Friday, August 7, 2020

Elegant Design

I don't write a lot of posts about "the biz" of publishing books, but this is a little strange...there seems to be a slight resurgence in interest in my books.

The B/X Companion for sure: just checked the PDF sales report on DriveThruRPG, and it's on pace to have its best year since 2013. Just to put that in perspective: my Companion was only made available as a PDF in 2012, and the total sales for the first two years exceeds all sales combined from 2014-2019.  

[which is still peanuts, of course (total sales over the life of the product is a bit north of 1000), but considering my lack of business skills and marketing savvy...not to mention the niche market to which my product belongs...I'll take pride in my home-baked slice of the pie]

If I had to guess about a reason for the recent sales spike, I'd probably give credit to the expanding popularity of the recent Old School Essentials (B/X) retro-clone. Back in "The Time Before Covid" I had a chance to take a look at Ye Local Gamestore and it was a pretty nice set of books. Didn't purchase it myself (money's a little tight for picking up products I already own in their original form), but I've heard plenty of praise for the thing, both in-person (from actual people) and on-line (from virtual people). 

ANYway, that's the only reason I can think of...I don't see any reviews or internet mentions of the Companion more recently than 2012 or so. Regardless, my thanks to all the people doing the purchasing...considering the many pirate PDFs of my book floating around the internet these days, I appreciate the money some folks are actually willing to put in my pocket.

Now the stranger part: while OSE offers some explanation for my B/X Companion, I don't know what could account for the renewed interest in Five Ancient Kingdoms, which is also on pace to have its best sales since 2013 (the first year it was published). 

Are people actually playing 5AK?

Allow me to be a skosh amazed at the idea. I mean, I'm not playing the game at the moment, though maybe I should be. I spent much of yesterday reading through the PDFs (for the first time in years) and, man, there is some good stuff in there. Elegant design, if I do say so myself (and I do).  Yeah, yeah...patting myself on the back again. But I like how I solved a lot of particular design issues I had with D&D, adding interesting nuance while still keeping the system streamlined and abstract.

Why did I abandon this line of gaming? 

Now THAT is a good question. I definitely remember feeling a bit pingeon-holed by the setting...even thought the books themselves offer ways to modify the system for other settings. But mostly, I think, that I felt the game lacked appeal...I could never get more than 2 or 3 players together that were willing to give it a go, back during the play-testing stage. Compare that with the offer of most any edition of D&D and you get half a dozen hands (or more) go up in the air, crying to join the table.

*sigh* I'm such a slave to what is trendy.

But no, it's more than that, I think. I worked hard on the probabilities and dice outcomes for 5AK, and they work well, but they're not as intuitive to grasp as a more granular, incremental system based on a D20 or percentile dice. Or perhaps it's just me...I am too used to these simpler granular systems, having been steeped in them for decades. Rolling 2d6 and tossing out "zeroes" just seems too "weird" from my perspective. I need some sort of damn chart/matrix to reference or I feel naked out there!

*sigh again*

As I continue to work on my own world and tinker the rules to better match the parameters of my design needs I read through these books...the three volumes of 5AK...and I keep coming across things that make me wonder "is there a way to add this to D&D?" A way to somehow incorporate these ideas into the standard D&D design without upsetting the entire apple cart? Sadly, I'm not sure there is. Systems in 5AK are built to inter-lock with each other. D&D is a hodge-podge of mechanics created on a "need" or "cool idea" basis (and often as patches when "cool ideas" ended up creating other "needs"). Functional as D&D is, fun as D&D is, its very nature precludes the addition of elegant mechanics.

Doesn't it?

Mentzer's BECMI tried to file off a lot of the "rough edges" and the game suffered for it (in my opinion). Same with 3rd edition...and 3.5 and 4th and 5th. The more well-oiled the machine becomes, the less room there is for imagination. 5AK works because it is, in the main, small scale and firmly based in its fairy tale genre. But D&D's heritage is founded in a wilder and woolier period of imaginings. 

What was it I was listening to the other day? Oh, yeah: Mother Love Bone. Andrew Wood is one of the greatest singer/songwriters that...unless you're really deep into musical lore...you've probably never heard or heard of. Unless you're, like, my age (mid-late 40s) and grew up in Seattle and liked rock music instead of pop and rap. Because Wood died right on the verge of becoming famous, and his bandmates ended up becoming Pearl Jam instead. And Vedder's a great singer and frontman, don't get me wrong, but Wood was a special talent. His music mixed the sacred with the profane, at time profound at times adolescent, all combined with sincerity and humor and beautiful singing ability, emphasizing love in all its expressions (for God, for children, for sex, for the world). I found my old CD in a mislabeled box and ended up listening to it 3 or 4 times through, just feeling...sad.

Because even if I played their CD for, say, my children or some 20-something year olds, there's just such a depth of meaning that would be lost on kids from a different generation. They just wouldn't grasp references because there's so much that doesn't exist anymore in this day and age of internet saturation and multi-hundred TV channels and social media bubbles. It's like: once upon a time the world was a smaller place, but so much more specific...and now its not. Once upon a time, every kid watched Bugs Bunny or Scoobie-Doo because you were a kid and you watched cartoons and there was only a couple channels and a couple times a week that you could watch them. Once upon a time there was only a handful of news outlets and rather than market themselves to a particular "fan base" they tried to report as quickly and accurately as possible. Once upon a time everyone knew the same songs because radio stations that catered to a particular taste only rotated the same handful of bands. We had shared understandings, shared touchstones.

We have so few of those these days, except for world-shattering events. Good things? Or fun things? Or nice things? Those are all over the board. You might know something about it if you're In The Group that cares about a particular thing (role-playing games, for example)...otherwise, it's outside your bubble, outside your sphere of interest. And you chance of having a shared knowledge with someone outside that thing is...slim. I can bitch about Trump or Covid with the other soccer parents while watching our kids practice or I can talk about soccer and soccer kids. Anything else? Chaff in the wind.

D&D...the D&D that I play and that I prefer...belongs to that older time. It wasn't created to be elegant or universal or easily consumed. It gained ascendance by being pretty much the only (or main) game in town at a time when the world was a much smaller place, when choices were more limited, and when people...players...had more shared understandings. Me writing 5AK was an attempt at...hell, I don't really know (or remember) exactly what I was attempting. But with regard to mechanics, I tried to make it as "elegant" as possible, while maintaining some sort of soul and imagination. I just don't know if imagination can exist alongside "elegant" design...it certainly seems more readily found in the inelegant systems of the wilder, woolier past. 

Ugh. This post has gone completely off the rails. Probably need to reset (and maybe eat some breakfast).  Later, gators.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Working Cycles

Been doing "world building stuff" the last few days. It's slow going.

The advantage of using a real world setting is that a lot of things have been done for you: placement of natural features (mountains, rivers, lakes, etc.), lists of resources, climate maps, topography, vegetation, etc. All that stuff is "in place" and easy to suss out given access to the internet and a decent atlas (which I have).

The hard part is dealing with the people of 11,000 years ago. Not a lot of info about that period of time, and "accepted" archaeology would make the indigenous populations a bunch of tiny family units and "tribes" of neolithic cave folk.

Which is definitely NOT what I'm doing. Prehistoric: yes. Stone age: no. This is a prehistoric iron (and bronze) age, based heavily on a mix of Atlantis mythology mixed with sword & sorcery fiction. It's not Kull the Conqueror...more Edgar Cayce, MZB, and Peter Timlett's Seedbearers trilogy...the main idea based on the idea that there was a more advanced civilization that will (eventually) fall on a very hard dark age long before our (current) recorded history begins. Call it the Orichalcum Age of man. Or, perhaps, the Tumbaga Age (since tumbaga appears to be the orichalcum equivalent in South America).

[oh, yeah: plus dwarves and elves and goblins, etc. It IS D&D after all. My world has dragons...though maybe not blue ones, as lightning-breathing monsters are a little too "Friday night monster flick" for my taste]

But, of course, there's no record of communities in South America from more than the last couple-four centuries, and precious little info from pre-colonial times that would be useful to world building. Furthermore, my deliberate placement of the setting at the beginning of the Holocene epoch, means the climate (especially in the region I'm concerned with) is far more cool-temperate in range, resulting in vastly different flora, fauna, and agricultural practices.

So I'm cheating. I'm operating under the assumption that life moves in more-or-less regular cycles. Communities (towns and cities) tend to form in the same places for the same reasons (convenience of landscape, access to resources, etc.); populations are greatly reduced in number but, so far as glaciation allows, they're more or less the same as today. Livestock and crops might change over 10,000 years, but not their presence, nor placement in the overall geography. Mined resources are the same, of course, though with reductions in the amount of ore produced.

[I'm actually using 16th century gold production rates, divvied up proportionally by region based on 21st century percentages...calculates out to a bit more than 3.3 tons (107k ounces) of gold per year in regions south of Panama. This works under the assumption that the population is pretty close to the same, that Atlantean/dwarven/elven mining methods are at least as advanced as Spain's in the 1500s, and that there was more gold and gold more easily/conveniently found.  Consider that modern accounts of pre-modern gold mining generally ignores what was being done in the Americas prior to colonization, and that a LOT of gold was found when Europeans did arrive]

Names of places are a problem, of course. Wikipedia states there are about 600 indigenous languages in Latin America, and I don't see myself learning Quechua-Mayan just to make the setting feel more "authentic" (and it's doubtful that any of these languages were the same thousands of years ago anyway...). On the other hand, making up "fantasy names" for towns is a pretty ridiculous prospect. I suppose I could simply research the etymology of existing names and come up with English equivalents, but that poses its own problems. For example, Cochabamba (the 4th largest city in Bolivia) takes its name from a transliteration of the Quechua word for the region which means "Lake Plain." However, the city itself was called Llajta which just means "town." There's probably more than a few llajtas in South America.

