Men and Magic Examination Part 2

This examination rounds out the rules portion of Men and Magic, that is, everything but the spell description. There’s really nothing else that grabbed me like I described in Part 1.

As far as things I’ve always overlooked and want to make a point to use in my next campaign, I have to say the rules on henchmen/hirelings/retainers are it. I’ve always known the rules were there, just never bothered to use them. Upon re-reading, though, I can see where their inclusion not only makes characters more survivable, it also makes for good role playing. The idea of the party’s fighter having 2 or 3 bully boys following him around is amusing. The image of a cleric cajoling his posse into joining him for evening prayer is likewise funny.

What’s really intriguing though, is the part about

“Monsters can be lured into service if they are of the same basic alignment as
the player-character, or they can be Charmed and thus ordered to serve. Note,
however, that the term “monster” includes men found in the dungeons, so in this
way some high-level characters can be brought into a character’s service, charisma
allowing or through a Charm spell.” (Men and Magic, pg 12)

I can see a 1st or 2nd level Magic-User running around with a cult following, especially the way Charm works (remains in effect until dispelled).

There’s also a cool little section about setting things up so that if your character gets killed he can have a cousin or whatever waiting in the wings to claim all his shit and sally forth on his own adventures.

So far, this has been a very enjoyable experience. I’m looking forward to seeing what I may have missed in the spell descriptions next.

Men & Magic Examination Pt 1

Here is one of the first areas to catch my eye. It has long been common practice to allow players to rearrange numbers by lowering one stat to raise another, typically on a 2-to-1 ratio. Now, I’m not saying this is any different. All I am saying is that it is open to another interpretation. The compelling statement in this case is this Clerics can use strength on a 3 for 1 basis in their prime requisite area (wisdom), for purposes of gaining experience only. (Men & Magic, pg 10-11)” I believe this can mean that the stats don’t actually change. The “secondary” ones listed merely act to supplement the Prime Requisite. That does make sense, when you consider the advancement paradigm as a whole. There is a relative dearth of direct mechanical bonuses of the sort found in later additions. In the LBBs ability was measured more importantly by level. Rising through the levels could be aided by greater natural ability, but it was only in the attainment of levels that “bottom line” ability was measured. In other words, the character’s ability to influence events in-game was almost solely dependent on level. Thus, any bonus that resulted in a character rising through the levels more rapidly could be construed as the realization of a natural aptitude or innate talent.

Within that paradigm, bonuses to earned experience are very important. Far broader in application, if taking longer to realize, they actually help shape the character, moreso than simple bonuses. Of course, bonuses to-hit and damage make a Fighter better able to survive to higher levels. Yet, a bonus to XP will get the Fighter to the higher levels more quickly, which improves his chances to hit, while also speeding access to more hit points. In later editions power creep came in with the granting of stat bonuses, in addition to XP bonuses.

This was always something of a sore spot for me. In the latter editions, experience did not mean as much as raw ability. A 1st level Fighter with a very high STR in AD&D could have the same chance to hit as a 3rd level Fighter of average STR, and would do significantly more damage. D&D combat has always been about modelling the result of the combat, not the blow-for-blow of it, and over the course of a fight, experience should win out. But, I digress.

I think it is also compelling that only the non-primes get a direct mechanical bonus, and very small ones, at that.

On the whole, I like the idea of interpreting this as the secondary stats listed serve to “buff” the Prime Requisites, but otherwise remain unchanged. I’ve included the full passage of relevant text below, I hope I’m not crossing any copyright lines by doing so.

