Posts Tagged ‘experiment


Glorious Swinginess: Results from the DCC RPG/Castle Zagyg Experiment, part 1

Rules have emergent effects; those that don't fit an individual group's approach may not be used in play. (Cartoon for the DCC RPG by the Wizards of Ur.)

With Anonycon 2010 now just a happy memory, it’s time to review what I learned from the experiment of running the Castle Zagyg adventure using the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. This was interesting for me because:

  • I’m well versed in how this adventure plays out using other rulesets. Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works was written for Castles & Crusades; its unofficial completion Castle of the Mad Archmage was written with AD&D 1E in mind; and the other seven times Eric, Joe, and I have run this adventure at conventions & the playtests thereof, we’ve used Lamentations of the Flame Princess and house-ruled AD&D. I was curious to see how using different rules would change the experience.
  • In my previous experience with the DCC RPG (as a player at GaryCon and a DM at Fal-Con) we’ve played adventures written specifically for this system. I was interested to see how the feel of the game would carry over to a different scenario (Castle Greyhawk’s open-ended megadungeon vs. a Tomb of Horrors-style tournament-linear deathtrap).

I’ll start by addressing comments from readers of the original post. Scott asks:

Can I get some details that distinguish the DCC RPG?

Sure, but first some caveats! My experiences are based on a playtest version. Anything I talk about here may have changed by the time the game is released, and nothing I say should be taken as the official word; this is just my experience as a GM and playtester of the still-unfinished system.

The most striking distinguishing feature that I saw emerging from the rules was that the DCC RPG is designed to generate unpredictability. (In part 2 I’ll address Gregor’s comment and talk about some other features of the game that emerge from other, non-rule aspects of the system).

This is in marked contrast to the most recent edition of D&D, a stated design feature of which was a reduction in swinginess. Narrowing the range of variation in outcomes is useful for game designers concerned with balance, adventure writers concerned with being able to predict whether encounters will provide a level-appropriate challenge for a party of PCs, and DMs whose pre-planned campaign arcs make them concerned with things like ensuring the characters have enough resources left when they meet the Big Bad to make it a challenging fight, but not so many that it’s a cakewalk.

However, many old-schoolers have pointed out that this increased predictability runs contrary to the sandbox spirit, which celebrates playing to find out what happens (as the new-school indie game Apocalypse World has it). We don’t want the heroes’ inevitable-but-just-barely triumph over the BBEG to be prearranged. We embrace systems that give players plenty of tools (from spells and magic items to referee adjucation of a clever idea) that can end or avoid a potentially grueling fight with a single action. And when a string of unusually high or low dice rolls turn a seemingly-manageable encounter into a bloodbath, we consider this not a failure of game design but an opportunity to demonstrate player skill by running away.

Unpredictability is something most of us advocate without doing anything about it. I’ve stated my own preference for a high-granularity system offering players the occasional chance to be the one whose decisions shape the entire session, rather than giving them lots of little choices each with a narrowly delimited impact on the outcome of an encounter. But the guiding principle for my house rule for critical hits – roll damage twice and take the higher result – was to reduce swinginess by keeping the results within the range that’s possible from a normal hit. (My more recent addition to this rule – making a roll of 6 on either die “exploding” so that you roll again and add it to the total – grew out of the desire to allow crits to deal truly extraordinary damage from a crit.)

The DCC RPG puts its money where its mouth is. Although its mechanical core is derived from D&D 3E, the DCC RPG repudiates challenge ratings (that edition’s tools for making the outcome of an encounter more predictable), and offers more new ways for things to turn out in a completely unexpected way than any other retroclone or D&D variant I know.

For starters, extreme dice rolls have more of an impact. There are awesome critical hit charts, whose “foe’s torso explodes like a blood blueberry” style is worthy of being called Rolemaster-esque (although which chart you use interestingly depends on character class rather than weapon type). Strangely I’ve never seen these come up in play, even though the fifth-level warriors in the Anonycon playtest were capable of scoring a critical hit against a one hit die foe on an unmodified roll of 16-20. Critical fumbles played a major role at the Fal-Con playtest, causing the friendly-fire death of at least one PC, but didn’t pop up in either of my Anonycon runs.