In the short term, I'm using the modern names for places, landmarks, etc. because it would be damn near impossible to locate things otherwise using modern maps and atlases. If I told you to locate Antofagasta (in Peru), you could easily do so with an internet search; if I renamed it Salt Lake City (which is, more or less, how the name translates)...well, you can see the difficulty there, right?

Maybe I should organize communities
around language isolates.
Still, work progresses and I'm enjoying the world building (despite my complaints). And parts of it are fun (locating dwarves in a hilly region of Brazil known for its titanium deposits, for example; who needs mithril-steel!). It's just slooow going.

Okay, my kids are up. Got to go.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Morality and the Cosmic Struggle

[quick note: I've decide to try moderating comments for the time being as I've been getting an excessive amount of spam lately, and it's become a real irritation]

This isn't really what I planned on writing about, but after reading Father Dave's recent post, I figured it was time to finally throw down my two cents on alignment, my (current) thoughts on the concept, and how it will apply in my game setting.

Over the years, I've gone back and forth on the subject many, many times. My current stance (which I've had for less than six months) is to use alignment in my game. Multiple reasons go into this decision that I [still] don't want to enumerate [yet]. However, I will assure the reader that NONE of those reasons stem from a personal desire to simplify the game ("Rules As Written!") nor make my DMing life easier. Finding a way to use alignment in a meaningful and effective way is actually more difficult and not a headache to be readily embraced; it certainly isn't a headache I've found terribly enjoyable.

Still, I think alignment is important to my game world, as the cosmology of the setting is at least as important as the physical geography to its overall design.

SO...having said that (and having spent the last few days going though the OD&D monsters and figuring out the IFs and HOWs needed to slot them into my setting), please indulge me a moment to talk about my personal viewpoints on evil and how it works in a game context.

Father Dave's post discusses the importance of evil as a concept for an RPG; how reducing the game setting to one of moral relativism (if I may be allowed to paraphrase) makes the struggle between selfish individuals (and the stories told of those struggles) both boring and pointless. I assume some folks would take umbrage with this statement, as "boring" can be recognized as a matter of taste (television shows that I find tedious are undoubtably stimulating to others) and "pointless" ...well, what can be more pointed than watching humans (and/or tieflings, etc.) struggle in the face of adversity? That IS the point of The Game, after all.

But I understand the good padre is writing from his stance as a Christian theologian and I respect his perspective.

[ooo...I can see the potential for this discussion to get nasty. Lots of people get LOTS of things out of D&D besides any potential "meaning" or morality lesson, people who hold the game on an equally high (or higher) pedestal. I really, really don't want to have that debate here. Please don't go down that particular road in the comments; yes, I understand D&D holds a lot of juice for a lot of people of all stripes and persuasions...]

For ME, it is important that my campaign setting is sensible; if the setting doesn't make sense to me, I will (eventually) become tired of and frustrated with the nonsensical elements until I chuck the whole thing...something that has happened many, many times to me in the past. I'd rather have a game setting that will last, oh say, a hundred years or so (enough time that it should outlive me) and my best strategy for doing so is picking an epoch in our real world past that is so far removed from today that who knows WHAT might have happened "way back then" (knowledge does tend to get lost after a few thousand years...). However, making use of our Real World means using a real world cosmology or, at least, a close approximation given the circumstances of the setting and the rules of the game; that, to me, is sensible.

So then what is "evil" as I believe it? Father Dave defines evil as the absence of God. "Goodness" is the same as God...God is the source of all goodness. The more you remove good/God from the equation the higher the degree of evil; the padre compares evil to cold, and God/goodness to warmth. Cold increases the more you remove yourself from the source of heat; add heat and cold is diminished. Easy-peasy...that's a fairly typical Christian perspective on the way the cosmos functions.

My own take is a little more New Age-y (I'm not the world's greatest Christian by any stretch): God is All; All is One. "Evil" comes from denying this fact...by separating ourselves (through thought and/or action) from the truth (or Truth) that All is One. Forgetting our place and our purpose as "higher beings," parts of God's whole, destined and designed to do God's will because we are one with God. Forgetting our higher purpose...or ignoring it, or working against it...results in the only "sin" that matters: selfishly separating ourselves from God. This causes suffering in the whole (for All is One)...it is a sin against God, against ourselves, and against our fellows for we are all part of a single whole.

But why does such sin (or the possibility of it) exist? Here, I'll take a page from Tolkien and draw the analogy that Eternity is like a grand symphony, composed of many notes, chords, rhythms, and movements. Only with an omniscient understanding can its whole be observed at once; only with the perspective of God can it be seen how one part leads to the next, how each portion is necessary to the whole. The struggles and challenges of those humans residing on our planet may seem terrible and terrifying...or petty and sordid...when viewed with only a limited ability to perceive. But that limitation, too, is part of the overall scheme and design of the composition.

Putting that into D&D language: I am using the three-point alignment system of Law, Neutrality, and Chaos in my setting. A Lawful person is one who actively does God's will (purposefully, though regardless of whether or not there exists understanding). "Persons" mean creatures with a level of intelligence rising to the level of sentience; "God's will" generally means living in harmony (with others and with nature), and generally promoting the same. There are very few species in my game that are (culturally) of the Lawful disposition; most are angelic beings.

By my definitions, anyone NOT actively doing God's will would be in the "evil" category (to greater or lesser degree), but the difference between Neutrality and Chaotic is a preferred distinction for my setting. While there are certainly selfish people out there who are more interested in their personal  desires than following the Law of One, not all are so wicked as to actively be working AGAINST the cosmic design (i.e. trying to create MORE separation from God). This, then, is the distinction: a Neutral person is not working to create a closer bond with God, nor are they working to undermine oneness (and, generally due to ignorance and disinterest, these may perform deeds at various times that move the needle one way or the other: helping an individual in need one day, while cheating someone else another). These maintain the "status quo" of life on Earth, perpetuating its cycles, and maintaining the possibility to join one side or the other. In contrast, the Chaotic person, by thought and deed, continuously pushes to destroy One-ness through selfish aggrandizement, exploitation of others, and general awfulness.

Regarding non-sentient beings: most are of the Neutral alignment (all "natural" creatures, for example) unless their very nature is an offense to the natural order: undead creatures, for example, or certain magical abominations created by stray and terrible magics (like trolls). "Demons" are not "fallen angels" in the Milton sense, but there are certain ethereal beings whose interaction with humans usually take a malignant turn (for the humans), much the same way that interacting with other "forces" (fire, gravity, etc.) have the potential to cause harm to the unwary; such forces are labeled as "Chaotic" due to the danger their interference poses to humans attempting to follow God's will. Such creatures (and those who harness them as tools in their quest for personal power) provide a steady source of conflict in the setting.

Hope that all makes sense.

This, by the way, has brought up other headaches...er, "interesting challenges"...with regard to the design of the campaign's mega-dungeon. Licancabur is a natural formation, one that in recent centuries has been sacred and holy to the people of the region, much as such sites (Olympus, Rainier, Danali) have been sacred to other peoples throughout history. Moreover, nature may be aloof and uncaring to the wants and needs of human beings, but that doesn't make it evil...merely dangerous. So what "lawful" reason could there be for adventurers to delve its ancient depths, explore its hollowed out volcanic tubes, slay its denizens, and pillage its treasures? If Licancabur is not some sort of gateway to hell, what gives them the right to ravish it, sword in hand?

Corruption. Perversion. The temple has become a den of inequity. The hallowed halls are defiled with mutants and monsters of the vilest sort. Something must be done to return the place to a state of grace, though it may take years, and the blood of many would-be heroes, to do so.

And, for now, that's enough to kick-off a campaign. Because my setting takes place some 9000 years before the time of Christ, there are no Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions in the game, but there are religious orders and clerics. The line between magic-users and clerics is very thin, in my setting, the difference being mainly one of perspective and mission. Only followers of the Law of One have access to the full range of healing powers; worshippers of false gods and natural powers are little more than hedge wizards, and idolatrous demon-worshippers have no access to healing magic at all, being only capable of harnessing the powers of malice and harm for their personal "benefit."

Magic-users as a class hold themselves aloof from matters of the spirit and worship, but they are aware of the way the cosmos works, and ignore it at their own peril. Many wizards, lacking wisdom or lost in their pursuit of knowledge and power, will tread the path of chaos. Bad things undoubtably await them (in this life or in the next), but such a road will not curtail their progression.

My use of alignment in D&D isn't meant to dictate behavior, neither with regard to players, nor their characters. With regard to player characters, alignment is a stamp and statement of where their souls lie in terms of the cosmic struggle. There is no requirement to "act one's alignment:" presumably, a character's actions will stem from a [Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic] motivation, and even if not, so what? Individuals slip up, make mistakes, and act against type. Lancelot sleeps with the wife of his friend and liege. Hercules gets drunk and kills his family. Darth Vader decides he'd rather go out a hero than watch his son be murdered. Do such deeds make up for a lifetime of goodness/badness? Maybe, maybe not...the player is free to discuss a possible alignment change with the DM (me) if she wants to entertain that possibility.

