Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Misplaced Efforts

Questioned about failures. That’s a bit more difficult that writing about what has worked, since I’ve long ago trashed the tables and most of the material. A lot of what I do have that was never tried (because I couldn’t complete it) is scratched out on paper, which at present is stacked in boxes I probably never need to open.

In those days when the computer I designed my world on was a Commodore 64 (the glorious 80s), my study was stacked to the gills with paper – maps, ideas, tables, notes, descriptions ... in those days I did design complicated dungeons which never really got used, and town maps and encounter tables. Always, encounter tables. At least a third of every failed attempt I could point my finger at would be some kind of attempted encounter table.

But let’s see what I can remember.


I did start with the old school combat system, back when I first began in 1979. My first real world was spring of 1980, and by then I and everyone I played with had graduated to AD&D (as I remember, no one argued to remain with OD&D), so I ran its combat system traditionally for years. We played without battle maps, though sometimes I used paper with X’s and O’s (like a football diagram) for reference.

By 1984 everyone was changing their combat system over to hit determination, as Rolemaster was having a tremendous influence (I’m remembering all the conventions were pushing that system), and for months I tried it. Then I tried one of my own. It slowed the game down brutally, no one liked it, so I dumped it.

Later we tried a system where the fastest weapon won initiative, and everyone invested in scimitars; maces and morning stars disappeared. Clerics would use a club before a mace. We had long since gotten rid of the hit determination bonuses against armour, but for some months we tried using the modifiers for damage instead of ‘to hit.’ That went by the wayside too.

Then I read about the combat system I use now, and we played around with it for a couple of months, trying different things. The first time they killed a giant lizard without the lizard getting a chance to hit they fell in love with the system. Of course, that can go the other way, too ... but people seem to accept that.


For a long, long time, maybe four years, I used a system that gave one X.P. for every 2 s.p. treasure, when I determined that gold was really too rare to use as a base for experience. Those were the first days of my long time search for an economic system that worked. My poor players, between ’89 and ’95, went through about twelve different manifestations of trade tables, equipment tables, monetary changes and so on ... each one requiring exchanges on their existing coinage and new price lists. They toughed it out, which was much appreciated by me because most things that I tried were dismal failures.

I tried a supply and demand system, which invariably made some things so expensive as to be ridiculous, and other things so cheap as to be ... ridiculous. I twisted numbers in combinations which, frankly, I can’t remember now, trying to solve the problem of too much or too little. I would debase coinage and it would become plentiful in this incarnation; then I would inflate coinage and it would become rare. I tried systems that would be based primarily on bartering. The nearer the system got to being reasonable, the less flexible it would be ... to the point that a working system might just as well be the static prices in the book, where everything cost the same amount of money everywhere. That always bothered me about the original game, and the whole point of this system was to create rarity and abundance ... neither of which I could do without making a mess of the pricing system.

I know there are a few people out there who have tried to follow my footsteps, reading my blog posts about economics, and have found themselves in the same dead ends I wound up in.

Sadly, for that first campaign, I never did solve the problem. I remember I would, when I found myself with time to think – travel, waiting during rehearsals (lot of that in the theatre and in films), at some dull job – I would do nothing but mentally piece together the system and think of a solution. I finally did, in 2001, and it is the system I use now. What’s funny is that it took another year after my mental breakthrough to prove that the logic worked. Sometimes I think I’ve been wasted on D&D. Heh.

Of course, I’ve still never created a working treasure table.

Mass Combat

Yeah, this has been a total disaster. I wrote about this in my blog post prior to the huge mass combat my offline party was facing (which is still ongoing, and which the party is adamant about continuing ... they apparently love the tactical aspects). I didn’t give any particulars, however.

It is easy enough to add together the total hit points of, say, twenty heavy footmen, then divide by whatever number you want to give a ‘unit hp total’ ... and it is easy enough to give some sort of damage capability to the unit. Following that, the defensive quality of the unit can be modified according to the unit’s formation (and its offensive power also), and morale can be ascribed. Time can then be stretched to accommodate the distances units must travel to combat. Anyone can sit down in an hour or so and calculate how this might work.

Where it falls down is the incorporation of levelled characters. If we inject a 10th level Lord into a group of 20 zero levels, it has to be recognized that a D&D fighter of that calibre should be able to take out, personally, another unit of 20 individuals who are without leaders. The vulnerability of a high level fighter against 20 zero levels is that they could normally dog-pile him – but if that fighter has shield men, he’s safe from being dog piled and he can devastate at will.

But how do you calculate out his ability to do damage, or to be damaged, when his AC, his hit points and his combat frequency are all so much more than his peers. And how does this affect an enemy mass unit when it has, say, four third level fighters, none of which can be hit ten times a round like a zero level. And under what circumstances does the Lord, within his entourage, die? Is he automatically the last to go? How does that work when the enemy is supported by a seventh level mage, who will absolutely target the lord, and who uses spells (such as hold person) that will necessarily have no general effect on the entourage?

At some point, you have to start throwing out rules from the game that don’t correspond to the needs of mass combat. And this is not preferential to player characters, who are not happy when you tell them the unit they are with was just wiped out by an artillery unit. But then, most times you might make a rule that says the player can’t be killed as part of a general assault – making them uniquely special, since you are probably willing to let the enemy seventh level mage die in a general assault.

However you slice it, players must get preferential treatment; if you give them preferential treatment, it destroys the tension and terror of a mass combat. People die horribly and indecently in war ... but the game is not friendly towards that practice. Players feel cheated when they lose. And from my experience, they feel fairly bored when they win, since they personally are not responsible for the win.

I’ve never seen a mass combat system that takes into account this personal factor. I’ve not been able to invent one. At present, no one in my party wants me to.


