Categories
D&D OD&D Tabletop RPGs

Agreement, rough edges, and combat as sport vs. war

This post is a round-up of three things that crossed my path and grabbed my attention, all RPG-related.

Gygax on agreement

I found this fascinating 1975 Gary Gygax quote over on The Acaeum:

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the “rules” found in DandD. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, DandD will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don’t believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. DandD is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson’s campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to “survive”. Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don’t like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. DandD enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them — except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark.

Looking at the last 40-plus years, at all of what’s come after that quote D&D-wise, this quote is mindblowing. So many things that have become commonplace assumptions in many RPGs are gleefully and confidently disregarded in this paragraph. I love it.

1975 was still salad days for D&D — the era of OD&D, and of this quote (also Gygax) from the afterword to The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (emphasis mine):

We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?

I love that ethos as a GM and as a player. It’s directly at odds with the existence of supplements (and many other aspects of the RPG industry, including some of the books I publish) and other books I enjoy, though, so I’m also always torn about how it applies in practical terms. But as a foundation and a navigational aid, it’s one of the principles I like most about old-school RPGs and gaming in general.

Maliszewski on rough edges

I’ve spent quite a bit of time mulling over this excellent GROGNARDIA post. Back when I first read it, it didn’t sound like what I wanted out of gaming. Nowadays, I couldn’t agree more.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want every session of my D&D campaign to come with guaranteed fun. That may seem odd, but it’s not. Most of us, I think, if we’re honest, understand that we like rough edges — we need rough edges. Something that’s too smooth, too formulaic, especially in the pursuit of entertainment, will wind up producing its antithesis.“

Looking back on my best gaming experiences, they often had rough edges — and maybe those were integral to making the overall experience richer. To get the alchemy that makes gaming so exciting, you have to accept that sometimes lead just stays lead, and not everything has to be perfect.

Combat as sport vs. combat as war

I remember seeing this thread about combat in different editions of D&D going around (and around) a while back and never clicking on it. But a year or so ago, when I finally read it, it changed my understanding of D&D. It articulates things I’d previously thought about in a nebulous way, but could never have put into words this clearly.

Here’s a few excerpts from the original post by Daztur:

Without quite realizing it, people are having the exact same debate that constantly flares up on MMORPG blogs about PvP: should combat resemble sport (as in World of Tanks PvP or arena combat in any game) or should it resemble war (as in Eve PvP or open world combat in any game). […]

I think that these same differences hold true in D&D, let me give you an example of a specific situation to illustrate the differences: the PCs want to kill some giant bees and take their honey because magic bee honey is worth a lot of money. Different groups approach the problem in different ways.

Combat as Sport: the PCs approach the bees and engage them in combat using the terrain to their advantage, using their abilities intelligently and having good teamwork. The fighter chooses the right position to be able to cleave into the bees while staying outside the radius of the wizard’s area effect spell, the cleric keeps the wizard from going down to bee venom and the rogue sneaks up and kills the bee queen. These good tactics lead to the PCs prevailing against the bees and getting the honey. The DM congratulates them on a well-fought fight.

Combat as War: the PCs approach the bees but there’s BEES EVERYWHERE! GIANT BEES! With nasty poison saves! The PCs run for their lives since they don’t stand a chance against the bees in a fair fight. But the bees are too fast! So the party Wizard uses magic to set part of the forest on fire in order to provide enough smoke (bees hate smoke, right?) to cover their escape. Then the PCs regroup and swear bloody vengeance against the damn bees. They think about just burning everything as usual, but decide that that might destroy the value of the honey. So they make a plan: the bulk of the party will hide out in trees at the edge of the bee’s territory and set up piles of oil soaked brush to light if the bees some after them and some buckets of mud. Meanwhile, the party monk will put on a couple layers of clothing, go to the owl bear den and throw rocks at it until it chases him. He’ll then run, owl bear chasing him, back to where the party is waiting where they’ll dump fresh mud on him (thick mud on thick clothes keeps bees off, right?) and the cleric will cast an anti-poison spell on him. As soon as the owl bear engages the bees (bears love honey right?) the monk will run like hell out of the area. Hopefully the owl bear and the bees will kill each other or the owl bear will flee and lead the bees away from their nest, leaving the PCs able to easily mop up any remaining bees, take the honey and get the hell out of there. They declare that nothing could possibly go wrong as the DM grins ghoulishly.

So much of what I enjoy about older editions of D&D and dislike about 3.x and 4e, and what I enjoy about sandboxes, is neatly encapsulated in the sport vs. war analogy. I’ve returned to it many times over the past few months, and I wanted to make sure it was archived here on Yore for future reference.

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D&D OD&D Tabletop RPGs

Crimhthan The Great and over 3,600 sessions of OD&D

Thanks to a G+ share by Alex Schroeder, I got a chance to read A bit more about Crimthan The Great’s Game and Group. It’s a blog post by Daithi MacLiam, then 78, about the more than 3,500 sessions of OD&D his group has played together since 1974 (after starting with Chainmail in 1971).

I love reading about long-running campaigns. Like the Rythlondar campaign, a D&D game in Michigan begun in 1976, and extensively chronicles by its players, there’s a lot to unpack in here.

Starting with Chainmail Fantasy and continuing with OD&D we played our 1000th games in January of 1982, our 2000th in December 1995 and our 3000th game in September 2008 and this past weekend April 4th and 5th we played our 3687th and 3688th games.

By contrast, I’ve played 304 gaming sessions since 2008 (as of this writing) — roughly half the number Daithi’s group played during the same period. And I’ve never played anything approaching even a thousand sessions of the same system; the closest I’ve come is probably more like a couple hundred (maybe, at the outside, 300), running multiple AD&D 2nd Edition campaigns back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I find long-running campaigns fascinating in part because they’re so foreign to my gaming experience. Rob Conley has been running games in the same setting for many years, and I know there are more folks out there doing this. I need system variety in my RPG diet, but I’d love to start a D&D game and keep it going in perpetuity alongside all of my other gaming.