Regardless, I'll assume that the character is doing plenty of acts "off-screen" that readily bolster and justify the alignment chosen.

Actions have consequences...all sorts of consequences. Kill all the lizard men in the local swamp and you have no lizard men. In some ways, this is a good thing: fewer dangers in the swamp (if the lizard men were apt to ambush unwary travelers), perhaps more game to be found by the locals (since the lizard men aren't hunting it). Perhaps, though, the lizard men acted as a natural "buffer zone" between the local village and a different threat of some sort, a more dangerous tribe of creatures that will now take their place. Perhaps the lizard folk worshipped a black dragon and their occasional "sacrifices" kept the thing from looking for prey elsewhere. Perhaps they hunted a particular type of animal that is difficult for a non-scaly hunter to eradicate, and now the unchecked pest threatens to overrun the swamp...maybe some sort of giant spider whose venom was ineffective against the lizard people (but is fatal to humans).

The point is: the genocide of the lizard people isn't necessarily evil...it may have been an expedient solution to a very real problem. But actions have consequences, and there may have been more than one solution to "the lizard man question." Finding a harmonious approach is, generally, the Lawful way, as I'm defining the term...but sometimes, stamping out a Chaotic threat IS the "Lawful" method needed.

But that isn't to say my world is one of moral relativism; I personally don't believe in moral relativism, and since my setting is my own, personal creation, I get to determine the truth of the matter. So there are absolutes of good and evil, right and wrong, broadly defined as moving in alignment with God or against God. And unfortunately, for most humans trapped in a fallible bodies of limited perception, having actual knowledge of what is God's will is pretty much impossible to fathom. Which is why we rely on the wisdom of priests and the teachings of religions for guidance. It's only too bad that the priesthood and writers of religious tracts are (mostly) composed of fallible humans of limited perception.

*ahem* Anyway, having a system of alignment allows me to shape the scope of my setting in (morally) absolute terms: these creatures are an abomination, these magic items are designed for the use of Law, these spells can only be used in the service of Chaos, etc. Alignment allows me to steer the tone of the game and provides a convenient shorthand for defining the nature of the cosmic struggle in my own morally absolute terms. It provides another layer to the physics of the game world, an extra dimension of challenge to be navigated, an additional meaning to the experience of play.

Again: its purpose is not an edict of player (or character) behavior.

That being said, it would probably be strange to have both Lawful and Chaotic characters in the same adventuring party.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Regulating Chaos

*sigh* Down the rabbit hole again...

I've been doing a lot of "work" on movement and encumbrance the last few days. Turns out, I'm just not satisfied with the rules as written.

Which rules, JB? Well, here I'm mainly considering OD&D, AD&D, and B/X. Holmes Basic has the fewest rules on encumbrance and movement, but may actually be closer to accurate.

Why does any of this matter, JB? Okay, it probably doesn't matter especially. Dungeons & Dragons is a game, and playability is as important...if not more so...than accuracy. "Playability" doesn't necessarily mean "easy," but it does have to promote a challenging, engaging experience for the players. We provide challenge so that the game does not become so easy as to become tedious. We provide engagement to spark interest so that players care and bring their "A" game to the table.

I wrote about the importance of encumbrance to the game a couple weeks ago. Encumbrance provides a third dimension to game play. Folks aren't just worried about choice of weapon and armor for how much it costs them (in imaginary gold coins), but about how it impacts their character's movement and ability to carry other gear/treasure. Without encumbrance, "cost" eventually fades (experienced adventurers have plenty of imaginary gold and often acquire magical equipment for "free" anyway), and "choice" is limited to a question of "effectiveness" (i.e. what weapon does the most damage, what armor gives the best protection)...which is too easy a challenge to provide engagement to a mature, seasoned player. Fine for kids, not so much for adults.

[yes, yes story gamers...y'all don't care about "accounting exercises." You play a different version of D&D from what I do. This post isn't for you]

So how do encumbrance rules, when used (they are OPTIONAL in the B/X system, probably because it was scaled for kids), impact the game?

  1. The rules restrict what gear can be carried by a player's character by placing a hard limit on carrying capacity. This requires players to make choices as to what is necessary for an adventure, especially as acquiring treasure is the objective, and treasure found will need to be carried as well.
  2. The rules restrict movement in two different ways: First,  it restricts the distance that can be covered over time, which creates more opportunity for wandering monsters to appear (wandering monsters being a drain on party resources while providing no great reward...they don't carry treasure!). Second, it reduces the distance one can move in encounter situations, impacting the ability to maneuver and, thus, succeed at tactical objectives (whether that means destroying one's opponents or fleeing to fight another day).

Note: there are some adventures where rule situation #1 doesn't apply: in many time-sensitive missions (say, rescue the hobbit captives from the orcs, deliver the message of the impending invasion, destroy an evil artifact before it falls into the wrong hands, etc.) acquiring treasure isn't a goal. As such, rule impact #2 (limiting movement) must still be important...or even more prominent!...in order to provide the appropriate degree of stress to the challenge.

Here's the thing, though: being encumbered doesn't have nearly the impact on an individual's movement as the rules state.

Let's be perfectly clear. I am, by my own admission, both overweight and not in fantastic shape...not even good shape, really. The rest of my family (especially my skinny, athlete son) is in far better shape...and none of them are carrying the extra belly and jowl fat I am. Even so, I can still outrun, out-hike, and out-bike them. On the soccer field, my kid can do all sorts of fancy moves and has a dead hard shot, but I can still outmaneuver him...and out-quick him...to beat him in one-on-one games (and my victories are even more decisive when we play on a larger field, rather than our front yard). I'm bigger, stronger, and faster, despite being an old fat man with bad knees, a bad ankle, and back pain.

Unencumbered, I can advance in a straight line, weapon(s) in hand(s), and cover 40' of ground in approximately ten seconds. If I do a "controlled charge" (i.e. moving as quickly as I can to engage, while taking care not to trip over my own feet or impale myself on something), I can cover the same ground in half the time (approximately 5 seconds). Having actually worn armor a time or two in the past, I know that it would not affect my ability to walk hardly at all, and would only slightly impact my ability to charge...probably not enough to make a substantial difference, especially in an actual combat situation with adrenaline pumping through my veins.

How do I get these figures? I spent a couple day running simulations with my kids. Yes, folks, all sorts of Covid entertainment at the JB household. My boy, by the way (who's a foot and a half shorter than me), advances and charges at about the same rate, maybe slightly slower due to stride length.

But let's talk encumbrance, shall we? I had the kids fill their backpacks with all sorts of "adventuring equipment" in order to run tests on speed and movement. The original impetus for this was wanting to see how fast one could retrieve a specific item from a filled pack in a chaotic, stressful environment (like combat) because I'm tinkering with the combat turn ("round") structure of my game. However, my kids were "all in" on this experiment and insisted on outfitting themselves in full-on regalia, including armor, weapons, etc. The results were interesting.

[I took pictures, but my spouse does not want me posting photos of the kids on Ye Old Blog. Not that this stops her from putting their pix on Facebook, but whatever...]

Not my children...just
some kids on pinterest.
My boy's "kit" included multiple layers of padding and plastic "armor," a shield, a wooden sword (long sword equivalent), a bow (no quiver), helmet (plastic), and a 20# backpack. My daughter was wearing an ankle length wizard robe (over clothes), pointy wizard hat, along with a 15# backpack (contents included a thick hardcover to represent her "spell book"); in my daughter's hands she carried a (plastic) sword and an actual camp lantern (battery operated). Although the weight was only a small fraction of what a "real" adventurer would carry, the bulk was certainly equivalent. And the weight they were carrying was more than a third their actual body weight...closer to 40% for Sofia. If I had been proportionately geared, I would have been carrying closer to 70#. And, of course, actual mail weighs a lot more than my kids' thin plastic and padding.

However, even burdened as they were, the kids weren't especially slower. What they were was uncomfortable and in pain from shlepping so much weight on thin shoulders. They couldn't wait to shrug off their backpacks...which they were able to do fairly quickly given a "combat situation" (me shouting "go" and starting the stopwatch). Carrying a bunch of weight...especially weight they're unused to and untrained to carry...did NOT slow them substantially. But it DID tire them out...cue my typical rant about the lack of proper fatigue rules in D&D.

That's my takeaway from our "experiments:" Movement is far more affected by bulk and distribution of gear than from actual weight carried or an individual's strength. It's tough to move quickly when you're worried about tipping over from an unbalanced pack. Or (as my daughter told me) "I actually run faster with my backpack because it pushes me forward!"

[this appears to be a literal truth; walking WITH his pack (only), Diego shaved half a second off his time...same when he was running]

But fatigue IS real...despite being faster and stronger than my family members, the old man gets tired. My son can play soccer all day (comparatively), whereas I cash in my chips a lot sooner. Likewise, my wife doesn't run the 5Ks half-marathons she used to, but she can still go twice as many laps around Green Lake (at least!) as yours truly...though to be honest, I was never a fan of distance running. Ever.

