Showing posts with label ODnD. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ODnD. Show all posts

Monday, August 31, 2020

Geekerati Reviews: For Coin & Blood 2nd Edition by Gallant Knight Games


In 2018, Gallant Knight Games published a role playing game entitled For Coin & Blood. The game was designed with the intent of capturing the freeform mechanical feel of first generation fantasy roleplaying games and the narrative tone of Grim Dark fantasy novels and shows. It was a game inspired by Original D&D and the writings of Kate Elliot, Joe Abercrombie, Sarah Monette, Glen Cook, Anna Smith Spark, Scott Lynch, and others.

The first edition of For Coin & Blood was well received by critics and gamers and remains a "Gold" seller on DriveThruRPG, the internet's largest digital rpg store. As successful as the game is, it was an early design by Alan Bahr and there was room for expansion and improvement. Bahr's done a lot of game design between 2018 and 2020 and he thought it was time for a second edition that reflected the lessons he's learned over the years and he wanted to release that edition in a printed edition as beautiful as he thought the updated rules deserved.

So he did what any independent designer does in these situations and launched a Kickstarter. In fact, that Kickstarter launched today (August 31, 2020) and will be running for the next 10 days (until September 9th). You'll have to act fast if you want to get one of the premium books from the Kickstarter, though I'm certain the game will be sold via DriveThruRPG afterwards. One thing to note here as you read this review. If you want to get a printed copy after reading this, make sure to back the Kickstarter. As good as the printing quality of DriveThruRPG's books are, and they are good, they are nothing compared to the print shop printing Gallant Knight puts together on their full print run products.

Now that the background is taken care of, how is For Coin & Blood as a game?

The TL;DR is that it reflects every ounce of design knowledge Alan Bahr has learned over the past few years and is an excellent and evocative design. One that I immediately backed on Kickstarter after reading my review copy.

Now for the longer review. What's Good, what's Bad, and...what's Awesome about this game.

The Good

The first thing that jumps out about the game is its setting. Grim Dark is a great theme that has an abundance of fiction game masters and players can look to for guidance on how to play. Some of the best fiction in Fantasy is in the Grim Dark genre. My own personal favorites include Glen Cook's The Black Company series, the Thieves' World anthologies, David Gemmell's Waylander tales, Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos tales, Andy Remic's Clockwork Vampire Chronicles, Simon R. Green's Hawk and Fisher stories, Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars series, and a long list that includes Michael Moorcock, Brent Weeks, Karl Edward Wagner, and so many more.   

As great as the setting is, Grimdark roleplaying sessions can wander down the path to excess. Thankfully, Alan Bahr provides a little advice on how to be more Joe Abercrombie and less Edgelord von Torturestein. Adding to the advice on running the game (there should be more), For Coin and Blood 2nd Edition provides a nicely detailed setting. It also includes two tales of tone setting fiction by Steve Diamond and Mari Murdock

Mechanically, the game uses a modified version of the d20 based role playing game we all know and love including some of the most recent innovations like Advantage and Disadvantage. In doing so, it has mechanics that appeal to both fans of newer heroic roleplaying and older more tactical and freeform gaming.

For example the skill tests used in For Coin and Blood echoes the assumed mechanics of Moldvay/Cook (aka B/X edition) of Dungeons & Dragons.  Hidden in the depths of that games mechanics was a foundational skill system where 1d6 being rolled against a difficulty. You can see it in the break down doors/bend bars, find secret doors, and locate traps rules of Basic/Expert D&D. In For Coin and Blood the basic skill roll tends to default to a need to roll 4+ on a six sided die. This is true for all of the narrow class skills that are specifically listed in the character classes. There is one exception. The thief  has a broad skill bonus that adds to a broad set of thief related tasks. There is no specific breakdown of thief skills, nor is there a default given in the thief class section. The lack of specific skills is fine, as we'll see in the discussion of "professions" below.

In addition to the skill system echoing B/X D&D,  Alan Bahr adapts the "die tree" from The Black Hack for use on skill tests and a couple of other game mechanics as well. The die tree, or step die mechanic, is a very neat mechanic that has its roots in Earthdawn and Alternity. Instead of giving a player a +1/-1 or +2/-2 modifier that is added to a roll, a die step mechanic has the player roll the next higher/lower die. A +1 die step would mean a player who normally rolls a d6 for an outcome would roll a d8 or d4 depending on whether they received a bonus or penalty.

The game's attribute modifiers are similar to those of OD&D instead of more modern versions. In For Coin & Blood only scores 15 and higher give a mechanical benefit and only those below 6 give a penalty. What this means is that the game is more Archetype focused and less stat focused. Statistical bonuses are "cooked in" to the things players are expected to have and thus exceptional bonuses are exception and players don't need to roll high statistics to be "on curve" for play. I love that the game focuses more on Archetypes than statistics, tot that this will stop me from a very long boring discussion below in the "The Bad" section when it comes to statistics and character creation.

Like many games, For Coin and Blood uses a combination of armor class (defense) and armor as damage reduction. In this case armor doesn't contribute to "defense", the number required to hit the character, at all and only provides damage reduction. This is similar to the system used by Wizards of the Coasts Star Wars Saga Edition role playing game. In this case, Alan Bahr added armor attrition and shield rules inspired by The Black Hack as well.