Our typical gaming session used to be about 12 hours in length which works out to about 36 days of game time on the average. […] On the other hand since we passed about 70 years old the length of our games has decreased to about 8 hours split into two – four hour segments with a long break in the middle.

Two 4-hour sessions in the same day is like a mini-con every game day. I hope I can do that when I’m in my 70s! Hell, I wish I could manage that now — and Daithi has 40 years on me.

The original core group of players have had between (I am guessing here) 550-750 characters each. In spite of about 450 TPK’s, each of us have retired about 10-18 characters apiece. But on some game days we have went through 8-10 characters each.

Four hundred and fifty TPKs! Going through 8-10 characters in a session is nothing to sneeze at either: That figure makes the Rythlondar campaign’s top recorded PC death total — six — seem tame.

Looking at wandering monsters in OD&D vs. B/X D&D showed me part of the deadliness of OD&D, but seeing these numbers gives me a whole different perspective.

Daithi’s post was a great read, and I look forward to hearing more war stories from his group’s OD&D campaign.

Categories
D&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

The case of the colorful ogre

Over on Against the Wicked City, Joseph Manola posted about colorful versions of classic D&D monsters — from the AD&D 1e Monster Manual.

Quick, picture an ogre. What color is it? Now check out its description from the MM:

The hide of ogres varies from dull blackish-brown to dead yellow. Rare specimens are a sickly violet in color. Their warty bumps are often of different color — or at least darker than their hides. Hair is blackish-blue to dull dark green. Eyes are purple with white pupils. Teeth are black or orange, as are talons.

Whoa! That’s not what I picture in my head when I think “D&D ogre,” but I love it.

And Joseph is right: There are lots of other monsters in the AD&D 1e MM that fall into this category — much more vividly hued that what’s come to be the default D&D version. I’d never noticed that before.

Goblins is yeller

Joseph also quoted a few other descriptions, including the one for goblins — “yellow through dull orange to brick red,” and yep, no green ones — that made me take a closer look at the back cover of the MM. And there they are — bright yellow goblins!

My copy isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but the yellow still shows up clearly. I thought maybe I was misidentifying those little dudes as goblins, but check out the lovely Trampier goblin illustration from the goblin entry:

It’s a perfect match, right down to the shape of the shield. Bright yellow goblins — awesome!

Where did the colorful ogre come from?

That made me wonder whether I’d just been missing, or perhaps glossing over, marvelously colorful ogres (and other humanoids) in other editions. Did colorful ogres start in OD&D?

Nope:

These large and fearsome monsters range from 7 to 10 feet in height, and due to their size will score 1 die +2 (3–8) points of hits when they hit. When encountered outside their lair they will carry from 100 to 600 Gold Pieces each.

That’s the whole entry — no word on their appearance. But OD&D sometimes assumes you’re also looking at Chainmail, so let’s look there, too:

What are generally referred to as Trolls are more properly Ogres — intermediate creatures between men and Giants. They will fight in formations, and have a martial capability of six Heavy Foot.

Nope again. How about Holmes Basic?

These large and fearsome humanoid monsters range from 7 to 10 feet in height and are of various disgusting colors.

That’s interesting — “various disgusting colors.” I like that it’s left vague, but it doesn’t help pin down the origins of the violet ogre.

Okay, what about Moldvay Basic?

Ogres are huge fearsome human-like creatures, usually 8 to 10 feet tall.

They grew a foot, but they’re back to having no reference to skin color. So where did the colorful ogre come from?

Noodling

OD&D is a short game, and light on details in many places. It wouldn’t surprise me if Gygax and Arneson didn’t both describing some creatures, like the ogre, with which they assumed folks would be familiar. Holmes and Moldvay both used OD&D as their baseline, so it makes sense that they’d leave ogres pretty much the same.

And then along comes the MM. It was written by Gary, so presumably the colorful ogre — and its brightly-hued friends — is a Gygaxian ogre, not an Arnesonian or Gygax/Arneson one. I’ve read a decent chunk of Appendix N, but I haven’t bumped into any ogres that look like this so far.

I’d love to know the answer, but I’ve got nothing. Nothing but Joseph’s original point, that is: There are some cool, wildly colorful humanoids in the AD&D MM.

I’d love to play in a game where those were the defaults — that’d be a pulpy setting with a healthy dose of zany, and I dig that.

Update

Michael Curtis has a theory about the origins of the colorful ogre, and gave me permission to share it here (including his photo). Thanks, Michael!

“When Gary and the guys were playing Chainmail with the Fantasy supplement, there wasn’t much in the way of fantastical miniatures to use as monsters and humanoid troops. Chainmail itself suggests using 25mm and 15mm figures of normal medieval troops (then readily available) to portray dwarves, halflings, goblins, etc for example.

In those games, the players used larger scale miniatures to represent the bigger monsters. One such figure was an American Indian warrior with spear and breastplate. These figure were used as ogres. Their coloration: bright yellow.

The attached photo is from Gary Con IV where they replayed the “Battle of the Brown Hills” Chainmail fantasy scenario. The game used figures dating from the early 1970s, in some cases the actual miniatures owned by the Lake Geneva crew. Here you can see the yellow warriors (and one painted dark brown) facing off against human soldiers. Compare the pose of these “ogres” to the picture in the 1st edition Monster Manual.

I can’t confirm this with 100% accuracy that this is how we got bright yellow ogres, but the pieces fit the theory.”

Here’s the ogre from the MM:

Seems like a solid theory to me!

Categories
D&D OD&D Old school Tabletop RPGs

Dungeon stocking in OD&D vs. Delving Deeper, plus The Strategic Review

My copy of Delving Deeper just came in the mail, and after a thorough skim I quite like it. I was after a retroclone that hews as closely as possible to OD&D[1], and at first blush DD seems to fit the bill.