SO...how to model this in the D&D game? Well, what does the D&D game model anyway? Depends on which edition you're tweaking. Assuming a 10 second combat round (as in B/X), 40' per round (encounter speed for a 12" movement) seems plenty fair. The OTHER speeds, though (30', 20', 10' for 9", 6", and 3" movement, respectively), seem grossly inaccurate. Even for a fat adventurer.

Where do these movement rates come from? From OD&D originally...although the idea of a 10 second round is from Holmes Basic ("Each turn is ten minutes except during combat where there are ten melee rounds per turn, each round lasting ten seconds."). But as with many of the mechanical bits found in OD&D, these rates are adapted directly from the Chainmail wargame.

Chainmail provides rules for "medieval miniatures." It uses a time scale consisting of 1 minute turns (just like the combat turns of OD&D and the combat rounds of AD&D) and a distance scale of 1" being equal to 10 yards. Different movement rates are given for different troop types in Chainmail; for example, "heavy footmen" can move 9" (12" when charging), while "armored footmen" only move 6" (whether charging or not). All reports of Gygax state that he was a voracious reader that enjoyed researching old history books for information to add to his games (in an age where there was no internet), but games that attempt to regulate the chaos of war require a certain amount of abstraction to ensure playability...it is difficult to know, just from reading Chainmail, what was thought to be an accurate model and what was considered an expedient necessity.

Attempting to find field movement rates for medieval troops using the internet alone has been difficult. Most rates are given only in miles per day which, admittedly, is probably more than most people need for their history lessons (it's enough to know who fought whom and where and how many died). However, what IS clear is that with regard to troop movement (soldiers marching in groups), distance traveled over time comes down to a combination of organization, discipline, and baggage carried, coupled with the terrain traversed. Ancient troops could make 10-25 miles per day with decent (Roman) roads, while medieval foot troops (up through the 17th century) only moved 7-15 miles per day. A troop could be "forced marched" at double that rate, but risked being too fatigued to fight effectively upon reaching their destination.  Medieval soldiers generally marched in their armor and carried at least a hand weapon or two; gear (everything else a soldier might need) was "baggage," carried in carts or hauled by a soldier's wife or girlfriend (camp follower). But none of that tells me how far or fast the soldier could move on the battlefield...and anyway, battlefield movement would have been in formation, with a pace set by the force commander and the necessities of battle.

Gygax's Chainmail movements appear to be an estimation based in part on how one assumes these forces to behave as a troop/group. Light footmen include peasants, noted as being "unreliable" and "unwilling" warriors: they only move 9" (12" charging) despite probably having the lightest loads (in terms of arms and armor)...of course they would be an undisciplined mass to bring to a battle. Armored footmen with their 6" movement includes "dismounted knights;" Chainmail notes that "feudal knights were ill-disciplined and generally refused to take orders from anyone -- even their liege lord;" presumably by the time they were dismounted the battlefield mud would have already been churned up, making the footing even more difficult. Meanwhile, the fearsome Landsknechte troops are given a move of 12" (charge 15") apparently to model their superior discipline and training...this despite many of their troops (certainly the zweihander-armed frontliners) being dressed in plate armor!

Wives have advantages
over other henchmen.
A party of D&D adventurers...even one with a number of retainers and henchfolk...isn't the same as an unwieldy mass of hundreds or thousands of troops. Training and discipline should be assumed to be at least as good as elite mercenaries and house troops...this is, after all, what the PCs are supposed to be. In Chainmail, both heroes and superheroes (the basis for the 4th and 8th level fighters respectively) have movement of 12" (charge 15") regardless of armor wornWizards (of any level), likewise have a move of 12" (though no charge). When mounted, these fantasy fighters have the same movement as medium horseman...again, regardless of armor. To me, it's clear something other than encumbrance is being used in these calculations.

The D&D movement rates are even more strange when used in conjunction with dungeon or "exploration" movement...in ANY edition of the game. There are many subterranean caves and cavern trails available for hiking in the United States, most with surfaces and elevation changes far more difficult and treacherous than the smooth 10' by 10' corridors found in your average D&D adventure. Trail times seem to be pretty universal: individuals can expect to hike about 1.25 miles per hour in such environments. The most difficult "hike" I could find on the internet was the Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. This physically grueling tour requires hikers to spend a lot of time crawling on their belly, wriggling through tight spaces, traversing sharp, uneven terrain, and dealing with water and subterranean canyons. It is guided by professionals and there are breaks (for rests, instruction, and lunch), but even so it's a six mile tour that requires six hours to complete.

Not a 10' x 10' corridor.
How fast is that in D&D terms? Well, one mile is 5,280 feet, so that would be our hourly "rate" of travel. Assuming the usual five (ten minute) turns of movement followed by one (ten minute) turn of rest, we can see the party making about 1,056 feet per turn; there is, presumably, no "running" during the tour, but no mapping necessary either (since the party has an experienced guide). With normal caution being exercised we can translate that to game movement as follows:

OD&D: 52" (two moves per turn)
AD&D: 21" (rate of travel divided by 5 for "following a known route")
B/X: 106" (158" if movement rate considered 2/3 for being "broken terrain")

Even presuming "unencumbered" movement (hikers aren't carrying any more than a hardhat, flashlight, and sack lunch), these rates far outstrip the 12" movement rate found in the D&D texts. The speed is more than double the rate given by Holmes for an "unarmored, unencumbered man" that is "moving normally" in a dungeon (480' per turn). An adventuring party moving this slowly and this cautiously should probably be discovering every trip wire and loose flagstone in the dungeon!

So, yeah. Movement rates as given are too slow, and carrying a bunch of weight doesn't make you all that slower if all you're doing is walking/marching. What encumbrance does is tire you out (fatigue) making rest more important.

I spent a lot of time yesterday watching videos of Medieval MMA and IMCF combat. Despite the limitations of sport combat, I find these to be instructional especially this M-1 championship bout in Moscow. Three minutes of fighting per round, followed by one minute of rest, and both these dudes are completely gassed after three rounds. And they are, presumably, wearing lighter gear than a true medieval warrior and have all the benefits of modern sport science (including nutrition and cross-training regimes). Turns out that Chainmail's fatigue rules seem a fairly close approximation of how melee (by itself or in combination with movement) can tire you out...even for lightly armored fighters (who would, I assume, need to work twice as hard as their heavier armored counterparts).

Beating on each other just plumb tuckers you.
Yes, yes, I know...everyone hates fatigue rules. And we already have an (imperfect) model of fatigue in the form of hit points. And, in the end, this discussion seems to be aimed in the direction of rebuilding the game from the ground up, which is really NOT what I want to do.

I just want something that won't bug me and be a constant source of irritation.

But let's go back to the premise here: the rules as written provide two different means of challenging/engaging the players of the D&D game: they add an extra consideration to choices made with regard to logistics (carrying these iron spikes and a crossbow are going to cut down on how much loot I can haul), and affect the character's ability to maneuver tactically (not only in combat, but in evasion/pursuit situations). Both become an issue of resource management, the particular resource being time...precious time that will necessitate additional wandering monster checks that carry the possibility of fatal attrition for little/zero reward. Game-wise, these are not rules to chuck with abandon, as they are fairly imperative to running the game in the manner intended!

Still, as mentioned, logistics become far less important when characters have a mission that promises reward after the adventure (return the captives and get paid! Bring me the head of the bugbear chieftain to the Duke for a chest of gold! Etc.)...and even less so as characters rise in level and acquire gear that offsets logistics (the sword +3 that is unbreakable, the flaming sword that takes the place of torches, the slippers of spider climbing that replace 10 pounds of rope, the decanter of endless water, etc.). When logistics fail to matter, only tactical issues need be considered...and time can continue to be a manageable resource with the use of fatigue and mandated rests. More so, it becomes an additional area of player engagement if parties can choose between RISK (pressing their luck, losing effectiveness by acquiring fatigue) in exchange for REWARD (making better time, rolling fewer encounter checks).

Sorry, folks, but this is a line of thought I want to continue following for now. I'll probably have at least one more post on the subject (in which I'll lay down some concrete rules for "testing"), but it's important to me to get this stuff right. NOT because it is so all important to be accurate or "realistic" in modeling this stuff...but because, well, hmm.

Because (I suppose) it's important to not be wrong. I say hit points are an abstract measure of staying power and that's fine and dandy; that's defining a game mechanic (we're not trying to model rules for broken bones and pints of blood in the body). I say 15 gold pieces buy a decently-made sword and that is fine, too...that's the fantasy economy in this particular region at this particular point in time.

But I say a human with a 40# sack of gear only moves a certain distance at a brisk pace, well, then it better be damn close to the laws of reality. Because time and distance and weight on a planet with Earth's gravity is something that can be measured. And because D&D isn't a board game, and it's not a wargame, and we're attempting to simulate an experience, there's SOME reason why carrying heavy stuff is detrimental, but it better be a real reason...and not a "wrong" reason, not just for the sake of adding options. The choices have to be valid, and valid choices do exist...so why not use them?

All right, that's enough. I've been writing this for four days, and it's time to get on to the next thing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Lovely Lovely Thieves

There were four possible topics I had on my mind to write about...dragons, elves, initiative, and thieves...and rather than make up my mind, I did the silly blog-o-sphere thing of rolling percentile dice to determine which it would be. The result came up "dragons" so, contrarian that I am, of course I'll be writing about thieves (again)...and the post is looooong. Brew that coffee!