The Bad

There's not a lot to critique from a non-mechanical perspective, if I was to add something to the text I would add a good deal more advice on how to run the setting to keep it "Grim Dark" and not "Murder Hobos on Parade." This is the genre of Michael Moorcock, Steven Brust, the Thieves' World crew, Brent Weeks, Andy Remic, David Gemmell, Glen Cook, Karl Edward Wagner, and Cameron Johnston. While some of these authors incorporate certain types of disturbing violence into their fiction, they usually don't wallow in it. For Coin & Blood does have a strong disclaimer at the beginning that provides context, but I'd like to see more DM advice in this regard. As someone who has played in "evil" campaigns before, I've found they are more rewarding when they deal with moral complexity rather than focus on being gorefests. There are those gamers who want to play F.A.T.A.L. and this is not the game for them. This is not an edgelord game and those who want that style of play should look elsewhere. Still, it could use more advice on how to handle sensitive situations or provide a bibliography to existing resources.

I love 99.99% of the mechanical decisions in this game, but there is one mechanic I really don't like and that is the system of attribute determination during character generation. Alan Bahr has a favorite character generation system for OSR style games. He's used it in a number of his other "Venerable Knight Games"  publication. The system does allow for some flexibility, but depending on how you use it results in very focused characters and never really seem to accomplish exactly what Alan is hoping to do.

It starts straight forward enough with characters having six core attribute rated from 3-18: Might, Learning, Insight, Fortitude, Agility, and Charisma. Before we continue, I thought I'd let you know that I'm going to spend a lot of time talking about this, so you might want to skip down to the "Awesome" section below. There is a lot that's awesome, but for some reason the stat generation system rubs me the wrong way. What's even more ironic is that because of the Archetype and not Attribute approach of the game, the generation system really doesn't have much effect on gameplay.

Having said all of the above, here is the basic stat generation system.


Essentially, you roll 5 dice and then you order them as you wish following the above algorithm picking the highest die for your "most important stat" and the lowest die for your "dump stat." You'll note that Alan writes, "this will give you one particularly good statistic, one weak statistic, and four that range between average and good." Well...this is not exactly true and depends on how you arrange the stats.

The following analysis is based on a bit of Rmarkdown code I wrote for demonstration purposes that you can find here. If you don't have R-Studio and only want to look at ALL the output, you can find it on this webpage. But I will also be nice and show you some real examples below. 

In essence, you have a few choices as a player. You can choose to be the Specialist who has one fantastic stat and five stats that are for all intents and purposes average. You do this by rolling 5 dice, sorting them in order and using the above algorithm to generation your stats. For the sake of argument, let's say you roll the following array (I've already sorted them from high to low).

So you've got a 6, 5, 4, 3, 3. This is actually a pretty good roll. If we assumed these were added to the average on 2 dice of 7, we'd have a 13, 12, 11, 10, 10. In For Coin & Blood, none of those would be exceptional. But that's not the system. We start with 12, 11, 11, 10, 10, 10 and follow the algorithm above. Doing that, going from high to low in order, we get the following array.

One very high number, a bunch of straight up average numbers, and one low number but not low enough for a penalty (penalties start at 6 and lower).

What if we mix it up a little and still put the highest value on our prime stat, then second lowest, then middle, then second highest, and finally lowest on our dump stat? That sounds interesting right? This is what we get.

The numbers look more interesting, but there is still no real impact on play except that we are still specialized in our max stat. Remember, there are no penalties for 8s and no bonuses for 12s.

Let's mix things up a little bit more and go a little counter-intuitive by not putting our highest stat in our prime stat. This time we'll put the middle stat in the first spot, the second lowest in the second slot, the highest in the middle, the second highest next, and the worst last. This gets us the following:

In a regular d20 game, this might be the most interesting to play. This is close to the "Generalist" array from various versions of D&D. The only thing is that in For Coin & Blood, all of these stats except the 16 are still "average" and provide no bonus. Adding salt to the wound we could have a mechanically better, but aesthetically less appealing, array with a max 18 instead.

I know that I praised the game for relying on Archetypes rather than Attributes for what really matters in the game. I still believe that, but that's why I find this system odd. The algorithm is clunky for new gamers. You add dice and subtract prior dice as you go and as your reward you either get a specialist with one good stat or you end up with something very close to what you would get from just rolling 3d6 and being able to put them in any order you want. It just strikes me as inelagant in a game that is otherwise very elegant.

My second complaint is relatively minor. There is no base number given for various thief related tasks in thief section. The rules section states that the default for most actions is 4+ and that the narrator should modify this for effect. The game provides a very useful chart to do this, but it would be nice to have mention in thief class.

The weapon rules are AWESOME (see below), but the weapon degrading rules look like they need modification to update the mechanic from a "weapon die" system to a "class die" system. Given that one can easily assume that Sellswords and Knights are knowledgeable on how to care for their weapons than Magi etc., this is only a one sentence change to remain consistent.

Not a lot of complaints, just one overly long one.

City Raid Illustration by Ger Curti
Illustration by Ger Curti

The Awesome

First and foremost, I love so much about this game that I had to stop listing the "Awesome" rated stuff before this review became a "just copy the rules" review. 

