Boggs' led conversation, you'll see that 1-10 rolls (or 0-10 rolls) might have been used by Arneson's team. My goal here is to open a conversation and get feedback before playtesting. I'm in the process of adapting the Chainmail rules outright, but this would be another alternative system.

The original Chainmail man-to-man combat system, as Boggs/Vey and others have pointed out Chainmail has at least 3 combat subsystems, uses a comparison of a person's weapon and an opponent's armor to determine the to hit roll. For example (looking at the table below), a person with a dagger would need to roll a 12 on 2d6 to hit a person wearing Plate Armor and Shield. Any blow struck kills the target, or deals 1d6 damage in D&D's adaptation of the rules.
This is a very workable system that has a lot of granularity and is one that I'm looking forward to playing with my regular game group, but it is also one that is more "fiddly" and combat table based than many modern gamers are used to in their games. If you look at the table above, you'll see that Chainmail used an ascending Armor Class much like the modern game. This was reversed in original D&D and Armor Class was rescaled so that lower Armor Classes were better and Plate Armor and Shield was given an AC of 2, while No Armor was given an AC of 10.

Under a d20 system, I have come to prefer ascending ACs as being more intuitive for players, but in the system I'm about to propose I'm going to recommend keeping the reversed ACs of the Original Little Brown Books.

What is my alternative system? It's fairly simple and is essentially what was discussed in the OD&D boards. I want to experiment with rolling 2d6-2 where the characters hit if they roll less than the AC of the defender. You can see a breakdown of the probability of success below. I've selected "less than" rather than "equal to or less than" because I want to have some potential for automatic failure.

You'll notice that this system makes it very difficult to hit opponents with a good armor class. A player would only have an 8.33% chance of hitting an opponent with an AC of 2 (Plate Mail) and only a 2.78% chance of hitting an opponent with an AC of 1 (Plate Mail and Shield). This won't be too big a deal if GMs ensure that such armors are expensive and doesn't give too many creatures an Armor Class that low. Such a strong defense should be limited to Dragons and the like.

Now that I've established the base to-hit numbers, I've got two D&D related questions to answer.
  1. How does level advancement affect to hit rolls for both monsters and character?
  2. How much damage is done on a hit?
Keeping the basic classes of the first three Little Brown Books (Fighting Men, Clerics, and Magic Users), I think that these classes improve in their ability to bypass armor as they increase in levels by having the ability to modify the Armor Class they are rolling against. In essence, higher level characters are more able to see and exploit the weaknesses in armor and thus can treat Armor Classes as a higher Armor Class as they gain levels. I would propose an advancement that looks like the one below. Fighting Men begin play with a slightly better chance to hit opponents than other classes and start with a bonus where other classes have to wait and have a lower total bonus at higher levels. Keep in mind that the Armor Class Adjustment is added to the Opponent's Armor Class and not to the die roll. Thus a 13th Level Fighting Man would attack Plate Mail and Shield (AC 1) as if it was Leather and Shield (AC 6) and would hit that 58% of the time. This may seem pretty radical, but keep in mind this is a very high level Fighting Man and that it is only a single hit.
The second question is what to do about damage. In Chainmail a single hit equals death, but "Heroes" and "Superheroes" are able to take multiple hits before dying. This is reflected in the Little Brown Books in two ways. The first is the "Hit Points" with which gamers are well familiar. The second is by counting characters as multiple "Men" as they progress. A high level Fighting Man might eventually fight with the ability of "8 Men" at the "Superhero" rank. Essentially, the ability to fight as multiple people is reflected in the Hit Points of the characters as they have a number of d6 Hit Dice that are essentially equal to the number of "Men" the character can fight as. Given that all weapons in the Little Brown Books do 1d6 damage, each successful attack does enough damage to kill a level 1 character (1 Hit Die of 1d6 vs. 1 attack of 1d6 damage), it doesn't really matter whether you want each attack to do 1 "Man" of Damage or 1d6 of damage. It's only when you add the rules for Magic, and this is D&D after all, that it becomes evident that the damage should be 1d6 per hit.

But how many "attacks" does a character get? Looking at the Fighting Capability, you can see the references to a number of "Men" for each class. That's what I would use to determine the number of attacks. Yes, this means that I'd have a high level fighter making 8 attacks against opponents. You might think that this affects game balance, except when you compare it to the damage that high level Magic Users are capable of dishing out I think it's more than warranted.

