Friday, June 7, 2019

Putting Some Of It Together

As the recent discussion over at The Tao illustrates, there's more than one approach to "advanced play;" playing Dungeons & Dragons in an advanced fashion isn't simply a matter of opening up your old copy of the DMG and throwing a military pick +1 into your B/X game or saying "magic-user spells go up to 9th level." Some of the rules and systems penned by Gygax are pretty gnarly and their overall level of usefulness (let alone "fun factor") is highly questionable. And yet some of the AD&D stuff IS useful and worthy of purloining.

I think that, for any would-be redesigned and world builder, it's important to understand the evolution of the game. Okay, "important" is probably the wrong about just "a good thing." AD&D didn't just arise out of a fact, NONE of the various editions of D&D did. All of them were built upon the foundations of earlier works. In addition to nefarious business reasons, the MAIN reason Gygax wrote his original volumes was to help tie together the copious, scattered rules haphazardly printed in a number of publications, and organize and implement them in a coherent, consistent fashion...PLUS add additional "necessaries" (not to mention his own ideas and philosophies of game play) to fill in specific blanks and thereby provide a (fairly) complete game system in a polished, professional package.

People can argue Gygax's success in this endeavor, but personally I think the results speak for themselves. First edition AD&D had the longest tenure of any edition, including its years of greatest (relative) success and popularity, and probably could have continued longer if not for specific (and debatable) business decisions.  It's still the foundational version of many players' home games, which might be fairly amazing...except, of course, that Dungeons & Dragons is an amazing game.

But back to the "purloin-able:" while things like ability adjustment inflation isn't really "inflation" (simply a codifying of the rules found in the supplements with the addition of "something for wisdom"), other HP inflation and adjusted combat matrices...aren't immediately clear. After some scrutiny, I find myself coming to the conclusion that they're mainly adjustments made to increase PC survivability:

  • Extra hit points apply mainly to fighting types in standard "order of battle" (fighters, clerics, thieves). Meanwhile variable damage of monsters remains unchanged for the most part.
  • Fighters increased chance of attack (+1 per level gained) means they'll hit more often, thus shortening battles, and reducing wear-n-tear. Note: nearly all "standard" low-level monster types (goblins, orcs, gnolls, ogres, hobgoblins, bugbears) remain unchanged in both Hit Dice and HPs from earlier editions...and the introduction of extra damage versus size L creatures also helps shorten fights with dangerous (i.e. high damage dealing) monsters.
  • "Special" creatures, especially mid- to high- level undead seem to have received an INCREASED boost (most have an extra HD), probably to retain the same level threat to mid-high level characters (off-setting the additional attack/damage capability of fighter-types). However, clerics have access to more spells, and are much better fighters (equivalent to the standard fighter of earlier editions in terms of both HPs and hit probability). Thieves, while receiving extra hit points, retain the same combat progression as before albeit with a slight (-1) penalty, easily offset by the bonus received when back stabbing.

Again, I think all these adjustments are made in terms of increased survivability (i.e. increased playability for players) rather than any attempt at A) balancing the classes, or B) modeling "reality." Personally, I've long felt that B/X (aka "streamlined OD&D") does an excellent job of modeling the real world in the abstract...which is probably why it tends to be so deadly and prone to PC fatalities. The real world is less forgiving than most heroic fantasy.

All that being said, I like the idea of increasing (PC) viability, for multiple reasons: it's conducive to long-term play, it cuts down on player frustration, it (theoretically) increases player "boldness" thus contributing to the pace of play. And taking Gygax's professed tactic from his later years (using OD&D but starting PCs at 3rd level) is not to my taste at this time; I really, really want players to start from zero. But how to reconcile this inflated combat ability with abstract modeling?