I've had lots of time to think (haven't we all?) since my last post on thieves back in early June, and think I have, especially with a couple recent ideas added to the ol' noggin:

Rules exist to provide boundaries of play that (a) promote a challenging, engaging experience; and (b) maintain order by giving the players knowledge of what to expect from other players.

AND (the following flaws of setting design):

Inadequate comprehension of why a game process matters, how it adds to the game and why its implementation is a feature and not a bug.

As well as:

Vague and imprecise understanding of a rule's boundary.

...all of which have come from Alexis Smolensk's blog on design, The Higher Path. I'd cite the particular entries (here and here) but you need to be a Patron to access them; however, there's nothing there that specifically applies to thieves anyway...my application of these concepts to the thief class is coming out of my brain.

[take that for what it's worth]

As has become my usual M.O. I find it helpful to start at the earliest primordial ooze of a rule concept/system, in order to track its development and find exactly where, how, and (if possible) why it "went off the rails." In the case of the thief, we first see [Gygax's version] appear in The Great Plains Gamer Players Newsletter, a zine sold at GenCon VII in 1974.

The "original thief" has a number of small differences from how the character would eventually appear in Greyhawk (Supplement I). These include Chainmail style hit dice (as the basic classes received in Men & Magic), slightly lower XP requirements at the highest levels (85k instead of 90k for 9th level and 115k instead of 125k for every level thereafter), an alignment restriction of "neutral" (and no prohibition against lawful characters hiring them), and backstab damage that increases at a different rate (two dice for every four levels attained, minimum 2d6...this would mean 4d6 at 8th level, 6d6 at 12th level, 8d6 at 16th level, etc.). While the rules state that the class is open to humans, dwarves, elves, and hobbits (halflings), there is no mention of multi-class thieves, and no racial bonuses to skills are given for demihumans. The skills themselves (and their percentages) are entirely unchanged with the exception of hear noise which only ramps up to 100% (1-6) at 14th level, not 13th as given in Greyhawk.  Reading languages (at 3rd level) and magic (at 9th level) are given as "optional considerations" and do not list any chance of failure.

The Great Plains article also gives an admonition that "thieves are generally not meant to fight" and this is born out by their low hit dice (of all the classes given Chainmail hit dice, thieves have the worst progression...worse even than magic-users!). There are notes that, if using the "alternative combat method" thieves should progress as clerics on the combat tables (no mention is made of which saving throw type to use). Finally, there is an extensive example of how a thief might be used, describing all thief functions in action with the exception of wall climbing which, interestingly, is given NO CHANCE of failure in the article.

[the ability to "climb almost sheer surfaces rapidly, up or down" is still listed as one of the thief's unique abilities, but it includes no percentage. This makes the Greyhawk rule of 13% to slip and fall (decreasing 1% per level) to be an afterthought, explaining why it is given as a failure chance, rather than a success chance. This parallels Greyhawk's difference in handling the language/magic reading abilities of a thief]

Examining these ideas/rules thoroughly, what they are meant to do and their parameters (boundaries) of function, I find that I have a renewed interest in including the thief class, as it appears to answer all the issues raised in my earlier post:
  • A neutral alignment in my setting doesn't pose any problems to inclusion in an adventuring party, lawful or otherwise (this will relate to a not-yet posted essay on alignment in my setting).
  • The "point" of demihumans was (per Gygax in later writings) to give players who had rolled WEAK (i.e. non-optimal) characters an option to play something with extra (bonus) abilities. Someone wants to be a thief but rolls a poor dexterity? Be an elf thief and get infravision and better secret door detection (for example). I will not, however, be allowing multi-class thieves, with the possible exception of elves (and then only magic-user/thieves). I am also strongly considering level limits for demihuman thieves, as I want to maintain my setting's human-centric POV and do not relish the thought of "master thief" dwarves and elves running around the campaign.
  • Guilds and lock picks are not a requirement of the rules/setting. I'll assume thieves make their own tools from scratch (if necessary).
  • "Language reading" is the deciphering of codes and maps, not reading unknown languages. That's cool, though it seems appropriate to make success level dependent (as was done with climbing). Reading magic, however, is a different matter.
  • "Low survivability" compared to other classes is mitigated by A) presumed role of the thief (i.e. non-combatant skill monkey), B) hit point adjustment (d6 hit points per hit die as originally given, instead of the d4 found in Greyhawk), C) fast advancement (fewer x.p. needed to level up / obtain hit points), and D) the addition of an AC bonus (of +1) that I will be giving to thieves only, for those with a DEX score of 15+ (this is in keeping with my current house rule of providing a small bonus to a class with a high prime requisite; it ends up being the equivalent of carrying a shield (either with or without armor) and doesn't interfere with my weapon vs. armor table.
  • Issues with regard to skill use (backstabbing and pocket picking, "poor" percentages, and trap concerns, etc.) can all be addressed by being specific with skill explanations, definitions, and boundaries of play.
I'll talk about the thief's skills in a moment; first I want to talk about why the thief exists in the game...or, to be more precise, in my game.

The thief provides a particular type of play experience (that is to say, means of engaging with the game) to the player that falls outside the three defined roles in original system. It is not a fighter, though it must be at least somewhat combat-worthy (as combat participation is an intrinsic part of the game); it is not the thief's role to take hits for other party members, nor is it the thief's priority to deliver damage to opponents (sorry "rogue" fans). Likewise, the thief is not a cleric, whose role is one of defense and support; the cleric has heavy armor, magic that heals and boosts, and the ability to "turn" undead monsters with vicious, dangerous powers (paralysis, disease, level drain).

The thief is MOSTLY akin to the magic-user, sharing many traits in common: low combat ability, multiple means of interacting with the environment, not to mention some abilities that appear "magical" in nature (reading magic-user scrolls, foiling magical closures with open locks, etc. However, unlike the magic-user, the arrows in a thief's skill quiver are strictly defined; the magic-user makes choices as to which spells she brings to the party, while the thieves skills always remain the same. In this way, the thief (like the fighter) might be considered an appropriate class for the novice or beginning player: rather than knowledge of an entire textbook of spells, the player need only familiarize herself with a half-dozen skills. While the skills carry a chance of failure, they are also unlimited in usage (not that you can use them multiple times in a single instance, but multiple times in an adventure/session). Rather than increasing CHOICE with advancement in level, the character increases EFFECTIVENESS...they function better and/or more often.

This is why there's no need to make magic-users "roll dice" to see if their spells succeed (as in other RPGs...see DragonQuest as an example). Players who want to engage with the game in that "gambling style" of play can choose to play a thief gaining the abilities of invisibility, third dimensional movement, code-breaking, security defeating, and high damage delivery all in a single package. While you lose nuance and wider choice of application, as well as guaranteed success (a magic-user's invisibility, knock, and levitation spells ALWAYS functions), what you gain are a reusability factor and a streamlined simplicity not found in the wizard class. The thief is not a redundant class; it provides a different method for engaging with the game. 

Now, the skills: let's put hard boundaries to what they are and how they're used.

It's worth getting grungy to dig out the diamonds.

Though as recently as yesterday I was giving serious consideration to the idea of allowing player chosen specialization in skills (like, "add 35 percentile points to your choice of skills every time you level up"), upon reflection this flies in the face of both what the thief class represents (streamlined versatility) and what the thief models (a discreet package of skills that increase in effectiveness as the thief advances in her career). Yes, all 5th level cutpurses have a 40% chance to open locks and a 45% chance to move silently...they learned these skills as an apprentice, and by the time they've earned 10,000 x.p. this is amount of progress they've made towards mastering those abilities. By the time the master thief reaches 14th level, all her skills should have reached maximum potential.

Opening locks (by picking or even foiling magical closures): picking a lock on a chest or door requires the thief to use hand-crafted tools (no cost or encumbrance) that are upgraded automatically with any increase in level (taken out of any training costs). These are considered secreted upon the thief's person and only lost if somehow captured and stripped of all goods (including clothing); a highly unlikely situation. An attempt to open a lock can be made once and if failed then the lock "must be forced open -- a very time-consuming process." Magical closures do not include those under the spell of a hold portal or wizard lock, but refers instead to certain enchanted dungeon doors of the "puzzle" variety (without the need to work the puzzle...another time-consuming process)...such locks may include a penalty to the skill check.

Removal of small trap devices (including poison needles): these are small traps found on chests, coffers, alcoves, etc. with the specific purpose of guarding a treasure. Such traps are automatically detected by the thief (per the example given) and then the player must decide whether or not to attempt disarming the device. Failure to disarm a trap of this kind "activates it with regard to the thief and any others within range." Examination of the treasure object/resting place is enough to discover the trap (so bring a thief along with you); other methods might be tried to remove a treasure object rather than attempting to disarm the trap. Traps found in a dungeon (per Book III) "are usually sprung by a roll of a 1 or 2 [on a d6] when any character passes over or by them [including pit traps]." This thief skill is unrelated to those type of exploration traps (which I will...hopefully...be explaining in a later post).