The most important source of unpredictability at Anonycon came from the DCC RPG spell check mechanic, where you roll a d20 modified by caster level & ability score to determine the effects of the spell you just cast. A low roll might mean that the spell doesn’t have any effect; a high one can produce unexpectedly potent effects. Here’s an example from the second of the weekend’s playtest.

Rat King: grossest wandering monster EVAR

Eric’s party had just defeated some creepy net-dwelling creatures when a wandering monster check brought a tide of ordinary-sized rats, on the backs of which were born seven rat kings. (The Castle of the Mad Archmage‘s encounter table specified 2d6 giant rats; this interpretation of that result was indebted to the system-emergent aspects I’ll talk about in part 2, as well as to Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants which I picked up at the So Cal Mini Con III’s book swap. )

Rather than confront these what WAS that things, Eric’s wizard decided to get the party into the room they’d just cleared and use the ward portal spell to keep the rats out. This is a classic old-school moment of swinginess: an ability available only to one character has the potential to end a fight before it even starts. 4E sees this as anathema – among other reasons, because an adventure designed around the expectation that this character can seal a door becomes unpredictable again if that character’s player misses a session – and so it eliminates the problem, first by making rituals like hold portal available to everyone who invests a feat and second by requiring them to take so long to cast that they can’t be used in a fight-or-flight situation. (Notably, folks interested in making 4E play more like 1E have reduced the casting time of rituals to a standard action).

“OK,” I said, “you have enough time to get inside the room and cast before the rats are upon you.”  Which is awesome; I love when players have choices that can radically alter a situation. And then the rules of the DCC RPG upped the stakes by tantalizing the wizard with the possibility of safe haven, but making it subject to the whims of fate:  “Roll your spell casting check and let’s see what happens.” Drama hanging on the outcome of a dice – this is why I play RPGs!

Eric rolled a 15: Portal completely disappears for 2d6 x 10 days, leaving in its place only a blank space of wall. During this time no passage is possible via normal means.

Whoa! I’d been excited by the way the rules would adjucate a simple but dramatic yes/no. This result of the spell check mechanic turned it into the improv principle’s yes, but… now you’re sealed into a room with no visible exit for weeks on end!

Everything that happened from that point on was hugely enjoyable for me as a GM because, just like a player, I was exploring the unknown; Eric and I were collaboratively working out the consequences of an imagined situation with no idea how it was going to turn out.

“Can the party tunnel out of here?”

“Well, it looks like the wall between the room and the passageway is just a few feet deep here,  let’s think about the tools you have – hammer, spikes, steel weapons – yeah you can chip away the masonry and slide out some of the stone blocks, but it’s going to take days. Did you bring rations?”

“Yeah, remember when I said I was shopping before I left town, we have a week apiece. Hey, wait, I have a spell that might help out here, contact patron. I’ll cast that before we get started.”

“OK, give me a spell check,” I said, rubbing my hands with glee. I’ll talk about what ensued as a result in part 2 of this playtest report, where we talk about color and non-rule aspects of the system that influence play.


Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG & Castle Zagyg at Anonycon

This weekend at Anonycon I will be playtesting the forthcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game as part of an interesting experiment in which Eric G. and I will put the Forge axiom “system does matter” to the test. (That’s Eric the White Sandbox player of Bartholomew Honeydew, not any of the other Erics that New York Red Box has been fortunate enough to accumulate in numbers large enough to be confusing; let’s not be thrown off the scent by Mr. Honeydew’s many in-character aliases.)

The plan is that Eric and I will both do runs of Gary Gygax and Jeff Talanian’s Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, leading into Joe Bloch’s Castle of the Mad Archmage.  We’ll do the same things that were so much fun when Joethelawyer and I ran it at Fal-Con:

  • a convention-long competition to see who can reach the deepest level and escape with the most treasure
  • a persistent world in which each session’s adventure changes things for the next party, and players can return to play the same character in a later run
  • player-created magic items whose effects are unpredictable and descriptive instead of mechanical
  • the likelihood of horrible PC deaths as parties bite off more of the castle and dungeon’s enormous environs than they can chew
  • and, if we have enough players, dividing players into two separate parties which are exploring the ruins at the same time and may clash with one another, as so memorably happened at the end of the first Fal-Con run.

