Showing posts with label Tom Moldvay. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tom Moldvay. Show all posts

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Tom Moldvay Basic: Why It's Great and Where to Find it. #RPGaDay 2017

It's time to catch up on my #RPGaDay writing again. This time the questions seemed initially unrelated, but once I found my answer to the first question it became clear that they should be combined into one post. The role playing game that I believe features the best writing in long out of print and therefore someone interested in finding it might need advice on a good source for out-of-print RPGs.

Day 19 -- Which RPG Features the Best Writing?

I can imagine a lot of bloggers answering this question by waxing poetic on how this or that meta-narrative game has the best writing. I can almost see them typing away to praise Vampire the Masquerade for its evocative text, or Pendragon for its ability to capture the tone of courtly love. Both these statements are true, but neither of these games captures the best writing I've read in a role playing game. That honor falls squarely on Tom Moldvay's Basic Dungeons and Dragons.

Never before, and never since, has there been a role playing game rule book as well written as this edition of D&D. It was the first edition of the rules that the average person could pick up, read in an hour or two, and play the game. Holmes' first Basic set was a huge step in this direction, and was the first edition of D&D that was actually written with playable rules that didn't require too much interpretation, but it didn't quite capture it. Steve Perrin and Ray Turney's Runequest is very well written and clear, but isn't quite as approachable to the new gamer as Tom Moldvay's work.

Tom Moldvay did something quite challenging. He addressed not only how to play D&D mechanically, but how to play it socially as well. By including an "example of play" and answering questions as simple as how to read a four-sided die when you roll it, he made role playing more accessible than it had been up until that time. Later writers focused on getting more evocative in their world descriptions and providing interstitial prose that seemed straight out of a novel or short story, often very well written, but they forgot that they were writing a game too. Or at least they seemed to forget they were writing a game. Many "storytelling" and "less crunchy" games have rules far more sophisticated than D&D, and when they have even simpler rules - as is the case with Cortex+, FATE, or Apocalypse World - they often get too caught up in their jargon and end up obscuring what are wonderful gems.

Well written role playing game rule book doesn't require you to "see it played to learn it." A well written role playing game is playable out of the box, and Moldvay's is a perfect example of how do to it.

Day 20 -- What is the best source for out-of-print RPGs?

No long answer here. The best places to find out-of-print RPGs Noble Knight Games, Board Game Geek, and eBay. That's it. The important thing isn't the "source," it's your level of patience. You have to be willing to pass by offers that are too expensive on eBay or Noble Knight and wait for the right offering. You also need to decide whether you are collecting to collect as artifacts, or whether you are collecting to play. I collect to play, so I don't buy the most expensive copies. I am not collecting to resell as an investment. I want to play and to have future generations play. To that end, I peruse these sites for deals.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lankhmar the Dungeon Crawl Classics Way

Goodman Games announced at Gary Con that they have been granted a license to produce Lankhmar themed Dungeon Crawl Classics products. The Dungeon Crawl Classics role playing game is the first role playing game since the original D&D rules that has been expressly designed to capture the tone and feel of the fiction Gary Gygax highlighted in his famous Appendix N.

Most early post-D&D role playing games fell into three camps. They were either designed to be easier to play versions of D&D that shared some of the inspirations (Tunnels & Trolls falls into this category), designed to emulate more realistic combat and character creation with a consistent world mythology that varied from D&D (Runequest and The Fantasy Trip fall into this category), or D&D micro-improvement clones (Arduin and Warlock) fall into this category. None of these games quite fit into the category of "Fantasy Heartbreaker" coined by Ron Edwards, for reasons that become clear when one reads the full Edwards piece.

Many of these games, The Fantasy Trip I'm looking at you, were designed to present consistent mechanics that emulated some kind of physics. In moving this direction, these games actually moved away from Appendix N influence and became something else. D&D was a hodgepodge of influences, all narrative. Runequest too had a hodgepodge of influences, but one of them was SCA combat experience. Basing combat on real world experience is a solid design goal, but it isn't a design goal driven by an attempt to emulate the fantasy in Appendix N. It's hard to imagine someone attempting Fafhrd's escape from the Ice Witches by strapping fireworks to his skis using the Runequest or The Fantasy Trip rules. They weren't free form enough.

