Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Thieving Abilities - Up In Stages

Very well, the next thieving ability:

Climb walls.

I'm going to have to start with a quote from The Bridge on the River Kwai:

"--They say in view of the time element, they don't think a few practice jumps would be worthwhile.  --No?  --No, they say if you make one jump, you're only got a 50% chance of injury, two jumps, 80%, three jumps you're bound to catch a packet.  The consensus of opinion is the most sensible thing for Major Shears to do is to go ahead and jump and hope for the best.  --With or without parachute?"

If you are going to train thieves to climb walls, you'd better do it so there's a far less chance of failure.  A 15% chance (first level) is plainly ridiculous.  Long before the thief lived to become first level, the thief would have fallen to his or her own death.

At the same time, to argue no fail thieving abilities is, all respect to JB who made a comment on this post, is just olympically stupid.  Not only because realistically it's not possible, but MORE to the point, where's the freaking drama?  JB notes that it takes a lot away from the thief's going up levels ... well duh.  How does one improve from a no fail position?

The no fail solution reflects how little imagination a lot of DMs have.  There's more to climbing something than simply putting hand over hand.

I had a friend who was passionately into free climbing - no ropes, no equipment, just what you're born with.  He considered a mountain like this one an easy afternoon:

Which it is, given that this is the first little lump - called Yamnuska - you come across when you drive west of where I live.

Jan demonstrated his technique by climbing up an ordinary brick wall on the side of an old school we were passing.  The mortar allowed for about 7-8 millimeters purchase, but Jan went straight up about two and half stories in about ten seconds.  Nothing special.

Now, there wasn't any chance, really, of his falling ... so long as 25 feet was all he was going to climb.  Another 25 feet, he admitted, was going to be harder than the first, and he wasn't eager to try a brick wall a hundred feet high.

What I'm saying is that your chance is dependent on how much you climb, not on the mere choice of doing so.  Most anyone in school could at least climb five or ten feet of rope.  It was another thing to climb to the ceiling, and it would have been quite another to climb three times as high.  If you're going to make rules about climbing, those rules have to address the practicality of sustained climbing.

Jan had no trouble climbing something like Yamnuska because the mountain has plenty of places for rest.  So long as he doesn't need to sustain his energy for more than short spurts, he could go up and down the sheer face twenty times a season with little or no fear of falling.  Any thief with equal chances to rest could say the same - in fact, ought to say the same.  If there's a window ledge to rest on every 18 feet, even a first level ought to be able to manage a ten story building.

So my proposition would be that the ability would translate to spurts of dexterity x ft. +3' per level, for anything equivalent to a brick wall.  (May seem a bit low compared to Jan, but consider the thief is probably carrying equipment, and isn't wearing modern sneakers).  Half the purchase and half the feet climbable; double the purchase, double the feet climbable.  And so long as there's a chance to rest, no chance of falling.

However ...

If the distance did not allow a rest, then the chance of falling the distance of the second allowable spurt would be the % found in the player's handbook.  Thus, the first level thief, faced with a 25' continuous climb, would decide to take the risk once climbing past 18'.  If the single continuous climb were greater than 36', then double the chance of falling (the thief would have a 70% chance of success).  And so on.  The thief would have to make up their mind before making the climb.

If the 1st level thief decided to come down again instead, there ought to be a no fault success for the first 18' ... the second 18', however, that would probably have to be rolled for again.

What's nice about this is that you could establish a flat total for anyone else, still based on their dexterity.  Thus, the fighter can climb walls - so long as the distance is not great.  I would propose dexterity x ft./2 +1' per level.  Thus, a first level fighter with an 18 dexterity could climb 9' up a brick wall before needing a rest.

It's the sort of thing that probably needs playtesting to establish a fixed number.


See comments below for an alteration to the above suggestion.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Peter Principle & DnD

I'd like to take a moment to interrupt my rewriting of thieving skills, which I shall be doing for climb walls and pick pockets this week, in order to write on something that has only just occurred to me.

I'm sure many of you are aware of the 'Peter Principle.' The following is from Wikipedia:

"... a belief that in an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, that organization's members will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, "employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence." In more formal parlance, the effect could be stated as: employees tend to be given more authority until they cannot continue to work competently. It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book, The Peter Principle."

The idea isn't new, but it is still relevant. Three times in the last three days I've been in some circumstance where the subject of the principle has come up - usually the number it takes for me to start deconstructing something I take for granted.

I think, generally, the principle to be true. I work in business, I have for some time, and I can attest to it's presence there. I've also worked in theatre, and it certainly helps explain how sometimes an individual will rise to playing a part in a play for which they have no competence. I also think the principle is evident in D&D games ... and I know just saying that will be enough to get DM's thinking.

A regular discussion that is had in business is how to circumvent the Peter Principle. The Wikipedia page has an overview of the more common 'solutions' ... they're worth reading through. I note, however, that an assumption is being made, which is always made - and that is, that every person HAS a level of incompetence.

I do not think that is true.

I do not mean that there are people who are competent at everything, or that there are people who are perfect. The Peter Principle does not describe people in a floating sea where any activity or job is possible in a given day. It describes people in a hierarchy, which is in turn dedicated to producing a limited set of results. From that, it MUST be true that a small percentage of possible workers, promoted and promoted, are never promoted into a job which they cannot do. It is possible to be a competent, capable and effective C.E.O. - and since said individual cannot be promoted higher, that individual cannot be affected by a further manifestation of the Peter Principle.

Moreover, for periods of time, all the persons under that particular C.E.O. cannot rise into the C.E.O.'s position because that position is not available. This means it is possible for ALL the positions under the C.E.O. to be occupied by people who are themselves competant at their jobs. However brief the moment in time, perhaps this explains why, for no evident reason, a company like Apple or Research in Motion or Zynga explodes on the scene, blowing past all their competition and changing the face of their industries. Those companies might collapse later, when the next head that's promoted fulfills the principle again, internally collapsing the company ... but for as long as the competant structure lasts, the company is unstoppable.

This could be applied just as directly to creative artists like John Ford, David Lean, Mike Nichols or Billy Wilder - directors who, for as long as they had control over their product, produced brilliant work without fail. A director is at the top of the game where it comes to making a picture - 'producer' is a sideways move into another profession (believe me). So long as the director is fully competant, its possible to create a competant technical and creative crew. It is time, not the Peter Principle, that eventually changes the rules. All those brilliant directors got old, and couldn't work at the top of their game once in their 60s. Direction is an exhausting vocation.

Let's talk D&D. This is an interesting situation since the hierarchy is flat. The DM is only one "promotion" above player. Some DMs are competent - others are not so much. Sometimes an incompetent DM wallows in the role, forced there by the circumstance of a lot of players who are all incompetent ... and it is often the most competent player that gets chosen.

If the DM is competent, it does produce a good game, even if many of the players are not. An especially competent DM, supported by especially competent players, can make the experience for less competent players rich and meaningful, when the goal is friendship over success. At the same time, a DM can be competent and yet mean-spirited; he or she can godmod other players, who themselves lord their positions over more recent, or less competent players. The hierarchy can be pronounced and harsh, depending on the table.

Moreover, D&D is a fluid game. It changes and advances, not just in terms of the rules but in terms of what the players are able to accomplish. As they do more damage and cast more spells they take on more complicated, less easily mastered monsters. The very act of levelling compels the presentation of the Peter Principle, since being a higher level is in effect risking being promoted past your abilities.

Perhaps the reason the so-called 'endgame' is considered unrealistic is because many DMs and many players are simply not able to play at that level. It's one thing to kill some orcs, investigate a tomb or even pick and choose from a variety of strategies as you level up. It is another when the adventurer must manage an accounts book to cover the men, equipment and property the player now possesses, or for the DM to make something like that interesting and emotionally profitable. If neither the DM nor the player has any experience with authority over the masses, or the intricacies of geopolitics, or the temperament to understand magic & physics on a complex, intuitive level ... how in heaven's name do you expect any of them to be competent at making a GAME of it?

Eventually, as the player's experience piles up, the DM will be pushed towards the creation of adventures the DM simply hasn't the ability to create. Most times, this means a ridiculous Monty Haul game which becomes sillier and sillier, such as those run by the dweebs I seem to meet in real life. The incompetence reaches levels of delusion ... producing the kind of game only the cognitively dissonant can play.

Perhaps that's the reality for most of us. I have never played at the highest possible level of complexity this game could arrive - I'm moving, right now, into an adventure in the autumn that will certainly be the most complex I've ever played. Hopefully, I will manage it well ... but even if I do, it will only mean the party will advance in level, and an even more complex event awaits me in the future.

It would be nice if I could hire a secretary by then.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Thieving Abilities - Locks & Stalks

I had some thoughts on how to rework some of the thieving abilities for AD&D, without going down the road taken by skill sets and later editions of the game.