One of the things that For Coin & Blood revives is the old money earned = XP earned mechanic from old versions of D&D. What I'm about to write may seem counter-intuitive, but this XP system actually reduces the "Murder Hobo" nature of adventuring. Monsters in older versions of D&D are rated in XP for "defeating" (usually being killed) and in how much treasure they have. In new versions, you pretty much just have the "defeated" XP value. What having the money = XP mechanic does is it immediately gets people to ask, "can I get the treasure without fighting?" Why? Because monsters usually have more in gold than their defeat XP value. When you add the old rules for "Encounter Relations" from B/X, Charisma becomes the "get rich and not kill ever" stat and ends the cycle of "Breach, Sleep, Clear!" that D&D can become. Sadly, Alan doesn't incorporate the Encounter Reaction chart, but given how much time is spent on sections itemizing how much characters get paid for certain activities, the money = XP system really ups the "let's find other solutions than killing" aspect of the game.

For Coin & Blood has a new statistic called Infamy that reflects how well known the character is. This statistic affects the jobs characters can get and which organizations they can join. Characters can gain and lose reputation in a way that echoes the old Marvel Super Heroes game. Infamy also affects how much players get paid for missions, gives them an XP bonus at high levels, and by affecting payment it also affects XP directly. It also provides a lure for those who want to oppose the players. The higher your Infamy, the more people know who you are and the more foes you have. Great idea!

Alan borrows a great idea from Shadow of the Demon Lord with the inclusion of Professions. What's a profession? It's what your character actually does for a living and is separate from class and can be anything you want it to be. It could be related to your class, a thief could be a "cat burglar" for example, but it need not be related. Maybe your Thief is a Bodyguard or Wandering Young Noble. You get to choose freely and fit it to whatever backstory you want. Profession does have some mechanical benefit. It aids characters in making skill tests. Any skill tests associated with your profession more likely to succeed because you get a one step die improvement on the skill roll. Very nice. Allows for flexibility and player agency.

Alan decided to incorporate one of my favorite gaming mechanics by including class based weapon damage. Instead of having weapons do a fixed amount of damage, swords doing 1d8 for example, weapon damage is based on class. Classes that are martial in nature do more damage than those unfamiliar with them. This is a nice way of letting Mages use swords without altering balance. They still roll d4 for damage, but they get to look cool doing it.

The game has so many cool classes and each has interesting mechanics. I particularly liked the Diabolist and their Pacts. The system of pacts was very evocative and flexible and fit within the Grimdark theme exceptionally well. I also absolutely loved the inclusion of the Executioner class...can we say Gene Wolfe inspired?

The game has one of the best fantasy incorporations of firearms from a mechanical perspective. Keeps the fearful lethality of the weapon (via crits and another nod to Marvel Super Heroes) and does this without amplifying the damage dice rolled.

The system for how magic weapons and magic armor come into existence is really evocative and narrative. When players roll a critical hit, or survive one in the case of armor, they may devote XP to the item. When they've devoted enough XP, the weapon gains properties. It's a very nice "low magic" mechanic and I adore it.

I could go on and on, but I'll just list three more things I thought were very good design elements The rules for Legacy experience for when characters die and the player transitions to a new character, the concept of Grim effort which literally ties lifeforce to success, and the Organization rules really round out the product.


My overall opinion is that this is a fantastic role playing game that I'd love to see get play time with my group. There are areas for more development, so I'd love to see some expansions, but this thing packs a lot of punch.

What are you waiting for? Go back the Kickstarter.

Oh, and this is VERY different from the 1st edition. That edition is good, but 2nd edition adds so much.

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, July 23, 2020

When Discussing Early RPGs and Wargames, Let's Not Forget the British Scene Part 2: Did Tony Bath Influence the Famous Appendix N?

B.M.S.S. 6,7, and 8 (1956) from Author's Private Collection

This is the second in a series of posts about the British Wargaming Scene's influence on D&D. The first entry in the series can be read here.

We've long known that Tony Bath's rules for medieval combat influenced the creation of Chainmail, and thus D&D. Tony Bath was one of the most influential members of the growing British wargaming hobby in the middle of the 20th century. But I think historians and fans often overlook how much he influenced not only the mechanics of play, but the genre of play as well.

Tony Bath's "War Game of the Middle Ages and Ancient Times" was first published in 1956 in the June/July and August/September issues of the British Model Soldier Society's The Bulletin. A critique by Charles Grant and rules "errata" were published in the October issue that same year. These ancient rules were significant in a couple of ways. They are among the early rules sets to innovate by using dice to determine combat outcomes and they are one of the earliest rules for medieval and ancient miniatures combat.

Bath also wrote an article in July 1966 issue (51) of Wargamer's Newsletter, an issue that had "1066" as its theme and which contained Phil Barker's influential medieval rules.  Wargamer's Newsletter was published by Donald Featherstone, who is arguably the most significant evangelist for the wargaming hobby, and had frequent contributions from Tony Bath, Charles Grant, and others. Featherstone discussed the importance of Bath in the hobby, and shared an abbreviated form of his rules, in his 1962 book War Games. Interestingly, Featherstone's discussion of Bath's rules in that book includes references to Bath's Hyborian campaign in which Bath used Robert E. Howard's fictional setting as the foundation for a wargaming campaign. This allowed players in Bath's gaming circle to mix and match armies from antiquity and the middle-ages in "what if" battles that wouldn't be possible in a more historically focused environment. The fact that Bath's rules were known to Gygax, and that Bath used a Howardian setting (though one without magic), might serve as sufficient evidence that Bath provided a kind of pre-Appendix N inspiration to incorporate fantasy into gaming that was picked up and expanded upon by Gygax. Such an assertion would be limited though due to the fact that Bath's campaign didn't use magic and that Howard was surging in popularity in the 60s.