These are some preliminary thoughts on a Alternative to the "Alternative Combat System" that captures a bit of the miniature inspired play while being a bit more freeform than a strict adherence to Chainmail.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Defense of D&D Movies and Some Commentary on Playing Styles

Ever since I purchased a copy of Thousand Suns, I have been a big fan of James Maliszewski. It was obvious from this product, and his excellent Shadow, Sword, & Spell, that he and I share a deep affection for many of the same things. It didn't take me long to enter his name into a search engine and find his excellent blog Grognardia where he shares his love of Old School gaming and pulp fiction with an engaged and passionate audience. I'm a big fan of the site and cannot recommend it -- or the two games mentioned earlier -- highly enough.

Though we share affections, his explorations into pulp and old games usually discuss things found on my book shelves, I don't always agree with his critical opinions of new gaming systems. James is an ardent advocate of not merely "old school games," but also of what he considers "old school play." While I advocate owning and playing older games, I have no preference for old or new style play. James is a knowledgeable critic of the gaming industry, and I am a devoted Pollyanna.

A perfect Case Study for how our hobby opinions differ is his recent post regarding Dungeons and Dragons movies. In a post entitled "The Pointlessness of a D&D Movie," James argues that -- regardless of the quality of a D&D movie -- there is no real point to making a D&D movie since any such film would be D&D in name only. In his opinion, it would be difficult -- if at all possible -- to make a film that truly captured the essence of D&D. He argues that any D&D movie would likely be a "generic" fantasy film as much as it would be a D&D film. Therefore the exercise is largely pointless.

I both agree and disagree with his argument, and I disagree strongly with many of those who posted comments on his site -- especially with regard to what constitutes the "feel" of D&D.

While James is correct that most attempts to create a D&D inspired movie would likely be "merely" generic fantasy films, he would be wrong if he thought it were necessary that a D&D inspired film would be a generic fantasy film. To be fair, James asks his audience to give him an example of what such a film would be like rather than to assert that it is impossible.

In my opinion, a D&D inspired film would take one of two forms.

In the first case, one could create a film inspired by the intellectual properties associated with the D&D brand. One could make a Mystara, Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Birthright, Eberron, Dark Sun, or Planescape movie. To be fair, it would be possible that any film set in these creations might end up defaulting to generic fantasy, but it isn't a necessary condition. A Greyhawk film that focused on Zagyg's quest for immortality, Iuz's plans, or on Mordenkainen and friends would be different enough in character to matter. Similarly a Forgotten Realms film about Drizz't or based on Paul Kemp's "Shadow" series would have as distinct a tone as is possible. As for Eberron, Dark Sun, or Planescape, each of these has a character so unique that they would stand out on their own. These settings are rich for exploration and would also have the marketing potential to bring in new gamers, as they have directly related products.

In the second case, I can imagine a film akin to Andre Norton's Quag Keep, L. Sprague DeCamp's Solomon's Stone, or Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame. In this scenario, players of a D&D game would be transported into a mystical world -- or the actions of players in the real world would be interposed on characters in the fantastic. I also think one could do something like the Gold web series where gaming is used as a setting for a larger story.

From a marketing perspective any of these would be desirable. The purpose of a film is to help build brand and provide revenue and this would be easily possible with any of the above strategies. Which comes down to the crux of it. It isn't pointless from a business perspective to make a D&D film because it can bring revenue for shareholders while providing entertainment -- and employment opportunities -- for stakeholders.

Almost no one reading James' blog approached the question in the above fashion. Looking at the responses from James' readers though, one is taken aback by a couple of things. First, the venom some of his posters had for existing D&D entertainment enterprises. Commenters disparaged the D&D movies, the Dragonlance animated film, and the D&D cartoon that aired in the 80s.

In future posts I will discuss the various D&D movies individually, but let me just put forward the following. I think that everyone involved in making those products wanted to make something entertaining, and many of them were gamers themselves. I agree that the first D&D movie was a disappointment (though it also had moments). I think that the second film was much better, and on a fraction of the budget. I think that the flaws of the Dragonlance movie stem from weaknesses in the first Dragonlance novel (the weakest of the first six books) and that the film is actually a good translation of that book. I deeply enjoy the cartoon series, as do my twin daughters. Lastly, I eagerly await the next D&D film and know that the people working on it want to make a good film. But I will elaborate on all of these in the future.