The Number One problem for thieving skills would be that they are based on percentages. Percentages are well and good, and have their place, but it is extremely hard to balance play and success as a thief on the basis of pure, unadulterated chance. If the abilities could be reworked to either eliminate or at least reduce the importance of percentages, I think this would be a vast improvement.

Up until recently, however, I haven't given much thought on how to do that. I've been running a few adventures that have been intensely thief oriented in the last year, however (player choice, not mine) and I've been increasingly frustrated at the weak-ass worthlessness of planning activities around these silly percentages.

Open Locks.

Count the number of times you can remember where anyone attempting to open a lock in a film or a book stopped, turned to their companions and said, "nope, sorry, I can't open it."

Obviously, if I tried to open a lock with a pick, this would probably be something I'd have to say in short order.  But I'm not a thief.  I'm not able to cast spells or fall from buildings without taking damage, but in D&D I don't have to throw percentages in order to accomplish those things.  Logically, if an illusionist can manage a phantasmal killer without chance of failure, a thief ought to be able to open a freaking lock.

Yet naturally, there's the voice of drama again:  "We can't have the party just going anywhere!"  It cries.  "That would be anarchy!  We must make it possible for parties to be stopped by doors, even if they can destroy six stone giants!"

So we are in a dilemma.  There is something to be said for thieves having trouble opening locks.  Still, I think the drama can be retained if we ignore the chance of success in exchange for time until success.  Sure, the thief can open the door ... but can he or she open it right now?  Does it take one round, so it can be done quietly and without waking anyone up, or is the thief clumsily taking a dozen rounds to succeed?

A balance that takes into account the thief's level is easy:  something like 2d4 - level would be sufficient.  Using a small result would mean that by 7th, the thief was well past all that bullshit noobie stuff with regards to opening locks.  At first, it could still take a few tricky, inconvenient rounds if opening the door quickly mattered.

Of course, you could easily mess with the players by having 4 classes of lock:  2d4, 2d6, 2d8 and 2d10.  A 2d10 lock would be tough and inconvenient even for a master thief, half the time ... it would almost always be a long drawn out struggle for a 1st level.  Remember, since actual success is not in question, the main problem would be the thief standing around for 15 rounds while trying to get said lock open.  Additional problems could be created by arguing that if the thief is distracted, the lock resets and has to be addressed from scratch; or you could implement the old % roll to see if the thief was able to pick up from where the thief left off, or if the thief lost his or her place.  Either way, the drama shifts, so that locks are more an obstacle like a speed bump ... which a good DM could use to build a hell of a lot more tension than Yes it's open or No it isn't.

Move Silently.

As a thief, this has to be the most vague, annoying, sometimes useless ability in existence.  If there's anything that can be said to be humiliating about being a thief, its when you're 10th fucking level and you still can't simply walk 30' behind a first level guard without his or her noticing you.  Sure, a lot of the time, but you're gonna fuck it up 1 chance in 4?  I mean, come on!  What do you have to do?

We can divide up move silently into basically two features, each defined by what it is used for: 1) thieves use it to get past someone or something; and 2) thieves (and assassins) use it to approach a target.  We can call (1) stealth and (2) stalking.  Neither should be a percentage die roll.


Primarily, stealth is a defensive ploy intended to avoid conflict, and its success should be dependent upon whether or not it accomplishes that.  If I want to move past someone without being heard (or seen, for that matter), then what matters is distance between me and the listener, and whatever material happens to burden me at the moment.

For example - oof! - I am going to carry this - oof! - 113 lb. sofa on my - urg - back while I sneak behind you on your keyboard.  My success is going to be - uh - balanced by the fact that I am least several miles distant, and in some cases on another actual continent.  This will enable me to move several dozen yards - oh my back - while going completely undetected.

There.  I'm done.  You did not hear me or see me, and so my success at moving silently, in this case, was 100%.  I did say I was doing it, but even despite that, you were completely undisturbed ... and mind you, I'm not even a thief.

On the other hand, if I were to attempt to do the same while almost brushing you with my sleeve, it is unlikely I'd manage.  And this is the point.  Distance is everything.  The better the thief I am, the closer I should be able to pass and the more I should be able to carry while doing so.  There is another reason that runners strip down to almost nothing in warzones that has nothing to do with speed - less weight makes you more agile, more silent and less noticeable.  You're less likely to snag something on a tree while running along.  When's the last time a thief in your world stripped down before attempting to "move silently?"

I haven't quite got an modifier for this, but I'm sure something like 5d4 - level + 1/10 lbs. of weight carried (any weight at all), where the sum equals an optimum distance in hexes (or squares) is a good place to start.  All things could be calculated and if the die was less than the distance, the thief succeeds; more than the distance, and the thief fails. Thus, the thief is able to judge the distance against their level and what they take with them, and roll the dice, rather than depending on a ridiculous flat percentage that is supposed to fit every situation.


This would be primarily an offensive use of silent movement, intended to get the thief (or assassin/monk - or even ranger) as close as possible to the enemy before being noticed.  It is presumed that at some point the enemy will see or hear you ... but preferably not until you're in sword distance.

Desirably, we'd want this number to occur with the maximum amount of uncertainty while still allowing a reasonable judgement and improvement upon the stalker increasing their level.  This is not as difficult as it sounds.  If the base die is 3d4 hexes - level of the attacker, a lot of low levels are going to find it difficult to get right next to their enemy.  Still, if you reason that the moment of detection is also the potential moment of SURPRISE, it only dictates how far away the thief is before the melee begins.  This distance can be balanced by making it +1 hex per level of the highest target ... thus at 1st, there won't be much edge.  At 10th, however, its better than average that against a 2nd level target the moment of detection would be zero or less - which means, before the thief attacks, there is no moment of detection.  The thief attempts to back stab, the assassin assassinates ... and the melee is resolved.

So, no percentages.  Improvement with level, adaptation to abilities as the thief improves ... sounds like good work to me.

Thieving Abilities - Traps

Being Friday afternoon, it's a good time for a discussion of new rules, being that they can sit on the blog for three days (I rarely post on weekends).
So taking the thieving abilities one by one ... and not starting with Pick Pockets, as the book does.  I already followed this post with another, so you're probably reading this second, but here you go:

Find/Remove Traps.

I don't really mind the % chance to find traps.  Long ago I implemented a policy that any thief within reasonable distance of an actual, existing trap, were justifiably likely to find that trap according to their % ability, whether they were looking for the trap or notFor those purists who play this game thinking that a thief, put into a dangerous situation, must indicate to the DM that they are LOOKING before they are able to SEE, I wonder why this same puritanism is not applied to remembering to think, pee or breathe?  Why is it the thief is some special exception who's capabilities are stunted by the need to vocalize them?  The thief should be able to recognize a trap just as clearly as any other character recognizes that a room is round or square.  If you describe the various colors of the stone and the various shapes of the statuary, the thief should have sharp eyes that also notice that weird shadow where no shadow should be, or the tightly wound strand connected to the third block from the left.

FINDING traps is not something that is done with the hands, like a blind man picking a tea cup from a strange cupboard - if they were, thieves stupid enough to blunder around with their fingers would soon be conveniently eliminated.  The principle means of finding anything is SIGHT, and any DM dumbass to believe that a thief doesn't see something weird before he feels around for something weird hasn't yet figured out how to hit the toilet with his or her shit.

The fact is people create this sort of necessity ("I search for traps") because it is a deliberate verbal cue for creating drama - but very corny, crappy drama, the kind at which Gygax excelled.  It says, "I am going to be a thief now," as though such-and-such must jump into a dungeonish phone booth in order to transform into THIEF-MAN, finder of traps!  It is purile and naturally embraced wholeheartedly by the very same dungeon masters who like it when their fighters cry out, "I venture to slay the beast, and send it back to its foul beginnings!"

The same sort of sickening sort who just read that and thought, "YEAH, THAT'S THE GAME, MAN!"  Thankfully, we'll be rid of this sort when genetic determination laws are finally overturned.

Ah, a good rant loosens me up.

After the finding of traps, the removal lends itself to some problems.  In the first case, how does one "remove" a pit?  In reality, even if I point out the pit to Stenglapp the Stumbly, there's still every chance that his Royal Clumsiness is going to put a foot wrong and fall in.  So pointing it out isn't a guarantee that it will cease to do harm.

At the same time, where's the difficulty in removing a poison-lock trap if the way to set it off is to stick in a fighter's finger?  If the finger will set it off, then obviously so will any similarly sized chunk of wood.  It isn't as though the poison is set to spray everywhere around the room (how would all the poison fit into a lock?).  The same can be said for most traps.  Setting them off safely isn't much of a hassle - it hardly takes a % roll to succeed, particularly if the person doing the deactivating is a talented, capable thief.  Once again, if the mage can manage the forces of the universe into a ball of fire 40 feet across - without ever conceivably failing, mind - why does a 7th level thief still need to roll a die to see if he's struck by the d3 damage sprung dart he knows is there?

