Friday, January 29, 2016

Assessing Damage

Jonathan N. posted the following comments on Wednesday's post regarding the B/X battle axe:
Huh. I would have made the battle axe just do 1d4+4 damage instead. Actually, 1d6+2 is probably more fair. Same average as 1d10.

Indeed, it IS the same average damage. But it's not the same range of damage, which for my game is the important part of the design model.

Back up for a moment. Recall D&D's original roots in CHAINMAIL, a tabletop war-game. It included a man-to-man element, but it was still of the "one hit equals one kill" variety: with a war game we are much more concerned with the movement of armies as a whole, not individual melees. Weapons were on a human scale, and humans (with the exception of some fantasy hero-types) of the "grunt" variety, regardless of arms and armor. One man = 1 die roll = 1 hit absorption...the standard unit of play from which all other units derive.

[a "hero," as an example attacked as four units, i.e. four humans, capable of rolling four dice to attack and absorbing four hits of damage. A "superhero" was the equivalent of eight units]

When you get to Men & Magic (volume 1 of OD&D, from which B/X is, more or less, directly derived), this standard unit mentality is still present. Heck, CHAINMAIL is the default combat system (with the "roll-D20-versus-AC" being an "alternative" option). The new game, however, is concerned with a smaller scale of action...heroic individuals operating at the skirmish level...and thus a more granular approach to combat is needed. Players aren't using armies in D&D, but individual characters...and losing one's character is the equivalent of losing one's entire army.

Enter hit points: the granular solution that fits the war gamer's paradigm. If your character is your "army," than each hit point represents a "grunt."  On the battlefield scale we're concerned with how one force attacks another force, and standard units (i.e. soldiers) are removed depending on the results of the attack. On the small scale we look at attacks on an individual (man-to-man) basis, to see how many hit point "units" are removed as the result of an attack.

Now, as I said, weapons are based on "human scale;" originally (in CHAINMAIL) a successful attack resulted in the removal of one unit, i.e. one soldier. But now that we are looking at a granular scale, we need to determine just how granular (that is, how many hit points) are possessed by a "standard unit." And the OD&D answer to that question is D6. That is how many hit points a one HD human soldier has in OD&D.

[remember that the D8 hit points per HD thing in B/X was a later adjustment in Supplement I (Greyhawk) that was carried over to Basic, AD&D, B/X, etc.]

One unit has 1 to 6 hit points. Thus, one human scale weapon inflicts 1 to 6 hit points of damage...this is the origin of the "all weapons do D6 damage" rule of OD&D and its descendants: Holmes, Moldvay, etc.

Once you know the "standard" elements involved, you can tweak and adjust. You can say that a heroic fighter PC (who starts with the lofty title of "veteran") can have MORE than the standard HPs: in OD&D it's 1D6+1; in B/X, it's 1D8. You can say that a 1st level magic-user only has 1D4 hit points (no doubt due to being a pasty academic) but that an experienced 2nd level magic-user has 2D4...she's been hardened by adventure and hiking in the wilderness. You can say that an ogre, a creature capable of sustaining damage enough to kill four men, receives 4 dice worth of hit points.

And you can adjust weapon damage appropriately as well. A dagger is capable of killing a sedentary citizen within 10 seconds (the length of a B/X combat round), but generally takes longer against a trained fighter, except under extreme circumstances (the fighter is weak and/or injured, the weapon is enchanted, etc.).

SO NOW (having got the preamble out of the way), let's look at the battle axe again. An attack roll is a check to see if an opponent can inflict damage in the round; the damage roll provides an indication of HOW that damage was inflicted based on the amount of the result.

A battle axe has a good range of damage (1 to 8...enough to kill a trained veteran with a perfect blow). Let's break that down in granular fashion:

1 point - a blow from the weapon's haft, the kind that will leave a nasty welt or bruise.
2 points - a severe blow from the weapon's haft to a vital joint or organ (like jamming the butt of the axe into the diaphragm like a blunt spear).
3 points - a concussive blow, capable of stunning the person with pain or blunt force trauma.
4 points - a strike with the axe head, causing a major laceration and probable blood loss.
5 points - a strike with the axe head that tears muscle, breaks bone, and/or severs major arteries.
6 points - a deep blow to the body, causing massive internal damage and blood loss.
7 points - a severing blow to a vulnerable joint or a full-on strike to the skull with the business end of the axe causing immense damage and probable death.
8 points - a wicked blow to the neck causing decapitation and immediate death.