Explanation of Abilities:
The first three categories are the prime requisites for each of the three classes, Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics. (See the Bonuses and Penalties to Advancement due to Abilities table  which appears hereafter.)
Strength is the prime requisite for fighters. Clerics can use strength on a 3 for 1 basis in their prime requisite area (wisdom), for purposes of gaining experience only. Strength will also aid in opening traps and so on.
Intelligence is the prime requisite for magical types. Both fighters and Clerics can use it in their prime requisite areas (strength and wisdom respectively) on a 2 for 1 basis. Intelligence will also affect referees’ decisions as to whether or not certain action would be taken, and it allows additional languages to be spoken.
Wisdom is the prime requisite for Clerics. It may be  used on a 3 for 1 basis by fighters, and on a 2 for 1 basis by Magic-Users, in their respective prime requisite areas. Wisdom rating will act much as does that for intelligence.
Constitution is a combination of health and endurance. It will influence such things as the number of hits which can be taken and how well the character can withstand being paralyzed, turned to stone, etc.
Dexterity applies to both manual speed and conjuration. It will indicate the character’s missile ability and speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.
Charisma is a combination of appearance, personality, and so forth. Its primary function is to determine how many hirelings of unusual nature a character can attract. This is not to say that he cannot hire men-at-arms and employ mercenaries, but the charisma function will affect loyalty of even these men. Players will, in all probability, seek to hire Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and/or Clerics in order to strengthen their roles in the campaign. A player-character can employ only as many as indicated by his charisma score:

[snip]
In addition the charisma score is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover. Finally, the charisma will aid a character in attracting various monsters to his service.
Bonuses and Penalties to Advancement due to Abilities:
(Low score is 3-8; Average is 9-12; High is 13-18)

Prime requisite 15 or more: Add 10% to earned experience
Prime requisite 13 or 14: Add 5% to earned experience
Prime requisite of 9 – 12: Average, no bonus or penalty
Prime requisite 8 or 7: Minus 10% from earned experience
Prime requisite 6 or less: Minus 20% from earned experience
Constitution 15 or more: Add +1 to each hit die
Constitution 13 or 14: Will withstand adversity
Constitution of 9 – 12: 60% to 90% chance of surviving
Constitution 8 or 7: 40% to 50% chance of survival
Constitution 6 or Less: Minus 1 from each hit die*
Dexterity above 12: Fire any missile at + 1
Dexterity under 9: Fire any missile at -1
* minimum score of 1 on any die

Note: Average scores are 9-12. Units so indicated above may be used to increase prime requisite total insofar as this does not bring that category below average, i.e. below a score of 9.

Thieves PLUS a New Idea

A lot has been said about the Thief class. I’ve said a lot about it. I am really divided on the topic.

On one hand, when I’m in OD&D mode, I want player skill, reasoning, and description to rule the day. I love the idea of a return to the days when players said “I carefully remove the clothes from the chest, being watchful for tripwires or things of that sort. When I have them emptied, I lightly tap around inside the chest, listening for hollow spots or a false bottom.” To me, that is so much better than “I check out the chest. My Perception Check was a 15. What do I find?”

Yet, there are times when player description just isn’t enough. Describing how to pick a lock isn’t something most of us can do with any degree of accuracy, for example. So, I do think there are instances where player skill needs to give way to character skill. Besides which, I like the idea of a skulking character of unsavory repute, but he is necessary. While I like the idea of any character doing thieving things, I also like the idea that one character may be better at it, or an aspect of it, than another character.

I’ve given some thought to various methods of making this happen. I could just allow the Thief from Greyhawk to the available classes. If I did, though, it would give one class a monopoly on thiefly activities.

I could make available a “graft” of the thief skills, at an XP cost. This seems ok, but just doesn’t feel right. I’m not crazy about the thief skill being this homogenous blob. I prefer the idea that a guy can be a first-rate lockpick and not know a damn thing about sneaking around.

lastly would be some method whereby players could select thief skills for their character, cafeteria-style, at some sort of premium, such as additional XP. The drawback to this option is that it starts straying into the murky area of a skill system, which I prefer to avoid.

