Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mashup: Holmes D&D and Metamorphosis Alpha

I love the Holmes rulebook, and I often wonder why I have so much affection for it. Part of it is simply that Dave Sutherland cover; the art is not polished but it is completely evocative, both in color and in the monochrome blue. (I particularly love the blue book look.)

But it's the potential in the incomplete work that draws me in. The Holmes booklet allows the DM to run a few games of D&D, but not a full campaign. Meepo's Companion is an easy fix, and fills out levels 4 through 9 in just four pages. From that basis, unorthodox "supplements" to the Holmes rulebook are one of my favorite thought experiments. It allows you to have a basis that is 100% classic Dungeons & Dragons, but change everything outside that core and create something totally different.

Of course, it helps that TSR published something totally different from D&D just a year before Holmes Basic. Just re-released as a super-deluxe book by Goodman Games, Metamorphosis Alpha is a wild game of exploration in a generation starship that has gone horribly wrong. Radiation killed most of the people on board, and the survivors have reverted to barbarism. There are weird animal mutants, deadly plants and high-tech weapons and gadgets abounding in the setting. It's a decided alternative to the stereotypical post-nuclear apocalypse world that, for instance, appears in Jim Ward's later Gamma World. MA gives nigh-magical powers through mutations, and cares not for hard science.

The games are both focused on exploration, and as such make a natural pairing. The mutants and high technology of MA are excellent variants on the overly-familiar fantasy tropes supported in Dungeons & Dragons, while D&D's framework is fundamentally similar to MA's, to the point where MA has been called a "megadungeon in space." And while MA has some wild and awesome ideas, D&D is more of a sustainable campaign game.

MA's system is very nearly in scale with classic D&D, and uses similar systems of armor, weapon, and hit dice. Its characters don't advance, and get hit points as a direct function of Constitution (1d6 per point). This is similar to an eighth level D&D fighting-man using the Holmes Companion, so it stands to reason that the tougher MA creatures will be at the lower dungeon levels, with only a scattering of mutants in the first levels. Jim Ward's game is notoriously tough, and even with D&D levels and spells it's still not a walk in the park.

Look at the Tom Wham "Skull Mountain" dungeon layout:


This is a perfect fit for a D&D/MA mashup. I picture the early levels being fairly straightforward D&D type affairs, with hints of more – a stray mutant or two, a piece of inexplicable technology here and there. Then level 4A is the first level with serious numbers of Metamorphosis Alpha style mutations as well as D&D monsters, while 4B focuses on some of the tougher "fantasy" baddies. Then the 5th and 6th levels have some serious high-tech artifacts as well as some of the humanoid mutations of MA, and progressively meaner creatures. Finally the 7th level - the "Domed City" - is a high tech city straight out of Metamorphosis Alpha. A twist suggested by Zach H of Zenopus Archives is to have the whole of Skull Mountain be aboard MA's Starship Warden.

I like this setup because it takes TSR's two "lightest" rulesets, and links them together in what I feel is a largely organic way. For instance, it would be perfectly fun to have PCs roll up a Radiation Resistance score the very first time they actually encounter radiation. Mental Resistance can be converted from Wisdom, and Leadership from Charisma. And it merges the "big reveal" style of MA with the "secret at the heart of the dungeon" aspect that D&D always promises but it turns out to be a chute to China.

(If you read that link, or if you know your classic Dragon magazines, you know that Gygax did send PCs to the Warden; here we are talking about the opposite, using MA as the "reveal" at the deeper levels of D&D.)

The mashup has some great potential for chocolate/peanut butter type mixtures. First, factions in a large-scale dungeon transition naturally into some of the classic MA bad guys: wolfoids and androids, particularly, are classic MA villains. Technology, particularly Brian Blume's Bionics table from The Dragon (Jeff Rients reproduced it here) could be a lot of fun when applied to D&D monsters. Imagine a hobgoblin with a bionic arm, or a hyper-intelligent ogre with bionic eyes and brain. Mutations, too – I mean, come on, you can have kobolds that fire frickin' lasers from their eyes. Meanwhile the D&D magic items gain particular effect in MA; after all, think of the power of a single Ring of Animal Control over the mutated beasts of MA. Not to mention the visual of, say, a bearoid wielding a flaming sword.