Another thing that struck me in the posts, in addition to the venom aimed at existing attempts, was the vision many of James' commenters had for what constitutes "D&D narrative."

Some examples include this one from commenter Johnstone:

A group of adventurers arrives at the mouth of a dungeon. They enter and explore rooms, get around traps, fight monsters, run away from monsters, find gold and treasure, and Black Dougal dies from poison. Then they fight two or three dragons at the end, after which only the fighter and the thief are still alive. The thief backstabs the fighter, grabs (some of/the best of) the treasure and books it. The end.

This one from Reverence Pavane:

Well a good movie about D&D would probably go back and examine the basic tropes of the game, rather than trying to fit a plot to the games. Such as the existence of dungeons. The fact that adventurers form up in small teams of highly egotistical individuals to go down into the dungeon and slay things, loot their victims and furnishings, and then return to the tavern.

This one from Lord Gwydion:

Personally, if I were to write a D&D script, I'd focus on these things:

No big 'save the world' plot.

No 'revenge' plot (although a subplot might involve revenge).

No 'hero's journey' plot.

Those three stances alone mean it would not be made by Hollywood (or they'd hire someone to come in after I was done and add all of those back in).

Each of these, and a couple of other posts, exemplifies a particular view of what constitutes the spirit of D&D play. They also depict a way of playing D&D that I haven't personally experienced since I was in high school. That doesn't mean that this style of play is an "immature" or "childish" way to play the game. In fact, this was a way of playing D&D that was popular among the adults who taught my friends and me how to play the game, but it was one my friends and I abandoned for heroic adventure. It is also a game style that is supported by the rules. One cannot help but to expect a game that gives experience points for how much money you acquire, in addition to how many creatures you kill, will do anything other than foster a "mercenary" style of play.

I call this style of play "D&D as Tomb Raiders," and I don't much like it. I understand that many do, but I think it goes against the grain of what the game is about. I blogged about J. Eric Holmes' opinions regarding game balance and the games spirit last week. To me D&D is a game of "Heroic Journeys," battles against evil, saving the world, and fighting the good fight. It isn't about wandering mercenaries plundering loot -- that's Tunnels and Trolls. D&D is a game that features Paladins battling the hordes of Hell.

In his book Role-Playing Mastery, Gary Gygax writes about how each role playing game rules set has its own "spirit." This spirit cannot often be described in bumper sticker terms, but it is something that will permeate the statistics, mechanics, descriptions included within a game. According to Gary, a game master, and player, is charged with learning more than just the rules of the game, but is also charged with learning the spirit of each game and attempting to play accordingly.

As I mentioned earlier when discussing the recent discussion at Grognardia, one might come to the conclusion that the spirit of Dungeons & Dragons was one of selfish mercenaries, tomb robbers, and skallywags. But this isn't the spirit that Gygax describes. He describes the spirit of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as follows:

I shall attempt to characterize the spirit of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. This is a fantasy RPG predicated on the assumption that the human race, by and large, is made up of good people. Humans, with the help of their demi-human allies (dwarfs, elves, gnomes, etc.), are and should remain the predominant force in the world. They have achieved and continue to hold on to this status, despite the ever-present threat of evil, mainly because of the dedication, honor, and unselfishness of the most heroic humans and demi-humans -- the characters whose roles are taken by the players of the game. Although players can take the roles of "bad guys" if they so choose, and if the game master allows it, evil exists primarily as an obstacle for player characters to overcome...the goal of the forces of good can only be attained through cooperation, so that victory is a group achievement rather than an individual one.

I eagerly watch a D&D movie that embodied Gygax's D&D spirit, and I prefer to play in games that do so as well.

To me "classic D&D" is about saving villagers from ravaging hordes of Giants, only to learn that these Giants were being displaced by Dark Elves, and that the Queen of the Demonweb pits was weaving sophisticated plans that would bring down the forces of good in the world.

That style of play isn't for everyone, but it is a style of play that is fun and would make some good movies.

Of course a dark, brooding, heist film would be pretty good too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In My Mailbox Today -- The Wildside Press Robert E. Howard Reader

For the past few months I had contemplated purchasing The Robert E Howard Reader from Wildside Press. I have purchased some of their Howard publications in the past, in particular Gates of Empire and have been quite happy with the purchases. Wildside is one of the many excellent smaller SF/F publishers and are the current publisher of Weird Tales, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine and Adventure Tales.

