Thursday, September 21, 2023

Randomized Starting XP

I was thinking the other day - I kind of want to start a game around the 2nd level range.  But I was having trouble settling on the precise XP number.  If you start at 2000 to get fighters to 2nd, MUs are only 1st.  If you start at 2500 to get MUs to 2nd, thieves are already 3rd.  So picking a single ideal numerical solution is hard.

It is also a little weird when all the PCs start with exactly the same amount of experience.  We already admit significant variation between PCs in terms of ability and starting gold - why not XP?

3d6 * 200 starting XP seems like a promising amount, averaging just over 2000, and never high enough for a fighter or MU to hit 3rd.  The interesting question is whether you roll it before or after committing to a class.  If you let it inform class choice, then you might get some interesting choices, where a stat line which is otherwise mediocre for a particular class gets played as that class because the XP roll is good for it (like low int, high XP to MU) or even worse otherwise (like a low XP roll where you can get 2nd with thief or cleric but nothing else).  I suspect that taking a high XP roll and using it for thief 3 instead of MU 2 or fighter 2 would probably not be a frequently-chosen option.  So this might be a great way to get a pretty consistently 2nd-level starting party, outside of very low rolls that don't even crack 1200.

On the other hand, a simulationist argument in favor of rolling XP after choosing class might be that it would be weird if nobody ever started a 1st-level MU.  Although maybe if you roll less than 1200 XP, where you're at 1st regardless, maybe MU becomes a real option again.  One sleep per day is one sleep per day...

(And then once we're rolling starting XP, clearly we need some rules for risking terrible injuries in chargen in order to potentially gain more starting XP...)

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Mapping and Measuring - Paces

I recently picked up an old used copy of Sleightholme's Better Boat Handling.  I had some trouble with docking this summer and it seemed like it might be a worthwhile read over the winter to build up a set of drills to run in the spring.  I haven't sat down and read it yet but I flipped through and looked at some exercises.  On page 22 it suggested:

Exercise 3: Distance judging

Whenever you are out walking and the opportunity occurs, note objects ahead such as typical two-story buildings, people, cars, gates, etc.  Guess their distance and then count your paces.  It is not merely size of distant objects but detail that gives the clue to distance.  A window, for instance, loses its bars as distance increases, then its rectangular form, and then finally it becomes a dot.

Lack of intuition about distances is a serious problem I have had - many canonical-ish instructions in docking or man-overboard drills measure distances in boat-lengths.  I know how long the boat is in feet, but projecting that out multiple times across the water is more difficult.  So I took note of this exercise and have started playing with it; I can do it even if I can't put a crew together for a given day, or the weather's bad, or whatever.  It seems like it would also be useful for anyone running wilderness encounters.  How much detail can you make out about a group of people and/or orcs at, say, 50 yards with the naked eye? (see also this old post)

The mention of measuring distances in paces also got me thinking about the dungeon game.  If I tell the players that the room is 30' by 40', how did they determine that?  I have never stopped the game to ask my players how they want to measure a room.  The default dungeon exploration speed is low enough that I could definitely see pacing the length and width of the room being viable for getting pretty accurate measurements within the allotted time.  But doing this would also expose you to danger from traps or enemies in the room.  So now I'm wondering whether I just want to give descriptions like "big, longer away from you than it is wide" and "small room" up until they have paced it.  Or give them estimated distances in tens of feet, but with a roll for error, and then if they pace it they can get accurate distances?  idk.

I also think it would be fun to give room sizes and distances in paces instead of feet.  Just like using stone for encumbrance, it's a quaint and evocative unit with a little bit of slop.

As usual, this led down a shallow wikipedia rabbithole, with a couple of interesting findings:

  • Alexander the Great brought specialist pace-counters along with his army to measure distances, and their accuracy was so good that some now think they must have had an odometer.  How much does a specialist bematist demand in monthly wages, I wonder?
  • You know those wheels surveyors use to measure distances?  Another name for them is a "waywiser".  I love it - it's alliterative and very Olde English.  If you put them on your equipment table, definitely use that name.
  • Apparently pace-counting is still used by the military and they use beads on a string to help keep track of large counts.  I did find myself wondering if I were occasionally slipping up with counts up towards a hundred while I was walking my block this morning; these make total sense.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

1e DMG: Further Precedent for Player-Controlled XP Allocation?