Part of why I think I'm enjoying this particular blend of sci-fi and fantasy over the more sword and planet ideas I've explored in the past is that it's a very human-centric game, and rooted firmly in RPG history. It also lives up to the sci-fi elements that were present in the original edition of D&D but disappeared shortly thereafter. I like it enough that I think it's worth pursuing further and looking at some of the places where the two games intersect in the most interesting ways.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Initiative, Dexterity and Ready Ref Sheets


The title of this blog is Macaronic Latin for "Always Initiative One," but I don't actually write about initiative much. Which is odd, because I actually do think about it a good bit, just not in a format that's ready to write about. Here I'm going to be focusing on OD&D, although coming at it by way of Chainmail.

In the first round of Chainmail man-to-man, the attacker strikes first, unless the defender has a longer weapon, or the defender has high ground. In subsequent rounds, initiative stays the same, unless one side has a shorter weapon or the high ground. All of this makes sense. If a man with a sword attacks a man with a spear, the spear-wielder can fend him off and get the first blow in, but if they both survive, the man with the sword has the advantage because he's overcome the spear's range and can work more quickly.

The state of affairs in Chainmail is good, and it's worth seeing what we can do in terms of replicating it in D&D. Unfortunately, it doesn't cover enough possibilities; what if someone is firing missiles, or throwing spells, or fighting against a creature that attacks with its claws? Chainmail only has 12 weapon types (if you don't have Chainmail but do have OD&D or Holmes Basic, the weapons are arranged in order by length in both of those books). So clearly it's going to need some work.

Outside of surprise, the main comment that OD&D has on initiative is under the description of abilities:
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.
We're not told how Dexterity indicates this. We can compare stats when an Elf is taking a shot at an Evil High Priest, to see whether the Elf's arrow gets off before the EHP's Finger of Death spell, but it breaks down once we have monsters with no stats. So if a Hobbit is fighting a Manticora, does the plucky hero throw his stone before the creature's tail spikes fire? We don't have a Dexterity score for the monster. Also, this doesn't specify whether it factors into melee at all.

But I like the idea that Dexterity should impact on initiative. Now our goal is twofold: a spear should get first action over a sword, and Dexterity should impact on initiative.

In the 1975 article in The Strategic Review, "Questions Frequently Asked About Dungeons & Dragons Rules," Gygax did make some attempt to clarify initiative:
Initiative is always checked. Surprise naturally allows first attack in many cases. Initiative thereafter is simply a matter of rolling two dice (assuming that is the number of combatants) with the higher score gaining first attack that round. Dice scores are adjusted for dexterity and so on.
This doesn't specify exactly how Dexterity adjusts initiative, but in the ensuing example Gygax says that the Hero gets a bonus of 1 due to high Dexterity. We can reasonably extrapolate that he is geting +1 for a Dexterity of 13 or better, matching the missile adjustments given in OD&D.

Unfortunately the method in the OD&D FAQ doesn't get us an effect much like that in Chainmail. Now initiative is mostly random, with a bump for Dexterity, but weapon length has disappeared from the equation.

The Judges Guild tried to solve all these factors (and add a few more) in the Ready Ref Sheets. The Weapon Priority table (you can see it on the Zenopus Archives site here) factors in weapon length, spell level, missile weapons, dragon breath weapons, armor, monster speed and Dexterity. Which is all for the good, except that the priority system has a fatal flaw: it makes longer weapons better in absolute terms than shorter ones. A spear in these rules is better than a sword, and if you're using all d6 damage, there's no reason to ever use a sword. Which is silly, as there are plenty of reasons to use swords in real life.

This really only works if you can work out in advance that, say, a fighting-man in plate with a sword and Dexterity of 14 has a total rating of 5, while an orc (9" move) with a spear has 6. The orc always goes first. But it has some good ideas, and we can pull this all together without so much work that it's unwieldy.