Here’s an idea I had. I’m just spitballin’, but here it is. In Greyhawk, the majority of Thief skills are divided up into two broad categories: Open Locks/Remove Traps and Pick Pocket/move Silently/ Hide in Shadows. I propose that Fighters and Magic-Users (only) may opt at character creation to have certain Thief skills. The player may choose one group for his character to have. The choice must be made during character creation, and can not be changed. The character advances in those skills per Greyhawk. In return, the character must forfeit 15% of earned experience. Up to 10% of this may be offset by high Prime Requisites.

I’m not so sure I’m crazy about that either. But there it is. If anyone has an opinion on the matter, or that idea, I would love to hear it.

Ok, I just had another idea. This one can apply to pretty much anything, not just thief-like activities. Very simply, when the outcome of something is too variable to allow a player to simply describe his character’s actions, roll d20 and add the most appropriate stat. The referee will do likewise, high roll is successful. This can be used for anything from picking a lock (give it a rating to be added to the d20 roll), to sneaking past a guard, climbing a wall (d20 + rating based on surface and conditions), deciphering something written in a lost language, etc, etc.

I hate to sound like I’m patting myself on the back, but I really like this idea. It even takes class into account, in a way. If the referee allows players to place stats rather than rolling in order (which I do), then the best numbers will be allocated to the stats that are most relevant to the class. In other words, there’s no need to give Fighters a bonus on a physical roll because he will most likely have his best number in Strength anyway. If you want a guy that is above average in the thieving arts, just be sure and put one of your better numbers on DEX. If it means missing out on the Prime Requisite bonus, then that’s the cost of being a jack-of-all-trades. This should also play very fast at the table. All in all, I think I might be onto to something here.

More than meets the eye

Ok, so, like I said, I’m back in the old school vibe. Part of that lead me back to the excellent essays at Philotomy’s OD&D Musings (http://www.philotomy.com/#overview). If you’re an old schooler who’s never read these musings, stop reading this and go there now. I’ll be here when you get back. If you have read them before, read the again, they are that good.

Reading (more accurately re-reading) made me want to really dig into the LBBs. See, I started really getting into D&D with my best friend at the time. He begged and borrowed the books long enough to hand copy them (the LBBs and Greyhawk). He taught me, was always the DM, and never relinquished his hard-won copies. So, back then I never actually read the rules. Eventually I did buy a white box, but by then I thought I knew it all already, so didn’t read it. Then came AD&D. Long story short, while I’ve read bits and pieces, I’ve not read them cover to cover.

When my old school urge fell on me, I immediately decided to set the Way-Back Machine for 1976 and avail myself of all the Supplements released by that time. Upon reading Philotomy’s excellent advice to read the LBBs with a fresh eye, I decided it was high time I do so. All I can say, is DAMN!

Sure, there are numerous references to Chainmail. But, for a book that weighs in at a svelte 30+ pages, digest sized at that, this is a remarkably complete character book. The most remarkable thing about Men & Magic, though, is its internal consistency. Individual systems and subsystems have been picked apart and criticized piece-meal for years. They’ve been ridiculed, laughed at, and called outdated. And all that was said from the instant Runequest arrived on the scene. The thing is, the systems and subsystems don’t exist in a vacuum. They are all part of a cohesive whole, and when they are left alone to function in that environment, they function unbelievably well.

This post isn’t going to be a guided tour of all the things I never realized were in there. It is an introduction to a series of posts offering guided tours of things I never realized were in D&D from the very beginning. Most of the time those earliest versions are still better than systems and methods designed with 40 years of collective design experience informing them. So far these has been a very rewarding experience, and I hope that by sharing it with you, perhaps you’ll be inspired to reacquaint yourself with the prototype from which all others sprang.

An Old School Character Sheet

Here’s a character sheet I drew up and scanned. It’s meant to be reminiscent of something that might have been at a table in ’76. The stat order, with CON before DEX, is pure LBBs, as are the Saving Throw categories. I also included spaces for stat mods from Greyhawk, as well as AC adjustments to-hit. I know it’s not the Next Big Thing, but I like it. Hopefully some of you will, too.