I was poking around in the 1e DMG's section on experience points due to a discussion on /r/osr and stumbled across this on page 85:

Division of Experience Points:
How treasure is divided is actually in the realm of player decision. Experience points (x.p.) for slain monsters, however, is strictly your prerogative. It is suggested that you decide division of x.p. as follows:...

Italics mine.  And then the procedure for dividing XP only discusses XP from monsters. Further down on that page there's a discussion of XP from treasure but it discusses only things like lowering the ratio for XP from GP if the party was stronger than the monsters it took the treasure from, the value of magic items, and when XP for treasure is awarded - nothing about how XP from treasure is divided.

I think this could be interpreted in support of my old speculative post about players controlling how XP from treasure is divided through their choice of who to allocate treasure to.  The heading where this note about treasure being divided by players is explicitly about XP allocation.  The existing division procedure only covers XP from monsters, and no procedure for dividing XP from treasure is provided.  I wouldn't say it's clearly Gygax's intent that XP from treasure should be divided as the players choose, but I think it's the most reasonable interpretation of the gaps here.

Tangentially, the other thing that surprised me in the 1e DMG's section on awarding XP was:

If your campaign is particularly dangerous, with a low life expectancy for
starting player characters, or if it is a well-established one where most players are of medium or above level, and new participants have difficulty surviving because of this, the following Special Bonus Award is suggested:

Any character killed and subsequently restored to life by means of a spell or device, other than a ring of regeneration, will earn an experience point bonus award of 1,000 points. This will materially aid characters of lower levels of experience, while it will not unduly affect earned experience for those of higher level. As only you can bestow this award, you may also feel free to decline to give it to player characters who were particularly foolish or stupid in their actions which immediately preceded death, particularly if such characters are not “sadder but wiser” for the happening.

 Gaining XP for dying, rather than losing it!  Wild!

Monday, August 28, 2023

Rival Parties and Replacement Characters

Every now and then there's a discussion about bringing in replacement characters in OSR games.  There was one recently on the reddits that brought this back to mind.  The consensus is that you should find excuses to get new PCs into the game.  But the poster points out that this distorts the resource game, and then people amend their position so that obviously you should have replacement PCs come in with partly-depleted resources.

As for me...  I'm thinking this sounds like an awful lot of DM fiat.  I eagerly await the "rulings, not rules!" in the comments.  But seriously, there are a lot of things that I don't like about the...  3rd?  4th? wave OSR but one thing I do like is the focus on little rules subsystems, "procedures".  See also Arbiter of Worlds' discussion on rulings establishing precedent and evolving into rules.

Anyway.  What would a system for adjudicating the arrival of new PCs look like?

Before designing one, it's worth checking whether we already have such a system in place but have failed to recognize it.  And I think Wandering Monster tables that are heavy on demihumans and "rival" adventuring parties could easily serve this purpose.  I have never had a good explanation of the point of having 30% of B/X's dungeon level one encounter table be demihumans and humans.  But maybe these encounters are intended to be a source of replacement PCs.  Then the deeper you go, the less frequent these encounters become and the harder it becomes to replace your losses in the dungeon.  Using the first level's friendly table to gather reinforcements pairs interestingly with using it as a safe haven to rest in for expeditions down to the second level.  The sharp drop off in potentially-friendly results on the encounter table as you level is interesting - maybe by the time you're going into the third dungeon level, you're expected to have hirelings rather than "living off the land" for replacement characters.  And then again, in the wilderness you have the Men table, but usefully-leveled results vary in frequency by terrain type.

So what's the procedure here?  Roll a random encounter with demihumans or adventurers, get a reaction roll better than Hostile, and then you can smuggle your replacement PC into that game that way?  And maybe they come in with fairly complete resources, but you had to take a significant risk (an encounter roll) to get them.  And if you're a party with multiple members down, maybe you make a bunch of noise to provoke encounter rolls in the hope of friendlies rather than the conventional wisdom of quietly trying to escape.  It's a high-risk double-or-nothing play but...  having that choice, between the quiet approach and the loud approach seems like it could make for some interesting gameplay.

The wildly-diegetic angle here would be to roll NPC parties completely straight, and then if they're not hostile on the reaction roll, allow players to pick an NPC to start playing.  Might be exploitable if you go on "recruiting" expeditions in high-level areas though.