To be fair, it's hard to imagine that happening in AD&D either. I can see it happening in Moldvay/Cook Basic, but interestingly enough that game actually falls into that first category of post-D&D design. All of this brings us back to Dungeon Crawl Classics. It is very easy to imagine this game inspiring such a scene, and Doug Kovac's strong focus on what Jeff Vandermeer calls "The Weird" only adds to the seeming natural connection between DCC and Lankhmar. There is only one other game that I think can capture the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser well, and that's Savage Worlds. A game that I believe also has a license to make Lankhmar based products. The Savage Worlds game will likely, in my completely uninformed opinion, focus more on the street level heroics of Nehwon and so there will be little cannibalism between the two games. In fact, I think there might be some great synergy between publishers.

Goodman Games is running a contest which will allow people to playtest their upcoming adventure at Gen Con.

As an aside, I think that the DCC cover is a nice homage to the old Fantastic cover that featured Ningauble, Fafhrd's weird and enigmatic patron.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

D&D Next: Non-D&D Games that "Are D&D to Me" #1 -- DRAGON AGE

Anyone who has gamed with me for any length of time, or who has read this blog for the past few years, knows that I am a big fan of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. In particular, I have a soft spot for the old 1981 Tom Moldvay edited Basic Set.  The rules set may be unforgiving to beginning characters and need a few tweaks, but the rules set is inspirational and clear.  It is so clearly written that making rules tweaks to change the things one may or may not like about the game seems sheer simplicity -- even to the novice gamer.

When I read the recent D&D Next discussions regarding how the game should feel thematically and mechanically, my thoughts always wander to Moldvay's introduction in the Basic Set:

I was busy rescuing the captured maiden when the dragon showed up.  Fifty feet of scaled terror glared down at us with smoldering red eyes.  Tendrils of smoke drifted out from between fangs larger than daggers.  The dragon blocked the only exit from the cave...
This is followed by a description of Moldvay's intentions in revising the D&D rules and simplifying them for inexperienced players before it returns to the action and once more inspires the reader to imagine just how exciting game play will be.  Setting aside the staid and cliche scenario Moldvay describes, the words are evocative and set a tone for potential players.  It is that tone which describes "What is D&D" to me.  Games and scenarios that inspire that kind of imagination while maintaining the simplicity and ease of play that Moldvay describes as his goals in the introduction.  An ideal "D&D" game is a game that is quick to learn, easy to play, and includes collaborative storytelling.  When things get too complex, they become "Rolemaster" or "GURPS" to me.  GURPS is a great game, but the complexity of its presentation can be overwhelming.  And let's not even begin to discuss games that use the famous Avalon Hill/SPI "case system" to present their game rules.  Let's just say that as much as Squad Leader innovated wargaming by adding a role playing elements, you don't want your roleplaying game to graphically look like an Advanced Squad Leader rule book if you want it to appeal to new gamers.

Interestingly enough, this means that not every game that is "D&D" to me is D&D, and not every version of D&D is "D&D" to me.  Some non-D&D games are fantastic, but they just don't capture the freeform, house ruleable, quick and dirty feeling I like in a "D&D" game.  For example, Moldvay is D&D to me, but Pathfinder isn't.  AD&D is D&D to me...unless you actually used Weapon Speed Factors, Weapon Versus Armor Adjustments, multiple attacks for people who have shorter weapons and are within melee range (check the DMG and get out those Daggers).  Using solely the 3.0 rulebooks, 3rd edition is D&D but the moment you add one splatbook it begins to wander away.  4e?  The AEDU core rulebooks are not at all D&D to me, but the Essentials line is.  I named all of these games because I think they all are wonderful, and all of them use some version of rules that have been copywritten under the name Dungeons & Dragons.

From the non-D&D realm, there are a number of games that just feel like the game that Moldvay inspires in his description.  The first in my mental list, and the subject of this post, is Green Ronin's brilliant table top roleplaying game Dragon Age.  The core AGE system designed by Chris Pramas -- with help from T.S. Luikart, Jesse Scoble, Owen K.C. Stephens, Steve Kenson, and Jeff Tidball -- is a marvel of simple complexity.  You can download a free version of the Quickstart rules for the game by right clicking  here.