But when I got to the section on dungeon stocking, it looked pretty different from OD&D. Let’s poke that bit and crunch the numbers, like I did with B/X D&D vs. Labyrinth Lord dungeon stocking.

OD&D vs. Delving Deeper

Both games assume that the GM is placing some things by hand before switching to random generation. In OD&D, that’s tricks, traps, and important treasures; in DD, it’s just important treasures (more on this later on!).

Here are the odds in OD&D:

  • Monster: 16.67%
  • Empty: 59.25%
  • Monster with treasure: 16.67%
  • Unguarded treasure: 7.41%

Here are the odds for dungeon stocking in DD:

  • Monster: 22.22%
  • Empty room: 44.45%
  • Treasure guarded by monster: 16.66%
  • Unguarded treasure: 8.34%
  • Treasure guarded by trap: 2.78%
  • Trick or trap: 5.56%

First, treasure: You’ve got a 24.08% chance that a given room contains treasure in OD&D, compared to a 27.78% chance in DD — basically the same. That’s awesome, because it indicates a similar balance of risk vs. reward, and a similar incentive to explore, in both games.

The first four categories in DD’s table correspond to the four categories in OD&D, so we can compare apples to apples in those cases — and they’re really close. The biggest difference is the chance of an empty room (without treasure), which is a whopping 14.8% higher in OD&D than in DD. That just about covers the increased chance of meeting a monster, finding a trap, or finding trapped treasure — the latter two of which aren’t options in OD&D’s chart.

And that’s the biggest difference, of course: DD’s two additional categories, which aren’t present at all in OD&D. Since Delving Deeper’s goal is “faithful emulation of the original 1974 edition,” where did those extra categories come from, and why are they there?

I have two guesses, one reasonable and one perhaps a bit more fun.

The reasonable one

My best guess as to the origin of those two categories is that DD’s authors wanted to provide a clarified take on OD&D’s system for random dungeon stocking, which entailed backing into the parts that OD&D doesn’t randomize.

OD&D includes a section called “Tricks and Traps,” and also notes “It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures.” Those directives map pretty well to DD’s two “extra” categories.

It’s also significant that, unlike OD&D, DD only proposes that the GM place the “principal treasures” before rolling for the rest of the level — not tricks and traps. If you’re not going to stock those by hand, then they need to appear on the chart.

Legal “cover” may also come into play, too. By presenting stocking differently than OD&D, DD establishes a degree of variation between the two systems. At the same time, the percentages are mostly close enough that OD&D’s intent is preserved.

The Strategic Review

The fun guess involves pure speculation. When I was reading the DD section on dungeon stocking, the categories rang a bell — I thought I’d seen them in an early issue of The Strategic Review. Here’s the relevant chart from Gary Gygax’s article on random dungeon generation for solo play in issue #1:

Bingo! Those categories are almost identical to the ones in DD. The biggest difference is “Treasure guarded by trap” in DD vs. “Special or empty” in TSR; I’d argue those are pretty similar. (Crunching the percentages, they line up almost perfectly with OD&D, with a bit of fuzz factor in order to fit in the additional two categories. They don’t line up as perfectly with DD, but they’re still pretty close.)

I don’t know if Delving Deeper took that TSR article into account, but I do know that it encompasses the 1974 boxed set, Chainmail, and “some ‘zine commentary of the time (most particularly the FAQ that appeared in The Strategic Review and the unofficial untested thief as it appeared in The Great Plains Game Players Newsletter).” Given that the FAQ didn’t appear until issue #2 of TSR, contemplating an article in TSR #1 seems reasonable.[2]

Conclusions

Like B/X and Labyrinth Lord, Delving Deeper’s approach to dungeon stocking incentivizes the same play style as the system found in OD&D. Some treasure is unguarded, and about the same percentage of rooms in both games contain treasure.

Delving Deeper does a great job of breaking down the math used to stock an OD&D dungeon, and then matching it quite closely in the four categories that both games share. It then formalizes a part of the dungeon stocking process — tricks and traps — that OD&D leaves informal, and adjusts the percentages to make everything fit.

In a vacuum, that makes DD dungeon stocking look different from OD&D dungeon stocking — more traps, fewer empty rooms. But it’s not apples to apples, because DD expands the random generation system to encompass more dungeon elements.

It’s hard to directly compare OD&D’s combination of manual placement (tricks, traps, and principal treasures) and randomization to DD’s more fully randomized approach, which only involves manual placement of the big treasures. One GM might stick traps in 10% of her dungeon rooms, while another only traps 5% of chambers.

On the whole, it seems like it would have been easier to follow OD&D’s example exactly, sticking with four categories and matching the percentages more closely. But on balance I like that Delving Deeper attempts to fold the rest of the dungeon stocking process into one table, and that it does so by remaining faithful to OD&D’s intent — and, perhaps, to Gary’s take in The Strategic Review.

Update from Simon Bull

Over on G+, Simon Bull commented on writing this section of Delving Deeper:

DD V3-V4 were written, largely, mid 2013 to mid 2014–so a while back now–but being “legally different” to the original was an ever-present design consideration throughout.

I can remember spending a lot of time trying to get the dungeon stocking probabilities “just so”. I was aware that EGG’s expanded dungeon stocking article in the SR included the possibility of random traps and, although I don’t remember my precise rationale now, it probably helped me to “justify” adding traps to V4’s method of randomisation.

I can also remember being a bit dissatisfied with V4’s frequency of empty rooms, but I figured it was the least disruptive way I could add traps into the mix.

FWIW, I do consider the random dungeon stocking section–and particularly randomisation of monsters–a bit of a weakness in V4. However, I have done a lot a more thinking about it since then, and this element of game is presented far more cleanly in V5.

Thanks, Simon!

[1] “OD&D” can sometimes be a fuzzy term. Is it just the three original booklets? Those three plus Supplement I: Greyhawk? All seven LBBs? What about the FAQ in The Strategic Review #2, or the prototype thief class that appeared in a fanzine before it was published in Greyhawk? I’m most interested in the three original booklets plus the FAQ, so that’s what I have in mind in this post.