Add-Vance or Sub-Vance?

Allow me to preface this by saying that I have not read any of the D&DNext development releases in detail.

Having said that, I am abreast of the development trends, thanks mostly to Tavernmaster Tenkar and his regular updates. The latest brouhaha is swirling around the inclusion of At-Will Powers for Magic Users Wizards. This is but one of many Bones of Contention the designers will be faced with. They are trying to merge disparate systems. Some of the subsystems are going to be mutually exclusive. What 4E player is going to want to have his At-Will Blaster Ray watered down so his Wizard will be balanced next to the old geezer’s Vancian Magic User? What old geezer will be content to blow his wad on memorizing nothing but Magic Missiles, when the 4E rock star wizard can toss them out like Mardi Gras beads?

I’m developing a certain detached cynicism with this whole “Next” development. I may end up eating those words if they do succeed in rolling out the best thing since . . . well, since D&D. Until then I view this entire episode with a certain smug detachment.

Something about this particular point struck me, though. Ever since the words “house rules” were first uttered, Vancian magic has been under the gun. I have no scientific proof to back this up, but I would bet the farm that making combat more realistic and Vancian magic are the top two house rule categories. Spell points, casting rolls, lumping all the caster’s available spell levels into one enormous pool, fatigue, it goes on and on. In the callous inexperience of my youth, I, too, railed against it. I still like alternatives, although I can now appreciate the intricacies of it. For years I preferred point-based casting. Now I like something a little more unpredictable, but I digress.

Now that Monte has forwarded the notion of some sort of 4E-style At-Will powers for Wizards, there is no shortage of champions for Vancian magic. All of a sudden it is one of the gilded chestnuts, a virtual cornerstone of the foundation, of what is D&D. I’m not accusing anyone of vacillating, just observing how polarizing events brings out the masses. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of those rallying behind Vancian casters have house ruled that system out to some degree. Maybe they even play with a different magic system even now. I fall into that camp, since I am currently mostly working with the M74 Swords & Sorcery Edition. Yet, even those in that camp recognize the value of Vancian magic to D&D. My snide comments aside (made only in fun, btw), Vancian magic is one of the underpinnings that makes D&D D&D. In any sort of “Edition to Rule Them All” it has to take center stage, and it has to be the standard against which any other included magic methods, no matter how “modular”, are balanced.

D&D #5

I’m burning out on this. Already. How much longer til the projected release date?

I’ll admit to being very hopeful and optimistic when I first read the news. Now I’m basically indifferent. There is something about this whole circus that rubs me the wrong way. This may be confusing, and if it is, I apologize. I’ll also go ahead and apologize for any coarse language. I’m frustrated.

So, first WotC buys TSR, saving it from becoming a distant memory. Their first play is to roll out a new edition, something designed to make the game relevant in the then-modern market. That was the first degree of separation. Then, Hasbro buys WotC, and wrought their changes upon the system. A lot can be speculated about their design philosophy, but it’s all speculation.

Whatever they were thinking, or why, doesn’t matter at this point. What they produced only barely resembled D&D. Now, we have three disparate systems all claiming to be the same game, all claiming the same heritage and pedigree. Now, we have another edition on the horizon that is destined to unite the bloodlines, as it were.

Here is my main problem (at least for today). It seems like there are those in the OSR camp that can’t wait to return to the fold. They think it’s going to be a glorious day when they can play a shiny new and fully supported D&D again. They seem to think WotC is doing us all a huge favor by making all versions of D&D coexist peacefully. It is my impression that there are many who will completely abandon their dog-eared copies of 1st Edition, or their Lulu copies of Dark Dungeons for this new D&D.