Like the Moldvay Basic set, one can play Dragon Age battles as tactical miniatures struggles or throw out maps entirely and use common sense to determine outcomes.  The game includes random chance in the creation of characters, characters that mechanically fall into strict archetypes, and has clear and concise rules presentation.  That last part is central.  Most rpgs today take pages upon pages to describe the game mechanics, and technical writing is dull to the neophyte.  This is true even when the technical writing is well articulated.  Unless the technical writing is concise, it runs the risk of wandering into dull-land.  Additionally, I believe that the more "core" rules a game has, the less easy it is to tweak to your desires.  If I'm presented with a strong core mechanic and given free reign to create, I will.  If I'm given case study after case study within the rules as more and more specific possibilities are quantified, I'm less likely to be inspired to create my own rules.  Either because a rule already exists, or because it is more difficult to figure out how a new rule will patch in with all the existing ones.

If you made this poster please let me know so I can credit and link you.

What Dragon Age does magnificently, and that I hope the folks at Wizards of the Coast will remember, is give a simple core of rules and expand outward from them.  The underlying system is easy to explain...roll three dice add them to a modifier to see if that exceeds a target number.  That's it.  This simple system gets expanded.  One of those dice -- the Dragon die -- is used to determine how well you succeed if you succeed.  If you roll doubles on any two of the dice (about a 50% chance), then that Dragon die also signifies a number of points you can spend on "stunts" on an action you succeeded on.

In Dragon Age, you don't describe an awesome attack attempt -- like trying to hit someone in the head to knock them prone -- only to roll poorly and fail at the event you just described.  Instead, you roll for success knowing how many points you have to make the success more awesome.  The game reverses some of how gamers have been playing the game for 30 years, where they imagine the action before outcome then get outcome and reassess success.  Instead, you roll to find out how many resource points of awesome you have to spend.  It's like a Reiner Knizia Eurogame adaptation of RPG mechanics.  First roll to see how many resources you have, and if you can use them -- then go to town spending those resources.

It's elegant and fun and I have essentially described the entire game.  Yes, there are subtle mechanics and flavor mechanics and effects throughout the game, but the core is simple and strong.  It is also evocative.  It somehow manages to overcome the roll to see if you can see the troll "roll playing" that can happen in many games with skill lists.  It manages to make combat cinematic.  And it does this by using a less complex mechanic rather than adding more and more complex mechanics like "marking" and "surges" or "berserker points."     

If D&D Next follows in the footsteps of Dragon Age and presents a clear system that is elegant  and abstract, and which can support additional "plug-ins," then they will have created a game that I consider to be D&D.  I imagine it will be a game that a lot of people consider D&D.  Dragon Age feels like D&D and it doesn't ever use a d20.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

AD&D's Appendix N? What About the Moldvay Appendix?

now become a widely used shorthand for the literary origins of RPGs."  James' site often includes discussions of the appendix, its influence on the early days of the hobby, and from time to time he even reviews books and authors featured in the Appendix. 

Given that he has taken the time to review the Carnelian Cube, a book that fellow Appendix N advocate Erik Mona has found "wanting," it is my hope that James will someday review the Kothar series by Gardner Fox.  Though if that doesn't happen I might just find the time to do so.  Having endured a couple of Lin Carter's Thongor books, I figure they cannot be much worse.  That said, Carter at least has the virtue of being one of the best editors in SF/F history even though his Thongor stories fall very short of the best of Sword and Sorcery fiction.

If I were to say that the influence of Appendix N extended beyond the gaming table and that many of the works therein are also seminal works of Science Fiction and Fantasy, I don't think there would be many who disagree.  The Appendix includes luminaries like Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Manly Wade Wellman, and Robert E. Howard -- and many others beside.  But the list is also incomplete.  There is no listing for Clark Ashton Smith, for example. 

But this is not the only list of recommended reading that the Dungeons & Dragons games have provided their readers.  No indeed.  The Erik Mona edited Pathfinder roleplaying game, or as I call it D&D Golarion, has it's own Appendix 3 which features a list of recommended reading.  It is a longer list than Gygax's, and a good one.

My own favorite "Appendix N" is a combination of the "inspirational source material" provided by Tom Moldvay on page B62 of the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic and in the module X2 Castle Amber.  While others may have based their youthful Fantasy purchases on Appendix N, I based mine almost entirely on the Moldvay list.  It should be noted that Tom Moldvay was assisted in the creation of his list by Barbara Davis who was  Children's Librarian at the Lake Geneva Public Library.  Davis eventually became the Library Director from 1984 to 1996.  I don't know where she is now, but I'd like to thank her for the many hours of joy the list she worked on has provided many young people.

