Friday, April 24, 2015

Chainmail and OD&D Morale

In an thread about OD&D, Mike Mornard posted an observation about Chainmail morale as applied to a typical D&D scenario.
Well, for starters.

Morale. Morale is the key to winning a battle. Last stands are renowned because they are so rare. You don't win a war by killing every man, woman, child, and puppydog in the enemy country, and you dont' win a battle by killing every man in the enemy army. You win a battle by killing enough of the enemy that the rest decide to leg it.

CHAINMAIL has "morale due to excess casualties," and it also assigns troop equivalents to manlike fantastic creatures (kobolds, goblins, etc.)

So, goblins attack as heavy foot and defend as light foot. For morale checks, then, I'd treat them as Light Foot.

Light Foot check morale at 25% casualties, and stay on a roll of 8+ on 2d6.

So, twenty goblins rush at you. Your magic user (standing behind your dwarf for half cover) throws Sleep and drops seven of them.

Morale check time!

Now, let's say they make it.

At the next casualty percentage... that is, for light foot, at the second 25% casualties... THEY AUTOMATICALLY ROUT.
Mike doesn't fully describe the mechanic as written. In Chainmail, each troop type checks morale at a certain threshold (25% for light foot, peasants or levies; 33 1/3% for heavy foot, elite, armored, Mongol, and medium horse; 50% for Swiss pikemen, heavy horse and all knights). That triggers a 2d6 roll. If it fails, they run; if it succeeds, they will fight to twice that percentage before they automatically rout.

So when the party is fighting a group of goblins, and kills 50%, the rest should scatter. This trigger went away in the B/X simplification. But it also applies to orcs, which fight as heavy foot, so orcs should check morale when losing 1/3 of their force, and always flee if they lose 2/3. Tougher foes will only flee if they lose at least 50% of their initial numbers.

This system maps particularly well to OD&D, and allows for a simplification. The percentages and minimum score on 2d6 to stay and fight can be grouped by hit dice.

Hit Dice Check Rout Target #
< 1 25% 50% 8
1-3 33% 67% 6-7
4+ 50% n/a 4-6

The referee should set the morale check appropriately for any monsters, so I'd expect orcs to stand on 7+ but hobgoblins to fight on a roll of 6+ due to better morale. A group of 12 orcs will never keep fighting to the last orc; it will flee when only 2 remain. Meanwhile the 6 trolls on level 1 of Castle Greyhawk will check morale once when there are 3 left, but will never flee if they make their check.

In a pinch, these morale rules can be used for other effects as well. In Chainmail, a pike charge or cavalry charge causes a morale check or the unit falls back. While the requisite 10 pikemen can't go into formation in most dungeons, the basic idea works for enemies faced by, say, an elemental that a PC wizard has summoned.

This interpretation makes goblins and kobolds much less threatening, and generally does a lot toward making the lower levels of OD&D more survivable. It's unfortunate that neither the Chainmail chart nor a straightforward means of interpreting it have ever appeared in a D&D product, but I like this as a morale rule.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Convention Play: DCC RPG - Well of Souls

At Philly GamesCon, I signed up to play in Carl Bussler's Dungeon Crawl Classics game for the morning session. Carl ran his own funnel adventure, The Well of Souls, which he designed as an introduction to DCC and also a lead-in to the sandbox module Treasure Vaults of Zadabad. Ever since, I've been re-reading the DCC rulebook. So I'll talk a bit about the adventure, and a bit about the system.

First, the adventure. Eight PCs representing 6 players went down the Well of Souls, and four hours later, eight clambered back out. I had a woodcutter, an elven artisan and an ostler. The artisan would die fashioning makeshift shields, while the woodcutter looked in the wrong cauldron and died falling over a waterfall on a river. The ostler survived, and will have become a thief if I ever play him in a future DCC game.

Well of Souls is a tight module, which if I had any criticism it's that the only serious choice-point is the one at the very beginning. A portcullis locks you in if you go one way, while a solid iron door blocks the other. We encountered dropping cave-octopus creatures, which eventually took out my elf; pit traps and bats; a secret door; a boat, which I added to my woodcutter's character sheet; the aforementioned iron door, which occasioned the needless sacrifice of a duck; a math puzzle; fought skeletons; and finally a giant bronze crocodile that shot either lightning or fire from its mouth. For four hours of gaming, that's a good bit of fun.