[2] While I’m out on a limb, given that Gary published this article in 1975, just a year after OD&D came out, I wonder whether or not the percentages for “Special or empty” and “Trick/trap” in TSR #1 might not be pretty close to what he used in his home games when stocking a dungeon level. I have no way of knowing, but it’s fun to think about.

Categories
D&D OD&D Tabletop RPGs

Rerolling hit points, OD&D, and Empire of the Petal Throne

I love hit points. They’re a brilliant abstraction, though often misunderstood, and they work beautifully in play.

I double-super-love that in OD&D, how you roll them for your character is completely open to interpretation. I don’t think that’s been true since the late 1970s, as each edition since has spelled things out much more clearly.

This isn’t news, and I’m not a scholar uncovering D&D’s Hidden TruthsTM. These two threads on the Original D&D Discussion boards are both great reads on this topic: In defense of the original HD system and Origins of hit point re-roll at every new level?. I’m just a dude exploring old-school D&D and having fun poking things with a stick, and one of my maxims is that everything is new to someone.

It’s fun to talk about this stuff, and here on Yore is where I like to talk about it.

OD&D: Dice for Accumulative Hits

Here’s OD&D on rolling hit points:

Dice for Accumulative Hits (Hit Dice): This indicates the number of dice which are rolled in order to determine how many hit points a character can take. Pluses are merely the number of pips to add to the total of all dice rolled not to each die. Thus a Superhero gets 8 dice + 2; they are rolled and score 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6/totals 26 + 2 = 28, 28 being the number of points of damage the character could sustain before death.

That first sentence seems clear enough: you roll hit dice to find your hit points. And the second sentence just explains what “3 + 1” means: add the “+ 1” just once, at the end. So far, so good.

Then we get to the example. “Superhero” is the title for an 8th-level fighting man, listed as “Super Hero” in the chart. At 8th level, our doughty fighting man gets 8 + 2 Dice for Accumulative Hits — and in the example, they’re all rolled at once.

I don’t think I’d have noticed this on my own. If I hadn’t stumbled across folks talking about hit dice online, and then read those two threads above, I’d almost certainly have assumed you rolled HP the same way in OD&D as in every other edition — and maybe you do! Which is the neat part.

Consider this: Which of these is correct?

  • The fighting man adds 1d6+2 to his existing hit point total (which has been going up by 1d6, sometimes with a small bonus, every level).
  • The fighting man rolls 8d6+2, and now has that many hit points. It doesn’t matter how many he had before — this is a fresh roll.

I don’t see anything in OD&D that clarifies this, which suits the game’s DIY spirit just fine in my book. But if that second option, rerolling HP every level, sounds weird, consider Empire of the Petal Throne.

EPT: Hit Dice

M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne came out in 1975, just one year after OD&D, and it does a lot of things exactly the same way as OD&D — but not everything. That makes it an interesting counterpoint to D&D in some respects, notably this one.

As each player enters the game, he or she shakes on 6-sided die to determine his or her available hit dice points. As each succeeding level of experience is reached, the indicated number of 6-sided dice are shaken to determine his new total.

And, later in that same section:

No character may ever have LESS hit points at a higher level than he did at a lower one. This, if a warrior shook two 5’s and had 10 hit points at level II, and then on reaching level III shook three dice but got only a total of 7, he adds 3 points to maintain his total at his previous 10. He must always equal his previous total, although he may not be lucky enough to surpass it.

Much clearer than OD&D: You roll hit points anew each level, keeping the new total if it’s higher.

Which is pretty wild! I’ve never played D&D that way, and it sounds like it’d be fun to try.

But what did Gary and Dave actually do?

As far as I can tell, whatever they thought best. Here’s Michael Mornard, one of the original playtesters of OD&D, on the subject:

Gary used to give us the option of rolling an additional die, or rerolling all your hit dice. However, if you rerolled them all, you took the new number, period.

You could also reroll at the beginning of an adventure, rerolling them all.

c. 1972

Not sure how Dave did it.

So at Gary’s table (at least during that time), you not only got to choose which option to use — from the two we’ve already looked at, additive rolling or full reroll — you could also reroll at the start of an adventure. And either way, there’s none of EPT’s “keep the highest.” Nifty.

Update (March 11, 2016): By way of an excellent post on Necropraxis, Rerolling Hit Dice & Healing, I found a direct quote from Gary on EN World on the topic of hit dice:

Everyone I know of kept hit points as rolled.

Gary also notes that the omission of a spot to record HP on the OD&D character sheet was an oversight, so it seems likely that he was doing this — roll and keep — in that same general time period.

Drop some math

My gut sense is that rerolling HP every level would make all PCs’ HP trend towards the mean — average out, basically. No one gets hosed by one or two bad rolls (at least not for long), and no one enjoys wild advantages based on very lucky rolls (ditto). But I can’t back that up with math.

Fortunately, Compromise and Conceit has the stats background to delve into the differences between these two methods. Here’s one of the bits I understand, a handy takeaway:

This does not have a central distribution: it reduces the probability of getting small numbers rapidly, and drives the weight of the probability distribution towards the maximum.

Fascinating! My gut is apparently totally off.

I love the fuzziness of OD&D in areas like this. It’s a feature, not a bug, and it encourages individual groups to develop their own approaches to the game. Just as Gary and Dave almost certainly weren’t playing the same game even as they were publishing it[1], playing OD&D looks like it requires a willingness to make up all sorts of things on the fly — including how you handle something as central as characters’ hit point totals.

And just like every time I’ve delved into OD&D, this makes me want to run it more than ever.

[1] This is just one of so many things Jon Peterson‘s stellar Playing at the World has been illuminating for me. I suspect I’ll be blogging about PatW at some point — it’s so good!

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs Zines

Zine roundup: Wizards Mutants Laser Pistols, issues 1-6

I love weird gaming zines, and Wizards Mutants Laser Pistols[1] is one of my favorites. I bought the compilation of issues 1-6 on Lulu ($17), and it’s a delight.

