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How awesome is your fighting man?

The image of the super-hero cutting a swath of destruction and mayhem through a troop of goblins is a key D&D trope. But how to simulate an overpowering attack in the confines of abstract combat rounds? The increasing “to hit” ability of the fighting-man (paired with better saves) captures the hero’s increasing prowess. But simulating combat vs. multiple enemies requires an additional mechanic – hopefully one that lets players be awesome(1). Otherwise a 10th level fighter takes eight rounds to slay eight goblins every time, and that is not awesome.

AD&D addresses this in two ways. Fighters get multiple attacks as the gain levels, and versus enemies of less than one hit dice they get an additional attack each round per level. This allows a lord to indeed put down eight goblins in a round or two.

Another more random possibility: a variation on Zak’s kung-fu points, where hitting your number could mean, for instance, that damage you do in that round applies to all enemies within melee range.

A third approach is seen in Empire of the Petal Throne. Once a hit has been determined in EPT, the damage (number of dice rolled to determine damage) in part depends upon the relative level of the combatants, so:

Why, yes, I am level "Vee Eye Eye Eye"

The example included in the rules extends the possibilities: damage can be applied across multiple enemies. The example is worth quoting, since it is open to multiple interpretations:

This becomes important in melees in which an advanced level character fights more than one low-level opponent. Fighting three Kurgha (one die creatures), a 9th level warrior rolls four dice. If he scores a total of 18 or better, he kills them all, since thier maximum total hit dice cannot exceed 18 points. A 4th level fighter does 2 dice damage to these same creatures, and the referree then rolls to determine the hit dice the three kurgha can take: let us say a 6, a 4, and a 2, totalling 12. If the fighter scored a total of 10 on his two dice, he would kill the weakest two Kurgha and leave the strongest one with only 2 points remaining!

How this works in mixed-level opponent situations is left as an exercise for the reader. One fallout of this system – any 10 hit die creature could in theory slay a group of 1st level players in one round with the swipe of a claw…

Do you have an alternate or favorite way to allow fighting-men characters to be awesome? Feel it is unnecessary? Please add in comments!

(1) ”Awesome” here is a shortcut for “engaging play” – awesome could be spearing two orcs at once, an epic fumble, or whatever fun and unexpected thing the dice and situation dictate, as long as it captures the attention and imagination of the players at the table.


Ode to Thoopshib

One of my favorite encounters is the Kuo-Toa ferryman offering passage across the underground river in module D2: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa.[1]  The encounter is a gem-like example of the admirable qualities of early D&D. (Please note spoilers follow, if you wish to play D2 in the future.)

 Evocative:  Sets a feel of gonzo, surreal weirdness.  As written in 1978 this creature was the first Kuo-Toa encountered, so is strange, exotic, and horrific.  Yet when he approaches, it is for mundane purpose: to croak out in the eerie underground language the price for passage across the river.  Imagine encountering a lovecraftian fish-beast lurking in the dark near an underground river who opens his mouth and says… “Do you want the blue plate special?”  The overall effect communicates loads of atmosphere.

 Non-prescriptive:  The players get what they bring to this encounter.  As Gygax says in the introduction to the module, “the river crossing, can be very easy to accomplish, or the rash party can turn it into a deadly nightmare.”  The result of meeting Thoopshib could be anything from peaceful transaction to a nasty combat and/or an accidental raft trip all the way to the Sunless Sea – largely driven by how the characters respond to the situation, not a pre-ordained script[2].  Yet the likely outcomes are reasonable based on party actions.

 Random element:  Thoopshib is unbalanced, and if he is not understood he has a chance of going berserk.  The chance of him flipping out provides both an element of surprise for the DM, and a layer of challenge for the players – have they realized they need to be able to communicate with the denizens of the underworld?  Have they secured a translator during their journey so far?  Even so, the situation could still turn bad – welcome to the underworld!  (Note this represents an elegant solution in this encounter to analysis/paralysis – the longer the players dither over how to deal with Thoopshib, the more likely he is to go off.)

For those who like literary and story-telling elements in their adventuring, the encounter is foreshadowing (and metonymy, for you english majors).  This simple encounter is at heart the whole module writ small: an encounter a savvy party can simply walk through, but a combative or greedy party can founder on.  Thoopshib offers a very topical lesson to the “rash party” capable of learning from experience, right before they walk into the Shrine.  In writing this is known as “show, don’t tell.”

