Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Failing to be Critical? Part 2.

After my lambasting of the idea of 'punishing a 1 in combat', I guess its time to take a look a system that I believed handled fumbles and similar critical failures in a much better way.  Not perfect by any means, simply better.  And that was MERP.

MERP was 'Rolemaster-lite', set in Middle Earth.  It used d100 rolls as its base mechanic, with tables.  Lots of tables.  Some might say too many tables.  And yes, it was a simplified form of the Rolemaster game system which use, you've guessed it, even more tables!  Where most homebrewed fumble systems in d20 systems rely on a flat 5% chance of failure - a 1 on a d20 - the use of d100 immediately allows for greater variability, but more of that after I explain the base MERP combat mechanics.

All combatants have 4 key combat stats:
OB - offensive bonus
DB - defensive bonus
Weapon Type - 1 handed, bludgeoning, missile etc
AT - Armour Type

An attack is resolved thus:
d100 roll + OB of attacker + situational modifiers - defender's DB.  The result is then cross referenced on the relevant armour column of the table corresponding to the weapon type being used.

OB tends to improve as an individual gains levels, with fighter types improving quickly. DB is dependent largely on the defender's agility stat and whether or not they are using a shield, and is thus usually fairly static.

This is an example of one of the tables used, notice how it is easier to score damage against armoured foes (a total of 46 needed to do 1 point of damage against a defender wearing plate), but how the critical hits (letters A to E) kick in much sooner against lighter armour, and quickly become more severe (E being the nastiest):

The net effect is that an attacker with a high OB has a much higher chance of causing a critical hit than one with a lower OB.  Warrior types typically have higher OBs than other classes, meaning they are much more effective in combat, and this increases markedly as higher levels are reached.

But what about the fumbles?  See that 'UM' on the table above - that is short for 'unmodified'.  So a natural 01 to 08 on the roll *could* be a fumble.  Now look at the weapons table, or at least part of it:

Each weapon has a 'fumble range' - thus a wielder of a Broadsword has a 3% chance of fumbling, a Dagger just 1%, and a Morning Star a whopping 8%.  The chance of a fumble therefore depends solely on the combatant's choice of weapon - an unmodified roll of 01-08.  Look also at the other modifiers.  A Dagger gives -15 OB, and cannot cause anything more than a C critical.  A Morning Star gives +10 OB, and is capable of dealing 2 critical effects with a single hit.

This give the players choice - you pays your money, you takes your chances.

One key point to also note is than in MERP greater combat skill does not directly give you extra attacks, thus the idiocy of better fighters = more attacks = more fumbles is also avoided.  Instead, as they get better at fighting they hit more often (better OB), do more damage (better OB!) and inflict more critical hits (better OB!!!).

This is all good then?  Well, erm, MERP did have a problem.  Your OB with a Shortsword is +62, the enemy wears Chain armour (-10OB for shortswords), uses a Shield for +25DB.  You've moved 15' (-10OB) to attack on the enemy's flank (+15OB).    You roll 42.  Now total it up and look at the table - quickly, so as not to slow the game down.

To help you it's 74, resulting in 4 damage with no critical.

So the maths involved hurts the brain, especially 4 hours into a gaming session!  But what of the fumbles?  Isn't this meant to be about fumbles?  Ok, here's one of the tables:

Firstly take note of the extra modifier - simpler weapons have less severe critical effects - thankfully for Morning Star fans it is a 1H Concussion weapon!  Then look at the effects - lots of stuns, some breakage, some comedy, more maths (!!), and very few involving hindering your allies.  The effects often require added bookkeeping, so this is hard work for a beleaguered DM, who is likely to already be snowed under by keeping tracks of the ongoing effects of critical hits  - lots of stuns and bleeds there too.  I've only posted a snapshot of the tables - there are failure tables for manoeuvres, spells, and missile weapons too, along with attack tables for different weapon types, spells, different types of critical hit, etc etc etc.... so well, you get the idea.

It's patently obvious why the overall critical hit/fumble system works, it doesn't penalise warrior types, the effects are varied, and choice of weapon is vital.  The use of d100 allows for this level of detail, much moreso than a simple d20.  But it all comes at a cost - the DM needs a calculator, a degree in accountancy, and a ready supply of headache tablets.