Climb almost sheer surfaces rapidly, up and down: boundaries that need to be defined include speed of ascent/descent, distance traveled, weight carried, and definition of "failure." Speed climbers can ascend 15m (about 50') in under eight seconds; this is, of course, a product of optimal conditions, specific training, and modern equipment...but it's still close enough to what I imagine a "sheer surface climb." Considering caution (on the part of the thief) and unfamiliarity with the surface being climbed, I'd allow movement at one-half normal exploration speed: for OD&D this means one move (at 10' per 1" speed) over ten minutes; add one additional foot of climb speed per level over 1st. For example, an unencumbered 5th level cutpurse can ascend/descend 124' in ten minutes (12.4' per one minute melee round). A thief can climb faster (dividing the time spent climbing in half), but then the DM must roll a "failure check" as indicated in Greyhawk. Failure chance is doubled if moderately encumbered (9"), tripled if heavily encumbered (6"), and quadrupled if over-burdened (3"). One check is made per move. Let's say our same cutpurse is loaded with treasure (heavy encumbrance) and needs to climb 30' to reach a ledge to escape a charging pack of ghouls. While she could cautiously climb 6.4 feet per minute, she doesn't have that kind of time and opts to double her speed (the ghouls have about a 9' reach when jumping, so 12.8 feet should put her out of their reach). Her chance of failure is 27% (13 -4 = 9 x3 = 27). The point at which the character falls will be be 20% to 80% of the total distance of the move (2d4 x10%). Our cutpurse only intended to climb 30'; if she fails her roll and the die roll is a 6, she falls from 60% of the 30' (at the 18' mark), not 60% of the 60' she could have climbed. Adverse weather conditions (rain, snow, high wind) will probably increase the failure rate, and might force a check even when caution is exercised by the climber. A thief should be able to estimate the distance to her destination (i.e. the DM tells the player) in order to make a decision based on risk.

Steal item by stealth or sleight-of-hand: in Greyhawk, this bullet point becomes "filch items and pick pockets." The original is more openly defined. It still uses the same percentage chance as move silently, but it applies to the removal of any object desired "from the person of the owner or from his immediate vicinity." This is theft in plain sight...removing some item from a desk or table, adding something an individual's drink, slicing a purse, or removing a ring from the finger. Level should probably be some indication of the proximity of the thief to the victim and/or the number of prying eyes that may be observing the thief when she makes her move. Greyhawk reduces success by 5% for each level a victim is above 5th, but should this apply to hit dice as well? Would a 5th level magic-user really be more susceptible to a shell game than a 9HD hill giant? I don't think so. In this case, I'd actually use levels of experience only as most monsters are fairly stupid; an exception would be creatures with spell-casting ability: a djinni, for example, would be fooled at -15% and an efreet at -25% using hit dice in place of level.

Strike silently from behind: no, it isn't called "backstab." Gygax's original text on the subject seems to imply that a successful move silent roll would be needed to gain this advantage, though I would waive the necessity in the case of a surprised opponent assuming the thief was close enough to make a melee attack. The example target is a "man," but rather than assuming the need for a humanoid with a stab-worthy back, I'm going to make this a sneaky or underhanded critical strike against ANY living opponent (not a construct, plant, or undead type). Use the reduced damage found in Greyhawk, as I would guess the original got curbed in actual playtesting of the class. Note: this assumes a non-hostile or "on guard" opponent; a failed move silent check (remember this is the same chance as the misdirection/theft check) indicates the thief has shown her hand and is unable to catch the target unawares; roll for initiative immediately and proceed to combat.

Listen for noise behind a closed door: this is self-explanatory, though it will be discussed more in a future post that deals with exploration rules. Being a 1st level thief gives the character the same chance to hear noise as a pointy-eared demihuman; higher level increases this ability for all racial types.

Move with stealth: As far as simply "moving silently," a thief should always be assumed to be quiet but, when traveling with other types of adventurers, chance of surprising and being surprised is no different from normal. Otherwise (i.e. when solo) a move silent check need only be made when the thief comes in possible earshot of a potential antagonist; failure indicates the character has done something to give herself away (again, reverting to normal surprise chance). Movement is normal exploration speed based on the thief's encumbrance; a thief in a flight/pursuit situation (double movement) isn't concerned with being stealthy.

Hide in Shadows: the best saved for last (well, almost last). Per the original text, the percentage given is "the chance to remain undetected while hiding or moving through shadows." The stipulation for skill use is that the thief be unobserved when attempting to hide (and that there be shadows to hide within). While old, musty castles lit by candles or torches would probably have plenty of shadows, I would use this skill check for any attempt at the thief concealing herself while unobserved...standing behind a curtain, jumping in a wardrobe, hiding behind a piece of furniture, etc. Success (only checked when a potential observer enters the room...and only checked once!) indicates the thief has hidden herself so well as to remain undetected and (depending on the situation) can even move while remaining concealed. Failure would indicate the character is noticed, or gives herself away somehow, though that shouldn't negate the chance of the thief surprising the observer (checked normally). How long should the thief remain unobserved? Until she reveals herself, generally by attacking; the hiding ability in this way is very similar to invisibility. How fast can the hiding thief move? Assuming appropriate cover or distraction is available, as fast (and as far) as her cover and encumbrance allow.

This (finally) explains the combat example found on page 105 of the AD&D Players Handbook. A party of five adventurers surprise an illusionist with his band of 20 orcs; the thief uses the surprise segment to "dart to the rear of the party and attempt to hide in shadows." In the first round following, the thief uses the cover of the cleric's silence spell to move into melee range (the encounter occurred at a distance of 30') while "slinking and sliding around in the shadows." In the next round, the illusionist "does not hear the thief behind him," is stabbed in the back and dies; the final round has the thief entering normal melee with the orcs. This example ONLY makes sense in light of Gygax using his own earlier interpretations of the thief skills, as recorded in The Great Plains Gamer. Gygax makes it quite clear in the DMG that any movement on the part of the thief gives away a "hide," not to mention that the thief is unable to hide under either direct or indirect observation...no using a group of party members as cover to disappear! Furthermore, even the thief's "silent movement" is terribly slow, dropping to "exploration speed,"which is only one-tenth of normal melee speed; there is no way for a thief to sneak 30' in a single round using such rules (he'd have to have a movement rate of 30" to do so).

Bollux. I'll be using the OD&D rules (and the GPG 'zine examples) for my determination of how thief skills function. Hiding in shadows...a more difficult ability to execute than simple "stealthy movement"...functions as a minor form of invisibility, which (in my estimation) is how the skill was originally supposed to function. It cannot be used unobserved (though a suitable distraction might provide the moment to disappear), it requires some sort of cover for hiding (if only shadows cast by medieval illumination), it allows normal movement (so long as cover persists), and is lost upon attack. It's not necessarily effective in full darkness (seeing as how most monsters have some form of infravision which is only "spoiled" by the existence of a light source), but it could given suitable terrain for concealing the character (rock formations, etc.). Even the olfactory and audial senses of super-predators might be ineffective of discovering the thief: a monster might know someone was present, but not necessarily where. Springing from cover could still be a surprising circumstance (I'll write about that when I get to surprise in that later post I keep mentioning).

Okay, is that enough? I realize this post is incredibly long (I've been writing it since Tuesday morning). But is that enough definition to establish boundaries for the thief character's skills? I think so, but let me run over them really quick:

How fast a character can move while performing skills? Yes. When skills can be used and when they can't? Yes, I believe so. At what point a percentage check is made (and the consequences of failure)? Yes, with most consequences being "a return to normal rules."

The thief class allows a player to break (or modify) certain, specific game systems, much the same as magic spells. They can bypass locks without the need to force them or find keys. They can achieve surprise or evade pursuit or purloin items under observation. They can move vertically in an environment without the need for special equipment. They can acquire treasure items without setting off guardian traps. They can puzzle out coded treasure maps (mmm...still need to set up a percentile table) that might otherwise require a spell to decipher.

They do not read magic. Not unless magical writing is something that can be read with simple mundane training. Wizards require a spell to do the same, regardless of experience level or intelligence! I am discarding this "possible consideration."

Do thieves provide a method of challenging the player and giving the player an engaging experience? Yes: the class provides multiple small ways to interact with the game environment with the potential risk of failure. At higher levels, this risk is diminished, but the consequences of failure (presumably) increase. And the class occupies a niche that the other classes do not.

Okay, yeah...I am on board with adding thieves to my game. Now I just need to write them up in my ever-changing rule book.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Fit or Fat

For me, a steaming hot cup of (black) coffee in the early morning sunshine is just about my favorite vice to indulge, especially if I can savor it alone (i.e. before my family awakens). It beats even an ice cold (dry) gin martini or frosty pint glass of beer on a warm summer evening. In fact, just about the only way I can think to make the experience better (other than sitting on some outdoor veranda on Orcas Island with a view of the ocean and San Juans in all their splendor) is by adding a slice of apple pie, as I am doing this morning: home-baked (though not by me) with a buttery, flaky crust, and picked up at the local (Ballard) farmer's market yesterday. It was totally worth waiting in line the ten minutes (in mask) for a chance to buy one; Deborah (of Deborah's Pies) is only showing up every other week these days.

Unfortunately, I know that it's doing nothing good for my waist line (nor did the two pieces I had last night after dinner). Even before the pandemic hit, I was about 20 pounds overweight (floating around the 170s); in the last five months, I've added around 10 pounds to that figure (I'm somewhere between 185-188). For a 5'9" guy with a skinny frame (even at the height of my athleticism...in my early 20s...it was tough for me to get my weight much higher than 150), the extra pounds are noticeable. And it doesn't help that one of the "running beagles" tore his ACL a couple weeks back (though in a dog, it's called a CCL) so I'm not even getting the minimal daily walking exercise I was getting. I've tried limiting my caloric intake (cutting out the nightly booze for example) the last ten+ days just to stem the bleeding. But who can say no to fresh apple pie?