Well, we know why.  Because thieves are shit, and we can't just let them be able.  We must punish them for being thieves by making them constantly in danger of being killed for stupid reasons.

I think it can be presumed that IF all the parts of the trap can be viewed and successfully identified by the thief, or IF the trap itself is fairly simple, we can reasonably suppose the thief has deactivated it safely without having to roll.  IF the trap is some freaking thing from the Tomb of Horrors, infantile as that module is, then perhaps a % roll is in order - but the DM should really question how hard is this thing to deactivate, if setting it off is something that can be done by someone who knows how standing thirty feet away.

Setting Traps.

Really, this belongs in the above section, but the reader's eye is getting tired and a new section makes people think they're making progress.  This inspires readers to keep reading, and that is why journalists do it.

The setting trap problem is in many ways similar to the setting off of traps.   Most traps are just not that complicated.  Hollywood be damned, most trained boy scouts manage to create a snare without actually hanging themselves up from trees; a cord can be tied across a path without danger of tripping over the cord; and digging a hole and not falling into it is something that many children learn before grade 3.  I think we can assume a thief, trained to be a thief, might just be able to manage spring traps, pit falls and collapsible frames without actually having to roll for success.  It is patently silly to think otherwise ... but thinking is not a strong suit for some DMs, and they must be forgiven for their vitamin-D deprived cityfied ignorances.  So far, until above said genetic laws are repealed, these herds must be tolerated before they can be exterminated.

I suppose if you're going to have a thief who wants to create something really complicated, like having the pyramids implode or something according to sand pouring out of a donkey's ass, such a percentage die roll might be in order ... but as DM, you should seriously consider whether said percentage for success shouldn't be reduced to ZERO.  If a simple murder can't be created with a heavy crossbow and a doorway, is the thief really being creative, or just implausible?  It is up to you to decide.

(a small digression - what if I just sit outside your trap-festival for a year or so and wait while the gears and springs rust, the delicate fluids seep from their containers, or evaporate into the air, dust to blow in and soil creep to shift the mountain a few millimeters, so all your stupid traps don't work?  What's amazing about the dumbass sinking stone at the beginning of Indiana Jones is that grit and insect carcasses hadn't simply gummed it solid - were the natives coming in monthly to "tidy up?")

Hm.  This is already much longer than I expected.  I guess I'll have to write a series of posts then.

White Box Poll

In the interest of determining the popularity/knowledge of the White Box set of books, I have added a poll on the sidebar.  I've made it so that more than one item may be checked.  Since the books were published 38 years ago, and since that means quite a number of players were born since their creation, I'm curious as to just how widespread the box set is, and how much of a direct influence it still has.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Would there be legal wills in D&D?

For anyone with little or no wealth, the answer is a clear no. Not that there wasn't property, or that poor people have none of it, but because in general property among the poor is a family matter, and not something dictated over by the state. A will is a legal document, and a Medieval family would not have needed the state to determine the outcome of something that was considered a family decision.

This would have been true for many people with wealth, as well, particularly when that wealth was in the form of land. The pater familias tended to have authority both in eastern and western cultures, no matter what the father may have wished for upon the father's deathbed. It is rare that the second son succeeded to the father's wealth if the first son was healthy and capable.

However, with the increase in international holdings, in both the New World and in Asia, and the complexities of arrangements with companies as opposed to guilds and families, the matter of a wealth distribution after death became more complex ... but I would argue that while documents are necessary in our world, the world of magic would have a natural bypass.

A substantial portion of the legal profession would employ clerics who were able to speak with the dead ... who could substantiate documents with the words of the author, spoken directly to the family if necessary, in a much more interactive environment that mere video recording. Family members could ask, specifically, about hidden hordes and property that slipped through the cracks of notation ... and get the word directly from the source as to who should get what. Such events (called "audits," obviously) would serve to fix beyond question the matter of ownership, even in cases where the dead might have to be spoken to for months before ALL the matters were finally settled. Lower level clerics could deal with minor personages; and high level, 12th+ level clerics with difficult matters of nobility, overseas companies and so on. All such audits would have the power of law, and would almost certainly not be required to present in court. After all, the final judgement would always be made by having the official witness, the dead, make the final statement.

Where the dead were unwilling to be forthcoming, the matter could be resolved by having standard policies of distribution, or perhaps calling on the gods for a divination about such. There could also be a possible appeal to the ancestors of the dead, if it was noted that a person had been in possession of some property for a short period of time, perhaps a six month minimum or such. Laws could define these things. If a horde was forgotten by the dead, the family could inquire about any object in the horde and find it with locate object, or by using augury if necessary to narrow down some of the details.

Much less wealth would disappear from the economic well-being of the land, and there would be a clearer established method of inheritance ... which people would adapt to with all the certainty we have about more rigorous, concrete matters of law. There might still be documents, but when a D&D Courthouse speaks of "probating," they don't mean doing it in the dark as we do it.

This matter of speaking to the dead has many ramifications. For example, imagine the climate after a large battle has taken place. Just as in our culture, lists would be made of the dead, of the ranks of the dead, and of the missing in a battle. Armies of clerics would set upon the enormous task of speaking to all the dead, finding out how they were killed for the record books, who killed them, and of course the above matters of inheritance. Some cases could drag out for months. As well, every person on the missing list would be contacted through the spirit world - and if they were not actually dead, the clerics responsible for this activity would KNOW it.

A list of names of missing and certainly alive would be massed, to be handed to another bureau whose responsibility was to find out where they were, if they were being held prisoner, if they were even on this plane of existence ... and carefully tracked to see if they had died this past month or not. Slowly, steadily, all such missing persons would researched, in part by magical means, but also by agents who had certain charms and talents than enabled them to learn more about the missing. Of course, some minor persons, without names, could go missing after a battle and no one would care ... but anyone with a name, anyone who was an officer or official, or attached civilians with income, would certainly be searched for and - this is where D&D departs greatly from our experience - absolutely and without question FOUND.

There might be a point where lost persons were obviously moving away, seeking not to be found, and some risk/value added assessment would have to be made ... but the only persons who could not be found in a world of spells like those available would be those who had other spells they were deliberately employing so as to disappear.

Thus, no family would need not know what happened to their son after a war, if they cared to enquire. There would be services they could turn to, and eventually stand next to the mass grave where their boy was interred, or know for a fact that Jack or Benny or Don were in South America, making their fortune.

Such is the power of magic.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Plain Talk

Can I appreciate D&D?  Is that seriously the question?  Can I appreciate this game that is so compulsive I am running three different campaigns; I am mapping the world; I am writing a blog that has now topped 900 posts, with an average of +1,000 words per post.  I've been playing this game for 33 years, despite the time, despite the public distaste, despite the distaste of my father and mother, despite friends and acquaintences who don't understand it, despite the time it has taken from my writing and despite the probable years of financial success it has cost me by preferring to play this game rather than the corporate one.  What in gawd does the reader want as proof - my blood?

I play hundreds of features of the game as written.  I play the character classes, the bonuses and penalties for the stats, the combat to hit and the combat saving throw system, the magic items in almost every case, the monsters, surprise, backstabbing, assassination, magic resistance, spells, proficiencies, races and undead as written.  What I have changed, I have done so by keeping the substance of the original game alive, shaping the rules rather than abolishing them out of hand.  I may run a different combat system, but the weapons still strike the same way.  I may have trade tables, but the equipment functions in the game as it always has.  I tweak, I modify, I recast ... but I do not throw out.

Does the gentle reader want me to say that I am glad Gygax and Arneson ventured to write books that described this original and remarkable game?  Yes, I'm glad.  Yes, I am grateful.  Yes, it was a wonderful thing they did.  It literally changed my life.  It literally gave me a life I have enjoyed and been proud of all these years.  These two men waved a flag in front of this bull that has driven it against the fence repeatedly for thousands of afternoons writing, rewriting, drawing, redrawing, conjecturing and designing and throwing out.  This game is me.  I am this game.  YES, I appreciate D&D.  I would have done very different things, for very different reasons, if D&D had not been there to distract me.

I cannot understand why this is not obvious.  I lambast and abuse and attack the makers of the game for their lack of foresight, for their amateurishness, for the fact that they are incidental to the progress of gaming design and history - but I do not disparage their contribution.  I am me, because they tried.  I cannot give them higher praise than that.

Do not confuse my refusal to deify them with dissatisfaction at their efforts.  I am glad for their efforts.  But they are not  GODS.  They are not the LAST WORD.  They do not get to be placed on a pedestal.  If they had spent five years on the project before releasing it, producing the Principia Mathematica of D&D, I may now feel differently.  It is plain they wrote from the hip, quickly, with an eye to getting it out as fast as they could ... and for that, YES, they get my appreciation.

