Friday, April 5, 2013

Respecting Ogres - 5AK Combat (Part 1)

I was actually going to write something completely different in defense of my non-B/X posting of late, but eh…that’s boring. Or, at least, it will take more mental power from me to make it at all interesting to read. So let’s talk about ogres.

Any of you folks follow college basketball?

I don’t (well, I did keep an eye on my sister-Jesuit school, Gonzaga, till they got knocked out of the tournament…go Wichita State!)…but I do listen to the “sports talk radio,” often. I used to be a big NPR guy, but a lot of the stories tend to be big bummers (or worse, get me really, REALLY worked up and angry), so the sports talk is much easier to have droning in the background. Plus, I can turn it off once football season officially ends and not feel like I’m missing a whole lot.

[I know, I know…this is sounding really random. Just bear with my weird-o brain, please]

So anyway, there’s this coach name Mike Rice who was recently fired from his gig as basketball coach of Rutgers. And while being fired from a coaching job isn’t generally a big deal, this one has drawn news because of the reason he was fired: namely, that he was abusive to his players. Interestingly, (well, interesting to me) some people have taken issue with this as yet another example of the “wussification of America;” how “soft” we’ve become as a society with regard to our children compared to “the good ol’ days.”

As opposed to how evolved we’ve become as a culture.

Now that’s not to say we’re NOT soft…that we’ve become permissive in some ways, hesitant to criticize, slow to discipline, all to our own detriment. But there’s a difference between discipline and abuse. There’s a difference between making a kid do laps or push-ups for goofing off and throwing a basketball at their head. As I’m sure most folks will agree.

So what does that have to do with ogres? Ah, so glad you asked. Going “soft” is a term that can be applied to certain gaming circles…especially of the “fantasy adventure” variety. I’m not sure I’ve had the chance to sling this particular epithet myself in relationship to later editions of Dungeons & Dragons (if I didn’t, I’m sure I’ve thought about it)  and I think that in some ways it’s an apt term to use. We’ve let players “slide” a little too much in recent decades (yes, decades); we’ve been too easy on our adventurers, we’ve allowed them to “win” just a little too often…and by doing so, have soured a bit the tasty savor of victory.

And it starts with the ogre.

I love the ogre. As a monster, as a concept. No, not Schrek…I’m talking about the straight-up D&D ogre. Burly, ugly, nasty. I’ve had a love affair with this monster since I was a kid…ever since that TSR Endless Quest book, Mountain of Mirrors (published 1982). Ogres figured prominently in that one. Ogres that killed a LOT of elves (as a veteran DM of Moldvay’s Basic by that time, I’d seen more than my share of friggin’ elves, and could really appreciate a good “elf-slaying”).

Hell, I even included the Ogre Noble in my B/X Companion as an homage to the Ogre King toy produced by TSR (a toy that I never owned, but one that I was endlessly fascinated with…where was MY plate-armored ogre lord?).

Why are ogres so cool? Well, for one thing they are something that I think are easily imagined. A GIANT is really a mythical creature…I mean, they’re as big as mountains in some stories, the kinds of things fought by Thor and the Norse gods. You can’t really imagine a group of human-sized adventurers fighting such a creature (at least, not without a certain degree of ridiculous absurdity, unless you “shrink it down” to a manageable size). But an ogre is something you can look at with a degree of perspective…they’re like Beowulf’s Grendel…they’re the troll under the bridge of the Billy Goat’s Gruff.

And funny enough, they first started out as “trolls.” It’s only that Poul Anderson monster of Three Hearts and Three Lions that screwed up the whole concept of the Norse troll (I’ve written before how I feel the stat-line for the bugbear is more appropriate) giving us the rubbery, regenerating monstrosity found in every edition of D&D and most of its knock-offs (Warhammer Fantasy, for example). In CHAINMAIL, where they first appear, it is under the heading of “trolls;” the description states the following:
“What are generally referred to as Trolls are more properly Ogres – intermediate creatures between men and Giants.”
An ogre in Chainmail attacks as six heavy footmen, which is to say they deal out damage like half-a-dozen chainmail clad Vikings. While they’re not quite as tough to kill as a “true Troll” (Gygax’s term for the Anderson monstrosity) they can still soak up the hits and keep coming, unless cut down by a hero-type…and unlike true Trolls, they can fight in formations (meaning you can encounter a unit of ‘em as opposed to a single, lone opponent).