This is a good range of damage, easily scalable to an opponent. For example, a concussive blow (3 points) versus a normal citizen who only possesses 3 hit points, might be a blow that puts the guy into a permanent coma. On the other hand the 3rd level fighter on the receiving end of an 8 point decapitating strike can consider that she just dodged a bullet (or, rather, an axe) and that her luck (those extra hit points from her greater experience) won't last forever.
Darkwolf's rotoscoped axe-work is pretty good.

Decreasing the range from 1-8 to 5-8/3-8 as Jonathan N suggests decreases the range of possibility inherent in a weapon like the battle axe. What's worse, it's no longer "human scale:" a weapon that inflicts a minimum of 3 hit points of damage (let alone 5!) will automatically kill three-quarters of the "normal human" population found in B/X. It leaves no room for the possibility of a glancing, non-fatal blow from a weapon that has more attack surfaces than just the axe head.

The +1 attack bonus I gave in Wednesday's post ("Can-Opener") stems from the ideas that A) a wedge-shaped axe-head delivered forcefully is good at penetrating armor, B) a mass weapon like an axe delivers enough concussive force to inflict damage even when failing to penetrate armor, and C) the battle axe is light enough (compared to other two-headed weapons), that A and B aren't offset by the weapon's overall lack of maneuverability compared to light, one-handed weapons (5 pounds versus 15 pounds).

[a +1 attack bonus is also enough to offset the +1 AC bonus provided by a shield, and "hooking" shields was a well-documented tactic of axe-use by Viking warriors and others; however, I know there are more than a few people who disagree with the amount of protection offered by a shield in B/X]

These are justifications to my overall design goal of making the battle axe a viable weapon choice in B/X, based on the B/X system as it exists. Increasing the average damage doesn't fit into my particular paradigm, but increasing the range of weapon damage (via the use of the variable weapon damage table) does.

For me, anyway. Plus it gives me a chance to roll dice of other shapes besides the D6. I've got them on-hand anyway.
; )

By The Way: I personally don't think this is anything that needs to be pointed out in a game text. The designers of Monopoly don't bother explaining why you receive $200 for Passing Go, after all. I realize that it's kind of "the thing" these days to include handy little sidebars in texts explaining design choices (boy, role-players sure are an over-analyzing bunch, aren't we?) but is it really worth it to make a cramped layout and increased page count? Well...that's a rant for another day.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

B/X Battle Axe

It's been over a year since my last axe post. Better get to it.

Recently (um...the last couple days), I've been working on a new "campaign setting" project for B/X (see yesterday's post). Consequently, I started fooling around with all sorts of ideas for tweaking the standard B/X system in order to get something that's not only "setting appropriate" but that helps "fix" things I dislike about B/X. After coming up with several "out-o-the-box" changes and crunching numbers I've decided to discard pretty much ALL of these "great ideas." Turns out B/X really is plenty swell.

I should really remember to read my own blog posts.

Even so, very minor tweaks still in order. Maximum HPs at first level, for example (you don't want to know my "alternate system")...just need to increase the survivability a tad. Tempted to allow characters to begin at levels higher than 1st, even (we've seen this before: 2nd level for Dark Sun characters, and Gygax used a 3rd level starting point for his house rules), but I'm pretty sure I'm going to hold true to the standard.

Then there's Ye Old Battle Axe.

Fuzzy Skinner's been writing recently about the gradual conversion of his B/X campaign to 2nd edition AD&D, something I won't fault him for (even if AD&D2 isn't my cup of tea, I can honestly see the, "ramping up" complexity to one's game over time is valid and oft-taken tactic to keep one's campaign fresh). Of course, this kind of thing does raise challenges to evolving DM...his most recent post found him trying to reconcile the simple beauty of uniform damage with the variable complexity found in an Advanced edition of the game.

[yes, I offered him my two cents and a suggestion for how to handle it. Ever helpful, that's me]

Fuzzy found himself running up against a philosophy of realism (AD&D) that was at odds with the practicality of gameplay (B/X) to which he'd become accustomed. In the past, I (like Fuzzy) have tried to synthesize these two issues by finding "realistic" justifications that allowed me to keep my practical rules. But I'm starting to get to a point where I don't feel the need to justify myself...maybe because I've been reading thing's like The Dungeon's Front Door, I've started to come to the conclusion that a game only needs to be justified so much. If you spend too much time on it, it can become detrimental to the game.

Which can lead to a bad session of gaming.