There is, however, additional evidence of Bath's potential influence on Gygax's selections in Appendix N and in D&D in general. In fact, in many ways it might be argued that Bath provided a road map of influences that Gygax followed in selecting the appropriate fantasy milieu to incorporate into table top gaming. Where is this road map? In the pages of the Society of Ancient's house magazine Slingshot.

Tony Bath founded the Society of Ancients in 1965 with a small membership of around 20 members. The Society was created as a way for those interested in ancient battles to share their research, gaming rules, and insights with one another. Amazingly, the Society is still around today and readily makes available back issues of their in house newsletter. One of the things that really amazes me about the British gaming scene, at least the wargaming scene, is how keen they are to maintaining records of the history of the hobby and making available content to the "non-collector" audience. Between the John Curry's History of Wargaming Project and The Society of Ancients, one can access a lot of older material at very reasonable prices.

In issue #9 of Slingshot, published in January of 1967, Tony Bath wrote an article of particular interest to fans of Dungeons & Dragons. In an article entitled "Campaigning with the Aid of Fantasy Fiction" (Page 10), Bath provides a relatively detailed account of the fiction that can serve as inspiration for miniature wargaming campaigns. 

What was contained in Bath's article? In the article, he argues that players will find playing wargame campaigns in fantasy worlds of their own creation to be superior to strictly historical play and argues that one of the advantages of using fantasy fiction as a foundation is the fact that many fantasy worlds come with detailed maps which can be used to track campaign activities. Additionally, he provides a number of recommended literary works. Instead of publishing excerpts of the article, I'll provide a quick list of inspirational sources in the order Bath provided them in his article.

  • Robert E. Howard's Hyboria
  • Tolkien's "Lords of the Ring" (sic)
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars and Venus Books
  • Fritz Leiber's Nehwon stories
  • Robert E. Howard's Almuric.
  • L. Sprague de Camp's Tritonian Ring, Queen of Zamba, Hand of Zei.
  • Leigh Brackett's Mars stories.
Following the discussion of influential works, Bath discusses "kingdom structures" in a manner that both seems to advocate for proto-roleplay and predicts the later focus on domain creation/rule by name level characters in D&D as the leadership hierarchy in his discussion is similar to discussions in D&D publications.

What do we notice about the list of inspirations above? Other than Tolkein, whom Gygax claimed had minimal influence on the milieu of D&D, all of these authors feature heavily in early D&D writings and Appendix N.

I cannot, and do not, claim that Gygax based his readings on Bath's recommendations. There isn't evidence for that and many ideas come to people at the same time. What I am claiming is that it is possible that Bath's love of the same fiction as Gygax, the fact that Gygax's own gaming rules were influence by Bath, and that Gygax himself had articles published in Wargamer's Newsletter, might suggest that Bath's list might have inspired Gygax to create games based on the fiction he loved.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Hither Came Conan to Role Playing Games Part 1 (OD&D)

Fantasy Background Retrieved from WallpaperPlay and Cartoony Conan Image by Todd Pickens

The fiction of Robert E. Howard (who was born on this day in 1906), and the stories of Conan in particular, were among the stories that inspired the creation of the earliest editions Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. The game has developed along lines that moved it away from its early Sword & Sorcery roots through various phases and back again as the game has become its own genre of Fantasy fiction.

The early Greyhawk campaign was very much a fusion of Howard, Leiber, Vance, and Poul Anderson. Blackmoor added more Vance a more than a dash of Burroughs and Science Fantasy. D&D's "The Known World" spiced things up by adding direct references to Clark Ashton Smith to the mix. While the official worlds reflected the entirety of Fantasy fiction, the game as played was very Tolkienesque. The inclusion of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits (later called Halflings), inspired a many gaming groups to have campaigns that mirrored the exploration of Moria. With the purchase of The Forgotten Realms and the development and publication of The Dragonlance modules, TSR began producing settings that were more Tolkienesque in execution.

But D&D never left its Sword & Sorcery roots entirely. The publication of the Dark Sun setting, a mashup of Howard, Vance, and Burroughs is one of the best demonstrations of this argument, though the wildly imaginative Planescape, the space hamster infused Spelljammer, and the dark Fairy Tale inspired Birthright settings are also of note. D&D as Fantasy is a genre that is wilder and more patchwork than those who want to argue that D&D is "Tolkien based" fantasy adventure.