I wanted to go through a DCC funnel, because I've heard they are a lot of fun. This turned out to be completely accurate. But I understood a lot more about funnels and how they play into DCC as a game. Your PC has stats, a single weapon, a trade good, and a birth sign. The character is almost entirely random. But the ones who survive wind up having a distinct feel to them, partly driven by the random stuff, partly by the experience of surviving. It's a brilliant way to mix a bit of background with characters emerging from play.

So, on to the DCC system. It's funny how much the DCC game is really the D20 system, but taken in a radically different direction. I like that it changes the 6 basic ability scores, and find that Luck is an intriguing switch from Charisma. It sets the tone from the get-go that things are going to be familiar but different. And the rest of the game builds on that.

One reason I'm interested in DCC as a system is that the Mighty Deed of Arms die seems to me like it's inviting the kind of play I'd like to see more of: creative interaction within the combat system. Older D&D doesn't seem to inspire a whole lot of it, while a Warrior rolling the Deed die on every hit always has a chance to do something spectacular. The worst that happens is that you don't get your extra heroic bit.

Magic is pretty crazy. I mean, the rulebook is only as big as it is because magic is such a big part of it. You don't really touch it on a funnel, but my impression both from reading and from discussions is that magic can really take over the game. It seems appropriate in a way, since it's magic, but I'd be interested in perspectives on the pros and cons. I like the basic mechanical concept of a "spell check"; it's something that Chainmail had but D&D never picked up. (An early clone, Spellcraft & Swordplay, ran with the idea but nobody talks much about that game.)

I don't really want to analyze the thing to death; the point is that, as an RPG that is practically made of charts and uses funkier dice than most, DCC has a couple of feelers out trying to get at my heart. The other thing that really makes me think it has something is the chunkiness of each level: since it was originally only designed to go up to 5th level, it seems like you get a lot of game out of each level. DCC also seems to have what I'll call a unique aesthetic, where each room and encounter is encouraged to be epic, that has been growing on me slowly as I pick up modules here and there.

So a round of applause to Carl, who's got me thinking more and more about DCC.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Convention Play: Metamorphosis Alpha

I spent a good part of the past week updating my adventure, now titled "Rites of Passage," for Philly GamesCon. Unlike my G+ Hangout game, the con game stayed entirely on my 10th deck of the Starship Warden, a pleasant pastoral area with two villages and a handful of strange areas.

The first area visited was a Round House Modular Dwelling Unit, populated per Jim Ward's tables in The House on the Hill. Until the power suddenly kicked out, this was a fun game of MA's typical "identify this weird technological thing," with PCs figuring out soft drink dispensers and discovering a jar of peanut butter and jelly (one of those mixed types). The insane engineering robot activated, but the PCs had just found a robot maintenance device and used it to reboot it (it discovered a firmware corruption) and open the access panel. They left after the power outage with several good technological artifacts, and some magazines and cups.

After this they decided to go to the "Forbidden Zone," a massive high-radiation area. One of the PCs went in but his Radiation Resistance was good enough that it just did damage to him. After this, the mutant with several heightened senses figured out that they were being followed by a mutant bobcat, which did some fancy tunneling and chased them back to the river that runs through the level. It was an interesting encounter, because the bobcat had tunneling claws that let it burst out of the ground. One of the PCs had an Apathy Field that helped them get away.

The PCs took a rest and then went north to a small grove, where they had spotted a dug-up area that hides a laser pistol, a brown color band, and a cougaroid skin. Unfortunately there were squirrels. The PC with Apathy Field tried using it but one o the squirrels had terrific Mental Resistance and resisted. The squirrel then used its trump card – Molecular Disruption. That PC was gone, poof. Quite dramatic. The others used Heat Breath to kill both squirrels and the vines on the trees.

After that, the remaining three PCs tried heading fore (north), and found the field of weird flowers. They were going to skirt it (not a terrible idea), but one of the PCs went to pick a flower to bring home. This happened to be a rose with poison thorns, and I had him roll a Dexterity check to avoid getting pricked. He failed and that was another PC. The last two PCs called it an adventure and went home with substantial gear.