Here's the thing: it's actually helped by my proposed South American setting. Hit points are an abstract concept when it comes to PCs anyway (representing a variety of factors, not just "meat" to be carved). D&D generally assumes PCs will be meeting humans of like-technology (warlords fighting warlords), not steel versus cloth & bronze. The Europeans steel armor, long swords, and firearms gave them a slight edge versus the indigenous Americans, small enough to model using the B/X variable weapon damage versus the increased HPs found in AD&D. For example:

Incan Weapons: short bow (d6), sling (d4), javelin (d4), spear (d6), hand axe (d6), battle axe (d8), club (d4), porra (2-handed club) (d6), bola (d2+entangle)

European Weapons: long sword (d8), dagger (d4), crossbow (d6), arquebus (d8), pike/lance (d6), halberd (d10)

A typical butcher.
As can be seen, most weapons in the Incan arsenal are in the d4 or d6 range (as would the weapons of most indigenous American peoples) while the Europeans' average is much closer to d8. Given that I would provide fighters from both sides with d10 hit dice, this still works out to be a small advantage for the conquistadors, easily overcome (as in history) by the numeric advantage enjoyed by the native peoples.

I'm slightly less keen on the combat tables themselves. I like the granularity of the fighter matrix, but the range of armor classes is too broad as is (I think) the range of progression. There's just only so much skill at fighting a person can acquire, and the extra numbers mean little unless you have armor classes in that -4 (or lower) range. And just what is that supposed to represent anyway? A creature moving impossibly fast? How would strength increase your ability to hit that? A creature with super impenetrable skin or wearing titanium power armor? Why not simply say "magic weapons required" to hit the thing?

Ideally, I'd use some sort of table that compares weapon type to armor type and adjust the target number based on class & level (as Oakes Spaulding did in his Seven Voyages of Zylarthen). However, I don't want to have to redo the tables every time a new type of armor or weapon gets introduced, and the system is much less effective against monsters with natural attacks, so rather than open that can of worms I'll stick with "playability" and stick with the B/X tables, perhaps with minor adjustment. I do want to take into account the historical armor of the time on both sides of the battlefield, and that's going to take a little adjustment from the usual leather-chain-plate paradigm.

[it may come as a surprise to some folks that the Incans wore body armor: a form of quilted fabric that was extremely effective (like ancient kevlar) at stopping attacks from spears and arrows. It proved slightly less effective against the long swords and firearms of the Spaniards, but even many conquistadors later adopted it as armor, being far more comfortable for the climate, and a perfectly effective at defense against native missile weapons. Alexander the Great is said to have worn something similar called linothorax. The Incans had a good command of metallurgy, using bronze for their spears, axes, and arrowheads; they just didn't turn it into breastplates]

Anyway, that's some of the stuff I'm doing. I'm also continuing work on the geography of the setting. Jesus, South America is a big continent. That makes for a lot of room to play with, but a ton of area to map (downloaded this hex program and it took me a day just to get a basic 60ish miles per hex!). Right now, I'm feeling like the official start date of the campaign should be around the beginning of 1511, around the anniversary of Juan de la Dosa's death. Darien has already been founded on the mainland by Vasco Nunez de Balboa, but most of the European "civilization" is still happening on the islands in the Caribbean. Pedro Arias won't arrive for about three years, the Mayans won't be found for six (except by a shipwrecked Jeronimo de Aguilar who is still residing in Darien), Cortez won't land in Veracruz for eight, and Francisco Pizarro won't reach Incan territory for 15 years.  At this point in history, there's still plenty of forays being made into the mainland wilderness but the knowledge of what's "actually out there" as fall as indigenous civilizations, is far from known, and the possibilities are still pretty wide open.

Though I'm not sure how I feel about creating alternate history (that's a subject for another post).

I'm seriously considering adapting Len Lakofka's "Lendore Isles" adventures (L1 and L2) to the Caribbean by the way. I mean, they were written for "Advanced" D&D, right? I'll talk more about that (maybe) in a future post. Also, thinking about starting a new series here at Ye Old Blog: "Get to Know a Conquistador," profiling the various slavers and treasure-hunters who pillaged their way across the Americas (usually dying in the attempt). Don't know if that sounds like "fun" to you folks, but it would certainly allow me to record some of the "fun facts" I've been digging up recently.

Later, Gators.


  1. Historical character profiles sounds very interesting

  2. If anyone wants to read some well-researched, highbrow, Pulitzer-nominated historical fiction about conquistadors, I highly recommend The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami. It's set in North America, not South America, but it is one of the most D&D books I have ever read.

    Full disclosure: I have played Cards Against Humanity with the author. And she was at my wedding.