Tolkien's influence is undeniable, but his world isn't filled with Dragonborn, Changelings, Living Constructs built for war who are now sentient beings, and races specifically bred to host Entities from the Realm of Dreams. Those are all races common in modern D&D sessions. The game was designed with Sword and Sorcery sensibilities, where Humans were meant to be the most common species played, but it has become something more. It is its own thing, and yet in that gonzo amalgamation of a vast array of Fantasy fiction, the game has in some ways retained a closer connection to its early Sword and Sorcery roots than to being an "Elf Game." The Sword & Sorcery fiction that inspired D&D was freeform. It was in many ways genre-free, in the sense that anything was possible. Before there was an Appendix N (the list of inspirational fiction in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide), there was this introduction to the "Little Brown Books":

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those
who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping
through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do
not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS &
DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find
that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite
you to read on and enjoy a “world” where the fantastic is fact and magic really
A quick look through that list sees fiction that includes airships that fly by the power of the 8th Ray to propel themselves through the sky at high speeds, adventures where people are transported to the fantastic world of Spencer's Faerie Queene by thinking of mathematical equations, dark and polluted urban settings where the smog is as much a character as the protagonists, and tales where men of strong arms and strong wills flee in terror when they encounter frog headed demons. What you won't find in any of these stories are Elves, Dwarves, or Hobbits.

Though Appendix N has been used by many as the main argument for the primacy of Sword & Sorcery fiction, I would argue that one need look no further than the official game material produced by TSR. They included statistics for Conan and Elric in the Original Dungeons & Dragons Supplment IV (Gods, Demigods, & Heroes) and published a game based on Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom.

Of these influences, Robert E Howard's creation has served as the inspiration for or been directly adapted by more game companies than any other. TSR adapted Conan for OD&D and AD&D and created a role playing game devoted to the character. Steve Jackson Games produced GURPS Conan. Mongoose Publishing produced a Conan series of books for 3rd Edition D&D. Modiphius is currently publishing a Conan game using their in house 2d20 game system. Beyond these licensed adaptations (though the OD&D adaptation was likely not licensed), games like Barbarians of Lemuria, Sorcerer (with its Sword & Sorcerer supplement), Carrion Lands, and Shadow of the Demon Lord all owe debts to this man of great mirth and great melancholy. Sword & Sorcery is THE major influence of fantasy role playing games and Conan IS the apotheosis of Sword & Sorcery.

So how well have role playing games inspired by Conan's adventures emulated him, both stylistically and mechanically? That is the central question of this series of blog posts and the answer is "depends." This blog post will focus on the version of Conan presented in Dungeons & Dragons Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods, & Heroes and later entries will examine formal and non-formal adaptations. The Wizards of the Coast reprint of the book lacks his entry, but I've transferred the information from that entry onto a character sheet below.

Mechanics from TSR's Gods, Demigods, & Heroes. Illustration by Gil Kane.
This brief entry tells us a few things about the design of Dungeons & Dragons and how good, or not good, they were at emulating a specific character from fiction. Keep in mind that the statistics were produced after the publication of the Greyhawk supplement and thus reflect the full adoption of the "alternate combat system" as the official D&D combat system and the formal publication of the Thief class. The Thief class was created by Gary Switzer of Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, CA and was incorporated into the D&D game via a rules addition and eventual publication in the Greyhawk supplement.

The first thing that we see is that Conan is classified as a Fighter with Thief abilities, the descriptions in the actual supplement are "Fighter Ability: 15th Level" and "This Fighter of the 15th level also has the abilities of a 9th level Thief." In the "post-Greyhawk" supplement rules, the designers had to break the rules as written to emulate what they thought Conan should look like mechanically. In OD&D only demihumans like Elves and Dwarves are expressly described as being capable of having multiple classes.

In some ways, this is an argument against the development of a Thief class at all and an argument for some way of arbitrating things like hiding or climbing walls other than dialog and DM fiat. The Thief class was designed to emulate characters like The Grey Mouser, but the Fighting Man class from the D&D rulebooks could do equally well with only a few additions to the basic rules set. I'm not opposed to having a Thief class, and thing the class has evolved in interesting ways over the years, but I do think that the game would have been perfectly fine had it stayed with Fighters, Magic Users, and Clerics as the only actual classes. Given that the Mouser and Fafhrd were both fantastic swordsmen, but also "thieves," having a Thief class that doesn't fight particularly well seems an odd way to go. This is especially true given how bad Thieves are at thieving. Don't even get me started on what effect it has on realism that thieves have the ability to climb walls, hide in shadows, and move silently when no one else does. 

Had there been no Thief class in the Greyhawk supplement, Conan would likely have been described only as a Fighter. As it is, the authors demonstrated that the emulation of fictional heroes required modifying the rules as written, even for a character as simple to emulate as Conan.

For all the talk of violating the rules as written, you might think that I think the authors have done something terrible. Quite the contrary. I think that by demonstrating that even a character as basic in archetype as Conan requires house ruling, the authors of Gods, Demigods, & Heroes are telling DMs to open up their game play and to not be restricted by the rules as written. As Timothy Kask writes in the introduction to the book, "As we've said time and time again, the 'rules' were never meant to be more than guidelines; not even true 'rules.'" OD&D rules were meant to facilitate play and not restrict it. The arguments for "RAW" play don't get heavily promoted by TSR until the publication of AD&D, and even then are for the purpose of tournament play and not house play.  