Maliszewski has already written a brief comment about how the Moldvay list differs from the Gygax one, and argues that it represents a shift from material that influenced the design of the game to a list that might provide inspiration or entertainment for those who play the game.  To quote James, "Whereas Gygax's list was a list of the specific books and authors who influenced him in creating the game -- and are thus a window into how he saw the game -- Moldvay's list is a generalized quasi-academic survey of fiction and non-fiction that might hold some interest to players of D&D."

His language is strong, and as much as he demurs from the quote being used as a "this list is better than the other list" statement, it seems clear to me that the use of the term "quasi-academic" is somewhat loaded.

Let's just say that James and I hold similar, but not exact positions on the lists.  I agree that the Gygax list is a specific list that influenced him in creating the game.  I think the list was also one which he thought would appeal to people who were currently playing D&D.  That is to say, adults.  When AD&D was first published, the game was just beginning to escape from college campuses and niche SF/F reading circles and into the mainstream.  The Moldvay list, on the other hand, is written for a generation of emerging players.  It is written for the young. 

Both lists include some overlap -- Fritz Leiber, Robert Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and J.R.R. Tolkien.   But Moldvay's list is divided into many sections. 

There is Fiction: Young Adult, which includes Lloyd Alexander, L Frank Baum, and Ursula Le Guin. 

There is Non-Fiction: Young Adult, which includes Olivia Coolidge's Legends of the North.

There is Fiction: Adult Fantasy with Poul Anderson, Leigh Brackett, Avram Davidson, E.R. Eddison, Heinlein, Jack Vance, Karl Edward Wagner, and a host of others.

Adult Non-Fiction includes Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beasts and Thomas Bullfinch.

In most ways, the Moldvay list is inclusive of Appendix N.  There are only four authors Moldvay's list leaves out that are in the Gygax list.  These are Frederic Brown, August DerlethMargaret St. Clair, and Stanley Weinbaum

If you want a wonderful overview of the Sword and Sorcery field, I would argue that you should start with the Moldvay list and add the four authors that Moldvay excluded.  If your primary mission is to see the books that influenced Gygax, stick to Appendix N.

Both are good lists, but I still prefer the Moldvay.  That attachment probably stems from an overall affection for the Moldvay Basic Set, but...

Friday, December 09, 2011

Is a "True" Dungeon Master a "Fire in Which Players are Consumed?"

Wednesday's Penny Arcade comic completed their "Conflux" storyline in which Tycho convinces Gabe to run a Pathfinder game for a group of 4th Edition D&D players. A theme of the storyline has presented a "Pathfinder is hardcore like older editions of D&D" narrative, one that ends with Gabe now knowing the horrors of edition wars and why they happen. We as players have preferences. We like what we are used to, and changes are sometimes hard to adapt to.

I have always found it interesting that most players I know are willing -- if not even tremendously eager -- to try new game systems, but will react in horror when their favorite role playing game is released in a new edition. With the exception of Call of Cthulhu, it seems that if a game has a new edition it has a schism within its player base. It has happened several times for D&D. It happened with Traveller, Hero System, Vampire/World of Darkness...and on and on.

In the case of D&D, some of those who disparage the newest edition of the game often wax nostalgic for an era in which the players and the DM were almost akin to foes. For these players, the past was an era where players died cruelly at the whims of a harsh Dungeon Master. It was the challenge of succeeding in spite of such DMs, or failing spectacularly because of them, that was what made the Old School Games so great. You can find such nostalgic tales throughout the OSR sphere. You can also find tales of how great it was when the game assumed that the players would backstab each other and betray each other at any given moment. It is this point of view that is expressed by Tycho in the Conflux storyline. To quote Tycho in the storyline's finale, "A True Dungeon Master is a Fire in Which Players are Consumed!"

This was certainly the attitude the first person who I ever had as a DM had. He didn't hesitate to transform my Wizard into an Axe-beak -- a bizarre combination of Ostrich and mythic beast. I felt humiliated. The character wasn't my own, my friend Sean had rolled the character up. He had named the character Gandalf, I had high hopes for the young mage. In all honesty, after this first gaming experience -- which I have blogged about before -- it is really a miracle that I play these games to this day.

But that adversarial DM was just playing the game the way it was intended to be played, right? Old School D&D is cutthroat and the DM is your enemy, right?