I say that before we line up to sing WotC’s praises for a new D&D to rule them all, that we pause to remember that it was WotC that fucked it up in the first place. There really wasn’t that much wrong with AD&D when they took over. Sure it needed some clarification and reorganizing. A new edition was in order, but not a wholesale redesign. I’m no MBA, but it is my sense, especially when you look at all the people still playing the older editions, that TSR’s problems were not related to an outdated game. Their problems were with their business model, not their product. There’s that old saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. WotC fixed the wrong thing.

I may chime in from time to time on 5E, but I am no longer going to be following the development of it very closely. I have my older editions and my clones to keep me happy. I don’t need a new edition from WotC/Hasbro to legitimize the way I learned to play and have been playing for over 35 years. I’m not worried about DMing a game with classes from x number of different editions. I’m not worried about paying top dollar for a laundry list of options that I can switch on and off at will, and will only end up switching on about seven. It’s silly when you think about it: Why pay out the ass for a new set of books that will “allow” me to play the way I always have when I can do that with the books I already have?

This is the song from the end of last night’s Walking Dead episode. This is a great gaming song to me. I can picture a group of inexperienced (1st level) people that have decided to band together and go face some menace to their peaceful village. I can picture them steeling their resolve, gripping weapons, and walking into a creepy, mist-shrouded forest, toward whatever destiny Fate has laid.
Anyway, give it a listen, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Critical Hits in D&D

This post over at Tenkar’s Tavern (excellent and highly recommended, by the way) got me to thinking about critical hits in D&D, any flavor, including clones thereof. As a player, and as a DM who likes to see smiling player faces, I love critical hits. Nothing is quite so exciting as getting your ass handed to you and all of a sudden rolling that beautiful 20 (we always yelled “NATCH!”). You may still get your ass handed to you, but that crit insured that the other guy knew he had been in a fight.

Of course, we handled it differently over the years. There were hit location tables, confirming crits, secondary tables with more abstract things than direct hit locations (Bleeder!), and the ubiquitous double damage. It was the double damage we generally used most often. It was faster, less fiddly, and quite a visceral experience to slap some jackass with 28 points of damage.

The enemy could score crits on the players, too, and there was always the dreaded fumble. This usually was simply fall or drop your weapon. Either way, you basically missed your next turn.

I’m not such a fan of critical hits these days, and I’ll tell you why.

  • D&D combat models results. It’s roots are in a wargame, and a wargame is concerned with who wins, not how. Any sort of critical hit system intrudes on the model.
  • Combat is conducted with a d20. It is based on linear probability, which means the stable boy and the war hero will crit 5% of the time. Now, I know that confirming your crit mitigates this, but who wants to fiddle with another roll? And have you ever seen a player in a desperate situation that failed to confirm? It isn’t pretty.
  • The roll to-hit is simply that, a roll to-hit. The only possible rationale for basing a critical hit from that would be to assume that a high roll (a 20) could indicate a hit to a more vital spot.
  • To me, it really should be the damage roll that indicates a crit. I have no system for this because I do not desire one. I am merely speaking hypothetically. Exploding damage dice or something. I just think that it is silly to roll a 20, double the damage, roll like a 2, and end up with a “critical hit” doing maybe 6 points. A damage roll that indicates max damage is more critical than that.

I am an old-schooler when it comes to weapon damage. I love the idea of all weapons doing d6. So, and this is completely off-the-cuff as I type this, I think if  was going to introduce crits, I would just allow an additional d6. Maybe. I don’t know. I just know we are trying to model outcomes and introducing subsystems like critical hits into the model engine are doomed to either fail or disrupt the engine.

Oil and Water

I have been pondering 5E these last few days. Now comes the news that AD&D 1E will be available for a limited time starting this April. This started me to thinking.

D&D was born as a hobby, not a business. It is blatantly obvious that the LBBs were written for hobbyists. There was virtually no attempt to explain the terminology. It was assumed that anyone reading D&D also owned Chainmail. It was like your buddy’s house rules. You got a copy of his house rules knowing full well that you were getting, basically, a shortcut and guidepost to creating your own game. The LBBs were sparse to the point of being terse because they were simply one way to do it. It was like they were saying, “This is how we use Chainmail to play out fantasy adventures in Lake Geneva. YMMV.”