I have attempted to divide up the ‘wilderness depth’ of my world, so that the farther a party travels from a civilized center, the more deadly are the monsters. Considering a hex containing a town to be have a depth of 1, each hex moving outwards would increase that depth by 1. As well, a change in elevation of 400 ft would also increase the wilderness depth by 1. Thus, if a town at 1500 ft above sea level was rated at 1, the adjacent hex at 4700 feet would have a depth of 9 (1 for the distance to the next hex, and 8 for the 3200 ft difference). Climbing into this adjacent hex would thus be as dangerous as travelling 180 miles from the nearest town in a flat wilderness.

This makes sense, but I’ve never been able to satisfactorily create a set of tables that would appropriately distribute weak monsters into low depth areas and powerful monsters into high depth areas. That’s because once you subdivide the monsters from the books into the climatic and environmental conditions (sub-arctic, temperate, tropical, desert, plain, jungle), and then subdivide them into their wilderness depth categories, you get like three possible monsters in many parts of the world that could exist in this particular range of mountains. There just aren’t enough monsters to make this work. And sadly, the last thing I need for monsters is another bloody humanoid race ... which is most of what you see.


In an attempt to organize my town encounters, I’ve reasoned that a population center is divided according to its social status – that is, rich to poor. Thinking on it geographically, I’ve divided a town into these parts: avenues and squares, where the rich move about; streets, where artisans and the middle class move about; and lanes, where the relatively poor move about (including gangs, whores, and so on). The rich/nobles live in palaces, the middle class live in row houses, the artisan class live in storefront houses and the poor live in ‘courts’, which are primarily tenements and flats encircling central pits used for sewage. This, too, makes sense to me, as a player could steadfastly resist travelling from streets to lanes at will (and I wouldn’t have to draft out every town). But again, when I’ve sat down to create encounter tables for each of these town parts ... it doesn’t actually seem to help in running my world.


I sat down and designed a system that would regulate player associations with random NPCs ... the sort of people a party might generally encounter, such as guards at a gate that the party passed through, shopkeepers, bartenders, innkeepers, local garrisons and so on. By creating a point system to measure the appeal the party might have towards such people, I imagined the possibility of a party creating ‘allies’ or ‘foes’ by specific actions, chatting, bribery, performing favours and so on. Thus, individual commonly met NPCs would become more or less agreeable with time, depending on how they were treated, the party being capable of creating lifelong friends or lifelong enemies.

I couldn’t make it simple, so I never tried it in my world.

There have been other things, but I can’t think of them at the moment. I may do another post like this sometime.


Having given it some thought, I might go dig through some of those boxes and post a few bits and pieces of rules that utterly failed or did not come to fruition.  Maybe they'll be of use to someone.


Zak S said...

How would you feel about a mass combat system where, yes, the PCs are treated preferentially, but so are certain of their foes?

I can see that being, to your mind, 2-(anti-simulatory)wrongs not making a right, but that's what I use so I figured I'd ask.

PatrickW said...

Cool stuff and good insights. I like the "wilderness depth" concept and may borrow it as a sort of guideline for encounters and encounter levels. It should also end up as a goad to get PCs to travel into the actual wilderness.

Thank you for sharing.

Alexis said...

Fair enough, Zak ... though you and I both know it just leads to the inevitable Homerian conflict.

Zak S said...

Mayyyyybe, but the way I weight it, the hordes of mooks can still fuck the PCs up pretty bad, even crippled by their mechanics.

So: Yes, "Can I kill Hector?" is still a big issue, but "What is the shortest path to Hector while avoiding as many hoplites as possible and still managing to keep my own troops inspired" is a unique mass-combat question.

Plus, there's no rule saying the PCs must know ahead of time who the "charmed" foes are.

Telecanter said...

This information was really interesting and useful for me to read. Thank you. This would be a good theme for all grognards to post on: My Least Successful House rules.

For mass combat: I think the drama is for a different purpose, not to see if the players survive, but to see if the day is won; there should be something at stake.

Once that is established I think there are two way the players can be involved. The first is as generals marshalling forces with tactical decisions. The tension here is that you may be throwing away the lives of your men to Win the Day.

The other is as a grunt in a formation of troops, you are trying not to break, you shouldn't be concerned with the tactics of the battlefield, just whether you're able to hold the hill against the orcs.

Maybe the problem with mass combat is players want the chocolate of High Fantasy battlefield tactics and the peanut butter of man-to-man turning-the-tide, gritty heroics at the same time.

Mike(aka kaeosdad) said...

I'd be interested in reading more about your successes and failures with town encounters. Just the failure gave me a few ideas on where to start with my own tables.

Darok said...

How about treating the high level NPC as the same thing as a number of Noobs equal to his character level?

Level 10 Lord is the same as 10 level 0s. He can't quite mop the field as easily as he would if you played it out, but you can attribute that to the possibility of dog piles.

Then when damage is allocated you could A) always split the damage evenly between the unit and the lord, or B) have a hit chance derived from his level (since a high level NPC barking orders would be a natural target).

PatrickW said...

Only tangentially related, is there a place to make comments on your campaign that is NOT in the actual campaign itself? The historical map you posted for today's entry (3/10) is cool. Is it actually Zug?

It has also been very informative to see an actual PbP game being run.

Verification Word: ungil - the root form of "ungilate", which is how fish move when they are holding their breath.

Alexis said...


There isn't any such place, but you can post it on the most recent here if it makes you comfortable. If you feel so inclined, make a link to the applicable campaign's blog post so others know what you're referring to.

It is Zug, circa 1571, which I found on the wikipedia page for that city.