What do the old rule books actually say is the role of the DM?
One almost finds a quote supporting this position on page 9 of the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. On that page, when discussing how to use "wandering monsters," Gary Gygax uses the phrase "if a party deserves to have these beasties inflicted upon them..." which seems to imply a cruel whimsy underlying the job of DM. But taking that phrase out of context leaves out his advocacy of making the game fun. To quote, "if your work as a DM has been sufficient, the players will have all they can handle upon arrival, so let them get there, give them a chance. The game is the thing, and certain rules can be distorted or disregarded altogether in favor of play."
It seems here that Gary Gygax is arguing that the DM's job is to make the game fun for the players...including by bending the rules in their favor. To quote page 110:
Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. In the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time. Yet you do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke an reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for-player character when they have played well.

Here Gygax argues to not let dice get in the way of a player's enjoyment. Though I find the use of player and character to be clumsy in the above paragraph. It is no wonder some people thought that D&D was about "real" magic, when you write that "a player will die through no fault of his own." Player?! Holy!
Okay, so the AD&D DMG has some comments on making sure the focus is on fun and not competition between the DM and players, but what about the other old school books?

The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures (Original D&D)
(p.6) The fear of "death," its risk each time is one of the most stimulating parts of the game.  It therefore behooves the campaign referee to include as many mystifying and dangerous areas as is consistant (sic) with a reasonable chance for survival ...For example, there is no question that a player's character could easily be killed by falling into a pit thirty feet deep or into a shallow pit filled with poisoned spikes, and this is quite undersirable in most instances.
Even in the advice scarce Original D&D rulebook, Gygax goes out of his way to point out how traps with guaranteed lethality are "undesirable" in most instances.

Holmes Basic
(p.22) In setting up his dungeon, the Dungeon Master should be guided that the adventurers have a reasonable chance of survival. (p.40) Traps should not be of the "Zap! You're dead!" variety...
It appears as if Dr. Holmes agrees with Gary that the adventures should be challenging, but not adversarial through his use of language.

Moldvay Basic
(p.B60) It is important that the DM be fair, judging everything without favoring one side or another.  The DM is there to see that the adventure is interesting and that everyone enjoys the game.  D&D is not a contest between the DM and the players! The DM should do his or her best to act impartially when taking the part of monsters or handling disputes between characters.
 Unlike earlier quotes, the bold and italicized emphasis in the Moldvay quote are straight from the book.  It's as if he is reacting to what he saw as a trend in the DM-ing styles he was seeing in the day. 

I don't believe that the rules of D&D ever advocated an adversarial relationship between DM and players.  I think they always viewed the DM as the arbiter of the rules and the facilitator of fun.  In my opinion, it was individual egos, and the natural desire to win sometimes, that created the killer DMs who believe as Tycho shouts.

My own credo is that a great DM has to be a great loser.  Yes, there are times when the monsters will win, but the DM is required to make it exciting for the players when the monsters are losing as well as when the monsters are winning.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

[Heroes of Karameikos] Part 1 -- Character Generation

I have just finished writing my "working" text for my attempt to create a game that has a "4th Edition Feel Using 1st Edition Rules." So far, I have laid out the initial steps of character creation, which only have a couple of distinct differences from standard Moldvay Basic.

First, characters pick their class before rolling statistics. A player then rolls 4d6, taking the best 3, for their prime requisite and rolls 3d6 in order for the remainder of their statistics. For those classes that have more than 1 prime requisite, they only roll 4d6 for one of the player's choice.

Second, I included my "death" rules. A character that is reduced to 0 hit points is only dead if they are at 0 hit points at the end of an encounter and fail a saving throw versus death. Otherwise they are merely unconscious.

Third, the Dexterity modifier adds/subtracts from damage as well as to hit rolls. This reflects 4e's philosophy of specialization. A philosophy I am trying to move over to my HoK rules.

You can read the full working rules here.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Eye of Traldar and House Rules

Some of my players and I played some of The Eye of Traldar this past weekend and it got me thinking.

The Eye of Traldar is one of the rarer modules for "Basic" Dungeons & Dragons. It was written as a part of their "Challenger" series of introductory modules that expanded the Troy Denning boxed set. The story behind the module is relatively straightforward. The Iron Ring, a nefarious band of slavers under the leadership of Baron Ludwig von Hendriks, has acquired a potent magic item called the Eye of Traldar and brought it into their stronghold of Fort Doom. The Baron and his chief magical advisor are currently patrolling the borders of the Barony and evaluating the military strengths of their neighbors. Should the Baron and his advisor return to the Fort and discover how to unleash the power of the Eye, the Baron will be able to increase his domain and subjugate entire populations to his will with the mind coercing powers of the Eye.