This is a much-simplified table that takes into account weapon length:

Factor Round 1 Rounds 2+
Long Weapon* +1 n/a
Short Weapon** -1 n/a
Dexterity/Move 8 or less -1 -1
Dexterity/Move 13 or higher +1 +1
Encumbered (Moving at 1/2 speed) -1 -1

* Morning Star, Flail, Spear, Pole Arm, Halberd, 2-handed Sword, Lance, Pike
** Dagger, Hand Axe, Mace

The system is simple: roll initiative on 1d6, individual for PCs, as a group for monsters, and apply the above modifiers. Roll-off (no modifiers) on ties.

I chose not to flip the modifiers after round 1. Particularly in d6-based damage systems, 2-handed weapons don't have a large advantage, and giving them a penalty for most of the fight makes them nearly useless. I also threw in the encumbered modifier from the Ready Ref Sheets rule, and merged Dexterity and monster Move rates, which are pretty similar.

This does pretty much everything I want an initiative system to do: it takes into account weapon length, but only on the first round, it takes Dexterity into account, and it makes movement rates a bigger part of the game. A dextrous, light-armored fighting-man with a spear (+3) is at a pretty big advantage versus a clumsy, heavily encumbered cleric with a mace (-3), and will almost certainly get the jump on him.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

OD&D Hobbits, Scouting and Light

A while back a story of mine encouraged a post over on the Zenopus Archives saying Hobbits are the Rangers of Basic D&D. Looking through Chainmail recently, I noticed a bit that Zach also quoted:
Remember that they are able to blend into the background and so make excellent scouts.
OD&D's hobbits are low in utility; they only get to 4th level, have good saving throws (+4 to level), and are "deadly accurate" with missiles, which should mean roughly that hobbits can throw stones with a bonus on the to-hit table. I would consider adjudicating this the same way that OD&D adjusts the saving throws for dwarves and hobbits, giving them a shift upward in level (so starting at 5th level and going up to 9th) for the column used on Attack Matrix 1.

But it occurs to me that hobbits are also very natural dungeoneers. Which led me to look at The Hobbit, and specifically its description of Frodo's experience while underground.
Hobbits are not quite like ordinary people; and after all if their holes are nice cheery places and properly aired, quite different from the tunnels of the goblins, still they are more used to tunnelling than we are, and they do not easily lose their sense of direction underground – not when their heads have recovered from being bumped. Also they can move very quietly, and hide easily, and recover wonderfully from falls and bruises ...
The light from Sting is mentioned repeatedly in the sojourn that follows, but what is really intriguing is that Bilbo mostly finds his way through the goblin caves by instinct and feel, only to be surprised when he finally hits the underground lake in Gollum's lair.

OD&D is stingier with regard to infravision and darkvision than its descendants; elves and dwarves don't get it any more than humans or hobbits. And lacking thieves, but giving all demihumans enhanced chances to hear, I think hobbits doing dungeon scouting becomes a natural fit. Keep in mind that hobbits are excellent at hiding and will do so quite naturally.

In running dungeon-based games over the years in many systems, it's always seemed like this is an irritating point. Unless you send a dwarf or an elf ahead, or are high enough level to throw around Infravision spells, the natural scouts – B/X human thieves, AD&D halfling thieves, OD&D hobbits – always run into this problem where their natural scouting abilities are limited by inability to see in the dark. Once you're sending a torch ahead, the group typically decides to do reconnaissance in force, sending the whole party in formation through the dungeon and leading to a "kill everything" mentality. And in original and classic D&D that's a recipe for TPKs.

Giving OD&D hobbits the ability to navigate by sound, touch, and instinct (but not to see in the dark; they may have a feeling that something is in a chamber but not know what's there) goes a long way toward solving this practical problem. Obviously they won't be able to do intricate maps, but counting the number of side passages and knowing the navigation paths leading to the next set of stairs allows a PC party to make much better decisions about the way they're going than simply having them lump from room to room like drunken sailors.

Obviously when PCs get infravision they become the natural scouts, replacing the need for such hobbitry. But as a method for OD&D, I would think this is a very viable replacement for the thief-as-blind-scout.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Missing Link: A Miniature Megadungeon

(A brief edit to note: This is officially my 300th post on this blog. Wow.)