It was an enjoyable game, although I do want to tweak the level a bit more - there needs to be an encounter near the RHMDU aside from the robot to keep it from being a cakewalk. A PC with holographic skin was able to trick the house's access panel into letting him in by imitating a color band, a neat trick but one I probably wouldn't let work with a robot or more sophisticated tech. The fact of "here's a house, try to get in" is a fun challenge. I am thinking it could use some mutant birds nesting nearby to make it more of a challenge.

The grove with the molecular-disruptor squirrels is, I think, a very Metamorphosis Alpha encounter. The squirrels don't have a lot of hit points, but they can straight-out kill PCs if they try fighting. And the trees will try to grab PCs who dig up the goods, but the PCs observed the vines moving and used Heat Breath to fry everything in sight.

In practice, the Mutation Manual is awesome, the best of the Goodman supplements. It has some great new powers that add a whole lot to making mutants, both PC and not, more interesting. I think humans need a bit more edge to make them competitive, which I'll probably work on by tweaking the pregens. I would also recommend reprinting all the powers that PC mutants have for reference if you're running the game. Also, the Referee's Screen is terrific; it essentially has the whole system aside from the mutations on it. Easily worth ten bucks.

MA is a terrific game. It's probably, for my money, the best pure exploration game out there in RPGs. Combat is extremely variable because of the mutations, and the artifacts just make discovering things a pure joy. The level I've designed would probably take three or four sessions to explore thoroughly; I think that's a good length for a very full MA mini-campaign. At some point, I may see about putting it out in the wild, because I think more good MA sandbox adventures are really needed out there.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It's (Almost) Metamorphosis Alpha Time!

I have a bunch of pregenerated PCs available for Metamorphosis Alpha, plus the What You Know sheet for the Metamorphosis Alpha game I will be running this Saturday at Philly GamesCon. Starred powers in the mutant pregens come from The Mutation Manual, a sourcebook full of wonderful new mutations. The non-starred powers, plus all other information, comes from the core rulebook.

I've found that the "What You Know" sheet is pretty essential for running a pick-up version of game like Metamorphosis Alpha. It summarizes briefly some basic concepts that players need to know in order to play the game. The ideas come from reading source novels like Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky and Aldiss's Non-Stop / Starship, both of which establish their main characters' general ignorance of their world.

I'm still prepping the rest of the level I'm running, which will include a few charts for random encounters and detailing out some odds and ends. I may share some or all of it after I've run it, although at least something has to be held in reserve for when I run it again via Hangout. Which, TBH, is pretty likely. Metamorphosis Alpha is a really neat game, and one of the reasons I like it so much is that it doesn't require "campaign" style play to be rewarding.

Outside of this upcoming MA session, I'm running 5e D&D again, so the blog front is probably going to be a bit quiet. Unless readers here are interested in 5e, which I certainly could write about, but the feel isn't right for me. I'm considering taking that to a separate blog, which would be devoted to that game. But I will definitely have a writeup of lessons learned from the Philly GamesCon game.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fading Gems in Classic D&D

I'll preface this by noting that I prefer to use OD&D volumes II and III to roll up treasure for my classic games, no matter what rules I am nominally following. This has led me to notice a small but extremely meaningful change in gems, specifically.

When you roll on the gems table in OD&D, you come up with a value between 10 and 1000 GP. Once you roll each gem, you roll a d6 to see whether it needs to be increased a step. Every 1 rolled moves it up by a step and calls for a further roll. Beyond 1000, this goes to 5000 GP and then, by increasingly large steps, all the way up to half a million. (This is less ridiculous than it seems; there is only a 10% chance of rolling a 1000 GP gem, and you'd need to roll six 1s in a row - almost one in half a million odds, in total.)

Without getting too much into the math, OD&D gems wind up averaging about 440 GP each. This is heavily inflated by outliers, but that is the reality of gems in the game: you get one 5000 GP gem and it also skews a PC's XP total rather nicely. Over one percent of gems will be so valuable, so they are rare but possible in-game events, too. (Whereas maybe two in a million will be worth 500K.)