It is up to our stalwart band of adventurers to infiltrate Fort Doom, through its "underdungeons," and retrieve the Eye before that can happen. It sounds like exciting -- if standard -- stuff, and it is...after the first act full on narrative railroading has passed.

Carl Sargent has presented a perfectly entertaining scenario, but it suffers from two key flaws. The first flaw is in the presentation of the narrative. The second flaw is a common "flaw" in "Basic" Dungeons & Dragons itself, and is what gave rise to this post in the first place.

In an attempt to start the adventure in medias res, Sargent begins the module with the players encountering a man named Alexei who is fleeing the Iron Ring. Within seconds of Alexei's arrival in their camp, the Iron Ring arrives. The encounter clearly establishes who the good guys and the bad guys are, and quickly involves the PCs in the dangerous business of combat related "action" (more on this in flaw 2). After the encounter is complete though, the adventure provides no opportunity for the players to abandon the rest of the quest. They are forced from encounter to encounter, with no options to decline to aid Alexei. It is possible for a DM to "wing it" and have the necessary encounters happen as a result of them not helping Alexei, but even then the players will feel railroaded into a forced narrative. Essentially, the players must endure three ambuscades before they begin their quest proper -- whether they want to or not. Given the difficulty of the first encounter, I think many groups might decide that abandoning the life of adventure is the higher calling.

Which brings me to what I view is the adventure's second flaw -- and a flaw in "Basic" Dungeons & Dragons -- its shear lethality.

Let's take the first encounter as an example. The players meet a 2nd level Fighter named Alexei and must face his pursuers which include 3 1st Level Fighters, 2 1st Level Thieves, and a 1st Level Elf (a fighter/magic-user hybrid in "Basic").

Let's assume a typical party of a 1st Level Cleric, a 1st Level Magic User, a 1st Level Thief, and 2 1st Level Fighters -- this wasn't the make up of the group playing. My group had a Cleric, a Fighter, and a Magic User.

Let's also assume that the characters have 2 statistics valued at 14-15, which is actually pretty good in a roll 3d6 in order char gen system, associated with their class (I'll also show my player's actual characters) and average hit points rolled for their respective class. This will give us characters that look roughly like the following:

Average Party
Name Armor Class Hit Points THACO High Stats Weapon
Cleric 2 5 19 Wis/Con Warhammer 1d6
Magic User 9 4 19 Int/Con Dagger 1d4
Thief 6 4 19/18 Dex/Con Short Sword 1d6
Fighter 2 6 18 Str/Con Longsword 1d8+1
Fighter 2 6 18 Str/Con Longsword 1d8+1

Name Armor Class Hit Points THACO High Stats Weapon
Fighters 5 5 19 none Longsword 1d8
Elf 4 6 18 Str/Dex Longbow 1d6/Longsword 1d8
Thieves 6 4 19 none Short Sword 1d6

A quick look at these charts, as well as a basic understanding of D&D, reveals that the average "Opponent" Fighter has the following chances to hit the Average party.

Character Type Attacked Percent Hit Avg Damage Avg Hits to Kill
Fighters 20% 5 2
Mages 55% 5 1
Clerics 20% 5 1
Thieves 40% 5 1

As you can see, the average "non-Fighter" 1st Level character dies the first time that they are hit and Fighters are killed on the second hit. This is modified by the percentage chance to be hit. If we look at it as a Damage Per Round Equation (DPR = %toHit*AvgDam), we can determine the average number of rounds of combat a particular character will survive at First Level.

Character Type Attacked Percent Hit Avg Damage DPR DPR/HP
Fighters 20% 5 1 6
Mages 55% 5 2.75 1+
Clerics 20% 5 1 5
Thieves 40% 5 2 2

This demonstrates a couple of things. While your average Fighter can only take 2 hits before being killed, he is still likely to last 6 rounds due to his low likelihood of being hit. Clerics are also have a fair chance of staying around for a while in a fight. Magic Users and Thieves, on the other hand, drop like flies.

Which brings my to my group on Saturday. It consisted of a Cleric, a Fighter, and a Magic User. The module specifically states that the Elf aims at any non-armored individuals with his Longbow. In this particular case, he had a 60% chance of hitting the Mage and his average damage was enough to kill the Mage outright -- and that's what happened.