It occurred to me today: You can not market a hobby. You market products, not hobbies. Or, I guess, more to the point, hobbyists can’t market their own hobby. But, corporations can market support for the hobby. At least while there’s money in it.

I’m a creative person by nature. I can tell you that it is my belief that it is in the nature of human creativity that we want to create things of interest to us. For example, I have absolutely zero interest in working up Vive Liberte: The RPG of the French Revolution. No offense to anyone interested in the French Revolution, it’s just not my thing. It doesn’t matter to me if there was a media wave of interest that could capsize the Poseidon, I’m not writing that game. I’m a hobbyist and I do what interests me.

I think that’s where TSR started to unravel. They had passionate people writing things that no one else cared much about, and they had people dispassionately developing things simply because they decided that was where the money was. They were completely out of touch with their audience. There is an article by Ryan Dancey here which discusses the WotC acquisition of TSR. In it he notes the disconnect between corporation and consumer that almost meant the end of D&D. In the end, it did mean the end of D&D, I guess, at least as we had known it.

From that article it is clear that Mr. Dancey is a passionate hobbyist with a heartfelt and emotional desire to save the company that meant so much to him as a youth. Which of us wouldn’t feel the same way, if put in a position to save D&D circa 1997? It was, I believe, his hobbyist’s heart that created the OGL. In the halcyon days of D&D’s youth companies like Judge’s Guild created wonderful supplements, setting, adventures, and play aids. They were heady times, exciting times, to be a gamer. I miss those days of wonder, of exploring just how far we could push this limitless hobby. I miss those days to the core of my soul.

Then, history repeated itself, and into the garden a serpent did come. 3E, and 3.5E, trod the same ruinous path as its forebears. Too many “splatbooks”, too many supplements touted as necessary, too much crap. After 35 + years in this hobby, watching it grow and evolve, I can assure you of one thing: Nothing will erode gamer trust as fast as treating us like a bottomless pocket. The attitude “They’ll buy it because they’re geeks and we’ll tell them they have to have it” is extremely alienating. So, WotC took D&D to the same precipice TSR did, and once again, it took a corporation to save it.

Here at last we come to the point of my metaphoric title. Hasbro is a corporation, dedicated to making money. They came in and remade D&D. I personally believe that it was done to distance their product (4E) from the WotC product that existed under the OGL. Hasbro repeated another mistake of the past. TSR eventually became extremely restrictive about out-of-house products, which was perhaps the first tolling of the death-bell. Now, Hasbro did the same thing. Release a new edition that is free from the OGL. Reestablish control. Then, they did the unthinkable: they released a bazillion splatbooks, supplements, settings, and adventures. They tried to apply the same peer-pressure bullshit “All the other geeks are doing it. You won’t be playing D&D if you don’t.” Was there really any question how that would play out?

Now comes 5E. I was optimistic at first, hopeful even. The more I think about it, though, the more it seems too ambitious to me. That means that either they are telling us what they think we want to hear, or they really do plan on trying to blend all editions and playstyles, which is as doomed as the Tower of Babel. I’m sorry to be so pessimistic about it, but I think if a fifth edition ever does see release, it will be a big box of goodies and cards, like the Hasbro Gamma World. Hasbro is a toy company run by lawyers and MBAs. They will operate under the old baseball adage “Dance with the one that brung you”.

Lastly, I believe the pending re-release of the AD&D 1E core is a bone being thrown to us by some hobbyist still in the ranks at WotC. It is the great beast spewing up one last piece of treasure before it breathes its last. This events lead me to a sad contention: We are living in the last days of D&D as a living, vibrant product line. I hope I’m wrong about this, I really do.