I guess I'm not convinced that some delay on the arrival of replacement PCs is an ultimate evil, particularly if you let players who are out of characters continue to contribute to the party's problem-solving discussions (voicing someone else's henchmen, perhaps).  Particularly if a caller is being used, where people aren't acting out on their own behalf.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Wind in the Dungeon

It has been windy here lately.  I don't really have air conditioning, but I do have windows on both the east and west sides of my apartment.  When the wind is out of the east or west, I can get great cooling by opening both sides.  When the wind is out of the north or south, cooling my apartment becomes very difficult.

It has got me thinking about the old dungeon winds that would extinguish torches, and were good reasons for a protected lantern.  I've been wondering - were the old dungeon winds random?  Or did they arise from features that players might predict from the presence of airflow?  If one wanted to explain dungeon winds (or just moving air at all), how might one do it?

An opening near the surface might admit a draft of fresh air.  A pair of dungeon entrances at different elevations could produce a regular flow with both an influx and and outflux, like prairie dog burrows do.  A big persistent fire in the dungeon might have an in-draft and an outflow.  A tidal dungeon, where sections fill or empty of water, would have air flows associated with that.  The breathing of an enormous beast could produce regular periodic air flows.  A deep, cold underworld might have inflows where air in the upper levels cools and sinks.  You might be able to tell which doors are open or closed based on air flows; you can sure tell whether my windows are open or closed based on them.  Monsters might also be able to tell by the direction of drafts where things have changed in their environment...

(There are, of course, plenty of other interesting features to air besides motion - temperature, humidity, smell, composition...  and all of these could signal features too)

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Getting Started with Gauntlets

I keep putting off actually building gauntlet dungeons.  I've been thinking a little about why that is.  What are the hard problems here that I've quietly, subconsciously hemming and hawing over for like two years now?

One troublesome thing is that I feel like if I'm going to build levels that test the presence and effective use of certain classes, I should keep those levels sort of "balanced" between each other, so that certain classes don't feel like they're useless.  This almost implies a horizontal dungeon structure - if class-check levels are in series with descending dungeon level, then some class is still going to feel shafted or "dependent" on another class to get them down to where they shine.  And this also dilutes the viability of weird party comps which I was hoping for from class-focused levels.

I'm not really sure how I feel about building "wide" dungeon levels with sublevels testing individual classes.  Maybe this is an overreaction to being burnt on Rathell, the widest single level I've ever run.  I'm not sure how much patience / tolerance players will have for a single level of difficulty, even if it presents somewhat varied challenges.  On the other hand, it might make finding a path down more special (or more intimidating).

One solution to these two concerns / conflicting requirements is thinking more finely-grained about class-check levels and mixing class checks within single, smaller levels.  Rather than making a level (for example) a thief check or a cleric check, throw in individual elements that are cleric or thief checks.  A level might have a bunch of locks and a bunch of shriekers, testing thief for open locks and cleric for silence, or it might have a bunch of traps and undead, checking thief for trapfinding and cleric for turning (or cleric for find traps...).  So thinking about classes as bundles of features that are individually tested, and making testing multiple classes within a single level the standard.

This sounds pretty easy for thief, MU, and cleric - thief has a bunch of skills (which "come online" at varying rates), and MU and cleric have huge banks of spells to test individually.  Fighter is the tough one.  Clerics can pass AC checks just as well as the fighter, thieves can pass magic sword checks just as well as the fighter.  Cleaving checks (if one's game even has cleaves) are often passable by MUs with sleep, fireball, etc.  Max HP is a strange thing to test; I guess you could kinda do the 5e death spell thing, conditioning effects on max HP?  Rejigger sleep and cloudkill to work off of max HP rather than HD?  That's actually a really funny thought.  Conditioning effects on a 4e-style "bloodied" status when people are at half, so having bigger HP pools changes when those effects kick in?

I suppose one thing fighters are likely to have that most other characters will neglect (or at least not be raising through ability score tradeoffs) is just brute Strength.  Bring out the stuck doors, the portcullises that need lifted, the columns that need toppled, the stones that need carried, the chains that need pulled or broken.  This idea is growing on me - what sort of funhouse dungeon is complete without some strongman competition events?  So your MU has ogre power, fine, it's only three turns, Fafhrd here can flex those thews all day long.