They don't quite get my respect.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Inventing a WG

Last week, I was generously given the rules booklets and box of the first system of D&D that I played - for all of four months back in 1979.  That is, Men and Magic, Monsters and Treasures and Underworld and Wilderness ... along with a rather pristine copy of Chainmail (clearly not used in gaming) and a copy of Blackmoor.  Well, I think it was Blackmoor.  I haven't got the books at my elbow right now, and it could have been Greyhawk.  I haven't bothered opening that one yet, and the fact that I can't remember the cover should indicate the total lack of interest I hold for either.

I haven't seen a copy of Chainmail since about 1980.  I could have, I suppose, had I been looking for one - but again, I just haven't cared.  I will at some point be going through the book and discussing it here, along with all the books, as a kind of fuck-does-this-annoy-me sort of series of posts.  I know we are talking about holy relics and all; I know there's at least one reader pissed off right now because they'd kill for a copy.  My frank opinion is that all this glorification and praise is misplaced ... and now I have the actual text to prove it.

I have read through Men and Magic and Underworld and Wilderness.  I rather humorously remembered when there when armor class extended only down to 9, and how weird it was when AC 10 was introduced with AD&D.  I have said before that everyone I knew connected to the game rushed from these ratty little books to the fabulous DMG the day it made its appearance at what was then a shitty little storefront called The Sentry Box on Crowchild Trail just off Kensington Road.  I'm adding that as a little shoutout for the two or three Calgary readers of this blog, who might only know the 'Box' from it's days in Mar de Loup, or its present massive warehouse in Sunalta.  Sorry, these are Calgary references to neighborhoods.  Out-of-town readers need not worry about them.

(if there was anything I'd want from those days, it was a framed page that used to sit in the storewindow of the Sentry box in those days that 'defined' Dungeons and Dragons - given that explaining the game to non-players was considered next to impossible, and here it was managed in 10-point-font on one page ... but this was 1979, and the only journalists knew what fonts were)

Instead, I have these crummy books.

I know that a huge structure of rules and imagination have been built out of the original flimsy rules described within, but I don't think that on their own they are much to speak of.  It is achingly clear how amateurish is the design; no, I do not speak of the layout or the format, I speak of the throwaway uselessness of at least half the text's helpful hints.  There are constant references to the lack of space the creators have in printing out their rules (which itself wastes space), made worse by the number of times it is said your imagination this or your imagination that can do so much more (than the pathetic bits we've written out here).  The last is not said, but it is implied with every encouragement like Euripides' preponderance of a little bottles of oil.

It is clear that Arneson and Gygax (and a host of others connected to them) stumbled across something a lot bigger than they had the talent to exploit (as became painfully clear after D&D hit it big and they were both put on a bus).  Roleplaying was clearly something that a certain part of the people cried out for - and when the first steps were taken towards it, the people picked up the ball and ran.  They're still running.  The real impetus, I suspect (and I'll know for sure after I delve deeper into it), was Chainmail, which I noticed from glancing through it is of FAR better quality and depth than D&D's sad little addendums to it.  Once Chainmail came into being, someone was bound to produce some sort of follow up that was bound to make them as famous as either Arneson or Gygax.

What's interesting, and very obvious from Underworld and Wilderness, is how little attention is paid to roleplaying at all.  The descriptions of the "world" seems to be a collection of justifications for getting the players from one combat to another.  Here are the passages in the dungeon between rooms where you will fight combats.  Here's the mapboard you should use so you know where to find combats.  Here's the rules on how other people will give you reasons for combat.  It is described as little more than a loose "wargame" where combat is clearly the be-all purpose for everything the party could expect to do in a given night's gaming.  This makes sense, after all.  Arneson and Gygax were wargamers who had spent more than a decade playing wargames with other wargamers.  They thought like wargamers, and when they invented their "RPG," they didn't.  Invent an RPG, I mean.  They invented a WG, which others made into an RPG because there's a very vague sense from Men and Magic that it could be played that way.

Men and Magic, however, really doesn't say so.  Isn't that interesting, too.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Cat Stats

I hate working on monsters.

This is because there never seems to be any payback.  Encounter tables don't work.  Descriptions take time and never seem to apply when the actual game is on.   No matter how much detail I pour into them, the total result is always null.  I'm forced, in the end, to make shit up as the campaign is happening ... and so why bother working on monsters ahead of time?

The experience system, however, was a terrific leap forward, as was the mass rule.  However, while I did start working on biology tables, I got bored with the size of the task, and it has sat ignored for almost two years.

One thing I wanted to force myself to do this summer was address some of the monster issues.  Specifically, monster movement and monster damage.

A look at the biology tables linked above will show the weight of the creatures as well as the size.  Weight is something that seems to have been largely ignored with regards to monsters.  I calculate weight by comparing geometrically the monster's length with that of its non-giant cousin, or estimated weight based on flesh density vs. total volume (for things like black puddings).

Thus, it was possible to put together a table like this:

This includes all felines of 2 intelligence, so it does not include anything like a rakshasa and such.  There may be some that argue the intelligence should be higher, but that's not really important here.

What I want to concentrate on is the SIZE of the creature, compared with its hit dice.  All of these are from the monster manual (M) and the fiend folio (F), with the exception of the cheetah and ordinary bobcat (lynx).  Those are my own addition.

The hp/HD column is in reference to my mass hit points rule, linked above.  You don't need to consider it important, but I'm adding it here because, well, I'm interested in the information it gives.  I like it that the average hit points of a creature is, in my world, relative to its size - and that this is achieved by not giving the creature more hit dice (and therefore a better to hit table).

(sorry for all of you not interested in AD&D.  None of this data will be of use to you.  Better go find some boring forum to read)

Note that some of the dimensions given here are those of the source material, and some of them are from elsewhere.  I've tried to be consistent with the books whenever the books provided information - which often they don't.

Consider, then, the movement of these cats and their attack types:

I've left off the cheetah and the ordinary bobcat for the table, as I want to concentrate on the numbers from the monster manual and fiend folio.  None of these numbers has anything to do with reality.  You won't find anything in wikipedia about a lion moving at 120 yards per round.  That is strictly a D&D thing (and refers to how in outdoor movement, inches = yards). 

There are two trends.  The larger creatures do more damage, and the larger creatures tend to move slower.  I think we can ascribe the high movement of the kamadan to fiend folio bullshit - that book tends to be all over the map with regards to consistency.  I'm not clear on why a leopard doesn't rake, nor why a displacer beast does not attack with jaws or claws.  They have both depicted in the manual.

Let's check that movement rate thing against reality, however.  According to Jim Wilson, BSc Degree in Zoology, we get these numbers:

Cheetah - 70 mph

Cougar (puma) - 45 mph
Lion - 40 mph
Tiger - 40 mph
Leopard - 35 mph
Snow Leopard - 35 mph
Jaguar - 25 mph

So it does seem the puma is moving pretty fast; the jaguar, however, is depicted completely inaccurately, and is much, much slower than the lion despite being only a 40% of the lion's weight.  Both the tiger and the lion are massive compared to other cats ... but this doesn't seem to affect their speed.

Incidentally, 40 mph = 1,173 yards per minute ... but we all knew ol' Gygaxling had his head up his ass.  However, before someone tells me about straight line running vs. manueverability, I was at a barrel racing competition last Thursday and found myself wondering about the movement of horses.  Typical distance for barrel racing is a total of 390 feet travelled accomplished in 18 seconds, with three 270-degree turns involved.  Think about that.  No matter how you cut it, your horse in D&D isn't moving fast enough, and it isn't being allowed to turn as much as it could.

Still, let's put the movement down - I am not at all certain how to solve that.  Obviously everything is moving slower than it should, and size should have little or nothing to do with it.  It's a question of body mechanics, NOT mass.

Have a look at this table:

For my  money, this seems more than a bit off.  The sea lion is nearly half a ton in weight, but it's bite (2d6) has an average damage of only 2.5 hp higher than the jaguar, which is only 18% of the sea lion's weight. 

Pound for pound, the leopard is the most dangerous cat in the game - it has the highest claw damage per pound of weight and the highest bite damage.  The reason is obvious.  For whatever purpose, the game makers decided that monsters would only be allowed to cause just this much damage and no more.  Thus, the bite of a lion (440 lb.) is only 22% greater than that of a jaguar (168 lbs.) ... despite being 250% bigger.  You can argue that the lion doesn't quite get all its teeth around you when it bites, but if it did, you ought to be taking more than 1d10.

3-18+1 (average 11.5) would be more like the damage a lion's bite ought to cause.

I can see some argument for gauging back the damage due to increased clumsiness and comparatively smaller targets for bigger mouths - but a comparative of 250% in size to 22% increase in damage is plain ridiculous.  The lion is being deliberately undermined as a deadly, dangerous beast worthy of respect.  This, I think, undermines the game as a whole.