It's a ball-ache, but it's better than the crap that people seem to take delight in cooking up for the various versions of D&D.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Failing to be Critical?

Barely a day goes by on online RPG discussion forums, Facebook, and other such avenues for people to spout drivel without someone, somewhere asking about how other DMs 'punish critical 1s' in combat.  This is often accompanied by a flurry of 'haha, weapon breaks, stab friend, fall over, etc etc', until someone sensible steps in, and calmly tells them..... "They don't."

A voice of reason, a rare delight on the internet.

Sadly this modicum of good sense then tends to be drowned out by a return of the vicious little kids screeching about 'crit fails being 'fun'', etc...

This is a perfect example of the problem with democracy, you see, 'punishing' a roll of 1, something that happens on 5% of rolls, something no player can do anything about, is just plain illogical.  The supporters of the concept most likely do not properly understand the impact, have not thought about it, or don't care.  But the cacophony of loud voices, and the effect of the pack, tend to overpower the thread of conversation, which carries the risk of the person asking the question being led to believe that Fumble rules are normal, even to be expected.  They are not, and there are good reasons why the vast majority of game designers avoid putting them in their Core rules.

Without going into anything deeper than very basic probability, here's why.

In every d20 system I've ever played, one of the benefits of gaining levels is getting better at what you do - be it casting spells, picking pockets, turning undead - or fighting.  Fighters fight, to get better they have to improve their fighting skills, and that usually means they get to attack more often.

More attacks = more chances to roll 1 = more opportunities to fumble.

Thus by getting better at fighting, they are also getting better at fucking up.

Now the predictable reply you often see to this is "But they get twice as many chances to roll a 20, so that cancels it out!"


It doesn't.

Typically, most fumble tables employed by DMs have entries such as 'Fall over, miss a turn', 'Weapon breaks', 'Confused - penalty on next attack', 'Drop weapon, need to spend a round picking it up.'... Thus causing the Fighter to forego one or more attacks, because they dared to roll a 1.  And by foregoing these attacks they are suffering by MORE than a corresponding 20 would benefit them - especially as most DMs just go by "20 is double damage", which is nothing compared to the drawbacks of the 1.

And thus, as the Fighter gets better, they get more attacks, and the problem spirals yet further.

"But but It's the same for the monsters... they fumble as well!" - this argument for fumbles is even worse.  Stop, and think - an adventure is typically spread over several encounters, sometimes dozens.  With the exception of boss-type monsters, how many encounters will each typical monster take part in?  1, maybe 2 if they run away.  But the PCs?  All of them.

So if Goblin #3 breaks his bow during encounter #1, what impact does that have on the rest of the adventure?  None.  But if Haraldar the Huge blunts his axe on a big rock during encounter #1, what impact does that have?

I rest my case, it's a shit argument made by morons.

"Waaaaa, but but but, they're funny/fun"  (*delete as applicable).  Here I concede they can be, in the short term, once or twice, depending on the situation.  But the 3rd, 4th, 5th time?  Even the best DM starts to run short of original ways to say 'The Fighter looks like a twat and stabs his own toe".

Some systems have attempted to address the Fighter handicap through 'confirmation rolls' - a 2nd roll to confirm a critical hit or fail,and yes, this goes some way to alleviate the issue, but at at significant cost to game flow.  Because yes, extra dice rolls, extra maths, consulting more tables all SLOW the game down.  I play 1e/2e/5e and ignore 3e/4e for a variety of reasons, the main one though, game speed and simplicity.  Combat is meant to be faster in these versions... and if you're playing 3e/4e you probably don't care anywhere, as those versions appeal to numbers-obsessed power gaming types - 1 extra roll isn't going to have much impact on the already ball-achingly slow combat mechanics.