 Concise: In less than half a page, 600 words, EGG outlines a robust encounter, limning the situation such that a DM can fill in details, adapt the situation to a particular campaign, and respond to a wide variety of player actions easily, all without losing the general outline or purpose of the encounter.  Like with many (but not all!) of the D&D ur-texts, there is a lot of content and little wasted space. (See “Evocative” above.)[3]

 1) [SPOILER] For those not familiar with the encounter, it occurs at a river crossing along the shore of a vast underground river.  Thoobshib is an “unbalanced” Kuo-Toa who charges a fee to pole passengers across the river on his barge.  He offers to ferry the characters across, speaking in the common tongue of the underworld.  Each time he has to repeat his offer he has an increasing chance of going berserk and attacking.  He is a formidable creature and even a large and powerful party appropriate to the module (at least six players, average ninth level) will have trouble if they do not handle him well.

 [2] In sharp contrast to later D&D products (I am looking at you, Dragonlance) the characters could actually be completely sidetracked out of the rest of modules D2 and D3 if they are not careful, in a sort of anti-railroad.

 [3] I wish I could write like that.  Instead, my little review here has used 663 words and three footnotes! to describe 605 words of encounter.  For shame! ; )


When deliberation needs to be done

In watching the first episode of I Hit it With My Axe the following exchange caught my ear, because it so captures an emergent behavior of D&D.  And because we at the Mule spent yesterday trash-talking about the very same issue.

Sasha: “…and then there is a lot of deliberation…”

Sasha: ” I like deliberation when deliberation needs to be done, but sometimes you just go back and forth and say the same thing over and over, and -”

Zak: “- and whose fault is that?”

Sasha: “All of ours”

The potential for what is sometimes called analysis/paralysis is rife in D&D.  Coming to terms with how those discussions work, and finding a balance of approach(es) fun for all the players is an integral part of the D&D experience.   If the group does not have fun with those situations, the game will not be fun.  But once the deliberation part of the game is fun… people are hooked.

I can’t wait to see more episodes; it is going to be really cool to see what other familiar conversations come up.  Grats to Zak and his players for making this happen.  My hat is off to you…


Charmed, I’m sure

Exploring the play – emergent and otherwise  – of OD&D we have noticed recently that charm person in OD&D is a much more powerful spell in OD&D than in later versions of the game.  In OD&D the victim comes

completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such a time as the “charm” is dispelled (Dispell Magic).

Without periodic opportunities to shrug off the charm, the Magic-User casting charm will accumulate a growing mob of completely loyal followers.  In charming the occasional orc or goblin there is natural attrition as these allies-of-convenience set off traps and act as meat shields.  But what is to prevent even a low level Magic-User from slowly charming everyone around them and building an empire, one magically loyal servant at a time?  A few things to consider:

First, in a world where charm person exists and even the least accomplished of Magic-Users can cast it, this will be a common danger.  Those able to cast dispell magic will do so on themselves and their retainers frequently.  Established authorities, heroes, and higher level Wizards will seek to slay or co-opt Magic-Users indulging in this pasttime too often, and having a reputation for casting charm person will quickly become a liability in dealing with others.

Second, this permanent charm is easy to take for granted.  But a dispell magic can instantly turn a faithful bodyguard into a savagely vengeful enemy, who has had months or years stolen from their life.

Third, especially for player characters, charm person is not very efficient when used on what would normally be a hireling or retainer.  No matter how well you treat them or how long they serve you, thier loyalty will always be subject to dispell magic.  Like a mid-tier chess player, the magic-user who uses charm too often will eventually box themselves in, surrounded by a charmed retinue, unable to attract or recruit other allies.  In the long run, better to simply treat your retainers well, and earn their true allegiance.

(This does not apply, of course, to evil Magic-Users who charm everyone and treat them horribly… but they are generally the bad guys the PC’s are trying to kill, which reinforces the point).


The built-up sandbox

Sandbox games imply that the world the players enter is not a strictly defined environment, and that the world will evolve in a collaborative way between the DM and players, based on decisions made during play. [1] Not just in terms of the map, but in behaviors. 

Different players approach the game with different underlying assumptions about that world and how it works.  This is both an opportunity and a challenge for the group as they collectively decide how the world works, what is normal there, and what the group can expect in the future.   How hard is it to recruit hirelings?  Can you effectively negotiate with orcs?  Will the high priest help us if we are not of his alignment? 