Another angle on classes, if one were to build multiple smaller (say) 3-level dungeons, would be to tightly-class-theme individual dungeons.  Then you're not blocked on getting to the Thief Level by having to pass the Cleric Level.  And it's a pleasing idea from the in-world perspective; the legendary thief is gonna build a three-level gauntlet of traps and locks and sheer walls to make sure that whoever gets his gold is a worthy successor, you know?  The ruined temple of the Krolm is a gauntlet of strength and hit points and cleaving, it will take a lot of lore and prep to get into the sanctum of the Old Archmagos, etc.  The undead angle on clerics is a bit odd; maybe it's what is being kept in rather than out.  Or holy places with features intended to keep the unfaithful out have fallen to darkness.

Returning to "test multiple class features within a single megadungeon level", though, the other difficulty I have is in the very first level of a gauntlet megadungeon, for completely new players.  You just know their party composition is going to get messed up by casualties and you might not want them to rely on hirelings to patch it up.  I would almost be tempted to put "big scores" behind checks on individual class "core feature" like sleep and turning - getting a cleric or MU to the right place and recognizing that that's the right time (eg, to not have blown your sleep on a piddly random encounter) is a good start and a behavior we want to reinforce.  Other than that, maybe fundamentals of practice are the thing to focus on, like basic mapping?  A caller check, around "can the caller successfully interrupt impulsive players about to do something stupid?"  Maybe checks on mundane gear are also a good theme; most of that stuff is well within the purchasing power of first-level characters and mundane gear checks aren't dependent on having any particular class still alive.

Maybe that's an interesting solution to the first-level problem.  For seasoned veterans, a dungeon level with few monsters focused on mundane gear "puzzles" could be a bit dull.  But for people who have never played before, just successfully executing on the basics of dungeon exploration and random encounters could be a stimulating challenge even without having to worry about tackling serious (eg humanoid) lairs.

So then maybe the second level introduces humanoid faction play and gets more serious about mapping, logistics, traps...  What would be a good "capstone" for a three-level 'tutorial' gauntlet dungeon, I wonder?

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Traveller and Cruising

It's possible I've been thinking about Traveller all wrong.  Maybe this is obvious to everyone else but here goes.

I've been reading some books about maritime cruising.  "Living for extended time on a vessel (yacht) while traveling from place to place for pleasure. Cruising generally refers to trips of a few days or more, and can extend to round-the-world voyages." There's a lot of discussion about how to do your own maintenance (one, because stuff breaks at sea, and two because hiring professionals to do it in port is really expensive) and how to do odd jobs to make some money on the side since you probably aren't regularly employed.  Some of those odd jobs and cruising stories sounded like the sort of things Traveller patrons would ask for, and here we are.

This lens makes a lot more sense for Traveller than "space trucking".  You don't have to explain the economics of small-scale shipping, because that's not really what is happening here.  Sure you might make a windfall on cargo every now and then (and cruisers attempt this too, with mixed success - "We were told that people in the Marquesas desperately needed reading glasses.  I bought 50 pairs in Mexico and still have all of them [because we were misinformed].") but that's not why you're traveling.  You're traveling for its own sake, and money is a means to the end of continuing to travel.  You're not out to get rich - just to keep funding the midlife crisis and not have to go back to a day job with a boss and a commute. This is why your "career" ends at the end of chargen.

It's interesting to compare with the similarly non-accumulative style of Appendix N, where the heroes adventure to get rich, only to spend it all and then need to adventure again.  Here too it's adventuring for money in order to maintain an unconventional, expensive but unencumbered lifestyle.

I think this view is consistent with the belief that money is supposed to be important in Traveller, but it also admits the Classic Traveller style where PCs having a ship is somewhat rare.  A Traveller without a ship can still work odd jobs in / for the "cruising" community and get working passage to wherever. Losing the money game doesn't end the campaign; it just changes it temporarily.  So the money pressure maybe shouldn't be as overwhelming as it might traditionally be with the starship loan (or you do what many budget cruisers do and get a really old vessel).  It's there to keep things interesting, to add a creeping danger that you can't just run from, not to be the focus of play.