Still, it's good to have a ready answer at hand for when one's player asks a question like, ''Why do daggers inflict the same amount of damage as a two-handed sword?" Some answer is better than no answer (I mean, your players are presumably literate and intelligent and thoughtful and are asking out of genuine curiosity regarding something that doesn't jibe with their world view...I don't think they're trying to bust your balls). Best to give some impression that you've at least thought about the rule so that the session can move back into the realm of play, rather than design/theory discussion.

Having said that, AND having tried on this new "service to the player" philosophy that is starting to make the rounds among thoughtful folks, I've come to a startling decision: I've decided to go back to the OPTIONAL Variable Weapon Damage concept (see table on page B27 of Moldvay, X25 of Cook/Marsh).

'JB! Say it ain't so!' Oh, but it IS so, Gentle Reader. And while I'd consider restricting damage bonuses (from STR) based on weapon type, I'm not going to do so. First off, it would add extra complication to the ease of the system that is; secondly, it would undermine my philosophical justification for the inclusion of the heroic STR bonuses of B/X.

[what do I mean by that? Remember that an attack roll is not a single strike, but an attempt to do damage over the course of the ten second round. A successful attack roll means you were able to inflict damage, and the damage roll gives you an idea of how that damage was accomplished based on how much damage was inflicted. Extra STR, valuable in melee, can represent all sorts of additional unarmed strikes or tactical maneuvering/grappling that allows for the infliction of additional damage. It does NOT mean a dude with an 18 strength is delivering a limb-amputating blow with his dagger]

As for why certain classes aren't allowed certain weapons (the thing that led to my previously posted...later published...idea about variable weapon damage by class)...well, that's a matter of setting detail. A magic-user's limitations might be tied to oaths, or taboos, or magnetic interference, or personal pride (necessary to have belief in self for magic to work), or whatever. It's just setting "color," easily laid out in a briefing of the particular game world.

Here comes the pain.
But then, we're back to battle axes.

The battle axe is a two-handed weapon...with all the inherent B/X limitations (no shield, lose initiative)...and yet only inflicts D8 damage, compared to other two-handed weapons (the pole arm and two-handed sword) which do D10. Considering the normal sword does D8 damage and is one-handed (thus possessing zero limitations), why would anyone choose a battle axe over a sword?

The stock answer I receive is: this is reflected in the cost (battle axes are 7gp; swords are 10gp). Okay, but a pole arm is 7gp, too, has the same limitations as a battle axe, but does D10 damage.

Well, the pole arm is three times as heavy (15# compared to 5#) is the follow-up rebuttal. But then,the two-handed sword is the same weight as a pole arm, has exactly the same specifications and is more than TWICE as expensive! You've fixed the problem with the battle axe (I can carry three for every one pole-arm), but now you're left wondering who'd ever purchase a zwiehander?

Still, forget all concern is the battle axe because (as I've written many times) I LOVE me some battle axe. I love the weapon, its history, its concept; heck, I even dig the name...just rolls off the tongue. How can I make it a viable option for an adventurer, without turning it into a 7gp vorpal sword (i.e. something everyone wants to purchase).  AND (equally important) without messing too much with the B/X rules as written. Because, in all honesty, I personally think that the battle axe IS scaled correctly, both price-wise and damage-wise, with the other weapons on the B/X list.

Here's what I came up with:

Can-Opener: a character wielding a battle axe two-handed receives a +1 bonus to the attack roll.

Versatile: a fighter (not a dwarf, elf, halfling, or thief) with a STR of 16 may wield a battle axe with one-hand, thus allowing the use of a shield; however, when doing so the battle axe only does D6 damage.

Wear & Tear: non-magical weapons break on any miss if the attack roll before modification is a 1 (swords only) or 1-2 (all other weapons).

I think that should about do it.

[I actually really like the look of B/X the strongest enchanted "axe" is +2, and so the can-opener bonus brings the hit bonus up to the maximum of other melee weapons. The wear & tear is a pretty standard "weapon break" rule and helps to distinguish pole arms from two-handed swords. I could certainly live with this in a campaign that included variable weapon damage]

Later, Gators.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Money for WotC

Much as it pains me to admit it, I have just now...this very minute...transferred some of my hard earned ducats to Wizards of the Coast via DriveThruRPG. Yes, as a publisher of DTRPG, I realize that not ALL of the money will go to WotC, but even funding them in a minor fashion raises a bit of bile to mouth.