The thing we’ll be doing differently this time is that Eric will be running Zagyg using his own AD&D house rules, while my runs will be using the playtest rules for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. The differences between one edition of D&D and another are endlessly rehashed, and the DCC RPG has a number of unique twists that I’m quite excited about. But what effect do these rules variations really have on play? I think it’ll be fascinating to get some data on this question by trying two different systems in the same mega-dungeon environment over the course of a single convention weekend.

Courtesy of Wizards of Ur, this is one of the cartoons that will illustrate the DCC RPG rules, inspired by those in the AD&D DMG

The big uncontrolled variable, of course, is that Eric and I are different DMs each with our own styles, and we’ll have different groups of players each of whom has their own approach. I’m pretty sure that these differences in what each person brings to the the table always has a bigger effect on the experience of playing a roleplaying game than differences in the system they’re using; in fact I think a lot of what seem like important differences between this RPG and that one are actually second-order effects, caused mainly by the fact that different groups of players are attracted by aspects of each RPG (which might include rules and mechanics but are equally likely to include the game’s artwork, its image among gamers, the ways it’s marketed, the environment in which it’s usually played, etc.)

However, I think that the tournament format may funnel everyone into a common set of goals and approaches; certainly Eric and I have spent some time talking about standardizing our procedures & playing in one another’s games, and at Fal-Con the goal of getting deeper and finding treasure did prove effective in focusing the kind of play that arose out of the enormous Zagyg/Archmage sandbox.

Since much of this post is promising stuff that’ll happen this weekend – and appearing too late for most of y’all to decide “hey I want to go to Stamford this weekend and play games” (although you totally should, since Anonycon = awesome), I’ll end with some places you can read more about the DCC RPG:

Joe Goodman running the DCC RPG at the So Cal Mini Con III, courtesy of Cyclopeatron

Jeff’s Gameblog with images and notes

Cyclopeatron with a playtest report & interview at a Dead Gamers’ Society meetup

Beyond the Black Gate with a playtest report of a session run by Rob Conley

Bat in the Attic with a three-part report of that session from Rob’s perspective

One thing that’s worth noting about all of the above is that they’re discussing adventures written specifically for the DCC RPG, which in my experience so far have tended to be more or less linearly structured tournament-style adventures that have been fun because of their atmosphere and hideous death toll, in the mold of Tomb of Horrors/Tower of Gygax. I will be very interested to see how the system handles a mega-dungeon sandbox experience that’s more in line with the way my regular group plays; I expect that it’s going to be awesome, and think some of the unique things about the DCC RPG rules will stand out better against a more plain basic-D&D background. Cue discussion of where the adventures published for a system fall into the “system does matter” equation!


super awesome lets pretend time (pt 2)

I managed to clear my schedule this week to help Tavis with his after-school D&D program.  I guess this is Week 4?  (I probably shouldn’t call this Part 2, since it’s the fourth week, but hey.)

My job was to help one of this week’s Dungeon Masters with her prep, and to help her batch of kids stay focused.  Five things were noteworthy:

1.  Our first sandbox!

Although Tavis had observed several railroad adventures in Weeks 2 and 3, this time around we had our first sandbox dungeon.  “My” Dungeon Master RaQuel, with help from her dad, obtained one of those poster-sized battle maps used in 4e: a small town adjoining the ruins of a castle.  The Dungeon Master had prepared a little encounter in each building, which could be explored in any order.  The encounters were plausible, interesting, and (weakly) interconnected.  It was delightful to see.  (I think Tavis said her dad used to be a gamer, and she admitted he helped her a little; I’m curious how involved he was with the design.  But regardless, it was very well done.)

2.   Our first GMPC.

“Okay . . . So, this fire goblin jumps on your head!  He is eating your brain!”

“Ha ha ha, my brain…. my brain . . . . it’s so big, it’ll be a big meal!”

“Okay, so when the fire goblin is eating your brain, he becomes good.  He’s a good guy now.  He is your slave because of your brain.  He is like, ‘Yes master!’ because your brain is so strong.”

(a round later)

“The fire goblin turns into a boulder.  [Places wad of tinfoil on the map.]  It’s a boulder made of tinfoil.  With eyes in it.  And the tinfoil is like really good armor.”

(a round later)

“Okay, you could run to the tower, but the Fire Tinfoil Goblin says, ‘Master, jump on me, I’ll roll there, I’m faster.’  Okay, so do you jump on him to roll there?”