Zach Howard at the Zenopus Archives has managed to surprise us again, this time showing the original cross-section of Holmes's sample dungeon. Take a look and come back, I'll be talking about the hand-drawn image a good bit.

This little diagram is a master class in the "megadungeon in miniature." It condenses into 3 levels most of the principal ideas that underlie the Gygaxian megadungeon. There are multiple entrances, multiple connections between levels, different types of terrain, sloping passages, and generally everything you'd want from a complex dungeon, all in three neat levels. None of which is to disregard Tom Wham's great Skull Mountain diagram, but Holmes manages to do a lot with a few levels.

We come to two entrances on separate hills. This creates an interesting choice right off the bat. There might be something low-level like goblins or kobolds guarding the hillside entrance, but the descent into the mine is obviously the deeper way down. It's a good idea to let the rumor tables give a hint that the mine shaft to level 2 is a way down to more difficult monsters than the hillside cave.

In level 1 we're about equidistant from the two ways down. The level below the ladder has one of the long, gradual slopes that Gygax was fond of, and a party may reasonably be surprised when they go up a level of stairs and are still on the second level. Holmes's original wandering monster tables, drawn from Supplement I: Greyhawk, might give us a good idea of what kinds of threats lurk in each of them. Given how many humans with levels there are, it either suggests that the dungeon has a significant human faction, or is actively plied by rival adventuring parties. Either choice is interesting.

I really love those two carved-out areas by the mine shaft. They just have a ton of potential for mischief. As soon as I saw them I was envisioning a nasty monster swooping out as the PCs try to go down (or up) the ladder and causing all kinds of havoc. Or they could be rooms that are rigged with nasty traps, maybe something explosive, or a simple arrow trap that happens to knock the PC a long way down to the dungeon floor below. Or one of them could have a treasure visible, but a monster or a trap nearby that will turn the PCs' avarice into their undoing.

The third level's relative size suggests it should be a nice, big, sprawling level with lots of rooms and interesting tricks. Then there's the cave, and I have to admit if it had a lake indicated it'd be exactly after my heart. As it stands, the cave feels like it should really be the lair of a dragon as the culmination of the whole adventure (and a justification for the game being "Dungeons & Dragons"). It would really make the whole thing a summation of D&D in three levels.

It doesn't have the domed city and the great stone skull of Wham's drawing, but Holmes's original sketch points to a dungeon that can be played in the three character levels suggested by his rule book, and still give you the megadungeon experience. There's no reason the weird and cool stuff we've talked about previously can't be on these three levels, and Wham's drawing really only gives us an extra two or three true "levels" (counting 2 and 2A, the entrance cave as "one up", and the cave separate from the third normal dungeon level). What I think using a dungeon like this does is gives just enough of the complex elements without going into "megadungeon fatigue" that modern games often run into. By the time the players are bored with runs into the same dungeon, they're finished.

From that perspective, this is the missing link between the megadungeon and the smaller types that came to dominate the scene after the mid-1970s. You could describe this in a relatively short module but have months of play material come out of it. The only published dungeon that really comes close to this is Caverns of Thracia, whose reputation should tell you how great of a dungeon I think this could be turned into.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Percent Liar

(That's Lying Cat, familiar to fans of the comic Saga.)

I was looking at Arduin for a completely different post idea, and it always brings me back to the funniest statistic in that book: % Liar. Early printings of OD&D put this instead of % Lair. Rather than go along with the errata, Dave Hargrave made this a statistic of its own. The Air Shark, the first monster in the list, has a % Liar of "Too stupid to." And that, my friends, is Retro Stupid.

But % Liar is an interesting idea for a social mechanic (the kind of thing people always say OD&D doesn't have, even though it does). It fits with the aleatoric approach to the game, where random chance is allowed to determine certain key factors. Having a % chance that a monster will lie to you is a perfectly reasonable mechanic given the way that Contact Higher Plane has a veracity percentage to determine whether the result is true or not.