Back in the days of Dragon magazine, 1E types tried to address the crits/fumbles issue with an article entitled "Good Hits and Bad Misses" - it can be found in Best of Dragon Volume V, from May 1986.  Contributors to 1E forums often cite this article as a good solution.  Get real.   I'm not sure why this was in a 'best of' anything.  Essentially it based a chance of a crit or fumble on the different between the modified attack roll and the number required to hit.  So fighting an armoured but sluggish knight with AC2, will result in more fumbles than would fighting a highly dextrous Thief with AC5?  Plus the age old problem remained - more d20s rolled in combat meant more fumbles - thus getting better at fighting still gave you more chances to make a fool of yourself, or decapitate the party Wizard.

So what should you do with 1s?  Use them to inspire flavour, and create memorable comic moments if something immediately comes to mind - don't worry if it doesn't, we all get moments of mind blank.  If so, the attack fails, move on - nobody will curse you for it.  A little spontaneity can often create a running joke that people will look back on fondly for years.  AND THAT SHOULD BE THE LIMIT OF THE EFFECTS OF THE "1". Flavour text, nothing more.

Don't add mechanical 'punishments', because if you do, you don't understand basic d20 game mechanics and probability... and if you don't understand that, or don't consider it important, you probably should not be DMing.

Some games managed to do crits and fumbles well, but that's for another day...

Monday, 28 May 2018

Aligning with Alignment

Is there a single topic in gaming that generates more discussion, anger, opinion and friction than that of alignment? Nope.  Many gamers hate it, “I don’t bother with it!”, “It’s good that Wizards have removed most alignment mechanics from the game!”, “Why should my character be forced to do something because of the alignment I chose?”.  These are all pretty common statements I see in online discussions.  True, it can be seen as a way of limiting options in play, but is that really the case?


Alignment is an underused source of inspiration, a guiding hand, and something that can be of great help when portraying a consistently believable character.  What is most important though is that it is used in a descriptive way, not a proscriptive one.  When creating a character, (or an NPC), consider how you would want them to behave in certain situations, and THEN choose the alignment that best describes that behaviour. Try to be consistent.  “I am really nice to peasants 95% of the time, I give food away. I am free with my money, but every so often, when I feel like it, I’ll murder a few just because I can, take my money back, then give it away again to more peasants.”… A DM should answer this with something like, “What causes the rage?  Are there any specific triggers? Is there a motive to it? Anything in your past that might have brought this about?”  If the player can come up with something that logically justifies such behaviour then fine, it can provide interesting storylines, generate consequences, and maybe result in a character trying to come to terms with the urges.  That’s great. The character is Chaotic Evil, often a red flag to many games, but there’s logic there, potential plot hooks, and maybe a chance of redemption.  But if the player’s response to the questions is “Dunno, lol, ‘cos I feel like it” – that’s crap, that’s being a dick, that’s Chaotic Evil too, and that’s precisely the sort of play that causes DMs to create rules such as ‘no evil characters’ and thereby make alignment proscriptive.

We all have different ideas of what each alignment means, thus discussion is important.  Players need to talk to their DMs beforehand and ask them how they picture the various world views. Define Lawful, define Chaotic, what is considered Good, etc. A player should never simply write an alignment down, then come to the table and argue the point of whether a certain action is Good or not with the DM.  That’s disruptive to the game, and should be avoided where possible. I recently had a player of a Neutral Good character try to justify torturing a child by claiming “My character has low Wisdom and Charisma”, it derailed a session, and generated a lot of ill feeling towards that player from the rest of the group.

So think about the character’s personality, their purpose, what drives them and their opinions on justice, life, law, etc, then choose an alignment – with the help of the DM, and play it consistently, according to the agreed ideals of that alignment.

But… isn’t that limiting player choice at the table? 

No, that’s called ‘Being fair to the DM and the other players.”  You see, RPG games are a group activity.  While everyone has freedom, we also have social expectations. If the PCs are erratic, murdering peasants one session, saving them the next, all on a whim with no real rhyme or reason to it, then how can a DM seriously be expected to create a cohesive story.  “Create consequences!” is the usual answer – yes, that’s good advice, but only to a point, as if it keeps happening then it becomes clear that the player(s) simply are not learning.  They are ignoring the social contract of sitting down and playing a group game together.  Also they are not being fair to the DM.  I, as a DM, like the concept of alignment.  If the player puts real thought into the personality, and then plays it consistently then games are better.