Particularly when you consider a zombie's claw does 1d8 damage - as much as a jaguar's jaws!

Something is very wrong.  The solution is plainly to increase damage across the board and everywhere.  For a lot of games this would be a serious problem.

For my game and my experience system, however ... this is a bloody marvelous idea.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Power, Oh The Power

This is going to sound absurd given recent posts upon the subject of dice, but lest we forget that I use dice to play D&D every day, I do have some opinions on their effect in the game.

I see the poll I ran last week ended with 52% of the votes asserting that watching other people roll dice produced a lot of physical effect.  I'm not certain the actual 'watching' is what people answered, but be that as it may, I'm willing to go along with there being psychological effects.  I'm simply not sure it takes dice to get those effects ... but for the benefit of the majority, I'll talk a bit about the psychological effects I try to cause.

I don't know how I adapted to using dice to promote terror.  It seemed to be something that came naturally.  There is a sense of power involved in pointing to a random person during a game and commanding them to "roll a d6" without explaining why or what the die is for.  The less they know, the better really.  They should be able to figure out that its either initiative or surprise - but either way, the fact that is it probably one of those is a bad thing for the party, isn't it?  Particularly for those voodoo artists who think they can make a d6 roll high or low at will.  If they don't know what the die is for, which should they hope for?  Is it to see if they are surprised, or is it to see if they surprise?  They just don't know.

It is a powerful moment ... like god putting the finger on a player.  "ROLL A D20, MINION," booms the voice.  The chosen player feels a moment of tension as they search for the d20 of their choice.  The fate of the whole party depends upon this roll.  The other players lean in to see what will come up.  The DM looks on benignly, his face revealing nothing.  The die tumbles and falls, revealing a 17.  The DM says "Oh."  He does not explain the exclamation.  He shakes his head, consults a book, then proceeds forward with whatever had been happening.

Infuriating, compelling, emotional.  This is what dice give you.

For those who might think I don't understand this, I could only suggest you play in my world.  Drama is built upon such things - and I love the production, manipulation and escalation of drama.  It is a hammer banging on a drum shifting up to ramming speed; it is the unexpected interloper; it is the tiny thing you didn't notice that is just about to kill half the party.  It is the statistical chance that the die will save the party vs. the statistical chance the die will kill the party.  It is the HEART of D&D ... mwa-hu-hahahaha!!!!

Or, you know, it's just dice rolling on a table.

Don't get me wrong.  The dice manufacture player involvement and perceived player agency.  I'm just not sure they are the only way both can be accomplished.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Using Hit Points to Mess with Your Players

What are hit points?

The DM’s Guide defines hit points as “The number of points of damage a creature can sustain before death (or optionally, coma), reflecting the character’s physical endurance, fighting experience, skill or luck.”

I have discussed this before ... but admittedly I got distracted by the problem on how to assign hit points, as opposed to what they actually were.

However we may quibble about this definition, we may propose that in D&D the character is an entity made up of corporeal and electrical functions that enable action.  Damage is that which disrupts the integrity of these functions.  When integrity is reduced to zero, the character dies.

The difficulty is that D&D fails to ascribe any effects at all to the loss of hit points except death.  You are either alive or you are dead.  If you have 1 hit point, you are alive.  If you have no hit points, you are dead.  If you are alive, you function at 100% capability.  If you are dead, you function at 0% capability.  It is very black and white.

I have written rules in the past that have attempted to provide a little grey.  This, however, still doesn't explain why a character has the same combat offensiveness at 1 hit point that they had at 30.

The most direct, accurate explanation is that this is a game, dumbass ... and games include all sorts of rules which have little or nothing to do with reality.  Why is it I have to randomly stay at hotels in Monopoly?  Can't I just walk down the street to where the rooms are cheaper?  How is it that it takes the same amount of time in RISK for an army to cross Western Europe as it does North Africa?  Why do the East Indies, Madagascar and Mongolia produce the same number of armies as Northern Europe, Japan and the Eastern United States?  How come I can't change what I do for a living in the Game of Life?  Why does the game end once I've made it to Millionaire Acres?  Don't millionaires get married, have children and potentially wind up in the Poor House too?  Do I die when I become a millionaire?

On some level, I think people are a little more than mildly stupid when this sort of problem with a game is exhaustively analyzed.  Still, I've got some energy, so let's haul it on the slab and gut that puppy.

In the traditional game, if you have 100 hit points, you're going to last longer than a couple of rounds - there are no processes for decimating that many hit points in a single blow.  Critical hits and such were added later ... and that does enable you to have a moment of bad "luck" and lose a massive number in a short period of time.  So it is possible that hit points represent a statical time period (average damage sustained per round vs. total hit points) before anyone actually lands a blow on you that will kill.  When they do land that blow, you die (or you slip into the negatives).

The trouble is that players are aware of how many hit points remain ... which means they can effectively foretell the future; "I haven't been hit up to now, but if I spend three more rounds, I'm dead!"  The only way to truly get out of that headspace is to A) never tell the characters how many hit points they have; B) never tell them how much "damage" their hit points have suffered.  This would be a very strange way to run ... and might seriously mess with the player's headspace.  Just imagine.

You have hit points, which increase with level ... but you never really know how many you have.

You take "damage" that is not actually physical - just a lot of really close calls and weapons that hit your shield or armor really hard.  You maybe get a nick or cut, to tell you you're in a fight - but you have no idea if this nick or cut represents a loss of 10 hit points or 1, and you have NO IDEA if 10 hit points is something you can afford to lose right now, or not.

Then, if you really want to FUCK with the player's head, don't tell them when damage has occurred.  Play the game so that the nick of a sword doesn't necessarily cause damage ... that's just more general fluff for the campaign world's "feel."

Every round you stay in battle, in that system, is going to bring a level of panic that doesn't exist in the game ... particularly since you don't know if you've taken damage or not.  If you've been swinging now for ten or twelve rounds, you're going to get fucking nervous, even if you're seventh or eighth level.  Shit, do you have 70 hit points still?  Have you even lost a single point?  Or are you actually at 3 points right now, and you're going down any second?  You just don't know.  You'll never know.

Which, if you're going for simulation, IS the shit, baby.  Just watch players second guess themselves and run from combats when they can't look at a character sheet and compute their odds with hard facts.  Still, the reality, o gentle readers, is that in the middle of a combat YOU DON'T KNOW.  You haven't any idea, not really.  You could imagine that after breaking your arm, you're probably not long for the slaughter fest.  Yet until you've actually been hurt, well guess what:  1 hit point IS exactly the same as 30 hit points, with regards to your combat ability.  Which is the D&D idea.

It isn't wrong because the system is irrational.  It's wrong because your character knows a lot more than your character should know.

Monday, July 16, 2012


All the communes that were created out of the Flower Generation of the 60's and 70's failed.  They were begun by adults who shared no familial ties, who were raised in an aggressive industrial social system, the one we all share.  Although rules were created to encourage equality, those who were most aggressive were quickly able to rebalance the relational power in their favor.  Those who were least aggressive finally had little choice but to be treated as exploited labor, or to leave.  Eventually, even those who chose the former option were compelled to take the latter, and the communes collapsed.

This has been much touted as proof that 'communism' cannot work.  It is something akin to herding children into a room, zapping them with cattle prods and then writing a thesis on how children in a room cannot behave themselves.

We underestimate how aggressive our society really is.  Part of this is myth; we promote our society through iconography and propaganda, proclaiming 'truths' and 'beliefs' which are plainly expressed but to which we do not adher.  We promote self-awareness and then punish self-awareness.  We assign irrational moral judgments to moments of ambiguity, in the sense that it is okay to selfishly re-direct wealth into your own pocket so long as it is done obscurely - i.e., there is no direct physical relationship between you and the victim.  It is wrong to borrow money and not pay it back ... unless you've borrowed money in the name of a company, which you then make bankrupt, liquidating its workforce, thus bypassing the debt and keeping the money.  If you watch a man murder your wife, it is acceptable to seize a heavy object and beat the man to death in your living room five minutes later ... but it is morally wrong to track the man down and kill him in another city a year later.

We laugh about these things; we view them as ironic or curious.  We fail to recognize that a society such as this can only exist where individualism holds greater moral weight than groupism - but we recognize immediately how groupism will quickly and decisively destroy our immediate freedoms.  So we comfortably move along, balancing our ability to handle the dangerous waters of millions of other individuals in compensation for a feeling of personal control.  We would rather be torn apart by our enemies knowing that we've made our own way, then obey the will of others for a 'safety' we don't trust and we don't believe in.

Thus the scariest word in our lexicon is not murder or genocide or rape or any of the things usually appearing on the news; the scariest word is conformity.  We can imagine ourselves committing murder, if the chips are down and we must.  Back us into a corner and yes, we'll go that route as a last resort.  But we won't SAY that we'll conform.  We'd kill ourselves first.