What interests me is that it creates an expectation that some monsters will be more trustworthy than others. Say a goblin has a 50% liar rating while a gnoll has a 30% rating (using the actual % Lair column just for a moment). The trustworthiness of the gnoll is an interesting bit of setting-building. What is it about gnolls that makes them less likely to lie? They are considerably more reliable than a coin flip, which is what the goblins are, but there's still a real chance that listening to them will land you in hot water sooner or later.

There's even a sort of gambling aspect that could emerge from this; once PCs find a particular monster is fairly reliable, they could try to tap the well just enough, pressing their luck that this won't be the time the liar dice come up against them. The lies can also be subtle twisting of the truth, like the rumor about a trapped maiden in Keep on the Borderlands that is designed to trick PCs into "rescuing" the medusa.

This would work well with a two-column rumor table, where one side is true rumors and the other is false, misleading ones. Say a goblin has a 50% chance to be lying; you can roll it organically. If you roll a 1-10 on a d20, you check the corresponding entries on the "lying" table. If you roll 11-20, you check the "truth" table. Gnolls only check "lying" on 1-6. This lets the referee make the lies more varied; for instance, lies 7-10 might be more outrageous, as creatures prone to lie more often will have a tell. So lying rumor 6 might be that the room beyond the statue is empty, when it's actually an ogre's lair, while lying rumor 10 might say it is a dragon's lair.

NPCs could also have a % Liar. We could base it on their alignment; Lawfuls may only have a 5% chance, while Chaotics could be 40% or higher. In general it seems apt to align the percentage to alignment without getting totally out of hand, thus giving a game use to alignment aside from the ever-controversial alignment languages.

Obviously this system places a bit more of a premium on magic and items that help to detect lies versus truth. Finding out about the reputation of various creature types is also a highly useful piece of knowledge, as detailed above. If players know that it is more useful to negotiate with gnolls than goblins, it adds a new strategic dimension when they encounter the more "honest" creature type to parley instead of fighting.

Sure it's a typo, but why not ride it out and add an interesting dimension to D&D?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Diplomacy, D&D and Roleplaying

If you've never read it, it's worth going through Mike Mornard's question & answer thread on the OD&D forum - Klytus, I'm bored. Not just because I asked a bunch of the questions, but generally because it gives a good feel for how D&D worked when Gary ran it.

When I asked Mike about Diplomacy, he responded with this:
I played a bit of Diplomacy. More importantly, though, Gary and some of the others played a LOT. It shows in the role playing system of OD&D. There are those who say "there was no role playing in OD&D because there are no rules for DIPLOMACY or BLUFF or INTIMIDATE," etc. But in fact it was full of role playing and negotiation, just like Diplomacy. And like Diplomacy, if you wanted to Bluff, you BLUFFED. If you wanted to make a deal, you MADE A DEAL. Et cetera.
Later in the thread, he describes Gygax's NPCs:
Pretty much everybody. If you search online you can find Gary's story "The Magician's Ring." "Lessnard" is me, and yeah, that happened. That was pretty typical... his NPCs were greedy and opportunisitc to a fault.

Then you had more mundane stuff like blacksmiths covering swords with luminous paint and selling them as magic swords, and "angry villagers" keeping you from getting your money back.

Truthfully, his NPCs went beyond "will screw you if it profits them" to "will screw you unless not doing so profits them a lot."
You can find "The Magician's Ring" at Greyhawk Grognard, and it's as Mike describes. Now, I want to posit that the two quotes above are intimately linked. Diplomacy is a game that is infamous for its maneuvering and treachery, where making deals and then stabbing a partner in the back are the best strategy to win.

When you consider that many of the pioneering roleplayers were Diplomacy players, their style of roleplaying becomes much clearer. As I said in my last post, negotiation is a key aspect of dungeoneering in early editions as written, but was all too often overlooked in favor of the expedient of simply fighting.

The best evidence of this is B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Here is a scenario right out of the many Diplomacy variants: each humanoid group has its forces, every group can pretty easily kill the PCs, but with careful negotiation they can play one against the other. You could run an interesting Diplomacy-type game where each player takes the role of one of the faction leaders and tries to take on the other groups. There's also the cleric and his followers, who go along with the "backstabbing hireling" motif that we saw in "The Magician's Ring."