In working with encumbrance the last week or so (oh, you didn't see where I was going with this? Here are the prior posts, in case you missed them), I've been giving a lot of thought to how I want the system to run in my own game. And one of the things so many RPGs fail to take into account is how our own body weight encumbers us...carrying an extra 20-30 pounds of unnecessary body mass is the equivalent of strapping a couple bags of flour to your waist: if you add normal adventuring equipment and loot found on top of that, you're going to move slower and tire faster than someone who's fit and (relatively) svelte.

But "most RPGs" doesn't mean all RPGs: Jacob Norwood's fantasy RPG The Riddle of Steel was the first game (the only game? Maybe) to hip me to the concept. TROS's claim to fame is its ultra-realistic simulation of medieval combat, and so the ability to maneuver needs to take into account whether your character is slender swashbuckler with a case of rapiers or an obese bruiser ponderously swinging a cudgel. Crunchy as the system is, encumbrance in TROS is still more abstract than D&D (you base your encumbrance level on how well your character matches an illustration!) even as it divides characters into five categories: unencumbered, mildly encumbered, moderately encumbered, heavily encumbered, and overburdened. As far as tactical movement goes, these map fairly well to D&D's standard 12"/9"/6"/3" levels of encumbrance/movement, though making a distinction at the low end that D&D doesn't.

[what do I mean by that? Well, in D&D, so long as you're not wearing bulky armor, a lightly encumbered person moves 12" regardless of whether she's carrying minimal equipment or no gear at all. In TROS, "unencumbered" means nothing more than a single scabbarded weapon or a light bag/satchel; if you're carrying both (light bag AND satchel)...or a small backpack, or robes (which restrict movement), or a few extra pounds (ditto)...then you move into the "mildly encumbered" category. This would be the (D&D) equivalent of an 11" movement. In TROS it also subtracts one die from your combat pool, but the D&D rules do not provide combat adjustments for encumbrance]

[hmm...should D&D provide combat adjustments for encumbrance? A post for another time, perhaps]

When determining a character's encumbrance in TROS, you're not only looking at load and bulk, but also your character's body weight (relative to frame), i.e. how fat are you. An overweight character starts at moderately encumbered (D&D equivalent of 9" movement); an obese individual starts at heavily encumbered (D&D equivalent of 6" movement). Thus, while a trim "fit" warrior would only be overburdened (3")with an excessive amount of gear (a heavy and fully loaded back pack, multiple weapons, quivers and scabbards, both back-strapped and carried) an obese individual would count the same just by adding some light armor (say, a breastplate), a single hand weapon, and a large belt pouch.

But D&D doesn't take into account body type or fitness level. Heck, only AD&D has charts for (randomly) determining a character's height and weight, if you use the NPC tables found in the DMG (we always did, back in the day). I think most players (not all) probably think of their characters as reasonably fit with chiseled features and (in the case of fighters especially) washboard abs and rock hard biceps...a mental image drawn from adventure movies and comic books and supported by the illustrations found in modern day RPG texts.

Found the most ridiculous
image I could. There
were a lot of choices.
Consider, for a moment, that your campaign setting is some sort of pseudo-medieval one...or ancient bronze age one...or post-apocalyptic fantasy wasteland one. Consider for a moment that maybe there aren't 24 hour gyms, or pilates studios, or hot yoga classes to attend. Consider that maybe...maybe...the adventuring character isn't so much concerned with body sculpting, but rather with day-to-day survival, earning (or looting) gold coins, and using her skills in those pursuits. Maybe she doesn't have a battalion of hair and make-up artists to get her ready for her photo shoot; maybe she gets into a lot fights (fights that do damage), and spends a lot of time in dark underground caverns, going days (if not weeks) without bathing.

Maybe, in such a scenario, your character's ability scores are a reflection of her native ability and strength is simply a combination of genetics and raw "beef," not something carefully honed with nutritional experts, cross-training, and hours spent in the weight room. You have a high Strength score? You're big. And in OD&D, that's only really helpful if you're a fighter.

[here, again, is a good reason to play with the stripped raw OD&D rules. A high strength can help build a better fighter (bonus to XP earned as a prime requisite) but it provides no other (or minimal) bonuses. I actually really like Gygax's house rule (STR>14 gives a +1 attack/damage for fighters only) in this regard..the higher QUANTITY of muscle mass does not equal a lot of extra QUALITY]

Country strong, if you will. All those hours spent swinging a sword, riding a war horse, and trotting around in armor builds up certain muscle groups, endurance, and skill but this is all modeled with hit points, class, and level abilities (higher attacks and saves, etc.).  Your character isn't "cut" but she is harder...and she knows the proper way to use her size and weight to her advantage. And she probably has eating habits to match (and the metabolism to maintain it).

The fact is, being bigger and heavier puts a greater strain on your body regardless of whether it's muscle or fat. Large humans (even...and especially...professional athletes) tend to have far shorter life expectancies. More weight is more stress on muscles (including the heart), tendons/ligaments, and fragile joints.

You just don't see
enough portly wizards
(well, I don't).
SO, assuming you want to take this into account (and why else would I be writing this if I didn't?), is there a way to model a character with extra bulk in the D&D game? Sure, lots of ways. I could use random height/weight charts from the DMG, cross-reference them with the Adult Body Mass Index provided by the CDC and base my encumbrance calculations on that. But I prefer something simpler and a bit more abstract...especially as I'm using a rather abstract system of encumbrance and movement.

In OD&D, the Strength score represents (for me) size and mass, with muscle being a component of these (larger persons have larger muscles to move larger bodies). Constitution, on the other hand, represents a combination of health and fitness, and it is the intersection of these two things that determine how fat (or not) a character is.

[manual Dexterity isn't taken into account because, for me, it represents hand-eye coordination rather than agility. DEX does not provide a bonus to armor class in my game]

STR is thus compared to CON to determine how "svelte" a character is, relative to her size. If a character's strength exceeds constitution by more than three points, then the character is overweight ("husky," if you prefer). If a character's strength exceeds constitution by more than six points, then the character is obese ("fat," in other words).

What are the ramifications of this? A reduced movement rate in D&D. Since D&D uses a four-tier system (unlike TROS), being overweight would reduce you to three-quarter speed (9" movement) while being obese would reduce you to half speed (6" movement) with a reduced carrying capacity (for encumbrance purposes) in both instances...you're already carrying an extra load, buddy!

Is it realistic to consider this aspect of human life in your game? I think so. Do these rules suck? Sure...but I allow PCs to arrange their ability scores to taste, so I'm not forcing them to be a high strength character with a low constitution. It's your choice if you want your PC to be "big boned."

But can't my character go on a diet? You heard the part about no gyms and pilates classes, right? There's no Weight Watchers, or Atkins, or Jenny Craig, either! I have some starvation rules (for characters who lose their rations) that will result in a gradual loss of Strength points over time, so a fat character could eventually have her weight balance as her mass comes more in synch with Constitution...but a character regains Strength after resuming regular meals (ah, the bounce back! It's why starvation diets don't work), so that's a short-term "solution" at best. Maybe a magical tome or manual of healthful eating? Oh, wait: that already exists in AD&D (the manual of bodily health: raises your Constitution by 1 point after following "a regimen of special dietary intake;" good enough).

All right, all right...I can see some players will still hate these rules. Sorry. Personally I like the variation they add (at least, I'm intrigued enough to try them out). However, to help mitigate complaints, I'll throw folks a bone: the extra "padding" your character has is worth a few extra hit points:

Overweight characters: add +1d4 hit points
Obese characters: add +1d6 hit points

This is a one-time bonus, received at 1st level only, unlike the bonus for a high Constitution which is added every level as long as a character gains hit dice. Note that because OD&D doesn't award a HP bonus for anything less than CON 15, it's impossible to receive both a bonus for "fitness" and for being overweight: the two are mutually exclusive.

Cheers, folks. Stay safe (and sane).

This jolly soul only moves 6".

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Black Magic, Demons, and Seduction

I know that I’ve mentioned this (briefly) elsewhere, but I’ll go ahead and relay the story with a bit more detail, so as to set the table for this post:

Back In The Day (as they say), I started running B/X D&D for my friends and only gradually came to realize that there was this thing called Advanced D&D which was altogether different, cooler, and more elaborate (it would be even MORE years until I realized there was such a thing as OD&D and DECADES…until after the advent of this blog in fact…before I realized how OD&D and its supplements actually relate to AD&D).

 *AHEM* But I eventually figured out…a long time after adopting the Monster Manual into our B/X game and even making use of some of the goodies in the Dungeon Masters Guide. Sometime around 1983-84 I would receive a copy of the Players Handbook (a Christmas gift from my folks, I believe) and my corruption would be complete.

Now, I said some of the goodies in the Guide. The truth is, for the first couple years of my gaming career I didn't have a personal copy of the DMG, despite being the one (for the most part) running the game. My best friend at the time, a girl named Jocelyn, had one that she'd been given by her older brother (11 years her senior)...or found in a trunk of his old things (Lacey having moved out of the house by then). This I was allowed to borrow and peruse on occasion, but it wasn't something to which I was granted constant access. Jocelyn did not even attend the same elementary school as I did.