What struck me as particularly interesting about the Reader was its ecumenical approach to Howard scholarship. The book features writings about Howard from Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, Robert M. Price, and the pariah of many modern Howard fans L. Sprague de Camp. In fact, the book is dedicated to de Camp (I can see James at Grognardia cringing as I write this).

As much as I disagree with de Camp's analysis of Howard's psyche as pure psychobabble, I have always admired his promotion of Howard's work and I was impressed that the Reader included and acknowledged him.

There was only one thing that kept me from ordering the book day one...

It has a horrible cover! It's worse than a Baen books cover, and that's not easy folks. What would your average plane/bus/train passenger think I was reading if they saw it?

I finally overcame my hesitation. After all, if I can admit to being a Hellcats fan how bad can walking around with this book be?

Looking at the contents, I am impressed so far. There is just one thing that keeps grating against my nerves. In the introduction of the book, and on the back cover, it says "A century after Robert E. Howard's death, it is evident that this amazing Texan achieved something unique in the annals of American literature." Conceptually, I agree with the sentence. Factually, I am irked. Robert E. Howard died in 1936 -- 75 years ago. The book was written for publication in 2007 -- you can still buy the author's Lulu version -- so it is intended as a Howard Centennial book. This is great, and I'm sure the writer meant "a century after Robert E. Howard's birth," but the lack of editing/review irks me.

I'll let you know how the book holds up as soon as I can get my mental nitpicker to take a nap.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Expanding James Maliszewski's "To Roll 20" D&D Combat System

Over at his absolutely must read "in praise of Old School RPG gaming" site Grognardia today, James Maliszewski takes on one of the typical myths regarding the complexity of the original AD&D and D&D games. Many people believe that you absolutely need the combat matrices on pages 74 and 75 of the Dungeon Master's Guide in order to run combat, and that continually looking at those charts can diminish the verisimilitude (to use a Gygaxian term) of the role playing experience.

In response to this criticism, James -- who has worked on the excellent "new school" games Colonial Gothic and Thousand Suns -- shares the chartless system he uses in his home campaign Dwimmermount. He describes the system as follows:

when a monster attacks, I roll a D20, and add the monster's Hit Dice and the target's (descending) armor class to the result of the dice roll. If the sum is 20 or more, the attack is successful. This system is simple and quick and I don't need to consult any charts.

What James has done here, and it is mildly ingenious, is to deconstruct the old THACO system that was introduced late in the 1st edition. Essentially, under the THACO system each player wrote down a number that represented how high that player needed to roll on a d20 (after modifiers were added) for their character to hit Armor Class (AC) zero -- THACO stood for To Hit AC 0. Using the old THACO system, the player essentially ran the following subroutine:

  1. Roll d20 + Attribute Bonuses + Item Bonuses
  2. Get total.
  3. Subtract total from THACO.
  4. Result is AC you hit

The subroutine created what can only be described as a seesawing of arithmetic. First you add and get a result, then you subtract, and finally you compare that to a target number -- your THACO. It was a clumsy system, but it was better than the charts and became the basis for the 2nd edition combat system.

James has taken that seesawing subroutine and made it a one sided equation. It's fairly elegant.

  1. Roll d20 + Attribute Bonuses + Item Bonuses + Opponents AC
  2. Compare result to Target Number of 20

The system has the same mathematical effect as the THACO system, but adds a layer of elegance by putting all the arithmetic at the beginning of the process -- a negative AC would be a negative modifier to the initial roll.

On his site, James has included the chart for Fighting Men that he uses in his campaign. I don't know what chart James used to base his chart on, but I have calculated the "To Roll 20" bonuses for the character classes based on the charts in the old DMG.

I would like to mention one small thing when using these charts. James' "To Roll 20" system does make it slightly more difficult to hit certain armor classes than the charts on page 74 would normally be. For example:

Kin Rathslayer is a 7th Level Fighter with a +1 Longsword and a 17 Strength. Due to his weapon and Strength, Kin gets a +2 total attribute and item bonus to hit. He decides to attack Theodore Dudek "villainous rogue" who has an Armor Class of -8 due to equipment, attributes, and armor.

Using the chart on page 74 of the DMG, Kin would need to roll a 20 -- excluding his +2 bonuses -- to hit Theodore. With his bonuses, Kin needs to roll an 18. Kin has a 15% chance to hit Theodore and take the crown of "King of RPGs."