Still, it can't be helped. I needed a copy of the B/X Expert Rulebook for reference and my copy is 7000 miles northwest of my current location. $4.99 was a small (if irritating) price to pay to add the PDF to my hard drive, considering that I honestly have zero idea when will be the next time I make it back to Seattle. Hopefully before July, but I won't hold my breath.

Should have brought my copy to Paraguay.
Some might (perhaps) be wondering what was so immediately necessary that I needed to get my hands on a copy of the book. What could be so all-fired important? I mentioned last Friday, there is this little B/X Campaign Challenge thing going on and, well, I've got an idea for an offering. No, it's not a great idea, but it's an idea, and I'm in the mood to nurture such a project at the moment. Tuesdays are still poor days for me to actually do any writing, but at least I can download the reference materials I need (I already have my copy of Moldvay with me...I refuse to travel anywhere without it...), and start working up an outline.

But really, really, truly...I don't plan on spending too much time on this project. "6.4 months" seems waaaay too long to devote to something that's only supposed to be 64 pages long (assuming it includes random tables and empty spaces for illustrations). 64 days is probably a better timeline for me...I mean, I should be able to write more than a page a day. That would give me a hard deadline of March 29th, or March 30th if I start my count tomorrow. Hell, if I throw out Leap Year, I suppose I could just give myself till the end of March...that seems easy enough.

Sure. End of March.

Updates will follow, of course. Hmmm...maybe I'll do my own illustrations for a change. That should be...well, terrible. But, hey: New Year, new challenges, right?

Sure...why not?
; )

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Dungeon's Front Door

Had the chance to re-read The Dungeon's Front Door this morning (Alexis Smolensk's latest offering), and I'm quite glad I did. Some books, like 100 Years of Solitude, come off a lot better with an additional read.

Easy to read, but plenty meaty.
Not that I didn't enjoy it the first time I read it...I got my copy of The Dungeon's Front Door & Other Things in the Deep Dark back in November, and I quickly devoured it. However, the first word that came to my mind was "unimpressive," which was definitely less than what I'd hoped to come away with. Probably, I had been expecting something similar to How To Run, which was one hell of an opus. In retrospect (and upon further review) it's a grossly unfair dismissal: The Dungeon's Front Door is a very different book, not only with regard to structure, but in terms of both scope and objective.

If you style yourself a "Dungeon Master" of this game called Dungeons & Dragons, you'd do well to have a copy of this book in your back pocket.

And it should fit in your pocket...depending on your pant-size, of course (fits in mine and I generally wear 33x34's). The Dungeon's Front Door is a digest-sized soft cover of about 150 pages. Rather than an extensive treatise (like How To Run), you'll instead find a series of essays pertaining to "the dungeon," that hoary environment of fantasy adventure gaming.

The dungeon. There's a reason why the game is called DUNGEONS & Dragons, a reason the trope (and the game) has lasted for forty-odd years. There's a reason why even Mr. Smolensk, who puts so much time and care into the creation of his living, expansive campaign world, still continues to create and include these "fun house" adventure sites. If you don't already have a marked appreciation for the dungeon...what it is, why it's important, what it brings to your game, why the real meat of the tabletop  RPG truly depends on its perilous confines...well, if you don't, you should after reading this book. It's pretty inspiring stuff.

Which isn't to say that Alexis doesn't poke fun at the dungeon's shortcomings or inherent ridiculousness; rather than shy away from the dungeon's flaws, he addresses them front-and-center, even including two chapters of humorous fiction that act as intermezzos between essays while showing the absurdity inherent in dungeon crawls. Dungeons are absurd, if one attempts to look at them through the lens of "reality." The Dungeon's Front Door, however, takes great care in elucidating that D&D is a game, not reality, and that the dungeon is a vital element of gameplay. Viewed in this way, one can accept the inherent absurdity and move on to the far more important issue of elevating one's game, creating (and running) dungeons in method that engages players, providing them with a visceral, immersive experience.

[see my earlier review of How To Run for more information on Alexis's personal agenda with regard to immersion and serving players]

Mostly, it's excellent stuff. My only quibble is with the essay titled Breaking the Fourth Wall...this particular section, which might have been at home in How To Run, feels out of place in The Dungeon's Front Door. The essay offers no information specific to creating or running dungeons,  instead discussing DM technique that, while interesting, is less than pertinent to the rest of the text. For me, it's the only real blemish in what is otherwise a tight, focused book of thought-provoking material.