Gods, Demigods, & Heroes is an odd and wonderful book. One the one hand it seeks to show DMs how they can modify the rules to create the types of games that best fit their gaming group. On the other hand, it was written as a "last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters." It was meant to show players that even the "most powerful" weren't of ridiculously high levels and that campaigns could be fun at lower level play. And yet, it became for many a menagerie of monsters to be slain by player characters; having the opposite effect it intended.

All of that aside, in a book filled with mythologies the authors only included two that were not "real world" pantheons. They chose to give statistics for the worlds of Conan and of Elric, two sides of the same coin. Two of the best characters in Sword & Sorcery fiction. In doing so, the demonstrated how central Conan and Sword & Sorcery are to the creation of D&D.

Conan would appear in TSR products again a decade later with statistics in two different game systems, but that's a discussion for the next blog post.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Initiative in OD&D: Remember when D&D Combat was "Simpler" and "Easier" to Understand than 5e? Me Either. (Part 2)

Copyright Jody Lindke 2019
Two weeks ago (sorry for the break, but Thanksgiving), I posted the first in a series of articles discussing the complexity of early editions of the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. With each new edition of the D&D game, some players like to reminisce about how much easier to understand to play the game was "back in the day." The fact is that the old game was extremely complex and difficult to understand for neophytes. Heck, as an experienced gamer I had trouble understanding how to play OD&D (that's the little brown books) and could only figure out how to play Chainmail because of my experience playing Warhammer Fantasy.

While it would be fun to do a read through of all the little brown books, that isn't the intention of this series. This is just to show how complex OD&D combat was, and later how complex Basic and AD&D were as well, starting with the little brown books and moving forward into the various supplements and official articles that expanded the combat rules.

The first few articles will cover the following topics:

1) Initiative -- The Turn Order. Who goes first and when and how do they go?
2) Hitting and Damaging Characters and Monsters and Why Do We Have So Many Subsystems?
3) Expanding Play with Greyhawk...(followed by the other supplements).

Combat in OD&D has two main subsystems, Chainmail and the "Alternative Combat System." There are numerous references to Chainmail in the rules, which indicates that using Chainmail was a possible way to play D&D even though David Arneson made it clear that those rules were expanded upon and changed over time. Here are some examples:

  • On page 5 of Men & Magic (Book 1 of OD&D), the rules list Chainmail under "recommended equipment." 
  • Elves (page 8 of Men & Magic) "also gain the advantages noted in the Chainmail rules..." 
  • Halflings (page 8) "they will have deadly accuracy with missiles as detailed in Chainmail."
  • Fighting Capability (page 18) "to use in conjunction with the Chainmail fantasy rule, as modified in various places herein..."
  • On page 5 of Monsters & Treasure "Special ability functions are generally as indicated in Chainmail." 
  • Page 5 of Monsters & Treasure "Combat is Detailed in Vol. III"
  • Page 25 of Vol. III (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures) "Land Combat: The basic system is that from Chainmail, with one figure representing one man or creature..."
These are just some of the examples from the book, and they leave out the brief and not very revealing mentions of the "Alternative Combat System," so it's pretty clear that whether or not the creators of the game had moved on from Chainmail and were playing using the Alternative system that the rules assume play with Chainmail is possible. No place is this more clear than in the lack of rules for initiative. The first mention of initiative processes is under "Aerial Combat" in Book III where they recommend simultaneous movement. There is no such recommendation for Land Combat, so we are left without a written initiative system in the OD&D books and must look to Chainmail for our solution. Thankfully such a solution is available.

What does initiative in Chainmail look like? There is a "Move/Countermove" system and a Simultaneous system. Since Book III only specifically recommends the simultaneous system for "Aerial Combat" and "Naval Combat," but not for "Land Combat," I'm going to assume that the standard method for initiative follows the "Move/Countermove" system in Chainmail.  Here is a brief breakdown of that system.

Ignoring split-moves (which are for missile fire by certain troop types), pass-through fire, artillery fire, and missile fire, the system follows a simple format.

  1. Each player rolls 1d6. The player with the higher roll moves first and the lower roll moves second. There are no modifiers for high Dexterity or anything like that.
  2. After all movement the players resolve any melee combats. 
In the initial discussion of the turn sequence, there is no way to determine who goes first in melee. In fact, basic melee resolution is simultaneous in nature, "After both players have rolled the number of dice allotted to them for their meleeing troops by the Combat Tables, casualties are removed, and morale for both opponents is checked (Chainmail, 15)." In the basic initiative system, all combat is simultaneous. That system, however, is designed for mass combat where figures represent actual people at a ratio of 1:20, later in the book we are given a more detailed account of determining who goes first in man-to-man fights.

From this we know that characters enter Melee combat when they are within 3" on the table (30 feet in OD&D per Book III page 8). We also know that the combat is no longer simultaneous, if you kill your opponent there is no return blow. This makes going first important. So, who goes first?

  1. "The attacker" is the first option. One imagines that the attacker is the player who moved the figure into within 3" and initiated combat.
  2. UNLESS the defender has a weapon that is two classes higher, or the defender is fighting from above..."You cannot win Anakin! I have the High Ground!"
Figuring out who has the high ground is easy, but what are these weapon "classes"? Those are listed on a chart on page 41, but I've made a new version for reference below.