If you like Castle Amber, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, or Anomalous Subsurface Environment, you’ll dig WMLP. It’s got gonzo, it’s got science-fantasy, and it’s got funhouse — but it’s also a mishmash in the spirit OD&D, with its mélange of component elements and influences.

Bryce Lynch turned me onto WMLP with his review of issues 3 and 4. Bryce is a brutally frank reviewer, and our tastes in old-school gaming books are pretty similar, so when he gushes about something I generally buy it.

Here’s one of Bryce’s highlights:

The encounters here are exactly what you would expect from an OD&D adventure. A little goofball, a little weird, a lot of THE FANTASTIC. It is the type of feel I equate with OD&D and exactly what I’m looking for. A world where everything seems fresh and new again and the players get to experience something similar to the very first time they met a gelatinous cube or a fell in a bit [sic]. It’s the world of Whimsy and Wonder.

The artwork is wonderfully OD&D-esque, too. Here’s the cover of issue 2, by “Dr. Brainus Mangenius, Psy D.”

Beneath the Ruins: Kihago Megadungeon

The highlight of issues 1-6 is also the anchor of each issue: the levels of the Kihago megadungeon, by Alex Fotinakes, collectively titled “Beneath the Ruins.” If that title sounds familiar, it’s because the first level of Kihago is also offered in Beneath the Ruins, the first volume of the Psychedelic Fantasies series of modules.

Lately I’ve been reading OD&D and really digging it, so the idea of an OD&D megadungeon is right up my apple cart. The presentation is sparse, without read-aloud text, and short on background — basically my favorite approach across the board. More than enough to run with, but not so much that your creativity is stifled.

Some of my favorite bits from Kihago (spoilers abound, though I’ve tried to keep them fairly mild):

  • The Eye of the Immortal, a TV that occasionally plays episodes of Three’s Company. It’s held in high regard by one of the factions on the first level, the Luminites.
  • Yeast puddles which can infect careless PCs, turning them into yeast zombies if the infection isn’t dealt with.
  • A cloning chamber. You know what rules you need for a cloning chamber? Pretty much none, in my book, and that’s how it’s presented here. In one paragraph, you’ve got a dungeon- and campaign-changing room.
  • Nosferoggu (vampire frogs), flamingodiles (guess!), the drunk ghost of a psionic ninja — Kihago is packed with monsters like these. That kind of gonzo can be hard to pull off (try too hard and it feels forced, phone it in and it feels lifeless), but Kihago nails it.
  • Level four, a vast, wide-open cavern (with some distinct areas), is going to be a playground of interesting stuff by the time the PCs reach it. Kihago has factions and intelligent denizens, and a big, open area is rife with opportunities for luring tougher foes to their deaths, playing factions against each other, etc.
  • And oh, the factions! Level five has bidepal fly-people covered in shit vs. feral cat people. Level four features a savage tribe led by Mike Mickelson, KTLA sports anchor, who found himself (and his control room, which of course you can find) transported to Kihago and decided to make the best of it. And on and on — inventive, amusing, whimsical, but also meaty and rich with inspiration.
  • The wraiths on level 5 who want the head of the summoner on level 3, and will share a valuable secret if it’s delivered to them. Call-backs and intra-dungeon goals are awesome, and I love this one.
  • A closet which hides an energy nexus capable of recharging magic items. It’s hidden, but not impossibly so — a great balance for encouraging exploration.

I could go on — and on! — but hopefully you get the idea. Kihago is a fantastic megadungeon, and one I’d love to run as written. Grab the LBBs and go. (Or another flavor of D&D, but that’s the flavor that seems to dovetail best with how I see Kihago.)

Other highlights

Looking only at Kihago would be doing WMLP a disservice, because it’s not the only gold in them thar hills. Here are a few more highlights:

  • There’s the animator class (issue #1), who can draw stuff and then animate it; after a couple levels, that includes tattoos. The animator’s spell list is all stuff, like doors and animals and so forth. It’s a clever class.
  • Creating a Chimera,” from issue #5, is a page of tables for making patchwork hybrids. Like so: body of an anteater, two zebra heads, two pairs of lobster arms, the legs of a sloth, and it has a wasp stinger. Toss that into a random encounter and see what happens.
  • Need a weird character background? “Something rad!!!!!!![2] (issue #6) delivers: You’re a prolific sperm donor. Or maybe a refugee from the Peanut Butter Wars, or a slave to Lady Jessica. It does settings, too: This place is like medieval Persia, but with sixguns and wagons, and it’s got regicidal vampires.

Because I own it as a book, I look at WMLP as a book. That book, for me, is mainly about its stellar megadungeon — but like delicious gravy, I also get some other fun stuff alongside it. Wizards Mutants Laser Pistols is a great zine, and the compilation of issues 1-6 is easy to recommend.

[1] Confusingly, it’s sometimes referred to as “Wizards Mutants Lazer Pistols.”

[2] Yes, I counted the exclamation points. Such is my dedication to science!

Categories
B/X D&D D&D OD&D Tabletop RPGs

Wandering monsters: OD&D vs. B/X D&D

While I was comparing dungeon treasure stocking in B/X D&D and Labyrinth Lord, I noticed something in OD&D that surprised me: The way OD&D handles wandering monsters is delightfully unforgiving.

At a glance, B/X looked pretty different in this regard, so I thought I’d compare the two. Let’s just look at level 1 in both systems, and let’s assume the party is composed of level 1 PCs.

I’ll also assume that monsters with X+Y HD, like hobgoblins (1+1/2 in OD&D, 1+1 in B/X) count as 2 HD monsters. (This assumption is borne out by both systems, which list hobgoblins on their respective level 2 tables.)

Das tables

Here’s the wandering monster matrix from OD&D‘s Book III:

In B/X each dungeon level just has its own table, which includes a mix of monster HD values. Here’s the analogous table from the B/X Basic Set:

OD&D wandering monsters

In OD&D, a party exploring level 1 of the dungeon can encounter wandering monsters with a range of HD values.