For some, the fragility of low level characters isn't a problem. For them, the lethality of "Basic" D&D is one of its charms. I am not one of these people. I love the simplicity of the "Basic" system, but I also like to have my characters feel heroic. For me role playing games are about telling a story and having fun. Having your character killed in the first round of combat might be fun for some people, but it wasn't fun for my player. I had rolled the damage in "public view" and couldn't fudge the damage done, so this led me to institute one of my old house rules -- a house rule that I believe vital to "Basic."

DAMAGE HOUSE RULE #1 (0 HP Is Incapacitated Not Dead -- Unless a Coup de Grace is Delivered)

One of the things that led me to instituting this house rule was that some of the most "lethal" role playing games, Warhammer Fantasy and Dragon Warriors come quickly to mind, have systems that do not allow for low level characters to be "one hit killed." Instead they have "Fate Points" which can be spent to avoid death, or starting hit point totals that are greater than a single blow can deal in damage.

I don't mind players being incapacitated, so both of these are out. What I have ruled is that when I am running a "Basic" game, no character dies until the end of an encounter. If you are at zero or fewer hit points at the end of a combat, then you are dead. If you are healed before the last opponent is defeated/flees, then you can participate until you are incapacitated again. Given that the only way to heal a character in "Basic" is with magic items or spells, this isn't too "forgiving" of a rule, but it did allow our party to treat the mage's wound with a potion of healing and kept the player involved.

HOUSE RULE #2 (The 1st Rolled Hit that Does Damage Against PCs Doesn't Count Rule)

This isn't a rule that I used last night, but it is one that I am considering using. Given the fragility of "Basic" characters, it might be nice to give them a chance to automatically take zero damage from the first attack that hits them. Each player essentially has one "ablative" hit that cancels the first time they are struck in combat. This way players can feel heroic, after all they survived the first hit against them this combat, without being too powerful. This has the added effect of having diminishing value as the characters go higher in level. Higher level creatures tend to have more attacks and PCs have higher hit points so giving an additional hit doesn't alter the fear of death too much.

Since Fighters, Clerics, and similar Classes are so hard to hit in the first place, I might limit this to just Magic Users. It could be a class feature called "protective ward" or some such. Since Magic Users have such a low survivability rate at low levels, this seems a natural addition.

Mind you, if your group doesn't have a problem with one hit kills and finds that challenge rewarding than these rules aren't for you. I will be using them with my group though.

Friday, September 03, 2010

New D&D Red Box Thoughts (Part 1)

As I mentioned in the last post, I have acquired a copy of the new Introductory Boxed Set for the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The packaging of this new boxed set is based on the 1980s "Mentzer" Red Box Basic D&D Set that TSR published in 1983 -- it even uses the same cover art. Wizards of the Coast has two hopes for the product.

First, the are hoping that the product serves as a key introductory product for a new generation of gamers and that this Red Box will be as important to these new gamers 17 years from now as the old Red Box is for many current gamers.

Second, they hope that the nostalgia some "hold out" gamer feel regarding the old Red Box will convince them to give the new edition of D&D a try and that the boxed set itself is of sufficient quality to win these hearts and minds.

It should be noted that the similarities between the two boxed sets is more than cosmetic. While both feature the same inspiring Larry Elmore artwork on the cover, both products are also structured in similar ways with regard to how they present the mechanics of the D&D roleplaying game.

Both the new Wyatt edition and the Mentzer edition use a "Choose Your Own Adventure" solo narrative as a method to introduce players to the concept of roleplaying and to the games mechanical systems. It was an innovation when Mentzer utilized it in the 80s, and Wyatt's design team have improved on the method -- if not on the underlying story. There were fewer "design" decisions for players in the Mentzer edition, but the story was more engaging in the older edition. Not to say that the new introductory narrative is bad, but it is "loose" and lacks a significant emotional punch. One doubts that players will be talking about Traevus the merchant in the same tones that older gamers mention Aleena the Cleric and Bargle the mage.

But players of the Mentzer boxed set can't refer to the time they chose between casting a Freezing Burst at goblin raiders or whether they decided to cast Stone Blood which partially solidifies the blood of ones enemies. Both games have their good moments in presentation, and both are effective in presenting the mechanics and a style of play.

Reading the new Red Box, as a 4e player who has been listening to the hushed rumors that this is a launch product for a 4.5 edition and that a 5th edition is only 2 years away, there were a couple of rules changes that jumped right out at me. These changes are purely from the Player's Book, the DM's book has some changes as well but those will be discussed in part 2.