Americans may say they're all Americans, but they quickly follow that by saying 'American' means being free to be what you want.  Its a strange, non-conformist conformist dissonance ... but you hear it every day.  Most countries have some form of this, just as most individuals do.

Of course we conform.  We do it daily, hating it, resisting it and wiggling our way out of its straight-jacket as far as we can.  We do it to keep our jobs and pacify our families and keep out of jail and avoid paying fines.  We bitch about it, we get home and snap, we get into our expensive comfy chairs designed to soothe and roll and scrub the bad necessity of conformity away.  Then we conform to sleeping hours we must adhere to so we can be awake to conform tomorrow.

So long as the hint of personal freedom remains ... so long as we can fool ourselves for five minutes at a time that we are not under the thumb of fate ... so long as we can point to this beer or this drug or this woman and say, doubtfully, I chose this ... we will pretend we're not really conforming at all.

We will not buy into any ideal that suggests conformity in its raw, accepted form is a good thing.  That's final.

Yet ... to the medieval mind, conformity was not a philosophy; it was a habit.

If you live your whole life seven miles from where you were born, and if every person you see for years at a time are people you know, and if those people all grew up together in the same place, eating the same food, toiling at the same tasks, with the same enemies and the same obstacles to overcome ... why would they ever imagine in this world that thinking this or that about a thing was bad because it's what everyone else thought?  Say what you will, corn's got to be harvested; pig's got to be fed; God has to have his due; sun's gonna shine just the same.  It's gonna be cold tonight no matter what way you bend your mind.  We might as well get 'er done; might as well get along; might as well sleep as best we can and eat as best we can and make the best of what we can.  And if you don't see that, if you don't like that, if you can't live with that, then you can't live here.  There's the road, there's the wide world, you better be getting on with seeing what you can make out of it among them's that don't give a damn about you.

We live in an aggressive society.  We're used to living with those who don't give a damn about us.  We don't need their love, nor their charity, nor their concern, nor their attention.  Just leave us alone to do as we like, and to hell with everyone else being alone and doing what they like.  That's us.  That's our way.  It was the way of towns, made at a time when the communal living of villages was a limitation on those whose sense of ambition was the opportunity to exploit their fellow fellow.

There's not much success in ambition in a commune.  It destroys the commune, or it destroys you.  Ambition needs a good victim, and the thing about a town, it's free-range victims as far as the eye can follow.  As little boys and girls we say we want to be firemen and astronauts and policemen.  No little child in first grade says to the teacher, "I want to grow up and exploit impulsive people by consolidating their debt and relying on their life-long irresponsiblity to make me rich!"  If they did, the teacher would probably be unhappy - but in this society, that little child has a future.  Firemen and astronauts and policemen do not.

The ideal of any commune is the restraint of ambition; and whether or not you believe this is a society you would like to live in, there are good reasons to restrain ambition.  There are good reasons for a small community to ostracize or kill people who think first of themselves.  Such communities tend to thrive.  They tend to eat well.  They tend to prolifically produce children, and structure themselves in such a way as to reduce or eliminate starvation and cruelty.

Then again, it depends on how cruel you view conformity to be.  A medieval rural society, such as that which would most likely exist among your human farmers, your orcish bands and your elvish clans, would likely see conformity as a good thing, to be embraced and defended to the death.  They would most likely view your players natural aggressive ambitious tendencies as a disease to be stamped out before it spreads ... if you, as a DM, can imagine hundreds of happy, ambitionless people living together in habitual, somewhat boring, well-fed stability.

It requires imagination, if all you have is the evidence of your own culture.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Taking Of The Southeast Tower

Sometimes, I think if I had a few fast typists on payroll, plus a programmer, I could run the world.  If all I had to do was talk ... hah ... I could probably manage ten or twelve parties at a time.

My online campaign just reached a high point in their adventure.  Feel free to comment here, if the mood takes you.

This is the game, dear readers.  All the rest of the writing on this blog is not a patch to actually playing.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Just Keep the Damn Earth Flat

Let's talk about the player's weapon.

Above we have what I am sure at three completely modern-produced swords, despite the website they came from (not important).  The origin of the swords does not matter.  What matters are the blemishes and the nicks and chips that the sword may be conjectured to have lost or gained.  Did that black spot come from a dragon?  Was it discolored when it came into contact with the polar worm's gullet?  Were the carvings added later, by the King of Wisteria?

We have no idea.  All we have is a word, "sword," written on a character sheet.  We can't begin to know the effects of combat on the weapon, because to work out the effects of combat on a weapon with dice would take a ridiculously long time.  It would take a long time to throw the dice, it would be painstaking to write out said effects - and it would take far too fucking long to draw out the sword every time the "visuals" changed.

Hey, you know what doesn't take a long time to do shit like this?  Computers.  A computer can compute two swords hitting one another; it can compute (given perameters) the damage one sword does to another sword; and it can RENDER the image of both swords, so that as you fight, you can see minute, moment to moment changes affecting your weapon.  In this marvelous age of computer graphics and terabytes, this is possible.

Oh no, wait, it isn't.  We mustn't replace dice with anything closer to reality.  That would be wrong.

Still, it might be sort of interesting if everyone's weapons were recorded on their lap tops; if we incorporated a kinect-like graphic into the system so that you chose the weapon you were going to use, you reached towards your laptop, you 'grabbed' the handle of the weapon ... and then swung the weapon, generating those random numbers and then waiting, breathlessly, while the computer calculated the effect.  You could play the system both ways - incorporating your actual swing into your chance to hit ... or simply retaining the swing for the sense of doing something, and letting the computer roll the effect strictly randomly.

Oh, wait.  Yeah, that would be boring.  Why should it happen that the mace I have in my equipment list swings different or odd compared to someone else's mace?  That's boring.  Why should it be that my sword hits a bit less now since it was bitten by that gorgon, leaving that big scorch mark that sort of looks like that bitch Kardashian.  Fuck, that is SO boring.  What I really don't want is a sword that has complex modifiers that change and develop over time, depending on how the weapon is reforged or how long I've had the weapon, and how used to the handle I am.  Heck, I don't want to have to put up with slightly shittier effects from a NEW weapon I haven't broken in yet.  How fucking boring is that?

Yep, just give me those dice.  Those static, inflexible, limited, unchanging, nuance-free dice that give me all of twenty possibilities when I roll them.  Wow, just think:  TWENTY.

Fuck, that's enough for any game.  I don't want animals with complicated personalities that require me to make careful choices about how long to ride them and what food to feed them and what I say before I mount them.  "Horse" on my equipment list is ALL the information I need, thank you very much.  Anything more than that and I start to feel, well, inadequate.  It's just too much information, you know?

Yes, true, the computer handles all that information and I just get an answer that says the horse is a bit "spooky"this morning - but fuck, just because the computer can automatically account for my class, level, wisdom, previous experience with the animal and so on, and instantly flash that up on a screen for me, that doesn't make it better than writing things on paper.  Damn, I just so love writing things on pieces of paper, especially when I've forgotten to bring my character or I can't find the sheet that's important right now or I forgotten to write it down.  You know what's even better?  When the four other people at the table are rifling through their character sheets to find three words written about the mule they bought last week.  Now that's goddamn roleplaying!

Look, it's your game.  You can be happy with this two dimensional approach forever, or you can ruin the game by incorporating tools that have been invented since 1990.  Obviously, we know where I stand.

Fuck those computers.  Let's have a sword just be a word on paper.

The Limitations of Dice

Well done, well done!  The cause of dice has been bravely defended!  Long live the die!

I am not surprised that so many people missed the point.  A fetish is a very powerful influence upon a person's belief system - enough to terrify people, enough to send them to war ... and certainly enough to make them stamp their feet and raise their voices.  And make no mistake about it - dice are a fetish.

Many people seem to think that I am advocating the use of electronic randomizers to replace dice.  Some of the comments spoke about using a phone to generate a die roll instead of rolling die - and since the electronic die replaces the substantial die, it possesses the same limitations of the substantial die.

What are those limitations?  Hm.

Gentle reader, the game is not the dice.  The dice are the tool by which we create a random element in the game, which is necessary for creating uncertainty and drama - the "unexpected" which forces every action taken by the players to be one of RISK.  Without risk, there is no game.

The game requires that the players possess SOME control over what they wish to risk, and to what degree they wish to risk.  In the main, it is similar to a player at a craps table deciding upon what odds they wish to bet.  The will to play long odds vs. the will to play short odds is also a fundamental part of the game.  The good player learns when to play long and when to play short - and balances their play against the odds they choose to play at.

So long as these elements remain part of the game, everything else can be changed.  If the change improves the game, the change OUGHT to be made.

The question isn't, "Is die rolling a lot of fun?"  The question, dear readers, must be, "Are dice the last word in how to play the game?"

