Sunday, March 24, 2013

An aside on rules

I've been thinking a lot about my choice of ruleset lately. I've been running Holmes D&D for a month or so now. The games have been fun but I think there are some issues I've been having with it, and in the long run I might wind up retooling my games to look more like B/X or Labyrinth Lord with variant race/class options.

The first problem is ability scores; back when I started running OD&D several years back I wanted to de-emphasize high stat rolls. I still basically think that impulse is correct, and aesthetically I dislike AD&D's approach to ability scores. The Holmes stats are a middle ground, but wind up emphasizing extremely high Constitution in a way I don't like, and make Strength and Wisdom useless. That is particularly bad for Fighters, who have nothing to distinguish themselves. I've long been on the fence about Moldvay-style stats; I dislike them in a "4d6 drop lowest" type of ability score generation, where the bell curve that the bonuses follow gets skewed quite badly in favor of high modifiers. The 4d6 drop lowest methodology is only useful for AD&D where stats below 15 rarely give any bonus. But compared to Holmes I think the Moldvay stats make fighters much better.

I remain torn on damage dice. On the one hand, I love dice and rolling different types; on the other, I like the simplicity of having all weapons keep the d6. In long term play I am tempted to switch over to variable weapon damage just for the variety. With one-shots and the like, d6 damage is fine as a way to make things simpler.

Dexterity as initiative is another point I'm torn over. This blog's title comes from when I was running with group initiative as 1d6 roll high, and I remain fond of it. I also didn't mind Dexterity for initiative, but once again it runs a bit dry on the variety after a bunch of combats. My actual issue with this is different: neither method has a good way to interrupt a magic-user who is casting a spell.

I've come to think that two of the design cornerstones of TSR AD&D that got lost going to Wizards of the Coast D&D (both 3.x and 4e) were absolute improvement in saving throws and the ability to interrupt spellcasters. Saving throws get better as characters level up, meaning high level characters are less likely to be affected by a spell at all. Combined with the fact that magic-users could be hit during combat and lose their spells, this did a lot to level out what came to be called "caster dominance" in 3.x D&D, which removed both of these effects.

Most of the complicated stuff in AD&D combat stems from the attempt to bolt enough complexity to handle spell interrupts onto a relatively simple initiative system. There we have all kinds of complication from weapon speed and length, spell casting times, segments and so on, all so a fighter can smack a wizard with a sword and stop him from casting his spell. It's much more than I actually want to deal with in my games, but at the same time I want the impact of melee characters being able to stop a caster.

I'm thinking of just following the simpler method of ruling that a magic-user or cleric, if hit in melee before they cast a spell (i.e. lose initiative and get hit), they can't cast the spell. Or I may modify it: so that if the losing initiative die is less than or equal to the level of the spell being cast, then any hit will interrupt it. So: casting Sleep will be interrupted if the magic-user gets hit and his side rolled a 1 for initiative, but not if they lost on a 3, while casting Fireball will fail when the losing initiative roll is a 1, 2 or 3. (Using the die roll rather than the difference because I don't like penalizing high misses more than low misses; losing on a 3 should not be as bad as losing on a 1.)

So I'm looking for thoughts on these issues, both from Holmes and Moldvay fans and in general. What's the best way to achieve these goals? Am I better off hacking Holmes further or switching to Moldvay but without the race/class divide? Am I overthinking things here?


  1. I can't remember the Holmes initiative system completely, so forgive me if I am repeating some aspects of it.

    In Swords & Wizardry one option of the order of battle has spells declared after surprise, but before initiative is rolled. Spells are not actually cast until both sides have a chance to fire missles and/or move. If the caster is hit by missles, OR ENGAGED in melee before his spell goes off, it is ruined. Note it is enough just to be engaged in melee. I interpret this on the map to mean a mini is in an adjacent square.