This cruising lens also answers the question of "why do we have a baronet or an ex-admiral on this grungy little vessel?"  They're not loading cargo - they're just drifting.  Plenty of nobles are into sailing ("It seems that of any activity in the world, singlehanded sailors have the best odds of being knighted.") and the admiral retired and decided he just wanted to kick back in the tropics in a low-stress environment but can't help but get himself into trouble.

Some possible implications for DMing Traveller - NPCs from the cruising community.  Lots of cruising vessels have "buddy boats" or form regattas headed to the same place at the same time.  This is good for when something goes wrong.  The vessel at the next berth over in port isn't a rival small trader; they're drifting hippies with a hydroponic weed operation onboard, or a very trad religious husband who used to sell insurance with wife and four kids and a dog aboard, or a reclusive ex-programmer with a bunch of ship systems automated, or a husband/wife pair where the husband is a professional hunter and the wife is a xenobiologist (who is actually the better shot of the two), or...  There's just a ton of room for recurring, charmingly-eccentric NPCs here, who might fill the patron role when things are going well for them, or who might need rescued when something goes wrong.

Another implication for DMing Traveller regards building sandboxes.  When the players are out to do the "space trucking" thing, you have to be really careful to not set up Golden Pairs of planets with complementary economic tags where you can just go back and forth indefinitely and make tons of money.  But if the players are on board with the game being about drifting, you might be able to be less careful with this; it becomes a "sometimes food", because anything that resembles routine work is anathema.  It seems like a way of thinking about the game that would really encourage building a sandbox with lots of wild, interesting bits for your tourists to go see and mess with.  It could be much mellower than the highly-incentivized OD&D sandbox of "where do we go to make a ton of money, hence XP, as quickly and safely as possible?" which so often causes analysis paralysis for optimizers (as does the Space Trucker optimizing his routes).  But cruising Traveller admits satisficing; "sure that sounds like an interesting place to go, uhhh I wonder if they need any eyeglasses, maybe we can make a buck.  Any passengers headed that way to defray our costs?"

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Coastal Sailcrawling?

Part of the reason things have been quiet here lately is that I was taking a course on navigating vessels under sail in coastal waters, which pretty well ate my weeknights.  At the beginning I was looking at doing a "Notes from a $TOPIC course" series like I've done previously with some courses [1][2] but it got away from me.  So, having arrived, now reflecting.

One conclusion from spending a lot of time staring at charts and plotting courses with pencil, compass, and protractor is that there is definitely room for procedure and gameplay in modeling this.

I think the distinction between coastal and open-water navigation is probably under-appreciated in Trad D&D's "waterborne adventuring" rules.  I don't know much about long-distance open-water passagemaking yet but reading accounts from eg Slocum it doesn't seem crazy to abstract down to "n days pass, have a couple random encounter rolls, you arrive more-or-less where you were planning to" given reasonably-intelligent play like using the trade winds and celestial navigation.  You can definitely get screwed and capsized by a big storm in the open sea, but there aren't many things to run into.  The coast, on the other hand, is by definition something you can run into.  To paraphrase one old salt, "the sea is pretty safe; it's the land that will get you".  Coastal vs offshore is probably also a useful line for ACKS' rule about continuing to sail through the night with a navigator - at night in open sea, by all means, get out your sextant, take some bearings on some stars, and sail on.  At night in unfamiliar, medieval coastal waters without lighted buoys, an accurate chart, or a full moon...  probably wiser to drop anchor and wait for dawn.

On a 1:80000 scale coastal chart like Chart 1210TR, one inch is about one nautical mile (some nuances apply due to Mercator projection but good enough for gaming work).  A small vessel under sail typically makes about 6 knots.  So if you do 1-inch, 1-nautical-mi hexes, you get a 10-minute turn to move one hex.  Or you go up to one-hour turns with 6 hexes per turn.  Either way, you also probably want to apply current smeared across the hour; if sailing in a 3kt current, you get pushed one hex current-ward every 20 minutes.  Since we're stealing a real-world chart, we can go dig up published tidal current tables.