The Holmes edition contains a reworked gem table that changes two factors. First, it lowers the chances of high value gems, skewing the whole situation toward lower values. Second, it caps the value of increases at 1000 GP. The net effect is that, in Holmes, the value of the average gem declines to under 250 GP. This is quite a letdown, even though the rationale for removing gem values over 1000 in Holmes is sound: they could take the PCs clear past level 3 and out of the basic set's purview.

Moldvay uses the same modified table as Holmes, but has no increase rolls. This further simplification shaves another 50 or so GP off the average gem, leaving it a few GP under 200. At this point we are less than half what we had in OD&D, and all through some evidently minor fiddling with the numbers of the chart.

In play, this makes gems in an OD&D dungeon a very desirable commodity, since their values tend to run higher (and since, in OD&D, you tend to find 1d6 gems rather than a single gem at a time). Gems are already the second best treasure in the game, after jewelry; after all, if one gem weighs the same as one gold piece but is worth five hundred, that makes a huge dent on encumbrance relative to value. In OD&D, it's worth taking a determined effort to specifically find gems in a dungeon. In Holmes and Moldvay, because their value is so much lower on average, it's not really worth seeking them out after level 1.

Also, I think that the removal of the 5000+ GP gem values takes out a bit of the excitement of finding a treasure hoard. By allowing for that possibility in a GP-for-XP game, OD&D makes it really possible that an individual treasure will get some low level characters up in level in a single adventure. It also allows for some really impressive physical specimens - after all, isn't a lot of the joy of treasure hunting not just finding some average jewels but a massive pearl or ruby? If you can't find a diamond like the one in the film Titanic (which I figure would be in the 100,000-500,000 GP range), I think it diminishes gems as a vital part of the hoard.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Carnivorous Plants and the Dungeon

Reading about exotic South American mountains and their unique flora got me thinking about pitcher plants, which are also known as pitfall traps. These tend to be small, exotic plants that trap insects and convert them into nutrients. The pitchers of plants like Nepenthes lowii, pictured to the left, tend only to run as long as 35 centimeters (just over a foot). But this is Dungeons & Dragons; if there is one thing the game is good at, it's taking things and making them bigger.

You probably already know where I'm going with this. Sticking a pitcher plant, particularly one with a snap-shut "lid" like Nepenthes lowii, in a D&D pit trap is a wonderfully nasty surprise. The hapless dungeon delver falls in, and all of a sudden they're trapped in a suffocating plant, trying to get some weapon free and cut their way out while they still have air left. Meanwhile the digestive liquid burns them as it starts to turn them into plant food. Their friends can to try and cut them out, but that's pretty dangerous.

The tentacle of the sundew Drosera capensis is another nasty trap. When the long hairs are sprung, the sticky tentacle curls up and rolls its prey into more of its digestive juices. This one might, depending on size, do crushing as well as acidic damage as it entraps a character. These liquids should, by the by, also be doing a number on armor even if the PC gets away; a coat of mail or plate that is scarred and pitted by acid is no longer useful for defense. These can be in pit traps as well, or used as room traps in a weird sort of "garden room."

It should be obvious why carnivorous plants are the kind that thrive in a dungeon, of course: lacking much in the way of sunlight, dungeon plants will consume flesh. And it lets you have plants in your underworld in a semi-logical way.

Of course, we can hardly discuss carnivorous plants without talking about the Venus flytrap. Once the trigger hairs on this plant are sprung, its powerful leaves snap shut and the unfortunate insect caught inside is done for. A huge flytrap can catch a single character, but a really massive one could even get a whole party. Again we're relying on the combination of crushing damage and acid to actually do in the character. The initial blow as the flytrap shuts might also do some damage. They're iconic and, like the pitcher plant, will pose the difficulty of freeing a trapped character without harming them. Dungeon variants might have hardened bristles that do damage while the flytrap closes.

Plants, of course, are typically something we see only above ground. This makes their appearance in the dungeon setting startling, and clearly the sign of weird Chaotic mutation and/or a mad wizard's experimentation. Of course, you could always go full-on Little Shop of Horrors or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes as the end stage of dungeon carnivorous plants; but I think the initial horror of being consumed by a pitcher plant in a pit trap or caught by a giant sundew is a great way to incorporate some plant life into your dungeon crawls.