Weapon classes are listed next to the weapon with higher numbers referring to longer weapons. This is where the weapon class mention above comes into play and if a defender has a weapon two classes higher than the attacker then the defender attacks first. For example, if a warrior with a sword charges a man with a pike it is the pikeman who strikes first (12 is significantly higher than 4).

It is important to note that who acts first might change in the second and later rounds of combat. As stated above, the first attack in the second round is:
  1. Struck by the person who attacked first last round, UNLESS...
  2. The opponent has a weapon two classes lower, or
  3. The opponent is fighting from above.
If we assume the same "sword vs. pike" scenario above, the character who strikes the first blow in the second round will shift from the pikeman to the swordsman. This would reflect the swordsman getting past the pike and closing the distance during the prior minute of combat. Combat in OD&D is minute long combat rounds. As stated in Book III (page 8) "Movement is in segments of approximately ten minutes...Melee is fast and furious. There are ten rounds of combat per turn." The minute long combat round helps to explain why Dexterity doesn't play a role in the initiative system. This provides a realistic, if complex, initiative system for how combatants engage with one another in melee.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the melee order, we can ask what "split-moves and missile fire" and "pass-through fire" are, since these can happen before melee. "Split-move and missile fire" is a relatively unique ability possessed by special light horse troops in Chainmail. On page 12 of the Chainmail rulebook, it describes "Split-move and Fire" as follows, "Horsemen armed with bows are permitted to perform this type of movement. To accomplish a split move and fire, the horse archers move up to one-half of their normal movement, immediately conduct missile fire procedure and continue to move out the balance of their normal movement, not to exceed one-half of their normal movement. The horse archers may be fired upon by opponent missile troops during their firing pause."

While one might be tempted to limit "Split-move and Fire" actions to specially trained troops in D&D, that doesn't seem to be the intention here. While it is true that this kind of action is inspired by Mongol horsemen, it is the fact that the move action is done by the horse rather than archer that allows for the ability to fire during movement. This seems to imply that any mounted combatant in OD&D should be allowed this ability if they have proficiency in bows. Chainmail's Man to Man Fantasy Supplment section states that Elves may split-move and fire on foot.

You'll note that the quote above mentions that "horse archers may be fired upon" during their movement, even though this happens outside the "missile" phase of combat. That is because of the possibility of "Pass-through Fire" which allows "stationary missile give pass-through fire to any enemy units which are within their missile range at the half-move portion of the turn. This would include any enemy troops split-moving, passing by, or charging missile troops." This means that the "missile fire" component of the combat round actually happens during two possible segments of the combat round. It can either happen during the movement phase "at the half-move portion of the turn" or during the missile combat phase.

While this process seems simple at first it is confounded by the rate of fire rules for missile weapons, which state, "Crossbowmen, Archers, and Longbowmen may fire every turn. If Archers and Longbowmen do not move and are not meleed at the end of the turn, they may fire twice." The ability for stationary units to fire twice adds some complexity to the rules as this can mean that a missile unit fires once during "Pass-Through and Fire" and once during the "Missile Fire" phases of combat, or just twice in the "Missile Fire" phase.

This all makes for an extremely complex initiative system that has dynamic realism, but is anything other than simple. Let's illustrate this with a simple combat between four combatants: (A) A Human Swordsman, (A) A Human Archer, (B) A Goblin Spearman, and (B) A Goblin Archer. These combatants meet in a clearing.

Terrain by Dice Grimorium and Tokens by 2 Minute Tabletop.

For the sake of argument, we'll say that group A wins the initial roll and gets to move first and that the squares represent 10 feet instead which was standard for earlier editions of D&D. To make things simple, we will assume that all figures can move 12" during combat. This example will only cover initiative and not resolution.

Having the first movement, the swordsman rushes to close the distance and charges ahead toward the Goblin Spearman. As he is in range of the Goblin Archer, he triggers pass-through fire as he makes his way towards the Goblin Spearman. Assuming the Goblin Archer failed to kill the Human Swordsman, that character can enter melee combat as soon as it is within 3" of the Goblin Spearman.

Terrain by Dice Grimorium and Tokens by 2 Minute Tabletop.

Since the Human Swordsman can move 12", and since we ruled it survived "Pass-Through" fire, the figure can continue until it is in base to base contact with the Goblin Spearman and engage in a "Charge" move. This would allow, and would in fact require, the Human Swordsman to continue moving if he defeated the Goblin Spearman in combat.

Now that Player A has moved all the combatants desired, in this case only the Human Swordsman, Player B has the opportunity to move. Seeing there is an Archer, the player elects not to move and suffer "Pass-Through" fire.

All movement being completed, it's time for the Melee round to begin. It's important to note that the Goblin Archer is not necessarily engaged in combat as page 15 of Chainmail states "Missile Troops interspaced with other footmen forming a defensive line may "refuse" combat and move back 3" out of combat range. However, if the other footmen who are meleed are killed or driven away, the missile troops must fight if the attacker is able to continue his charge move." In this case the Human Swordsman charged and would benefit from this if it killed the Goblin Spearman. Since this is 1:1 combat, we will move the Archer back 1" rather than move it off the map.

Terrain by Dice Grimorium and Tokens by 2 Minute Tabletop.