In D&D, they lose quite a bit of this badassed-ness once you move to the “alternative combat system” provided in the LBBs. Oh, they still pack a punch (doing two dice of damage with successful attack, unlike most weapons and monsters), but they only get one strike per round. And while their thick hide still makes them the equivalent of chainmail with AC 5, it doesn’t take six simultaneous hits to bring one down (as in Chainmail)…heck, any first level character has a 35% chance to hit AC 5 with a D20, and three or four solid hits will do enough damage to “whittle one down.” Sure, in Chainmail a “hero” can “one-shot” an ogre…but only with a roll of 10+ on 2D6. That’s only a 17% chance…and the ogre’s probably going to get his licks in before that happens.

By AD&D and B/X the ogre’s been even more “wimpified.” Oh, sure, he’s got D8s for hit dice now, but so do fighters (or D10s in the case of the AD&D fighter), while in both editions his damage output has been dropped to 1D10. Whereas previously that two dice of damage meant an average of 7 per hit, now he was down to 5.5 with a chance of a glancing bitch-slap of 1 point? Fie on that! Hardly worth the bonus gold that had been included in the ogre’s treasure type since OD&D (possibly originally included due to the sheer toughness of the creature under the “default” Chainmail combat system, if not a reference to Puss in Boots).

Still, I’ve always loved the ogre, even the “wimpy” B/X ogre that I started play with (and the original Monster Manual ain’t any different). There’s no denying that it makes for a nice little “boss monster” for 1st level PCs to encounter, as evidenced many times in running B2:Keep on the Borderlands. It is still vulnerable to the 1st level magic-user’s usual sleep or charm person spells (assuming they’ve retained that arrow in their magic quiver by the time of the encounter), and encountered singly, they are a fightable encounter, giving players the kind of “rah-rah,” team-up moment they really seem to relish. At the same time, the damage output of 1D10 is so random in its application (a crap-shoot, feast-or-famine roll with every successful hit) that it keeps the adrenaline pumping from danger…even if such damage is only imaginary.

Because it IS imaginary. Oh, sure, I’ve killed plenty of PCs with Ye Old Ogre encounter, but not nearly as many as you’d imagine. Especially with regard to Keep on the Borderlands, far more PCs have met their end on the point of a well-thrown goblin spear than by the club of the O So Terrible ogre. The fact of the matter is this: in low level D&D play (of the first few editions), survival IS a crap shoot, only somewhat mitigated by the inflation of character HPs and ability score bonuses found in AD&D. And when survival has a high degree of randomness, the thing that decreases survival rate the most is running into a large number of dice rolls: one ogre is less dangerous than six goblins…who themselves are far less dangerous than eight or nine kobolds (or a dozen giant rats). It’s why B/X troglodytes (or ghouls) with their three attacks each are so superior in numbers, despite the “low damage” done with each individual hit. It’s not the POTENTIAL amount of damage, it’s just the rolling of MORE DICE; thrown out more grenades, and eventually the shrapnel’s gonna’ tag something.

[to be continued]


  1. Very nice! Units of Ogres...why haven't I.... :)

    btw, you got a mention in my 'E is for Editions" post for today.

  2. I dunno.

    I don't know if you've ever played the computer version of Temple Of Elemental Evil (I know, I know... 3.x), but the ogres in the Moathouse and on Level One of the Temple have been the source of a load of character massacres for me, even with the ultra-wussified 3.x rules. Hell, a half-dozen bugbears can be a TPK if you're overconfident. (And let's not even talk about the Hill Giant in Emirdy Meadows.)

    So there's that.