The Monster Level tables roughly map 1:1 to HD, but not universally. For example, there’s a 5 HD monster, the ochre jelly, on the level 3 monster table. There are also monsters with suggested values, but no actual entries; giant animals fall into this category.[1]

But for our purposes, “roughly” is good enough. With that in mind, the chances of bumping into different levels — hit dice, more or less — of monsters look like this:

  • Monster Level 1 list, mainly 1 HD or lower: 33.33%
  • Monster Level 2 list, mainly 2 HD: 33.33%
  • Monster Level 3 list, mainly 3 HD: 16.67%
  • Monster Level 4 list, mainly 4 HD: 16.67%

One-third of the time, you’ll meet monsters whose HD match your level. Another third of the time, they’ll be 1 HD higher than you. The remaining third of your encounters will be with monsters 2 HD or 3 HD higher than you.

And that level 4 monster table is going to wreck your shit: wraiths, ogres, lycanthropes — if you’re not cautious and willing to run, be prepared to die instead.

B/X wandering monsters

In B/X, things are a bit different:

  • 1 HD or lower: 70%
  • 2 HD: 25%
  • 3 HD: 5%

The chance of encountering a 2 HD monster is roughly the same (25% vs. OD&D’s 33.33%), but what’s missing? Except for one 3 HD critter (the giant gecko), what’s missing is 3 HD and 4 HD monsters — which are encountered fully one-third of the time in OD&D!

The dungeon of B/X, at least on level 1, is a much tamer place than its OD&D counterpart. Wandering monsters still spell trouble, but not nearly as much trouble.

But wait, there’s more

You know what else changed between 1974 and 1981?[2] How often you check for wandering monsters. (The chance of an encounter, 1 in 6, is the same.)

In OD&D, it’s every turn. In B/X, it’s every two turns.

So not only is the B/X party unlikely to meet a 3 HD monster (5% chance) and guaranteed not to bump into any 4 HD monsters, they’re also going to have half as many random encounters overall. These are completely different dungeons.

Time is a resource in old-school D&D dungeon crawls in large part because of wandering monster checks, but OD&D really squeezes the ol’ temporal vice in this regard. If you don’t get in, grab some loot, and get out pretty quick, you’re playing with fire.

I’ve never played OD&D, but my interest in it has been growing over the past couple of years. This difference clinches it, though: I need to play some OD&D! I want to see this style of dungeon in action, rather than just in percentages.

A wild aside appears!

As an aside, while I’m normally a print guy and the photos I use in posts reflect that preference, I went with screenshots from my PDF copies this time around. This is partly because my OD&D set is in storage, but it’s also because I’ve been working from the PDFs a lot lately.

While I prefer the old covers, the layout and clarity of the OD&D PDFs is fantastic. The quality of the B/X PDFs is also high. Both have been a good investment, especially when I need to search for things while comparing editions.

[1] And then there’s Supplement I: Greyhawk, which removes the “optionally usable “Martian” animals such as Apts, Banths, Thoats, etc.” and adds new monsters to every list, making the picture fuzzier still. I’m sticking with “good enough.”

[2] Yes, I’m leaving out the Holmes Basic set, but only because my copy is in storage and I don’t have it in PDF. I’d love to see whether Holmes looks more like OD&D or B/X in this regard.

Categories
B/X D&D D&D Labyrinth Lord Old school Tabletop RPGs

B/X D&D vs. Labyrinth Lord treasure stocking

My head’s full of Labyrinth Lord at the moment (I’m working on a megadungeon), so I’m prodding the areas where divergence from B/X D&D interest me in some way. So far I’ve looked at dungeon stocking, which is basically the same with a minor flavor difference, and dungeon doors, which aren’t the same at all.

In rereading the excellent post by Wayne Rossi that sent me down this path, Clones and Rules, Inside and Out, I noticed that Wayne called out “treasure stocking” as an interesting difference between OD&D and its principal retroclone, Swords & Wizardry. Here are the two bits that grabbed me, with the middle snipped out for clarity:

Indeed, if you follow OD&D’s logic a bit further, treasure is based not on monster level but dungeon level, which is significant. […] But in S&W, gnolls should always be guarding CR-appropriate treasure, and therefore the reward is determined by monster level, not dungeon level. This pulls the game toward the modern “dungeon combat” genre.

I wondered whether or not B/X and LL differed in this area, so I took a look.

B/X D&D dungeon treasure

Here’s the Expert Set on treasure in dungeons, with the middle excised for clarity:

If random rolls are used, the table below lists treasure amounts found in unguarded rooms (those without a monster) on all dungeon levels. […] If a monster is present, use the Treasure Type listing (p. X43) for the monster to find the amount of treasure in the room.

Let’s poke that with an example, a level 1 dungeon:

  1. If the treasure is unguarded, roll for level 1 treasure
  2. If there’s a monster, use the monster entry instead

Since there are 2 HD monsters, which have treasure more generally associated with dungeon level 2, on the level 1 wandering monster table, that means those monsters likely have more rewarding treasure than an unguarded room.

Most monsters will be 1 HD, though, with treasure you’d expect for level 1, because most of the level 1 wandering monster table consists of 1 HD monsters.

Let’s see how LL handles this.

Labyrinth Lord dungeon treasure

Here’s LL on treasure, again with the part I’m not comparing snipped out:

When a monster result is obtained on the above table, the Labyrinth Lord must roll for a random monster appropriate for the labyrinth level. […] If treasure is present, the treasure will be determined based on the Treasure Hoard Class of the monster encountered, or from the Unprotected Treasure Table based on labyrinth level.

Sticking with the same level 1 dungeon example, that means:

  1. If the treasure is unguarded, roll for level 1 treasure
  2. If there’s a monster, use its entry OR roll for level 1 treasure

That leaves the choice to the GM: Make randomly rolled treasure appropriate to the dungeon level (by only using the Unprotected Treasure Table), or make some treasure — that which is held by 2 HD monsters — more appropriate to level 2. (Or a bit of both, I suppose.)