(a round later)

“The prisoner won’t leave without his parakeet, but the parakeet wants food.  There’s a peanut in the tinfoil goblin!  It says, ‘Master, I have the food.  If you want it.’  Do you want it?”

3.  You Will Never Guess What Victor Did!!

The Dungeon Master wrote on the map “Adohna’s Chest!”  But then Victor wrote down “MAdonhna’s Chest” and we opened it!  Hee hee hee!

(This was, to the 8 year old boys, indescribably hilarious.  They hero-worship the 12-year-old boys like Victor.)

4.  Elementary School Teachers are Vastly Under-Appreciated

Spending 80 minutes supervising 5 little kids and getting them to focus on something is hard work.  Oh man.  One kid was literally bouncing off the walls, doing flips over the sofa, doing weird postures that would break his neck if any other rambunctious child bumped into him.  (As a lawyer, I look at this child and see FUTURE PERSONAL INJURY PLAINTIFF written on his forehead.)

I don’t know how teachers handle 30 of these little dudes.  I leave the classroom and want a belt of rum just to steady my nerves.

5.  These Kids Like D&D

Leaving the session, I asked Joan (one of the other Dungeon Masters), “So, hey, is this stuff fun?”  And Joan responded, “Yes!  It’s my favorite game, even more than chess!”  Which made me feel really happy.


Red Box Armory: Bolas

Git along little birdies!

Bolas are an exotic weapon from faraway lands. They consist of a cord or chain with weights at the ends, meant to wrap around a target’s legs to entangle them.

When attacking, treat bolas as a thrown weapon with the same range increments as flaming oil or holy water. A successful hit inflicts no damage but binds the target’s legs together. An entangled target can only move 3’/round and must save vs. paralysis each round or fall prone. Removing the bolas takes a full round of action and requires at least one free hand. (If a character is in no position to unwrap the bolas manually, he may attempt to snap the cord or chain with an Open Doors check.)

As a rule, only classes that can use all weapons, such as fighters, halflings, dwarves and thieves, may use bolas, and even then they require some training in their use.


super awesome lets pretend time (pt 1)

This afternoon Tavis and I played a home-brewed version of D&D with ten 8 year old children at an afterschool program in Manhattan.  Let me front-load with the cute stuff:

  • Two of my five players were girls.  One of them, Joan, ended by saying, “That was AWESOME.  That was, by far, the best game I have EVER played.”  We loaned her a copy of the new 4e Starter Set to read this week – God knows what she’ll make of it.  So at the end of the session, a copy of D&D ended in the hands of an enthusiastic new (and female) player, which is what this is all about.  I am awesome (Tavis is more awesome, but gets second billing on this).
  • Joan initially was disappointed that there were no “normal girl” miniatures, but at the end of the session said, “I wish I could keep this, I LOVE her” in regard to her black-leather-clad dual-wielding female Doomguard.
  • “Okay, as you’re travelling along the old bridge road, you see a strange little lizard man, about 3 feet high.  He is astride a giant weasel, and looks to be having a nap in the saddle.  What do you do?”  “Kill it!  “Um, kill it.”  “Ooh, ooh, I attack it and then kill it!”  “Let’s just kill it!”  “Okay . . . Roger, what do you want to do?”  “I guess . . . I chop off its head, and then kill it.”
  • In the process of killing it: “I chop out its eyes!”  “Whoa cool!!  It can’t see!!”  “Nice one!”  “Yesssss!”  (twenty minutes later) “In the dungeon, you find Sir Justin.  The monsters have chopped out his eyes, leaving him blind.”  “That’s horrible!!”
  • All of these kids were 8 years old.  They showed strong ability to do D&D-type reasoning: “It sounds like this route is very direct, but dangerous.  Let’s try an indirect route and get there a different way. . . . Let’s stick together so the monsters don’t get us . . . This key probably unlocks a dungeon cell, let’s take it along with us. . . . This monster invited us to dinner: it must mean he’s planning to eat us!”  So all of these signals from the DM are immediately understood correctly.  I delivered these signals in a slightly exaggerated fashion, but the children had no problems understanding the big idea and how stuff fit together entirely on their own.
  • RaQuel said, “My second sword is also a cell phone.”