Using the "To Roll 20" system, Kin would roll d20 +6 (level bonus) +1 (weapon bonus) + 1 (strength bonus) - 8 for Theodore's AC. Kin needs to roll a natural 20 in order to hit Theodore. He has only a 5% chance of success.

This slight drawback occurs in the regular THACO system as well, and is due to the fact that on the charts each character class can hit multiple ACs on a roll of 20. For example, a 7th level fighter hits AC -6 through -10 with a total of 20. All four of those ACs have an equal chance of being hit by the fighter. A 4th level fighter hits AC -2 through -7 on a total of 20 on the DMG chart on page 74. The THACO and "To Roll 20" systems remove this long tail effect and substitute a much needed ease of play to the system. The statistics work out differently than the charts -- more for the non-fighter classes than for the fighter -- but the dividends in ease of play more than make up for that drawback.

Were I to run a 1st edition game, I would certainly use James' "To Roll 20" system and mock those who think that AD&D requires charts to determine if you hit your opponent. At least I would if I could figure out how the initiative rules actually work when using speed factors and weapon sizes.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bad News for American Solomon Kane Fans...

Jim over at Grognardia has a post that highlights a recent French review of the -- as yet unreleased in the United States -- new Solomon Kane movie. The crux of the review is the the film is neither a good adaptation of Robert E Howard's character, nor is it a particularly good film in its own right.

Crap! This bodes ill.

My obsession with things Howardian will require that I watch the film when/if it is finally released in the United States, but I have greater reason to dread the inevitable viewing. In case you are wondering, my obsession is so potent that I have not only seen Conan, Conan: The Destroyer, Red Sonja, and Kull: The Conqueror on repeated occasions, I own them on DVD and watch them from time to time looking microscopically for glimpses of something remotely Howardian.

This is harder to do with some of the films than it is with others. Thankfully, there is always The Whole Wide World -- a delightful biographical Howardian film.

At the end of the post at Grognardia Jim asks, "What is it about Robert E. Howard that makes Hollywood want to tell its own stories with his characters rather presenting the ones he himself wrote? I'm sure there are other authors whose works have repeatedly suffered as much as Howard's have but I'm hard pressed to think of any at the moment."

I think there are a couple of reasons for the lack of presentation of Howard characters as they should be presented -- in their proper Howardian glory.

First, any Conan movie has to fight against decades of Frazetta's visual representations, and their descendants, of the character. Frazetta's art is stunning, but it doesn't very well match the actual descriptions of the character. Other characters present this problem to a lesser degree as they have fewer popularly resonant images to combat. They also have less popular resonance at all, which constitutes its own problem. A problem that typically leads to an, "I need to provide an origin and context" syndrome.

Second, movies are the perfect length to depict novellas. A 30,000 word story fits nicely in a 90 - 140 minute framework. One could make a nice movie out of The Hour of the Dragon, but any adaptation would likely suffer from "I need to provide an origin and context" syndrome. Fans of the Howard fiction know that the first Conan story, The Phoenix on the Sword, takes place late in the Barbarian's life and drops the reader right into an existing milieu. All we get for context is a beautifully written excerpt from The Nemedian Chronicles giving us a sense of place/time. The vast majority of Conan tales, and Solomon Kane tales, are shorter than novella length and leap from one time and place to another. The fireside story feel of this phenomenon is enjoyable for the reader, but doesn't make for a well structured film.

All one has to do is look at the Stone script for Conan: the Barbarian to see what happens when you combine disparate short stories -- themselves clouded through the de Camp lens -- and fuse them together with your own connecting narrative. One gets Conan fighting a Kull villain -- though to be fair the Kull villain is to Kull as Thoth Amon is to Conan.

The translation of a patchwork of short stories into a 90 minute narrative isn't easy, and it comes with its own temptations -- temptations that Hollywood has fallen into far too many times. It would take a talented, and devoted, writer to bring Howard's great Barbarian to the screen. Even then, there would be those who would quibble with the interpretation.

Imagine how many people felt a need to shout, "someone on the internet is wrong" when I wrote that Frazetta's Conan is artistically beautiful but textually inaccurate. I hold strongly to that opinion, but I imagine there are Howardians who would take me to task for such an opinion.

Howard, and Lovecraft, have yet to see an excellent Big Budget adaptation of their properties.

I lament that the upcoming Solomon Kane film will likely be horrible, but I will watch it none the less. It cannot be worse than Kull: The Conqueror.

Who do you think competes with them for the prize of most awfully adapted?