That first option sounds a lot like what Wayne noted about OD&D, so let’s take a quick side trip.

OD&D dungeon treasure

Book III, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures:

A roll of 1–3 in those rooms or spaces with monsters in them indicates some form of treasure is present. A roll of 1 in a room or space which is unoccupied indicates that there is some form of treasure there. […] To determine the kind of treasure use the following table[.]

Relative to our example, that’s:

  1. If the treasure is unguarded, roll for level 1 treasure
  2. If there’s a monster, roll for level 1 treasure

No matter what’s in the room, you get level 1 treasure. This is huge in OD&D because of how its wandering monster determination works — I’ll be looking at that in a future post. For now, what matters is that treasure is always dungeon-level appropriate.

Conclusions

B/X: If I’m exploring level 1 of a B/X dungeon and I bump into a 2 HD monster, there’s an incentive for me to try and take its treasure: There’s a decent chance this room has better treasure than the other rooms on level 1.

By extension, in B/X I know that trying to find unguarded treasure, which consumes resources (time, torches, wandering monster checks), is likely to be less rewarding than trying to take it from a 2 HD monster. Maybe over time that pushes me to focus more on taking those tougher-than-me monsters’ treasure, and less on trying to find unguarded treasure. Personally, I think that makes for an interesting choice: Do I take a greater risk in exchange for a greater reward, or risk less and get less?

LL: If I’m delving into level 1 of a Labyrinth Lord dungeon and I find a room with a 2 HD monster in it, I don’t know which option the DM has used. The monster might have the treasure listed in the bestiary, or it might be guarding the treasure listed in the Unprotected table. Maybe I can infer that since using the monster’s treasure is listed first in LL, it’s the default option — but only maybe.

In LL, it’s a crap shoot. I can’t assume a tougher-than-me monster will reward my efforts with better treasure. It’s probably safest to assume it won’t, which makes the dungeon more like OD&D.

OD&D: In OD&D, I know that 2 HD monster will have level 1 treasure. The incentive there is to avoid the monster at all costs, because the treasure’s no better than what I can find in an unguarded room. Over time, that may lead to more of an emphasis on exploration and monster-avoidance.

It’s a bit muddier than that analysis makes it seem, though.

Oh shit, a spider

Let’s use a 2 HD monster that appears on the level 1 wandering monster table in both B/X and LL: the giant crab spider. I’ll limit myself to B/X, since this post is already getting long.

  • In B/X, that spider has treasure type U. That’s a 10% chance of 1-100 cp, a 10% chance of 1-100 sp, a 5% chance of 1-100 gp, a 5% chance of 1-4 gems, and a 2% chance of 1 magic item.
  • Dungeon level 1 automatically gives me 1d6x100 sp, plus a 50% chance of 10-60 gp, a 5% chance of 1d6 gems, a 2% chance of 1d6 jewelry items, and a 2% chance of 1 magic item.

Statistically, that means:

  • If I try to steal that spider’s treasure (setting aside whether I do this by fighting it), it’s quite likely my reward will be…nothing.
  • Conversely, if I instead poke around in an unguarded room, I’m guaranteed to get at least 100 sp, and very likely (50%) to get at least 10 gp. My chances of getting anything else are about the same as they are with the spider.

Unless I happen to know that giant crab spiders have kind of shitty treasure, dealing with the spider isn’t a risk I’m likely to take more than once. Sure, I could get super-lucky — but I could also get super-lucky just poking around an empty room, and I’d run a lower risk of dying.

Moar conclusions

The way LL handles treasure clones B/X, which is LL’s goal, but it also changes the character of the dungeon. The simple-seeming addition of half a sentence — “…or from the Unprotected Treasure Table based on labyrinth level” — does have an impact on the overall flavor of an LL dungeon.

I’m not sure that it’s a significant impact, though. The water gets pretty muddy when you mix in the fact that not all monsters whose HD exceed the current dungeon level have better treasure than unguarded rooms, as well as the option to go the B/X route or the LL route — not to mention the vagaries of the dice.

To me, this difference feels less meaningful than the fact that LL dungeons don’t actively work against the PCs. It’s more of a difference in flavor, much like the increased chance of finding special/unique rooms.

Categories
B/X D&D D&D Labyrinth Lord Old school Tabletop RPGs

B/X D&D vs. Labyrinth Lord dungeon doors

After comparing dungeon stocking in B/X D&D and Labyrinth Lord, I went hunting for a detailed list of differences between the two games. I couldn’t find one (still looking!), but I did come across a post about stuck dungeon doors by Peregrin on RPG.net noting that there might be a difference there. There is one, and it’s fascinating.

Why do stuck dungeon doors matter? It sounds like such a little thing, but it’s surprisingly significant. The nature of dungeon doors plays a big role in defining the character of the dungeon.

To get there, we first have to walk back the cat a little bit — specifically, all the way back to OD&D.

OD&D dungeon doors

Here’s what Book III says about doors:

Generally, doors will not open by turning the handle or by a push. Doors must be forced open by strength, a roll of a 1 or 2 indicating the door opens, although smaller and lighter characters may be required to roll a 1 to open doors. There can be up to three characters attempting to force open a door, but this will disallow them rapid reaction to anything awaiting them on the other side. Most doors will automatically close, despite the difficulty in opening them. Doors will automatically open for monsters, unless they are held shut against them by characters.

There are three cool things in that excerpt:

  1. Most dungeon doors are stuck
  2. PCs have to force them open, but monsters don’t
  3. Most doors automatically close behind the PCs

My favorite interpretation of why that might be comes from D&D blogger Philotomy, whose site has vanished from the web. Fortunately, “Philotomy’s Musings” have been preserved (in several formats). Hit that link and scroll down to “The Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld,” and you’ll find this theory:

Similarly, characters must force their way through doors and have difficulty keeping them open; however, these same doors automatically open for monsters. This is a clear example of how the normal rules do not apply to the underworld, and how the underworld, itself, works against the characters exploring it.