    I'm new to S&W, so my interpretation may be off, but these seems to be ways to "get in the face" of a caster and mess up his cast. The caster must be protected from melee, and of course must not get hit, if he is to get his spell off.

  2. I'm quite intrigued by the S&W

  3. Here they are verbatim from :

    1. Check for Surprise
    The Referee determines if one side gets a free initiative phase before the first initiative roll. This is either through common sense (adventurers or monsters are not alert), or it can be a range of probability (e.g., a particular ambush has only a 50% chance of succeeding when the victims are alert and watchful).

    2. Declare Spells
    Any player whose character is going to cast a spell must say so before the initiative roll. Spell casting begins at the beginning of the round. Thus, if the enemies win the initiative roll and damage the spell caster, the spell’s casting may be disturbed.

    3. Determine Initiative
    At the beginning of a combat round, each side rolls initiative on a d6. The winning side acts first: moving, attacking, and casting spells. The other side takes damage and casualties, and then gets its turn.

    Initiative rolls may result in a tie. When this happens, both sides are considered to be acting simultaneously unless the Referee decides to allow another die roll to break the tie. When both sides are acting simultaneously, it is possible for two combatants to kill each other in the same round!

    4. Movement and Missile Fire
    Each combatant on the side that won initiative may move, or may fire any missile weapons. Then the losers of the initiative roll may move or fire missile weapons.

    5. Melee Combat and Spells
    Each combatant on the side that won initiative makes any melee attacks (if in melee range), or casts spells. Spells take effect immediately. Spells cannot be cast if the caster is in melee combat with enemies. Losers of the initiative then make their attacks and cast spells.

    6. The round is complete
    Go back to step 2 (Declare Spells) and repeat the process until the combat is finished.

    Note that the S&W rules list 4 options for handling the order of battle, including a Holmes option. This is the "official" option from the Complete Rules set. Any option is valid. Indeed, S&W's mantra is basically do what you like as the DM.

  4. One variation I've seen is each side rolls a d6 for init, but each character applies personal Dex Modifier to that roll for actual position in the round; it's a bit more complex than a straight roll, but not all the way to individual init. It has the (to my mind) nice feature that faster people in the party will always be faster than their slow compatriots, while still sometimes losing to relatively slow enemies. It also means that a slow caster will sometimes get interrupted even if his side wins the init, which I also thing adds a little spice.

  5. My understanding with Holmes was that Dex as only used to determine striking order in melee combat, not movement or spell casting. I'll have to reread that section.

  6. I play using the Holmes order. I think it was never clear whether spells, missile, or movement were supposed to go in dex order, like melee does. I chose NOT to use dex order, but to have those operate in the order of an initiative die. Reason: spellcasters don't know if they will be first or second to go in the next round. That can affect decisions.

    It's perfectly valid to do everything in dex order -- I think a lot of people at TSR back in the day actually only rolled initiative once at the beginning and then cycled it. I like the fun of the random initiative.

  7. I'm finding that I'm taking a closer look at Swords & Wizardry again, including those combat order rules. I was not happy with the game when it first came out - either Core versions 1 and 2 or Whitebox - but Complete is actually pretty close to how I want my D&D to be.

  8. Here's another approach. Hack in a Chainmail-style roll to cast system that includes delayed casting as a possible outcome. If the magic-user rolls well, the spell goes off instantaneously and there is no chance of disruption. If the magic-user gets a partial success, the spell still works, but is "delayed" and goes off at the end of the round. If the magic-user is interrupted before the end of the round in the delayed case, the spell is spoiled.

    Jeff has a nice post about the Chainmail 2d6 casting roll:

    1. I like this approach because it doesn't impose a more complicated ordering on combat when that ordering doesn't matter as much. Initiative can remain extremely simple (and the common case, with no spells, also remains simple).

  9. My players opted for simpler initiative and it sped game up - roll once each side unless environment factors change - good for fights in ship rigging, battlements, loose rubble. I use DEX bonus for tie breaker which seems fine mostly.


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