As those matters are hashed out and the sandbox world develops, a shared history and environment emerges that the DM and players have created together.  It becomes a set of assumptions that guide further actions and possibilities.  Much of this shared history is tacit, not necessarily easy to share, and it can create an obstacle for new players who wish to join in: lacking knowledge of the underlying assumptions about the world, they may feel a bit shut-out.  Established players can tend to want to build on what they have created and “protect” the facts they have established.  The knowledge that experienced players are taking for granted can seem impenetrable at best and clubby at worst. 

There are ways to mitigate this: keep a record of events that new players can read; counsel new players that there is a learning curve and help them with it; remind long-time players that nothing is set in stone – just because the last group of orcs wouldn’t parley does not mean this one will not. 

Still, there is a basic trade-off: do you de-emphasize the investment long-time players have made in creating a world, or do you accept that it will be harder for players to join as time passes and they have more to learn about the world they are joining? 

How do you try to balance this? 

[1] Obviously there are degrees.  DMs vary between the DM who starts with only a bag of dice and some random-generation tables to the DM who has a completely detailed world for the players to explore.  Players can insist on helping to imagine a world and add color, or they can passively let the DM determine flavor and context, etc.


The Evolution of hold person

In a previous post I used hold person as an example of a spell that changed dramatically from OD&D to later versions.  The original version of hold person, as described in Men & Magic, was a very powerful charm spell that allowed the caster to compel action from his victims.

This fits in with the early pulp-influences and atmosphere of OD&D – the evil wizard or priest casting a spell and then ordering someone to drop their weapons, walk to the altar, and sacrifice the captive, say, or turn on their comrades in battle, or open the cursed book of Graalk, or open the gate of the besieged city, or…

In later versions of D&D (starting with Holmes) hold person causes paralysis, offering less opportunity for mischief on the part of an inventive caster, a drastic change in the nature of the spell.  I wondered what prompted the change.

So I was excited to see this comment in the Grognardia interview of Len Lakofka that illuminates some of how the change in nature of the spell came about: it seems as actually used in play, hold person required a system shock roll from those it affected.  Mr. Lakofka explains:

In the original AD&D manuscript… Gary had said that if a person was held (via hold person) he/she had to make a system shock roll! I said to Gary that this would become a “Little Finger of Death.” Certainly many NPCs as well as a few characters would have a Constitution score of 14 or lower. A system shock would kill quite a few folks. Since hold person is a 2nd-level cleric spell and 3rd-level magic-user spell, those spell casters needed very little experience to gain access to the prayer/spell. A gaggle of four 3rd-level clerics all throwing hold person at once on the same person would have a very high chance of not only holding him but killing him/her as well. I talked Gary out of it.

Awesome!  Now if we could only hear from someone on how the original magic-missile spell was used (with or without a to-hit roll?) the Mule’s curiosity would be satisfied.

For a bit.


Less is More

To amplify something from a comment Tavis made:

 it’s taken a lot of on-the-job training for me to understand the old texts for what they are, rather than the assumptions I bring to them. Without a lot of intentionally trying to stick just to what guys like Gygax, Arneson, Bledsaw, and Jaquays actually wrote, the way I would have winged it would (I think) have been very unsatisfying & have missed the essential concepts of old school as a method, rather than an ideology.

 As a player I have a feel of danger, pace, and range of possibility based on memorized portions of the Players Handbook, DMG, and Monster Manual.  I struggle with my AD&D-based assumptions in two ways. 

 First, it is hard not to apply out-of-game knowledge in a way that violates what our characters would know [1].  This is role-playing 101; it is always hard to be mindful of what you should and should not “know,” especially in the heat of the moment.

 Second, related to what Tavis says above, AD&D and OD&D differ in a lot of minute details which contribute to the old-school “method.”  Those details accumulate and create a wholly different environment, where assumptions based on the AD&D ruleset are not only wrong, but can hobble the OD&D feel.

 One fine example is the different way magic swords are treated.  AD&D swords are most often undistinguished artifacts, nice to have but not necessarily game-changing.  OD&D magic swords are all unique, each having at a minimum an alignment and intelligence, and 60% having at least one special power, making them a watershed magic item for any party.[2]

 Another example is spell descriptions.  The OD&D spells as written are generally less restricted and more open to interpretation.  As a result they can be situationally more or less powerful and I think contribute towards a looser game, more open to possibility.  Some examples:

  •  The fifth-level cleric spell Insect Plague in AD&D causes 1 hit point damage per round, remains fixed where it was cast, and lasts one turn per caster level.  The OD&D version does no damage and only works above ground, but can be directed anywhere the cleric wishes, and lasts a day.
  •  Hold person in OD&D works as a powerful charm person spell, allowing the caster to order about and make use of the 1-4 creatures affected.  In AD&D, hold person simply freezes victims in place, much less useful.
  •  Magic-missile in AD&D automatically hits.  In OD&D, there is no magic-missile spell until introduced in Supplement I, where the text describes a “conjured missile equivalent to a magic arrow, and it does full damage to any creature it strikes.”  Given no other context but the OD&D books and Greyhawk, it is reasonable to rule that the M-U has to make a to-hit roll for a magic-missile, drastically changing the nature of the spell.[3]

 The accumulative effect of all the minute changes in the game seems to be an expanded range of what can happen – a given spell, item, or encounter can more easily cause a dramatic change in the fortunes of the party.  This can be the case in AD&D too, of course, but the tighter descriptions and increased detail make it harder to play the looser, pulpier, sword and sorcery game that OD&D arguably was, and the accidental application of AD&D rules can undermine the more free-wheeling play of OD&D.

 [1] A recent example from our white box game: upon learning that the nameless patriarch is piling wooden sticks by a door, we immediately realize he is planning to cast sticks to snakes.  With the possible exception of the one cleric in the party, would we have known that?

 [2] And wands!  In OD&D many of the detection and utility wands do not have charges, they may be used perpetually!  For someone used to jealously guarding the charges in, say, a Wand of Enemy Detection, this can change the nature of how a dungeon is traversed.

 [3] Which is exactly what Dr. Holmes did, specifically calling on pg. 15 to “Roll the missile fire like a long bow arrow (Missile Fire Table).”  It may be the original (but unwritten) intent was for the magic-missile to be unerring, since it was so specified (corrected?) in Moldvay on pg. B16, “It will automatically hit any visible target,” and remained so in Gary’s Players Handbook version.  Of course it could also have been an evolution of the spell based on play – only someone who played with Gary in those early games would know for sure how he treated the spell originally.  If YOU did, please weigh in.  The Mule wants answers!


A picture is worth 1,000 exp

 Two graphs made using the information we collected from the first twelve sessions of the Lost City game. [1]

(I like to geek out with this sort of analysis, and it adds to my enjoyment of the game.  I know folks who see it as trying to dissect a butterfly to find the beautiful part.  Skip it if you wish.)

A couple thoughts on the first graph.[2]

The one-session column will always be large since there are people who play one session and do not return.  Other players like to play a new character each session.

The mortality bulge in the second/third sessions is largely due to probability.  The majority of characters in any one of these sessions have attended only 2-3 previous sessions; by the twelfth session the average character had attended 2.7 sessions.  (This is changing, the average “session age” of the group is rising, fast, and I expect mortality to drift upwards on the chart along with it.)

There were also learning curve issues: we lost a bunch of characters in the first few sessions as we learned.  Hard to tell if it was learning the particulars of this dungeon, or learning about the game in general. [3] 

Sternum also raised an excellent point:

When I roll up a fresh, level one character, I tend to play a lot more recklessly than when I’m playing a seasoned adventured because I have little to lose.  I went through three guys in Tavis’ game one evening because, for those few hours after a character is created, death wasn’t really much of a threat because an equivalent (or better) character would only cost me a minute or two of dice rolling.

This is especially powerful in white box, or any early D&D where random things like opening the wrong door can kill a low-level character.  Newly crafted characters are more likely to volunteer… [4]

I think we will have more deaths in the next few sessions as we move into more lethal areas (teleport traps, efritt, astral monsters, and the beast lord) without having gained new informational resources.  Wear your (low, soft) running shoes.

The second graph is easier to read: I see no linear relationship between sessions played and experienced gained.  The majority of experience comes from treasure (as it should!) and the amount of loot we get has been wildly variable.  Your best bet is to show up for as many games as possible and hope you attend one where we find a nice hoard.  White box advancement is just not a direct result of “putting your time in.”  It has more to do with adroitness, cooperation, and luck.

[1] A sandbox game based on the three original D&D books, with a few changes from the DM (e.g., carousing rules, use of full spell set from AD&D, a different way of approaching HPs).  Original data here:

[2] The crunchy part of me is obliged to point out that the data set here is too small to provide anything in way of statistical significance, but we will not let that stop us, will we?

[3] [Tavis, stop reading please] It would be interesting to have a total wipeout, resulting in a completely new party but with players who already know the game and the DM’s style; would we have as many deaths in the first few sessions of the new party? [/resume Tavis]

[4] To reinforce this, think about how excited everone was about Lydio’s special spider-sense ability during the last session.

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2021

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