[I write this knowing Alexis has written other excellent essays on his blog with regard to dungeon economy and ecology that might have served better in place of this chapter]

In summation, I find the book worth the money for anyone who acts (or intends to act) as a Dungeon Master. If you're a person who enjoys running D&D games but feels guilt over the inclusion of dungeons or, worse, a person who cannot fathom why dungeons need be included at all, then this book is probably a "must read." The Dungeon's Front Door has the potential to totally transform your concept of and approach to site-based adventures (i.e. "dungeons"). And that's pretty good for a book this size.

[ha! I just saw there's a quote from me on the back cover. I honestly failed to notice that till just now!]

Friday, January 22, 2016


Welp, it's January 22nd, 2016. Probably about time I got back to writing.

Apologies for the delay. Travel, holidays, birthdays (my son's), and playoff football-induced dementia have all contributed to my utter slack in blogging...hell, writing in general. I've been "taking it easy" (i.e. "being lazy") and I'm a bit out of practice with simply getting up and putting words down.

Probably something that requires a new resolution for a new year.

Anyhoo...there's lots of ideas that have been floating in my head the last couple-few weeks, enough that I even bothered to write some down in my notebook (so as not to forget them while awaiting the return of my discipline). More Star Wars thoughts (of course)...the family made it back to theater for the third time, though I'm pretty sure that's the last time I'l need to see the film again (I've got everything I need to from a second viewing in English). Blood Bowl, too, as relates to the NFL play-offs (I was very angry with the Seahawks' last game of the season, though not for reasons one might expect). Also, thoughts on the 15th century, World War I, Flash Gordon, and Ars Magica. And, of course, I still need to get around to reviewing Alexis Smolensk's The Dungeon's Front Door (though truth-be-told, I'm probably going to need to give it a second read to remember my thoughts from November). Then of course there's a return to other serial topics that I've started and neglected...

Well, for a change I'm going to (somewhat) move away from my usual arbitrary "thoughts o the day" and instead look at that thing so many of my readers love and hold dear: B/X. A few weeks ago, James V. West (comic book artist and game designer...his 2002 freebie, The Pool, is credited with inspiring many of the indie games that came out of the early years of The Forge) suggested a personal challenge of designing a 64-page book that could "fit" with B/X...a campaign setting, bestiary, etc...something that would feel right at home with the 64 page box sets of the 70s and 80s. And because he wanted to make sure that he didn't hem-and-haw over the thing he set himself a hard due date of July 12th...a timeline of 6.4 months, beginning with a January 1st start date.

Others have since picked up Mr. West's gauntlet (Brian Scott, Reese Laundry, and James Mishler to name a few) and there's even a G+ community set-up for the thing. All in all, I think it's a pretty cool idea...there was a time (a couple-three years back) when I thought the main way *I* was going to end up making any money in the gaming hobby was by writing "campaign setting" books...that's all I was doing back in the days of Land of Ice, Land of Ash, Goblin Wars, etc. Nowadays, I'm not so sure that's the way to go (and I've pretty much allowed all that setting material to fall into neglect), but I still get a kick out of seeing other folks' creativity when it comes to tweaking and re-skinning basic D&D to fit a specific campaign profile. As I've noted before, B/X is a wonderful chassis on which to build one's personal fantasy vehicle.

I should note that I haven't thrown my own hat into the ring for this little challenge...I'm a little late to the party and, well, I've got a lot on my plate at the moment. But I am more than a little tempted. I've been away from B/X-proper for so long that...well, suffice is to say I am tempted. Heck, I even have a bit of an idea (though an incredibly derivative one). And I'm not sure if it would really be any fun for anyone but me. Hmmm...

BUT readers who are interested should definitely see what they can put together in the next six months. Even if you're already working on some sort of 300 page FHB monstrosity already, try paring it down to a more streamlined basic form. That kind of design exercise is pretty useful (in fact, one of the 2016 projects I'm working on is that 48-page something-or-other that I thought I'd kicked to the curb...more on this later). And after all, you can always go back and finish off your "advanced edition" later, including all the extra rules and bloat and whatnot you feel is necessary to make it complete.

Hmm...that probably sounds unkind ("bloat") or, at least, feisty. I don't really mean it as such...a playful jab. I'm actually starting to come back to the idea that these games of ours require as large a page count as they require, and needn't be limited to arbitrary numbers like 64 or 48 or even 100+. No, I'll probably never dig on something in the 400+ range (not in one volume anyway), but...well, that's a different post for a separate topic.

F. Maybe I will do up a setting book for this challenge thingy. At least to get my pen flowing again.
; )