Sure, in my current 1E game I’ve not done much with it mechanically.  We’re playing 1E modules in a mostly fixed game world with 4 players, the adventures are usually designed for larger party sizes, each player has 2 characters, thus the game has been more about the adventures themselves than the characters.  I’m working however on a 2E game in a homemade world in which I will be changing that style.  Players will have multiple PCs to choose from if they wish, but will only play one in each session, so we will be able to focus more on individual motives.  Alignment play will be a factor. Reactions with NPCs will have more of a lasting impact, and the plan is for the world to evolve organically – this will require the players to portray their PCs in a consistent manner as indiscretions will be noted.  Crucially though, I will not use alignment as a proscriptive stick – “You wouldn’t do that, you’re Good” will not be in my vocabulary - but “Please erase the ‘Good’ part of your alignment” could easily be.

I’m looking forward to it.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

The Price of Nostalgia

One topic that crops up frequently is the cost of game rulebooks, modules and materials - especially the second hand market for items long out of print.  With the recent resurgence in gaming popularity, prices for the iconic products of the 70s and 80s are on the rise.  This will also be due to the fact that many of us who cut our teeth on early editions of D&D in particular are now in our 40s and 50s, with secure finances and therefore cash to spend, and a need to satisfy those fuzzy warm nostalgic urges to recreate the feelings of our youth.

When I was about 30 I threw all my gaming stuff away, after all, I was never going to need it again was I?  Most of it was damaged, written on, well used, as it had been with me through my impetuous teenage years, followed me in a box to University, and then sat in my parents' garage gathering damp.  I dumped it all, felt slight twinges of pain at the time, but soon forgot about it.

Until about 5-6 years ago when the urge to play again resurfaced.

Since then I've slowly been rebuilding my collection of 1E and 2E AD&D books, mostly through Ebay.  I go through phases, watch the auctions intently, buy a handful of items, and then forget about it for a few months, then repeat.  What has become very evident in the last year is the alarming rise in prices - not just the asking prices (greedy sellers have always been there trying to rip people off), but in final auction prices.  I bought my 1st edition Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Unearthed Arcana for a total of about £20.  To repeat that now would be nigh on impossible.

But it's still possible to get a decent deal.  As long as you don't succumb and pay what the greedy sellers are asking.  Be patient, set limits.  It seems we are blighted by the existence of a number of people who have spent a while buying up supplies of available items, sitting on them for a while, and then listing them for resale for vastly inflated sums. Something is only worth what somebody is willing to pay, not what someone else wants to sell it for.  Remember that mantra.

So, in an effort to help people avoid being ripped off, and in what might be a futile attempt to contribute towards keeping prices more sensible, I intend to keep a page updated fairly regularly here detailing UK Ebay auction prices for B/X, 1E and 2E items. I hope somebody finds it useful.

PRICE LIST - 1st Edition AD&D

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Are You Experienced?

On aspect of D&D as it was in the late 70s through to the late 80s that still causes people to hmm and hrrrrr is that of experience, or rather, how experience points are gained.  In Basic and Advanced (1E) D&D, most of a character's experience points come from treasure.  Not from slaying beasties, not from rescuing Princesses (or Princes if you want to be more modern), not from being all heroic, not from saving this world, or that world, or recovering the Chalice of Xgyzzzy, no.  Common thievery.  Getting rich.  Grabbing loot and legging it. Smashing an Orc got you about 15xp, 20 Orcs got you 300, robbing their chest containing 2000gp got you 2000xp!

The emphasis of RPGs has changed significantly.  In 1980 it was primarily a case of hire cannon fodder, follow cannon fodder into dungeon, cannon fodder (and several party members) get slaughtered by overwhelming numbers of foul things, run, divide loot between surviving party members, then repeat...  By 1985 Tracy Hickman had happened.  Dragonlance was taking over the world, and now adventures were all about following a storyline.  Characters had destinies to fulfill and were meant to survive to achieve that greatness.  And for the most part it was a good and/or holy destiny, backed up by benevolent deities, ridding the world of all that is horrid.  Thievery still existed as there was still loot to harvest, but it was always in the name of a good cause.