Now that the two Melee units are in contact and the Movement phase is complete, we must resolve missile combat. The Human Archer (A) has not moved and may thus fire twice at opponents. The Human Archer can choose to fire both shots at the Goblin Archer, split them between the Goblins, or fire both at the Goblin Spearman. They are able to do this because as an "Archer or Longbowman (they) may fire over the heads of intervening troops, friendly or enemy, providing they are more than 3" distant. Indirect fire reduces the range of the weapon firing by one-third. Indirect fire automatically classifies the target in the next higher armor category..." The Goblin Archer, having moved 3" to avoid melee, can only fire once. These shots will be resolved simultaneously as they fire at one another.

Having finished the missile phase, we resolve the melee. In our example we have a Swordsman attacking a Spearman. If both had been wielding swords (weapon class 4), the Human Swordsman would have gone first, but the Goblin is a Spearman (weapon class 8) which is more than 2 classes higher than the Human's and thus the Goblin attacks first. If the Human lives, then it may strike again. These two figures are locked in melee combat until one is killed or routed by the other. There is a strict Zone of Control here.

If all combatants survive, a new roll is made and combat starts at the beginning with movement, then missile fire, then melee. During this second round of Melee, the Human Swordsman will attack first because it has a weapon 2 classes or more LOWER than the opponent and has managed to get through the weapon's reach.

As you can see, this is a very complex system. It is likely more complex than it was actually played, but having worked my way through it I see it as a very workable system that would have benefited from clearer writing. It's also a system I just might try to use in a few session in the future.

The next post will discuss how to hit and damage opponents using the Chainmail based system for combat and not the Alternative System.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Remember when D&D Combat was "Simpler" and "Easier" to Understand than 5e? Me Either. Part 1: Some Initial Thoughts

GamerGrls by Jody Lindke ©2011
Back in September of 2019, Cam Banks wrote a brief response to people who argued that they missed the "good ol' days of gaming" when combat was easier to learn and play than the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Cam's response was direct and to the point.

My response was a little snarkier than Cam's and included a reference to the Weapons & Armor chart in the 1st Edition AD&D Players Handbook (sic).

The point that each of us was making was that it is a myth that older versions of D&D were "rule light" that were easier to learn for newer gamers, or were somehow superior to more recent versions of the game because of their ease of play. Dungeons & Dragons has always been a complex game with arcane rules for combat that could be intimidating to new gamers and veteran gamers alike.

I've been a fan of every edition of Dungeons & Dragons that I've had the pleasure of playing. Yes, I even LOVE 4th Edition D&D. I think it has a nice balance of tension at the heart D&D system, whether to focus on role playing or on tactical combat. Each edition of the game has tried to fall somewhere in the middle, allowing for players who favor each kind of play to have a good experience, but I think that 4th Edition hit an almost perfect balance between the two. I would also argue, and this might shock some people, that it was less a tactical combat game than most of the editions that preceded it. This is especially true of 3rd Edition, which is the most granular simulation of tactical skirmish combat ever designed. 

There are so many sub-systems in 3rd Edition that you can essentially solo-play "SIMTavern" by using the skill rolls and random encounters without the need of a DM. I'm not writing that as a critical statement. It's a remarkable achievement that appeals to a sizable group of gamers that includes me as a card carrying member. I've spent many an hour using GURPS and Hero System to do exactly this type of gaming, and prior to 3rd Edition I never thought D&D was a good "SIMCity" rpg.

But this post isn't about the underlying skill system and how well it can be used to simulate day to day activities in a Bayesian's Daydream of game play. This post is the first in a series of posts about D&D combat and how complex it has always been. This series will cover Original Dungeons & Dragons, using both the Chainmail and Alternative Combat System variants, Basic D&D (Holmes, Molday/Cook, and Mentzer), AD&D 1st Edition, and AD&D 2nd Edition.

Today's post is just an overview regarding the motivation for the series of posts, which is a desire to argue that there never has been a truly simple era of D&D combat. As Cam stated above, each edition has its problems and gamers have adapted to those problems. Smart people have been confused by D&D from the beginning. If you read the first few issues of the famous Alarums and Excursions fanzine (you can order them from the source here), you'll see that some early gamers misinterpreted the spell system and Lee Gold initially thought that saving throws were based on rolling 2d10 and adding them together.

Lee Gold Discussing Saving Throw Probabilities Based on Assumption of 2d10 Added Together

While modern gamers may wonder how a game designer like Lee Gold could have this assumption, one need only look at the older twenty sided dice to see that they were numbered 0-9 twice. Thus it seems natural to infer that the alternative combat system and saving throw system were based on a roll of two of these dice added together. Later editions discussed this more expressly and included recommendations for how to convert these dice to "true" twenty-sided dice.

Modern gamers have the advantage of beginning play upon a foundation of norms established over decades. Early gamers didn't. This made early D&D even more confusing than today's game. Though I will argue in the next post that using the Chainmail system for D&D combat is even more confusing than today's game, even for a gamer with strong foundations in both role playing and modern miniatures games. Had I not played Warhammer I would have been in the dark on how to play Chainmail, even having read the rules several times. Though after examining those rules, rules it seems no one actually used for D&D, I think they would work quite well and eagerly want to try my hand at them.

Tomorrow, I'll delve into D&D Chainmail. For now, I'd like to know if any of you have tried it.