First, in Paragraph 8 (a Fighter paragraph) the text mentions that the Fighter's weapon damage is equal to the weapon die plus both the character's Strength and Constitution bonus. Huh?! Is this a new ability for all Fighters, is this a change to Charge, or is this an error?

Second, I noticed that Humans now have an Encounter Power like all of the other races. The power is called "Human Versatility." While it isn't overpowered, it is a complete change to the human in the Player's Handbook. It isn't enough of a change to warrant 4.5 cries, especially given that it will be added to the "rules update" that is available for free online, but it is striking none the less.

Third, the new build of fighter is interesting and demonstrates one of the changes that Wizards is promoting in the Essentials line. The new Fighter build relies more on his Melee Basic Attack than PHB Fighters, his "at-will Powers" are stances that modify his Basic Attack rather than attacks in and of themselves. I have to say that this is a thematic change that I like. This seems to fit in with the fiction that D&D emulates. Fighters do use "maneuvers" from time to time, but they are more frequently using tactics or styles and the new Powers reflect that thematic element nicely. They also make Fighters easier for new players to play than in the PHB where all classes required equal book keeping.

I'll discuss more as I read through more of the class choices, but I can say that I am impressed with the presentation style of the product. Though it should be pointed out that this is very much an introductory product and that many experienced gamers -- who don't like reading through introductory style presentations -- will not find this product compelling.

Though I am an experienced gamer, I am enjoying this presentation and find it to be far superior to the "Starter Set" Wizards released in 2008. It compares well to the first Red Box so far, though it doesn't quite match the Denning Black Box in my esteem. Though, to be fair, that would be quite a feat.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Indie Game Designer James Maliszewski Interviews Role Playing Founding Father Ken St. Andre

The Role Playing Game hobby is approaching its 40th anniversary. Like any phenomenon that has been around for any good length of time, the hobby is beginning to see the passing of its founders. Over the past couple of years, several of the founding fathers of role playing have passed away: Gary Gygax, David Arneson, and Tom Moldvay to name just a few.

It is odd that Cinerati did a blog post for both Gygax and Arneson, but not for Moldvay. It is true that Gygax and Arneson invented Dungeons and Dragons, and thus the RPG hobby, but it was Tom Moldvay who made the game fun to play and was among the first designers to show me that D&D could be about more than "kick down door, kill monster, loot stuff, repeat." His design work on Isle of Dread too the adventure out of the dungeon and into the world, it also added more "story" to the experience. Then came Castle Amber, maybe the single most important module in D&D history. Without this module, there would have been no Ravenloft and Mystara would be a much less interesting world. Moldvay used the works of Clark Ashton Smith as an inspiration for the module and demonstrated completely how a module could be used to tell stories. Player's of the module are even treated to a nice "Fall of the House of Usher" moment. Moldvay's career in gaming was an important one, to the hobby in general and to me in particular.

It was an oversight that I didn't blog a nice obit for Moldvay, it is unforgivable that I never wrote any posts praising his work -- a situation that will be corrected soon enough. We too often forget to write about those who work in the gaming industry while they still live -- I have yet to find a recent update or post on the internet regarding J. Eric Holmes who wrote the first Basic Dungeons & Dragons book. In today's information age, it is baffling that we don't keep better track of gaming's founding fathers.

This is what makes James Maliszewski's recent interview with Ken St. Andre for Escapist Magazine such a treat. Where Gygax and Arneson are the founding fathers of the tabletop roleplaying hobby, Ken St. Andre is arguably the founding father of the roleplaying game industry (a title he likely shares with Rick Loomis). His Tunnels and Trolls was the second roleplaying game published and its publication turned rpg gaming from a monopoly into an industry -- that's quite an achievement. St. Andre's Tunnels and Trolls has, like D&D, gone through a number of editions. While it has never achieved the popularity of the flagship of rpg gaming, T&T still has an active and loyal group of followers -- many of whom meet up at Ken's Trollhalla website to chat about gaming, play online games, and generally geek out.

Ken St. Andre is still very much with us, though he did just finish a series of treatments for prostate cancer, and will likely be around for years to come. This is great for the members of Trollhalla, like me, but it is articles like Maliszewski's that expose more gamers to the thoughts of Ken St. Andre. I don't agree with all of Ken's design philosophies, but he is certainly one of the game designers whose contributions I return to again and again.