Thus it was no surprise that when D&D was cleansed to appease the dribbling pond life that were burning entire libraries of their children's cherished gaming books, experience for loot was punted into history.  Unless you were a Rogue PC, but that was an optional rule. And thus it has been so ever since.  From 1989 onwards, PCs got their experience points from slaying beasties and being heroic, and generally doing good stuff to further the plot.

It's all good, right?  Because getting 'experience' for gold pieces was stupid and illogical right?


The assumption when one hears the term 'experience points' is that adventurers get better at their craft through the process of adventuring, and when they reach a certain point they just get that bit more Conan/Hercules/Merlin-like in their prowess.

That's illogical.  Well done, you've killed 500 Orcs, now you can learn one more spell!

'Experience Points' is a term that has lasted in RPGs, most seem to have them of some variety, and their purpose is usually pretty much the same.  But in AD&D 1E, it was not a good choice of words.

In 1E you got better through training, and money paid for that training. The purpose of adventuring was to get rich, to pay for training, to enable you to get richer.  Slaying monsters only made you slightly better, getting the money made you much better - because you spent it getting someone better than you to show you a piece of their knowledge.  They should have been called 'training points'.

Now that's logical.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Grown Up Fantasy

A theme I see crop up time and time again on RPG forums is one of what subjects are, and are not, acceptable in 'modern' gaming groups.  Over and over again I see contributors make comments along the line of 'no sex', 'no rape', 'don't kill the children', 'orc babies are redeemable', 'I don't want to be in a game where people exercise their weird fantasies'.  There seems to be the opinion that should such topics emerge within a game, that whoever introduces them gets some sort of weird inner satisfaction from it, that it's a perversion, and that sensitive people need protecting from such nastiness.

The group I DM most frequently for have just started through the venerable Slavers series, modules A1 to A4 in the 1E canon. These were originally published way back in 1980-81, when AD&D was at its original peak, and before the crazed US God-Squad helped bring about the more sanitised feel of 2E.  The opening module, Slave Pits of the Undercity, is set in the city of Highport on the Greyhawk peninsular known as the Pomarj.  For those unfamiliar with Greyhawk history, the Pomarj is a near-lawless place, overrun with humanoid tribes - and Highport, one of the few settlements of any size, is a devastated cesspit, destroyed by war, and partially rebuilt using the proceeds of the slave trade.  It is NOT a nice place.

The Greyhawk setting has roots firmly based in medieval Europe, the terminology used in Gygax's writings on his world, the heraldry, the political systems, are all clearly derived from history.  Marry that with the pseudo-historical feel of 1E AD&D, and the world is most definitely not the comic-fantasy melting pot of 5th Edition's Forgotten Realms.  Elves don't like Dwarfs, neither are especially friendly to humans, and nobody really cares about Halflings. Half Elves are supposed to be somewhat uncommon, given that Humans and Elves don't really socialise. And everybody hates Half-Orcs.

The term 'fecund' is used to described Orcs in the racial description of Half Orcs.  Highly fertile.  No niceties, no love, just fertile.  Given that Orcs are naturally evil creatures, it can be assumed that Half Orcs are not the product of any form of loving relationship. 

The 1E world is not a nice place.  And Highport is a foul place by the standards of the world in general, making it truly repulsive. So, what is repulsive, how do you portray an utterly foul place without touching on the topics in the 1st paragraph?  After all, this is a city that is built on the proceeds of the most vile trade of all, that of slavery - where people can be bought and sold, used and abused, beaten, tortured - their lives are meaningless. The lucky ones are the strong and healthy, the others are sold to the temples for sacrifice, or to the humanoid tribes for the cooking pot.  So in answer to my question - you don't!

My party happened upon a band of Gnolls, roasting a headless corpse over a spit.  I described it as small, mutilated beyond recognition - possibly a halfling, a gnome, or a human child.  While in Highport they saw diseased beggars, corpses with whip-scars thrown into alleyways to rot - some of these being those of women and children. They were advised by a contact to stay at 'the only inn which did not have slave meat on the menu'. At the inn a group of drunken revellers tried to buy the party's female fighter because she'd be valuable to the Orcs 'for breeding purposes'.