Sundew image by Noah Elhardt CC-BY-SA
Venus flytrap image by Noah Elhardt CC-BY-SA

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cutting It Short: A Case for Short Swords

OD&D had two classifications for swords: sword, and two-handed sword. AD&D expanded this, in a way that I may eventually write about; in short, the AD&D names for long sword and broad sword are both fairly contentious. But it added one sword type that was added into Moldvay and subsequent versions of Basic/Classic: the short sword.

AD&D defined the short sword as a sword with a blade of 2' (24") or shorter. I'm going to assume that this is generally a good rule of thumb.

There were several interesting swords with blades right around 24" that were made in the period of the "knightly" swords that are the D&D standby. One example, pictured in a 15th century Fechtbuch above, is the großes Messer.

If you know your German, großes Messer just means "big knife." This was something of a fiction, since the Messer was a sword, but it had a couple of interesting features. Instead of the pommel of a knightly sword, it had the full tang that you would often see on a knife, and the pommel would be curved to one side instead of the round, riveted type usually seen on a knightly sword. It was single-edged and often had a Nagel or nail sticking to one side, as a type of handguard. All of this was meant to establish that the Messer was just a knife, so people could go carrying them around but they weren't carrying a "sword." It was a prerogative of knights, generally, to carry swords about, so non-knightly individuals were simply carrying a big "knife." (This would be a great law for a city type campaign.)

But the Messer was an early trend-setter for short blades. The cutlass and the English "hanger" sword were both examples of blades that had the same features: a single-edged blade around 24" long, and a handguard that went beyond simple quillons (the two spurs of the crossguard). These developed out of the longer, heavy falchion (which had a blade around 31" long), and became standard sidearms for much of the age of muskets.

Why would you want a shorter sword? These blades coexisted with the long, heavy knightly swords, particularly the longsword (which AD&D would call a "bastard sword"). They were primarily sidearms, meant for fighting lightly armored opponents, often issued to crossbow or artillery soldiers. As the Messer proves, they were carried around in cities and were good weapons for fighting in closer quarters than the longsword allowed. In an era of plate armor, the sword was no longer an armor-penetrating weapon; you'd use something good and heavy like a warhammer if puncturing armor was your goal. So it makes sense to use a short blade that you can carry pretty well anywhere.

In tight dungeon corridors, the utility of such a blade should be obvious. Thieves in particular would seem to be a great thematic fit for the Messer or cutlass. It really underlines the fact that swords were primarily sidearms, and longer weapons, or ranged weapons, were the primary weapons carried by a soldier.

What, then, about magical swords? After all, this is D&D, not Chainmail; magic weapons are part and parcel of the way the game goes. But it turns out - magical short swords make plenty of sense. The ancient Greek xiphos, the ancient Roman gladius, the leaf-shaped Celtic sword and the Egyptian khopesh are all swords that top out around 24". If your magical swords are properly ancient, why not use one of those as a model instead of the latest trend in knightly blades?

The bronze sword in this blog post over at Tower of the Archmage is a great example of the kind of sword that makes a killer "ancient" looking magic sword. This site has a number of good replica photos, all of which are excellent inspiration for a magical sword that I think will be much more memorable than a typical "sword" with a crossguard and a +1. The khopesh, the Celtic sword, the Spartan sword are all neat looks that will help give magic items a very different feel from the "standard models."

With Moldvay and later classic D&D, magical short swords are also a good way to control "sword inflation" in the game. Since they do on average 1 point less damage than a normal sword, and 2 points less than a 2-handed sword, a short sword +3 is only doing 6.5 damage on an average hit.

Finally, let's not forget the halfling, for whom the short sword is a normal sword.

The moral of this post, of course, is that I really like swords, and I think D&D owes blades other than the classic knightly sword (Oakeshott types X through XIV) some love. As for knightly swords? Look for a post in the future, "R. Ewart Oakeshott vs. E. Gary Gygax." But I really think that there is more potential than most people think for excellent D&D weapons in the short sword, from antiquity right up to the Renaissance.