There's a tendency, particularly in America, to see diplomacy as something "soft," something you resort to when you can't get your way by brute force. Gygax had a keen sense for it, though, and understood it much better. I'm reminded of a podcast where Dan Carlin talked about how the ancient Romans viewed diplomacy as an offensive weapon. Done properly, you can disorient or even eliminate enemies without fighting them yourself.

I think this view of roleplaying has a lot to offer. If you play old school D&D as written, with the reaction table and hireling loyalty and so on, elements of it will come out naturally. And it offers a fun, playable alternative to people who think of role-playing primarily in terms of melodramatic play-acting.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What are D&D and the OSR? - A Couple of Reactions

A couple of quotes have made me want to write a kneejerk reaction. I don't like blogging from kneejerks but I think these make some good places to hang points I'd like to make.

John Wick said some dumb things in a blog post. But one of them is actually worth responding to.
The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games. You can successfully play them without roleplaying.
Which of course is nonsense. The term "role-playing game" was invented by people trying to describe what happened when they were playing Dungeons & Dragons. Any definition which doesn't include D&D is, prima facie, wrong.

But I'm going to submit that Holmes D&D – which definitely fits in the "first four editions" – is actually a really good roleplaying game, by Wick's criteria. You see, Holmes wrote on page 11 that monsters don't necessarily attack, but instead reactions should be determined on the reaction chart lifted from OD&D. Strictly speaking, this chart in OD&D is used to determine monster reactions to an offer made by the PCs, but Holmes changes it so that it refers directly to encounter reactions. This means that some monsters encountered in the Holmes edition of the game will be "friendly" and involve some negotiation. If the referee chooses to ignore that, it's not the D&D game's fault; it told the players to roleplay, right there in the text.

In fact, I would submit that this makes D&D a really good roleplaying game. Roleplaying is not just play-acting your character; it's negotiation as part of a strategy for surviving in a ridiculously lethal dungeon and getting out with treasure. By the book, in Holmes D&D, roleplaying is a required part of the game and, in fact, is a really good strategy. If you keep negotiating there is a 50/50 chance that you will get a positive result. The worst thing that can happen is that you're forced to fight.

Did people play D&D that way? A lot of them didn't. But a lot of people don't play Monopoly by the rules, either. It's just what happens when you have a really popular game. But D&D is distinctly a roleplaying game, even if you don't play it that way.

Then there's Ron Edwards, who makes a wonderful flamebait comment in an interview on the Argentine blog Runas Explosivas.
"Old school" is a marketing term and is neither old nor an identifiable single way to play (school).
In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens pithily described his use of old school as "a phrase generally meaning any school that seems never to have been young." It's part of why old school gaming has always been somewhat associated with the grognards, named after Napoleon's veterans who were infamous for grumbling, even to l'Empereur himself. People misunderstand "old school" to mean "the way that people played back in 197x or 198x" when it really means a re-emphasizing of certain "classic" tropes and ideas, including adventure design, mechanics, and play style.

The marketing aspect is interesting. I almost want to agree with it, in that it's primarily a label for people and products to denote that they are oriented to the "old school," but I disagree with its cynicism. The community aspect of the OSR, from blogs to G+ and the associated forums, has been probably more important overall than the marketing. You can bicker and argue over whether it's one single thing or a lot of things, but what you can't argue is that there are a lot of people in a network creating and consuming content.

Honestly the rest of Ron's interview isn't really worth much response. The OSR isn't that close to most Forge stuff when you get down to brass tacks. What happens in the game play experience is simply too different. Back in his heyday, Ron called the classic era of D&D a period of cargo cults, while I find it to have been far more creative and unrestrained. (That essay also contains his total misunderstanding of Gygax and Arneson, and application of the "Big Model" to their D&D.)

It's unfortunate, after eight years of doing this, that we are still at a high point of misunderstanding old school D&D from people who ought to know better. I've always found that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and old school D&D is a real thing, and in the OSR period it's been great roleplaying.