[boy, there's a lot of history I should probably write up some day...]

21st century hipster
ANYway, I did eventually acquire my own copy of the DMG, and this is how it happened: my father's youngest sister, my pretty Aunt Charlotte, was in her 20s or 30s at the time and dating a guy who would have fit in quite well with the hipsters of this decade. Svelte but athletic, attractive but sporting glasses and a (neatly trimmed) beard, he was personable, bright, and witty. Played an (acoustic) guitar at times, if I remember correctly. His name escapes me, but I seem to recall it being David...that'll work, I suppose.

The guy straight up gave me my first Dungeon Masters Guide, maybe the first or second time I ever met him. He found out that I played D&D and said, oh maybe you'd like this, and just handed it to me as a gift: a brand new copy, with the later Jeff Easley cover. 30-some years later, it's still sitting on my book shelf (along with four additional copies of the book), the interior binding long since having come loose from wear and tear, the middle most pages torn, crumpled, and stuffed inside, and my name and home phone number penned inside the interior cover by my mother's careful calligraphy.

Reading this, folks might wonder (or make assumptions about) why this practically-a-stranger would gift a kid, even his girlfriend's nephew, with such a book. I mean, I only met this person two or three times in total (my aunt did not hang out at our house...I saw her maybe a couple times a year and, being a young woman, she went through multiple boyfriends during my youth). Here's the thing: "David" was a gamer himself...but he didn't play D&D. He played DragonQuest.

Same cover art as the
first edition. Poor dragon!
If forced to guess (I don't know this for sure), I think he either purchased the DMG or was given it by someone in order to "check out" the AD&D game and, deciding it wasn't to his taste, passed it off to someone who played the game. Dave already had his game: 1st edition DQ, individual books three-hole punched and carried in a binder. Either the same day (or a different one), he was at my family's house and he had his DragonQuest gear with him and he walked us through character creation (my brother, aunt, and I all made characters), and talked with us about the game. I found it fascinating. I may well have been exposed to other RPGs by this point in my gaming career, but this was my first encounter with a game that wasn't A) published by TSR and B) a direct rival to its fantasy niche/genre.

I remember my brother rolled up a stone giant (I was envious), while my aunt ended up with an orc and was none-too-happy about it...though her Physical Beauty (determined randomly) still ended up being higher than our characters. "So I'm a good-looking pig-person?" Yeah, David was a cool guy, but my aunt wasn't really a gamer. Her next boyfriend (who I think was named "Daniel") was an older, chubbier ex-hippy type who also played the acoustic guitar (but better) and the harmonica as well. That guy wore shorts a lot.

Years later, as a teenager, I picked up a copy of DragonQuest myself, the 3rd edition published in 1989 after TSR acquired SPI. I probably picked it up in around 1990 as I was in high school and definitely NOT playing D&D anymore, and was curious to see if it was the game I remembered being so intrigued by in my youth. Yep...sure was, right down to random generation of non-human characters (there was stone giants!) and different colleges of magic (which I had thought was especially cool as a kid...still do).

My old copy.
I ran a little bit of it over the summer, did some character creation, ran the sample adventure, used the system to model the Jennifer Roberson "Cheysuli" books I was into at the time (you can make shape-changer PCs). But I found the actual play to be somewhat lacking. It's not that the game wasn't well-designed (though I recall finding some loophole/break points in the experience system that led to gross abuses) or that its systems were too clunky/chunky. No, the problem was the need for miniatures and hex grids to run combat, and the level of detail/design necessary to create stat blocks for NPCs/antagonists, which made doing prep for the game a lot of work.

[looking back, I can see that these things are what eventually soured me to running 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons as well, but 3E took things to even a greater level of headache with the vast multiple of modifiers available to skills and combat maneuvers and the arithmetically increasing stat blocks of high level NPCs/high challenge monsters; by comparison, DQ could be considered "3E light." However, I still find square-shaped grid combat to be far less cumbersome than hex maps]

Sometime in the early 2000s, DQ3 was purged from my game collection during some a general clean-out of "games-I'll-probably-never-play-again," back before I started keeping games around for inspiration and design analysis.

Fast forward to NOW: in considering how I might modify dragons for my campaign setting (and the possibility of blogging about said modifications), I found myself wanting to review the creatures in DQ, as I remember that system being an interesting take on the potent creature. As I don't have my copy of the text anymore, I start surfing the web (natch) to see what I could find in the way of a PDF. Since this post is already overlong, I'll go ahead and bullet point the interesting finds of my research:
  • WotC/Hasbro owns all the DQ stuff, having acquired it along with all TSR property. They have since put it "on ice;" it isn't available in any form, and there appears to be no plans TO release it in any form. It is, for all intents and purposes, dead (though I suppose someone could resurrect it in the form of a retroclone...I am not volunteering!).
  • The 3rd edition DQ book I owned was, almost completely, a word-for-word reprint of 2E which was nearly an exact copy of the 1st edition "David" had showed me all those years ago. Even the interior illustrations had been retained. The reason the instructions in the book were so much like my memory because it was pretty much the same game.
  • That being said, there were indeed some missing bits. TSR's DragonQuest suffered a similar "purification" process to what AD&D did in the late 1980s: an attempt to clean up "the naughty bits." What was culled included the College of Black Magic (separate and different from the College of Necromantic Conjurations which was retained in DQ3), the College of Greater Summonings (including extensive write-ups for more than 70 demons, all taken from the Ars Goetia of The Lesser Key of Solomon), and a couple references to SEX, specifically the cutting of the "seduction" ability from the Courtier/Courtesan skill and editing an example of how hypnotism cannot force "a woman with prim demeanor" to "run naked through a deserted street at night" if her culture has a strong nudity taboo.
  • Including these missing pieces, especially the colleges, gives the game a far more "medieval Europe" vibe, not only because of the use of 16th century magical treatise, but because the inventory of "Black Magic" spells includes traditional powers and traits associated with witches and witchcraft. Pacts with the devil, familiars, and the evil eye...yes, of course. But ALSO spells to bless (and curse) crops and livestock, spells to bless an unborn child in the womb, and spells to increase male virility. Fertility magic, in other words: very useful in a game that seeks to simulate a particular type of setting, not so practical in a game of looting subterranean troll lairs.
Looking back at the game with older, more mature eyes, I see a lot of interesting and innovative design choices. No intelligence score, for example...instead a "magical aptitude" and a separate "perception" ability (which starts at a universal number for all PCs and can be increased through experience). No charisma score either; "physical beauty" (an OPTIONAL score, determined randomly and unadjusted for race or gender) has almost ZERO system impact on the game (it factors in a character's seduction skill if you use pre-3rd edition rules; otherwise, its only effect is to reduce the EP needed to advance the courtier/courtesan skill (PB 20+) which simply increases the amount of silver one can earn for "entertaining"). The inference I draw is that a character is no smarter or more charismatic than the player running the character.

Combat is fine for folks who want something more tactically granular than AD&D. For folks who like defense to be modified by agility and shield work (while armor simply acts as damage mitigation) the system is nice and simple; I also like that there is a "close" range inside "melee" (for grappling and knife-work). Weapon use is influenced somewhat by minimums in "physical strength" and "manual dexterity" but not overly much. Rather than simple hit points, characters have separate "endurance" and "fatigue" scores, which are reduced in different ways and are straightforward in their handling (much more so than similar "dual life" systems in games like Shadowrun and Deadlands).  Fatigue is the battery for casting spells, similar to what one finds in Ars Magica or Shadowrun, but again more straightforward (a successful casting always drains fatigue, but not overly so, leaving you have a simple "quiver of ammo" to track that can be depleted by other stress, pain, and hardship).

The magical colleges are very nice, even if they leave no room for the "eclectic" mage or wizard (you can never belong to more than one college at a time, and you cannot learn magic from a college other than your own). Magic s disrupted by more than a few ounces of iron, so leather armor...or even bronze!...is acceptable garb. Weapons larger than a dagger are generally out unless composed of wood and stone (or, again, bronze).

Weights are in pounds and ounces; that's nice. Silver pennies are the usual currency. All abilities, skills, weapons proficiencies, magical abilities, etc. require differing combinations of experience, money, and time to improve, but it's all straight forward and noted on easy-to-read charts and tables (all at the back of the book). There are no classes, but for folks who enjoy building characters from scratch / in a more "natural" fashion (picking and choosing what skills, crafts, or abilities to learn), I don't think I've seen a better system for customizing. There is no "universal skill system" here (Thank goodness!); each skill (of which there are few, all pertinent) being individual. Even weapons differ individually: some train to a high rank (ten being the limit for weapons the like of the rapier) while others top out pretty low (mace, for example, reaching its limit at five).

Dragons differ by color, but they all breathe fire (if they breathe anything at all). None of this Godzilla-like lightning blasts coming out of the creature's gullet.

Yeah, all in all, there's a lot of nice stuff. Considering its small size (both the 2nd and 3rd edition come in at about 150 pages), the game is densely packed: not in the "tiny-font-on-crammed-pages" sense, but in the usability, no padding sense. There IS flavor to the book...including a number of illustrations...it's just kept to a minimum. I still don't find myself wanting to run DragonQuest, but there are quite a few ideas in here that I'd like to...um..."harness" to my own devices. If possible.

Later, Gators.