The idea is that we’d get a whole bunch of kids at the elementary school to role-play, using the Dungeons & Dragons brand as a bait-and-switch.  The idea would be to teach newcomers that these types of games exist, and Dungeons & Dragons is a fun thing to do.  And for kids who are already D&D players (there are a few in this bunch), we’d show them how to do things in a more Old Skool kind of way–which is to say, just imagining stuff and having fun, without worrying about “builds,” rules, feats, and other stand-ins for status-mongering.

Some of these kids are new.  Several of them that I was playing with had no prior role-playing experience, and were very frightened and worried about trying something totally brand new.  So I did a lot of work reassuring them that, “This is a game that is fun.  It helps you imagine.”  We would play as a team (“Yes!!  I’m so glad we don’t have to compete!”) and while unexpected things might happen, you’re never out of the game.

Tavis home-brewed some super-simplified version of 4e which was still too complicated for me to understand, much less teach.  My bunch played pretty fast and loose: roll + stat bonus = hope for the best.  Basically, my version of it was a D&D 4e Skill Check type system, just without skills, and 5 kids managed to accomplish 5 encounters (with 2 combats) in just over 40 minutes.

Maybe some day soon I will post up the little adventure I drafted, if I can figure out how to do it.


Blood and Guts: A Red Box Death & Dismemberment Table

Several of my fellow OSR bloggers have designed injury tables that provide a range of possible results for when a PC drops to zero hit points. (Some examples are Robert Fisher’s, Trollsmyth’s and Norman Harman’s.

I like the idea in principle; it allows for non-lethal effects that keep beloved PCs alive, while simulating some of the ugly consequences to combat that can be found both in real life and in sword & sorcery fiction. But the versions I’ve seen include a number of ineffectual results where the target is unharmed, stunned for 1 round, gains bonus hit points from adrenaline, etc. That’s too forgiving for my taste! The PC is already in trouble; the table should indicate how much trouble results. So I’ve written my own table.

When a PC (or an important NPC, at the DM’s discretion) drops below 1 hit point, roll 1d8 and consult the following table. Reduce the die size to 1d6 or even 1d4 for relatively weak attacks, or increase to 1d10, 1d12 or even 1d20 for especially powerful, destructive attacks. When using a curative spell to deal with an injury from the table, the spell provides no other benefit; no hit points are regained.

Roll Result
1 Scarring: -1 to Charisma; drops to -2 with three scars, -3 with six scars, -4 with ten scars, etc
2 Broken bone (DM chooses or roll randomly): broken ribs/collarbone/etc give -2 to attack rolls, broken arm/leg gives penalties as per severed limb; heals in 3d4 weeks or with cure serious wounds; if attack is cutting/piercing and target is unarmored, use arterial bleeding instead
3 Arterial bleeding: die of blood loss in 3d6 rounds, preventable with cauterization (1d6 damage and scarring) or any healing spell; if attack is bludgeoning, use broken bone instead
4 Disabled part (DM chooses or roll randomly): Missing eye gives -1 to attack rolls, mangled/missing fingers give -2 to attack rolls using that hand, ruined larynx/shattered jaw impairs speech and prevents spellcasting; -1 to Charisma; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
5 Slow death (gutted, massive internal injuries, spine shattered, etc.): incapacitated, die in 1d6 days; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
6 Mortal wound (heart pierced, throat cut, neck broken, etc.): incapacitated, die in 1d6 rounds; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
7 Limb severed (DM chooses or roll randomly): die of blood loss in 1d6 rounds, preventable with tourniquet, cauterization (1d6 damage) or any curative spell cast; -1 to Charisma; missing arm can’t be used for weapon/shield, missing leg halves movement rate; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
8+ Instant death (decapitated, skull crushed, torn to shreds, etc.)

Have you used an injury table, whether a full-on death and dismemberment table or a broader critical hit table? If so, how has it worked for your game? What recommendations would you make for others who’d try that approach?


make mine Marvel!

Poor Captain Marvel. The years have not been kind.

It’s been a while since I ran a game, and since the New York Red Box crew is well-saturated with fantasy at this point (Tavis’s OD&D campaign, Eric’s B/X campaign, and Adrian’s Rune Quest II arc), I figured I’d run a few sessions of Marvel Super Heroes.