Putting it on hexes is also kinda reasonable for dealing with wind direction and tacking; pick (or roll) one of the six hex directions for the wind to be coming from, and moving directly in that direction costs double (assuming you're making multiple short tacks within a single hex).  A modern sloop-rigged boat usually wants to sail at least 45 degrees off the wind, and then there's some leeway so you're going to do a bit worse than 45, often more like 50-55 in significant winds, sometimes much worse in big winds.  60 degrees off the wind is probably quite optimistic for medieval sailing vessels but if you're running a post-apocalyptic setting where not everything has been forgotten, primitive sloops sailing 60 degrees off the wind seems workable and simple.  Roll again every hour to see if the wind has shifted direction or remains from the same direction (or if it dies entirely, leaving them at the mercy of current - which is how many boats without motors end up on the rocks).

The other side of tide from current is depth.  A 1-mile hex probably admits multiple depth soundings.  If the party is sailing in a hex where there are spots with a depth less than their draft, there's a chance they run aground.  This seems basically like the "roll a d6 to see if the trap fires".  Use your judgement of what fraction of the hex is very shallow to determine the probability they end up in it.

If shoals are traps, tidal straits (also called tidal gates) are doors.  These are narrow channels through which tidal currents are very strong.  Examples include the Golden Gate in San Francisco, Hell Gate in New York, and Deception Pass in Puget Sound.  If you try to pass the wrong way through one of these at the wrong time, currents can be more than four knots and you make very little progress.  So they're like doors that only open at certain times.

Finally, how do players actually navigate a coastal sailbox?  They don't have a chart, and there are probably not lighted buoys in your setting.  There might be lighthouses, and if they have a hand-compass you can give them a rough bearing.  The various tall points of reference typically on coastal charts, like radio towers, water towers, and church steeples could be readily translated into towering keeps, wizards' towers, and hilltop monasteries for your players to go Full Lindesfarne on.  Chart 1210TR includes "monument" and "Chilmark Spire" points of reference - I'm not exactly sure what the Chilmark Spire actually is but it's rather evocative, no?  Again, in a post-apocalyptic setting, city areas could be readily translated into ruins.  Headlands, steep coastal bluffs, and the edges of particular islands also seem like commonly-used points of reference for inshore work.  We have, in the language and reference points of actual navigators, pieces for a language of wilderness play.

One may readily ask - why bother / will there be interesting gameplay here?  I think so.  Looking at the structure of river deltas, barrier islands, and sounds, there are lots of tiny islands and the structure of the water-network comes highly-Jayquayed by default.  A small island is kind of like a room; it is self-contained and you can stock it as a unit and the party can anchor the boat and row ashore and explore it and interact with the stocked thing.  And then your waterways are sort of like treacherous hallways, and your sheltered bays are places to rest at anchor. 

Just look at all those islands

In conclusion, perhaps deltas and barrier island chains may be thought of and played as dungeons, open sea as wilderness.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Solving First Level - Resting in the Dungeon?

The natural product of two recent lines of thinking - figuring out how first level is "meant" to be played, and monsters that counter resting in the dungeon.

Notably, in Moldvay there really aren't any monsters on the first dungeon level's wandering monster table who hard-counter resting in a room where you've secured the door.  This means a first level party with only one sleep a day actually has a lot of leeway to recover that critical spell.  Traverse the dungeon to the stairs to the second level, hole up and recover the sleep if you had to use it to get there, go down to the second level and look for unguarded treasure, pop back up when you've spent the sleep and recover it safely near the top of the stairs...

Your ability to take out a lair is still quite limited, since your max sleeps per day is still only one, but your ability to survive wandering monsters is much improved.  And then rations and water become a limiting factor on the duration of your dungeoneering expeditions - though camping in pitch blackness in a sealed room in a haunted underworld certainly sounds...  demoralizing.  Not that torch smoke in an enclosed space sounds much better.  You start out with torches and fresh rations and then upgrade into lanterns and iron rations as you get the money for them...

There are probably amusing tradeoffs in waste management too - a 12-person party produces a fair bit of excrement per day.  If you leave it lying around it might attract vermin and molds.  If you pack it out with you then it costs encumbrance and might attract monsters with strong senses of smell.  Dare you use the dreaded dungeon bathroom, based on real FLGS bathrooms?

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Oozes and Other Bunker-Buster Monsters

There was a discussion on the osr subreddit the other day about players resting in the dungeon, and it occurred to me that if you iron spike or bar a door shut so you can rest but roll an ooze on the wandering monster table while resting, it might just be able to get through under/around the door and disrupt your sleep.