The answer to that question is No.

People speak about "roll-playing games" - which result due to the limitation of dice.  IF I wish to increase the number of variables which can be rolled for - and therefore nuance the unexpected and in turn the element of risk, I must roll MORE dice to compensate for the new possible variations.  As I increase the game towards greater and greater nuance, I must roll more and more dice.  As I roll more and more dice, the game becomes increasingly complicated, as each new set of dice rolls requires more human computation to determine their outcome.  Human computation in the game is dull!  There is a limit to how much human computation players are prepared to do.  As long as we must rely upon human computation to determine the level of nuance in a game, the game can only be nuanced to a certain degree.

Once more for the sleepers in the back - if you only want to know if your sword hits, and how much damage it does, that only takes one die roll.  But if you want to know where your sword hits, that's a die.  If you want to know if you drop your sword, that's a die.  If you want to know where your dropped sword lands, that's a die.  If you want to know what your blow to the enemy's head dies, that's a die.  Everything you want to add is a DIE.  And every die that's added is another moment with other players at the table are watching a die roll bounce and flip its way to its conclusion.  It's another five seconds in the game, while Billy picks the yellow dice he rolls for "drops & breaks," and for Billy to wind up, and for Billy to throw too hard and bounce it off the table, and for the players to debate on the modifiers and for the DM to look the results up on another chart.

It's another five seconds YOU don't play, gentle reader, while Billy does.  It's five seconds multiplied by the number of other players, further multiplied by the number of rounds, further multiplied by the number of other nuanced rolls, all resulting in more confusion and debate and disagreement.  It's more shit for the new players to learn and it's a further obstacle in the reward mechanism of success.  More rolling just fucking sucks.

So we don't do it.  We limit ourselves TO THE DICE.  We limit the game TO THE DICE.

That's okay ... because we love the dice, don't we?  Yes, we love them.  Fuck the goddamn game - we have all the risk assessment we can handle anyway.  We don't need more.

About the dumbest thing I've heard over the last four days is this idea that dice create a physical/emotional effect by the time it takes for them to fall.  This isn't dumb because it isn't true.  This is dumb because people seem to think ONLY dice can have this effect.

By this time, three decades into the widespread availability of computers, people ought to know that human response can be programmed.  It's not like this is new!  You want to incorporate a time element?  No problem.  You think your animal brain can tell the difference?  It can't.  You respond chemically the same way to watching a fake die on the screen as you do to a real die ... the only difference is, when you hold the real die in your hand, you develop a mythical, imaginary attraction to it which you confuse with reality.  When you decide that you'd rather retain that imaginary attraction over and above the possibilities and principles of the game, then you make the die your game.  And in that case your game, my dear reader, is NOT D&D.  It's something you might consider doing alone and then washing your hands afterwards.

Oh, I realize there are a lot of really stupid people who would rather fetishize their dice and play the game the way its always been played.  If this kind of reaction wasn't rife in the human population, we'd have tossed religion out on the doorstep centuries ago.  People will hold onto their bullshit no matter what you say - which is fine for them.  Doesn't change the fact that it IS bullshit.  No matter how many sentimentality flags are stuck in its steaming pile.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Age of Dice

Dice are like any other technology.  When people start talking about the sensual quality of its use, then you know the technology is already dead.

The current arguments about paper books, for instance, in which people talk about their smell, or the tactile feel of a book in their hands.  I happen to think books have a purely technological superiority - I can upload the page I want in a book in about two to five seconds, thank you muchly ... about the time it takes the e-book to stop showing the company's marketing logo.  Still, that's not the argument you hear - it's all about a book's feel.

So it goes with dice.  Carl, in a comment yesterday wrote,

"You can't shake a number generator in your hand and blow on it. You can't throw it soft so it barely rolls or hard so it bounds around for an eternity. There is no moment of suspense as the rotation slows and the final tumbles produce a result."

There it is.  The pathetic bleat of the last ditch argument.  It feels better.

I don't want to bad mouth dice too much.  People worship them.  But if we're going to propose that dice are so special that an instant video of a result isn't as interesting, we're going to be quickly up shit creek.

Has anyone invented a video game that includes a reader pad for dice?   This is totally possible.  You plug the pad into your USB port, you throw the die on it, the pad reads the grooves in the downside of the die and declares you've thrown the obverse side.  There you go!  A video game that takes into account the moment of suspense that can only be gained by ROLLING A DIE.


Tradition is a beautiful thing.  Here's the thing about tradition.  Most of the time, it is only tradition because at the time of its creation, that's all there was.  This is a good reason because it is the ONLY reason.  Usually, when it ceases to be the only reason, the tendency is for human beings to concoct additional, backward-in-time justifications towards the argument that IF there were other options, we would still have taken the one we did, because its better.

Fact is, we don't know that.  Some people just wish that.  But I promise you, if TSR could have made money in 1979 by producing a really keen electronic device that randomly rolled any number you wanted, that was small and self-portable and made a really cool Star Wars beeping sound when you punched a big red button, we would be arguing about the value of that.

Dice are going to be around a long time.  No one has to worry they won't be able to use dice in their games.  But it isn't because they're "better" ... that is just bullshit.  It is because dice are older.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


The resident genius that runs in my offline campaign does not like computer-driven random number generators.  They do not, in his correct estimation, produce 'true' random numbers.  The most flexible, familiar one on your system would be in your excel program, in which you can obtain a random number either by typing either formula:

=randbetween(x,y) - which will give you whole numbers between x & y
=rand()*x - which will give you all numbers between zero and x.

There are ways to play with these formulas, but I'll let you look it up elsewhere.  I mean only to address the problem that these number generators (which use the clock in your computer as the initial 'seed') are only good for ONLY tens of thousands of random numbers.  Hm.  I don't know about you, but tens of thousands sounds like a lot.

If we presume that the time it takes to roll a die, watch it bounce on the table and stop, read the number, and snatch up the die preparatory to roll it again is only one-and-a-half seconds, it would take you four hours and ten minutes to roll the die 10,000 times.  This is assuming the die never takes too long to roll, and never rolls far enough away that you need to lean forward (wasting precious tenths of a second) and that you never drop it.  So, under those circumstances, it is possible to make 10,000 rolls in the space of an ordinary D&D session.

But even if we argue that the second set of 10,000 numbers is precisely the same as the first set (because we have a really crappy number generator), it hardly makes a difference ... because those die rolls will be applied to so many possible tables that the repetition becomes meaningless.  The only concern would be that you or the players knew what the next number in the sequence was going to be - and that they modified their behavior to take advantage.

Try an experiment.  Write out a list of 100 d20 rolls, print them and hand them to each player.  Do not keep a list for yourself.  If at all possible, don't look at the list you give your players.  Tell your players that these are going to be the next rolls that everyone is going to you - DM included.  Then run your game, designating when your players should roll dice to hit, save or whatever else as usual.  Do not let your players choose the order in which they attack - go right to left around the table, or whatever usual method you use to keep order in your game.

I'm guessing that foreknowledge of the rolls won't be that much of an advantage.  I'm also guessing the players will get frustrated at the enemy "stealing" their rolls.  They might be able to strategize a little, since they will hold a physical list in their hands which they can think about in advance.

Imagine how hard it would be to make it work if they had only their memories to rely upon, and could not compare memories with each other.

The reality is that we're not complex enough to take advantage of a repetition even if there was one.  If there was some Rain Man at the table with perfect memory, and he was restrained from shouting out the numbers ahead of time (I know a number of people who would like Hoffman gagged), he wouldn't have that much of an advantage, since those really good numbers were going to be stolen from him most of the time.  Perhaps some genius would like to write and tell me how they'd manage it - for myself, I think that one more elf standing behind a tree taking one unexpected bow shot would totally fuck up Rain Man's whole plan.

Tell me how I'm wrong.

From my experience, I believe the game itself is unpredictable enough to counter-balance any lack of randomness that might be present in a pseudo number generator.  There are too many human variables influencing the exact course of action from minute to minute that doesn't exist in the static computer codebreaker/statistics manager that needs 'real' random numbers.

Perhaps there's a future in cyphers based on four D&D players fighting a red dragon that the Russians are working on right now.


You can try this experiment too.  Tell your players you're going to use a random number generator for every roll all night.  Make lists of 150 x d20, d12, d10, d8, d6 and d4 rolls, and use that list over and over again - using multiples for when more than one die is rolled (3d4 for instance).  Don't tell them you're doing this.

See if anyone notices a repetition.  If they do, see if they can make use of it in the course of one session.

(You can always justify these things by handwaving their justification with magic)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Consequences for Contact Occurrences Involving Weapons and Armor

Last week I posted some possible rules for determining occasions of contact between weapons and armor; I thought I'd add more to that, since I've been thinking about the results of said contact.