All pretty vile stuff. But it served a purpose, it fitted the world, most importantly it fitted the nature of the adventuring location and the background to the module series.  It gave the party (and players) a reason to hate the place and to rid the world of the Slavers. It was an excellent gaming session, my players loved it.

Those contributors to online forums would be up in arms. Let them be.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Fantasy Cupcakes

While browsing the cesspit that is Reddit I stumbled upon a thread in one of the D&D subs where some people were discussing cupcakes. Upon reading said thread, expecting to see tales of delicious treats consumed by players whilst rolling dice, he was actually talking about characters in game consuming cupcakes.  My immediate response, “Cupcakes! D&D? No, not possible.

In my mind, D&D is medieval.  Technology is limited to that era, societal attitudes from that era are the norm, and there are no cupcakes…. because they are American, and weren’t invented until the late 18th century.  And the US didn’t exist when D&D is set. And they are called ‘fairy cakes’ in this country anyway.  But I digress.  D&D’s roots are in games that attempted to simulate medieval warfare, and it’s easy to pick up on those themes when browsing through the 1E hardbacks for example – the weapons are drawn mostly from the period of AD1000-1500, as is the armour – though there are a couple of mistakes in there in the historical sense, as Studded Leather did not exist, and the jury is out on whether Ring Mail ever existed too. There are chapters on castles, complete with the correct old English terminology, and some of the terms used to describe spells and magical items are drawn from the Old English language – dweomer for example.  The infamous ‘random prostitute’ table contained multiple archaic synonyms for the world’s oldest profession - Gary Gygax was clearly an avid enthusiast of European medieval history.  Gygax’s own Greyhawk setting also showed direct feudal Europe inspiration – Perrenland is clearly Switzerland, and Veluna looks to be based on the Papal States.

I'll have a double Saucy Tart with a dash of Haughty Courtesan please barman!

Europe in the Middle Ages was a brutal place, cities were vile, rat-infested places, the general populace were uneducated and impoverished.  Society was very superstitious and extremely intolerant of anything ‘different’ – resulting in religious persecution, genocide, mass public executions, civil war, and so on. AD&D (and the Greyhawk setting) reflected that.  Various races did not get on with each other, certain states are at war, others are brought down by human frailties, and there are frequent clashes between devotees of various opposing faiths. It is a constant fight between clearly defined ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There is a grittiness to 1E and to Greyhawk, and beneath the layers of monsters and magic there’s that basis in historical fact.

 Nobody really likes Half Orcs - quite right too, the smelly beasts!

As a child, the 1st fantasy novel I read was The Hobbit. Tolkien also drew on similar inspiration – the technology of his world is very much of the early medieval era, most racial groups are portrayed as being wary of ‘foreigners’, and his world is also very brutal.

So, in my early teens, ‘Fantasy’ meant a medieval setting with magic and monsters.  I had no interest in the sci-fi that enthused many of my peers, and the modern day was just plain dull, no, when I retreated into my gaming world it was also back in time to an era of swords, chainmail, brave knights, and damsels in distress.

Towards the end of the 80s Forgotten Realms became popular, then the likes of Spelljammer (D&D in Space!), Planescape, and onto the techno-magic of Eberron.  Over the next few decades it appeared that the historical grounding was being forced out - the game was becoming more 'fantastical'.  Classes were opened up to more races, traditional racial enmities were quietly left to wither and die, as it seems the game attempted to incorporate more modern societal norms in its play*.  Gone was Gygax’s colourful, lengthy, often difficult prose – in its place were more direct rulebooks written in a more basic and mechanical style.  The game was no longer imparting its ‘feel’ on its players, it had become more of a framework around which DMs and Players could build their own definition of ‘Fantasy’ - for better or for worse.
But mine will also be that gritty, medieval, somewhat historical fantasy of the 1st Edition.

A time before cupcakes existed. And the USA.  And Reddit.

·         * something I’m planning to write on soon.

Failing to be Critical? Part 2.

After my lambasting of the idea of 'punishing a 1 in combat', I guess its time to take a look a system that I believed handled fumbl...