I have a long, frustrating non-history with this game.  I’d bought it in 1985 – my second RPG after Mentzer Basic D&D – an fell in love with it, but none of my friends were comic fans, so it stayed unplayed, in time joined by its brother the Advanced Set.  Aside from a brief two-hour session a year ago, I never had any exposure to it in practice.

So, I’m organizing a handful of sessions for some people I don’t get to game with very often, applying a mixture of old and new school approaches.

The old school approach I’m going for here is a classic sandbox.  Marvel Super Heroes was released after the Golden Age, as Grognardia observed, and the standard adventures published as part of the line were of the worst railroady sort.  But the Marvel Universe is basically a sandbox waiting to happen, as it’s nothing more than a map with beloved locations (Daily Bugle, Gamma Base, City of Toads, Blue Area of the Moon, the Dark Dimension) populated by NPC’s and monsters (J. Jonah Jameson, the Hulkbusters, Deviants, the Watcher, Mindless Ones).  Rather than come up with an overarching plot, there will be a handful of threads and the sessions will go wherever the players lead me.

The new school approach will probably be Beliefs, Instincts and Traits, stolen from Burning Wheel.

  • Beliefs are brief statements about how your character views the world and his or her place in it; they should, ideally, be drafted to apply to the current situation.  Beliefs help the player figure out the character’s general goals, but also give the GM a target, a way to catch the character off-balance or address challenges that are relevant.  “With great power comes great responsibility!”  “Anyone can be a hero – the secret is to never give up!”  “Puny humans never leave Hulk alone!”  “I’m the best there is at what I do…”
  • Instincts are habits, reflexes, or schticks that the character can always be counted to employ.  This helps the player resist GM force, but also helps the GM create situations to show off (or problematize) those habits.  “Always keep my ruby-quartz visor on,” “Invoke the hoary hosts of Hoggoth when surprised,” and “When talking to people, boast about how great the Sub-Mariner is–Imperius Rex!” are instincts.
  • Traits are general comments about a character’s personality.  They’re mainly there so that the group has a baseline for awarding points for good play.

We’ll see how it goes.  At the very least, I’ll be able to cross a game off my list after 25 years of wistful speculation.


pillaging by the numbers pt 2

Following up on Part I of the discussion, here’s a draft Mean Profit per Challenge Rating chart for the Moldvay Basic rules, showing gold per hit-die in a lair.  As a player, I want to know who to kill and what stuff I should take.

Avoiding any monsters which can murder you just by thinking about it, the juiciest targets are Dwarves (by a huge margin!), Troglodytes, Gnolls, and Hobgoblins.

Explanatory notes are at the very bottom of this post.  Expert Set monsters are a little harder to gauge, so I’ll do them later.

dragon white 6 12 2.5 0 30 H 50000 1666.67
dragon black 7 14 2.5 0 35 H 50000 1428.57
dragon green 8 16 2.5 0 40 H 50000 1250
dragon blue 9 18 2.5 0 45 H 50000 1111.11
dragon red 10 20 2.5 0 50 H 50000 1000
dragon gold 11 22 2.5 0 55 H 50000 909.09
dwarf 1 1 22.5 5.5 28 G 25000 892.86
troglodyte 2 3 22.5
67.5 A 17000 251.85
medusa 4 8 2.5
20 F 5000 250
shadow 2 4 6.5
26 F 5000 192.31
gnoll 2 2 10.5
21 D 4000 190.48
bandit 1 1 82.5 9 91.5 A 17000 185.79
hobgoblin 1 1 14 15 29 D 4000 137.93
giant rat 0.5 0.5 16.5
8.25 C 1000 121.21
Doppelganger 4 6 3.5
21 E 2500 119.05
carrion crawler 3 5 2
10 C 1000 100
orc 1 1 35 5 40 D 4000 100
lizard man 2 2 21
42 D 4000 95.24
wight 3 5 4.5
22.5 B 2000 88.89
owl bear 5 5 2.5
12.5 C 1000 80
ghoul 2 3 9
27 B 2000 74.07
rat 0.13 0.13 27.5
3.44 L 250 72.73
ogre 4 4 7
28 C+ 2000 71.43
elf 1 2 13 9 35 E 2500 71.43
halfling 2 2 12.5 4.5 29.5 B 2000 67.8
Were-tiger 5 8 2.5
20 C 1000 50
Were-bear 6 9 2.5
22.5 C 1000 44.44
harpy 3 5 5
25 C 1000 40
minotaur 6 6 4.5
27 C 1000 37.04
gargoyle 4 6 5
30 C 1000 33.33
thoul 3 6 5.5
33 C 1000 30.3
Were-boar 4 7 5
35 C 1000 28.57
bugbear 3 3 12.5
37.5 C 1000 26.67
gnome 1 1 22.5 15 37.5 C 1000 26.67
Were-wolf 4 6 7
42 C 1000 23.81
Were-rat 3 5 9
45 C 1000 22.22
goblin 1 1 33 17 50 C 1000 20
driver ant 4 6 14
84 (N/A) 1650 19.64
berserker 1 1.5 82.5
123.75 B 2000 16.16
neanderthal 2 2 25 12 62 C 1000 16.13
stirge 1 2 19.5
39 L 250 6.41
kobold 0.5 0.5 33 5.5 22 J 25 1.14