Incidentally, I don't write these kind of posts for the attention; they don't do well in the scheme of things.  Players are resistant to new rules; they've been burned too many times, and for the most part new rules aren't worth the bother to implement them.  Honest, I write these rules more as a mental exercise; I don't expect to include them even in my own campaign (my partner would kill me, for one).  I do think that one day, should it ever happen that a group of players I have comes to recognize that dice are a tool, and an inefficient tool at that, we may be able to devise a complex combat system round (not the whole combat!) that could be resolved at the push of a button.  A set of perameters that determined the success and effect in one go--thus allowing more possible effects in a short period of time than a human being would be prepared to roll clumsy, time-consuming dice to determine.  Unfortunately, die rolling has become dogmatically sacred (and all that that implies), and we're not there emotionally as a gaming culture yet.

Getting down to the mental exercise, then.

For convenience, I'll repost last week's table:

Note for this discussion, we won't be talking about hit points or damage caused.  The present system manages that just fine, thank you very much - and as I suggested in the last post, the chances of causing damage, or the damage caused, is absolutely not affected by any of the rules discussed below, or in the post last week.  We are talking about effects to equipment, NOT hit points.

From the table above, we can see four types of contact: weapon hitting body; weapon hitting ground; weapon hitting weapon; and weapon hitting armor.

My instinct would be to say that the weapon hitting the body should have no effect on the weapon.  Success is success in the game, I think, and surely a weapon is designed to strike bone and flesh without losing its integrity.  Obviously, it might ... but for game purposes, I think the best course is to say it won't.

The weapon hitting the ground is trickier.  What ground?  Obviously a knee-deep swamp is going to have a different effect on a weapon than a rocky mountainside.  My habit in the past has been to say that if a weapon is "dropped," and in turn broken, a number of things may have happened; it may have smashed on the enemy's armor and then fallen out of the player's hand; it may have been tossed into the swamp and remained whole, but lost forever in the mud.  But if we are limiting those possibilities by specifying exactly when a weapon breaks because it hits an opponent's armor, then the whole drop-and-break rule needs review.  There are few surfaces in the wild that will smash a weapon; the more dangerous surfaces are those of a town or a dungeon.  Off hand, I'd say that if the surface under the player's feet includes stone (or imaginably, metal), there's a chance the weapon will break; even a large boulder nearby would serve.  If the surface is field or beach or heavy growth, then probably there's no chance of the weapon breaking.  If, finally, there's a chance the weapon could be lost (next to a river, cliff, pond, etc.) then that has to be rolled.  The usual chance for a break/loss is 1 in 6 once a natural 1 on a d20 has been rolled.  It would probably serve to drop that chance to 1 in 12 or less ... but I have thoughts on that I'll get to in a while.

Where the weapon hits another weapon, obviously both weapons should roll for integrity.  I don't see why, again for gaming purposes, why the defending weapon should be stronger or weaker than the attacking weapon.  The better drama occurs, I think, when both weapons have an equal chance of breaking.

(It adds considerably to the battle cry of "Shields must be Splintered" to acknowledge that everything may be splintered or shattered)

Finally, weapon hitting armor also has the quality of both weapon and armor suffering.  In this case, yes, the armor should have superiority over the weapon - but not in the likelihood of the armor taking damage, but in its degree.  Follow my logic here, and we can play around with some numbers.

I'd put a title on this table, but I haven't got one.  Doesn't really matter, does it?  I don't think anyone in the world is going to move forward on this.



If the weapon is dropped on stone ground, or hits another weapon, or hits armor, the first half of the table is rolled upon.

A blunted weapon would be the sort of thing that could be repaired by the player following the end of the combat. It would need a whetstone and time; thus it would incorporate a game purpose for weapon maintenance. If the weapon were blunted, the character would only need to mark it with a "B" on the character sheet - removing the B when it was sharpened again.

A weakened weapon would require a bit more. A resmithing, for example, or a mend spell. It could still be brought up to its prior quality, it would simply require a professional, more time and a bit of money. A magic weapon might be trickier to 're-forge.'

In the case of both blunted and weakened weapons, if the damage was reduced to zero by the modifier, then zero it would be. A DM could impose a minimum damage of 1 on any hit - but I'd argue that said minimum would be imposed after any strength or magic bonuses.

Total likelihood that something will happen to an undamaged weapon is 1 in 6.  That may seem high, but it depends on how much turnover you want incorporated in your system. If we presume that the world is based more or less on the 11th century, and you're people are using iron, this is probably accurate. If you want a better odds on favorite, replace the d6 with d8 or d10 ... that should reduce your odds effectively. A magic weapon might even use 2d20.

In any case, using 2d6, the likelihood that something will happen to a previously damaged weapon is not 1 in 4, as the table would seem to suggest.  A blunted or weakened weapon would not be more blunted or more weakened with another roll designating it so.  Thus, a blunt weapon would ignore a result of 4, and a weakened weapon would ignore a result of 3.

Thus, the odds of something more happening to an already degraded weapon - breaking, that is - would only be 1 in 18 for a blunted weapon, and 1 in 12 for a weakened weapon.  This would mean there were many more blunted or weakened weapons in the world than perfect ones.

Virtually any weapon found is bound to be either blunted or weakened.  Thus, if you get a weapon from a goblin, it might be serviceable with a bit of time ... but on the fly, in the middle of the combat, it's going to have limited usefulness.
Another consideration is how this balances the effectiveness of bludgeoning weapons.  Obviously, blunting a morning star or a flail isn't going to do anything (thus the result is ignored and damage wouldn't be reduced).  Arguably, the weakened weapon result could also be ignored.  This means that although a morning star does the same damage as a broad sword, it is a more reliable weapon - which makes a nice balance for the fact that it can't be used with a shield.  "Sure," says the cleric.  "Keep your swords and your knives; I'll take a good trusty mace any time!"
(Perhaps that's why a cleric uses bludgeoning weapons - he has more important things to do than sharpening the damn things all the time)
If the armor is struck with a weapon, the second half of the table is rolled upon.  Again, total likelihood of a result is 1 in 6; and dented armor would not be made more dented, fractured armor would not be made more fractured and so on.  Only the roll of 11 or 12 would decrease the AC for damaged armor - a 1 in 12 chance.
Of course, that could be changed.  The 11-12 result could be moved to 5, for instance, increasing further damage to 1 in 9.  Its really up to the DM how he or she wants to goof with the numbers.
Armor, like weapons, could be repaired.  A dented shield might be useless for defense, but it could be argued that hammering it out was possible (or the DM could argue that any reduction ruined the shield's wooden portion, and the metal would have to be hammered onto a new wooden frame).  Certainly, a fractured shield wouldn't be repairable in the field (the wood portion would be split).  A smashed shield would be worthless and unrepairable.
But what of padded armor?  it only reduces AC by 1, and it can't be 'dented' - no metal parts.  Well, it wasn't practical to come up with a symbol for every kind of armor, so you could simply assume that 'dented' padded armor was rent and had a gaping hole in it.  'dented' leather armor might have a split in it.  'dented' studded leather, a smaller split, and any kind of armor above that would be reduced.
I discussed this with a couple of players who suggested that armor driven into the negatives is ruined -  beyond repair.  But armor reduced to zero could be fixed again.  A mend spell would return it to normal; certain cantrips could arguably improve the armor at least one degree.  An armorer could fix it with time and at a cost.  Finally, the player in the field with time should be able to improve it one degree as well.
Arguably, any armor reduced by more than 50% of its original strength couldn't be improved again above, say, 75% of its total original worth.  That is, if plate mail (-7 AC) were reduced by 5 AC, it couldn't be repaired by anything short of magic (not including cantrips, which is jury-rigging) to a better state than the equivalent of chain mail.  The damage overall is just too great.  Them's the breaks.  It serves a DM well for a player to have to spend money on new plate armor.
The reader may take note that a result of '7' has been shown with the option 're-roll.'  This would increase the chances of something bad happening by above 16% ... which could be a modifier for armor or weapons made by a less than savory source.  Goblins vs. humans, for example.  Or it could be a way to recognize superior craftsmanship with the same basic material - ordinary weapons re-roll on a 7, while crafted weapons do not.  Also, the re-roll could be designated at any number between 5 and 10 ... allowing minute gradations in strength and value.
As I suggested above, steel, magic, bronze, iron - even wooden weapons such as used by the mayans - could all use different dice to designate the weapons strength.  With 2d8, the relevant effects would occur still at 2 to 4, on a 9 (re-roll) and on a 15 or 16.  With 2d10, the high relevant effects would occur on an 11, a 19 or a 20.  And so on.  You could even muck with the table other ways, working with 3d4, 3d6 or 3d8 ... whatever got you the satisfactory odds you wanted, that worked in your world.
I suppose that's everything.  In reality, the above is staggeringly simple.  It would be staggeringly easy to implement and memorize - if the gentle reader cared.
But why else would I write this?