I love that! The dungeon itself is working against intruders. It’s a fun theory on its face, it explains a lot, and it highlights something compelling and quirky about OD&D.

Even if you don’t buy the “mythic underworld” concept, though, dungeons in OD&D do work differently for monsters than they do for PCs. With that in mind, let’s peek at the B/X D&D Basic Set.

B/X D&D dungeon doors

Here’s the B/X version:

Doors in a dungeon are usually closed, and are often stuck or locked. A lock must usually be picked by a thief. An unlocked door must be forced open to pass through it. To force open a door, roll Id6; a result of 1 or 2 (on Id6) means that the door is forced open. The roll should be adjusted by a character’s Strength score adjustment. The number needed to open a door can never be less than 1 nor greater than 1-5.

Once a door is opened, it will usually swing shut when released unless it is spiked or wedged open. Doors will usually open automatically for monsters, unless the door is held, spiked, or closed with magical spells.

The mechanics are a bit different, but it’s not the mechanics I’m interested in — it’s the “active dungeon” element. Most doors are stuck (or locked), stuck doors aren’t stuck for monsters, and they close automatically behind PCs. Like dungeons in OD&D, dungeons in B/X work against the PCs.

Ready for LL’s take?

Labyrinth Lord dungeon doors

Labyrinth Lord on dungeon doors:

Labyrinths often have many doors, some secret and others obvious. Many are locked, and a thief will need to attempt to pick locks. However, characters can attempt to break a door down. In this case, the player rolls 1d6. A result of 2 or less means the door has been broken down. Strength adjustments apply, but no matter what the adjustment there must always be a chance of success or failure. Bonuses cannot take the success range above 5 or below 1 on 1d6. For example, if a character has a STR of 15 he receives a +1 to open doors. He would instead need to roll 3 or less on 1d6 to succeed. A character with STR 5 has -2 to open doors, but since the odds cannot go below 1, if the player rolls a 1 on 1d6, he succeeds in breaking down the door.

Setting side the die rolls, which aren’t my focus, that’s quite different!

Stuck doors aren’t mentioned at all, and locked doors can only be broken down (rather than forced open). Also absent are doors that close automatically behind PCs, but not monsters — doors are just doors, and they work the same way for everyone.

Conclusions

Many small differences between B/X and Labyrinth Lord can be chalked up to maintaining a certain amount of “legal distance” from D&D, or to limitations based on what’s available in the SRD, or both. I’m not sure if this difference falls into that category, but I thought that looking at Swords & Wizardry (which emulates OD&D) might help.

S&W notes that “Stuck doors (and many doors in an ancient dungeon may be stuck closed) require a die roll on a d6 to force open.” That’s part of what OD&D says about stuck doors, but not all of it. It seems odd to me that the rest of OD&D’s rules for stuck doors would be off-limits legally, but I guess it’s not out of the question.

But whatever the reason, Labyrinth Lord dungeons don’t work against the PCs in the same way that B/X (and OD&D) dungeons do. A by-the-book Labyrinth Lord dungeon will have a different character than a B/X or OD&D dungeon, and it will play by the same rules for monsters and PCs.

The differences between B/X and LL dungeon stocking were pretty minor, the most notable being a slightly upped chance of a room being special/unique in LL. That gives LL dungeons a subtly different flavor than their B/X counterparts. The dungeon door difference feels more significant, and it surprised me.

Whether that’s a good, bad, or neutral thing comes down to personal preference, of course — and if you like the B/X approach, it’s just a house rule away.

Categories
D&D Tabletop RPGs

Rythlondar and gaming group size in the early days of D&D

I was poking around on the Basic Fantasy forums when I came across a post by merias about how folks played OD&D, with a link to the Rythlondar Chronicles (originally uncovered and shared on Risus Monkey).

I’m always interested in hearing about how gamers were playing RPGs before I got my start (in 1987), and one topic that’s always fascinated me is player count. From what I’ve read, it was common for D&D sessions in the 1970s to have what would generally be considered a large number of players these days.

That’s neatly illustrated by the Rythlondar Chronicle, which documents the house rules, players, guidelines, and expeditions undertaken as part of a D&D campaign in Michigan in 1976. It started out with two GMs, John Van De Graaf and Len Scensny, who shared their campaign notes — the Chronicle — with Risus Monkey.

What merias pointed out is on page 9, EXPEDITION RECORDS.

That page (which is much easier to read in the PDF!) lists 12 expeditions, along with the player count and the PC death toll for each session. (I’ve included the fatality percentage in parentheses.)

  1. 12 players, 5 PC deaths (42%)
  2. 12 players, 3 PC deaths (25%)
  3. 10 players, 2 PC deaths (20%)
  4. 14 players, 6 PC deaths (43%)
  5. 7 players, 2 PC deaths (29%)
  6. 7 players, 0 PC deaths (0%)
  7. 12 players, 1 PC deaths (8%)
  8. 7 players, 1 PC deaths (14%)
  9. 15 players, 3 PC deaths (20%)
  10. 14 players, 5 PC deaths (36%)
  11. 8 players, 3 PC deaths (38%)
  12. 14 players, 0 PC deaths (0%)

Just look at those numbers: In Rythlondar, seven players was a slow night. The average player count was 11. (Those death counts are something, too — an average of 2.58 dead PCs per session, or 23%. On any given night, there was only about a 17% chance that no PCs would croak.)

I recognize that play style and game system make a big difference in the feasibility of gaming with a big group. OD&D seems like an excellent fit for this; I can see why it would work with a lot of players. Practices like having a caller make a lot of sense in a large-group context, too.

I start getting twitchy at five players, and six feels unwieldy to me. I can’t imagine running a game for 11 players, let alone 15. But you know what? I’d like to give it a shot.