Couple observations:

  • Holy moly, Dwarves.  They really, really said bad things about your momma. Let’s get ’em.
  • Also: Giant Rats. Who knew?
  • Bandits have good treasure, but it’s only found in the wilderness, so the mean Number Appearing shoots sky high. They’re still pretty good targets though.  Leaders is an estimate only.
  • For similar reasons, Berserkers are a huge headache. According to the Mentzer challenge calculations, Berserkers have the most dangerous lair of all. Which probably points to the weakness of Mentzer’s approach, but hell: everyone feared the Reavers, now we know why.
  • The Halfling monster entry seems to suggest that most of the people in their village are non-combatants, so I’m only looking at the 2 HD militia members and their leader.
  • For the most part, the Treasure Tables as-written are for chumps.  If you want to get ahead in this game, the DM or the module has to hand you heaping spoonfuls of gold.

Explanatory notes:

  • Everything here is the mean average.
  • “Modified Hit Dice” reflects the Mentzer method described in this post.
  • “Number” is Number Appearing.
  • “Leaders” reflects any Hit Dice of leaders listed in the monster description.
  • “Lair Toughness” reflects (Number Appearing * Modified Hit Dice) + Leaders.
  • “Profitability” is the mean Treasure value divided by Lair Toughness
  • In Moldvay, wilderness lairs have five times the Number Appearing.
  • Your Dungeon Master’s mileage may vary.

the challenge of challenge ratings?

I must be a higher-level blogger than you to be using these rules

May 11, 2010: James finds Masters Set useful for first time in 25 years

In trying to figure out the most profitable monsters to raid, I got the bright idea to index the mean treasure values against the expected “difficulty” of the raid.  I made a stab at doing this, and have bogged down.  How do you determine how tough a bunch of monsters are?

Obviously this will depend hugely on the Dungeon Master, there aren’t really any rules in Dungeons & Dragons, there’s no such thing as an average party, etc. etc.  But from a player’s point of view, sizing up your opponents is a problem of immediate application, especially in a West Marches style game where players can zip all over the landscape looking for (or hoping to avoid) certain enemies.

Aside from the de rigeur objections, there’s a ton of data about how hard monsters are to fight, at least in comparison to each other.  We’ve got zillions of pages about various monsters, their hit dice and number appearing, their likely combat tactics, their special abilities and special defenses, and in some cases the conditions of their lairs.

My initial thought was to multiply average hit dice per average number appearing.  It’s simple and sensible enough for “normal” monsters, and even kind of informative.  For example, it suggests that a decent-sized lair of Orcs (35 @ 1 HD, plus about 5 HD of leaders; average gold per hit-dice of 100 gp) is considerably more trouble than a typical lair of Ogres (7 @ 4 HD; average gold per hit-dice of 71 gp), but more profitable too.*

Obviously the trouble would be how to account for special abilities.  A Dragon Turtle (1 @ 30 HD) in its lair is certainly far tougher than a gang of Neanderthals (25 @ 2 HD, plus some leaders) in theirs.

I’m tempted to use XP values (conveniently listed for each monster in Mentzer BECMI) as a measure of toughness, which is somewhat better but still less than ideal as there are all kinds of weird results in Mentzer.  For example, a 10 HD Red Dragon (AC -1, fire breath, three melee attacks, spells, flight) is worth 2300 XP, the same as a 13 HD Cyclops (AC 5, throw rocks, one melee attack, no depth perception).

Mentzer adopts a more convoluted approach in the Master Dungeon Master Guide, page 9, which I’ll simplify somewhat – feel free to seek out the source for fiddly details:

  1. Total up all the levels in the party.
  2. Total up all the monsters’ hit-dice. For each asterisk, add half the hit-dice.  So a Red Dragon (10 HD**) would be worth 20 points.
  3. Compare the total levels. If the monsters’ total comes to less than 30% of the players’, then the encounter’s a distraction which mainly bleeds a few resources.  If the monsters’ total is about 50% of the players’ levels, then the encounter is a decent fight.  If it’s 70% of the players’ levels, then the encounter will be quite challenging, requiring good play and some luck to overcome.  Up to 90% and it’s probably a climactic encounter which might skrag a character or two.  Much higher than that, the encounter may prove totally overwhelming.

For reference to any Red Boxers reading this, the Grey Company in Tavis’s White Sandbox game typically fields at least eight PC’s, probably average level 4.  This implies that we should be able to defeat that Red Dragon if we’re sharp.   I have my doubts about that, but we should be able to kick a lone Cyclops’s ass without much trouble, and that sounds right to me.

I’ll fiddle with the numbers and see if anything ends up making an acceptable amount of sense.

Anyway, in the meantime: what’s the best way to determine how hard a fight should be?

* I’m tempted to rate all profitability in “Orc-loads,” referring to the approximately 100 gp per lair-hit-die as a standard unit of measurement.  A single Kobold is 0.0114 Orc-loads.


Friction and Wandering Monsters: Sandbox Dungeon Master’s Toolkit

Entering a dungeon in a miniskirt generates many friction points.

I’m working on a modular sub-level for the upcoming issue of Fight On! dedicated to Paul Jaquays, and wanted to share a mechanic for tying wandering monsters to friction points.

The idea of friction points is to provide a gameable system for dynamically tracking the dungeon denizens’ level of awareness that there are adventurers at large. Things that draw attention, like screaming girlishly at the unexpected appearance of an ugly club-wielding humanoid, earn friction points. Measures taken to defuse the situation, like creating an illusion of a dungeon boss announcing “False alarm, nothing to see here,” can reduce the party’s accumulated friction point total.

The easiest way to tie this to wandering monster checks is for friction point totals to increase the likelihood of an encounter. For example, you could say that as long as the PCs have accumulated less than 10 friction points, wandering monsters appear at the normal 1 in 6 chance.  This increases to 2 in 6 at 10-19 friction points, 3 in 6 at 20-29, etc.

The system I’m experimenting with is to also change the die type rolled to see what exactly appears when the wandering monster chance comes up. When the dungeon complex is relatively undisturbed, you roll a 1d4; when all hell is breaking loose, you roll a d12.

Friction Points Likelihood Die Type for Table
0-5 1 in 6 d4
6-10 1 in 6 d6
11-15 2 in 6 d8
16+ 2 in 6 d12

This works with a specially designed wandering monster table. The actual table would have 12 entries, arranged according to the ranges below:

Roll Encounter Type
1 – 4 Normal wandering monsters
5, 6 Patrols investigating disturbance
7, 8 Armed response teams
9 – 12 Reinforcements called in

What I like about this framework is that even when friction points are high, a low roll on any dice type always leaves open the possibility that the random encounter will just be whatever normal vermin might come by any time, unaware that they’re wandering into a dungeon complex that’s at a Code Brown level of full alert. At the same time, the higher results possible as the dice type increases open up ranges of monsters that will only appear when friction points are high. These could be powerful denizens that normally stay in their lairs but are drawn out by reports of trouble, creatures summoned to deal with the threat, opportunists from other dungeon areas hoping to profit from the chaos, etc.

Another way to look at the table above is to say that when friction point levels are minimal, there’s a 100% chance that monsters encountered won’t be specifically looking for to the party as the source of a disturbance. This chance decreases to 66% at low levels, 50% at moderate friction levels, and 33% when levels are high. Altering the dice type steps – for example, using a d3 as the normal encounter dice, and a d20 as the high-alert dice – could further tweak these probabilities.

Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2020

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