Thinking about whether there were other types of monsters that could do something similar, incorporeal undead and swarms also spring to mind.  Maybe vampires if you let them go gaseous voluntarily.  Any of your burrowing enemies like ankhegs, grey worms, purple worms, thoqqas, and xorns, though those will mostly be loud and noticeable.

There's an interesting parallel with Deep Rock Galactic here, where they introduced several enemies (the bulk detonator and the oppressor) explicitly to counter the strategy of building bunkers.  These enemies can "force the door" by digging and are either difficult to damage from the front or explode massively.  It kinda makes me wonder whether some of these classic D&D monsters that might plausibly pass through doors were originally developed as counters for resting in dungeons.

I think this has interesting implications for how you build random encounter tables for dungeon levels.  If there's a "bunker buster" monster on your table, then the party is at risk of having their sleep disrupted if they barricade-and-rest on that level.  I went looking for AD&D 1e's tables but still haven't found them.  In OD&D Book 3, there's only the Ochre Jelly on the 3rd level table (though there sure are a lot of MUs who might be able to knock in a door).  Moldvay / OSE is much more interesting through this lens, with the following levels container the following potential bunker-buster monsters:

  1. Nothing really (green slime isn't motile so doesn't count)
  2. Grey Ooze.  Pixies hiding in the room you're bunkering in to prank you in your sleep would be pretty funny but I'm not sure it really counts.
  3. Ochre Jelly and Shadows (Gelatinous Cube too but it probably can't fit under doors?), Basic Adventurers potentially
  4. Grey Ooze, Ochre Jelly, and Wraiths.  Rust monsters too, depending on how exactly you do your spiking.  Expert Adventurers also possibly.
  5. Black Pudding, Ochre Jelly, Spectres, Expert Adventurers, possibly White Dragon
  6. Black Pudding, Purple Worm, Vampire, Expert Adventurers, possibly Red Dragon.

By the end there a solid quarter of possible wandering monsters are possible bunker-busters.  But holing up in the top levels of the dungeon is probably pretty safe!

If players quietly rest 8 hours in the dungeon, they'll get 3 wandering monster rolls per hour, or 24 total rolls.  Since the probability of a monster on each roll is 1 in 6, you expect four wandering monsters.  So if a quarter of your table for a given level is bunker-busters, then resting will usually fail.

ACKS has heuristics for building dungeon wandering monster tables, with one-third beastmen, one-third mindless/animals, and one-third "men and monsters".  It would be interesting to add a heuristic around bunker-busting enemies as well.  If you have one on a 1d12 table, then it won't come up in 70% of rests (assuming 4 wandering monsters are rolled; there's a long tail of bad luck in the wandering monster checks).  Two out of 12 means something gets through the door in 52% of rests.  At three out of 12, the door only holds in 32% of rests.  I think I kinda like 2 in 12 - you can do one ooze and one incorporeal undead, swarm, or burrower, so there's some variety, and rests are pretty close to a fair 50/50 shot.  Or if you count Rival Adventuring Party, then the interruption isn't necessarily unfriendly, but it might still be an interruption.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Surviving Fifth Level: The Heist Hypothesis

In another instance of recording bright things people have said in the ACKS discord, Arbrethil had some thoughts in response to Surviving First Level: The Heist Hypothesis and since he still hasn't started a blog (hint hint), I guess I'll record it here.

My players often break your assumptions (hiring lots of henchmen) [ed:to be fair, this is Moldvay's position and I'm just trying to solve it], but I've also definitely seen heist type play happen.  And I think when it does, it's often in the wilderness, where treasure hauls are bigger and random encounters are checked less often.  Certainly the odds of winning a wilderness fight are worse, but evasion lets you get away most of the time if it's not a fight you want.  And if you can find a good lair - stupid ogres that you can distract and bamboozle, or a lone dragon that can't both pursue pesky adventurers and guard its lair - that can be enough to level the thief on its own.  The other piece of the puzzle that stands out to me is the utility of a massed spear charge. Even if only three of your five characters can make a spear charge, if you win initiative you've got solid odds of cleaving through a dungeon-sized band of beastmen.  Once you can hire a few additional characters, a high AC PC-led dungeon phalanx trumps most any random-encounter sized band of beastmen on dungeon levels 1-2 even without magic support.
So I think your analysis of them going down to 2nd level pretty much checks out, and wilderness heists are like that but in every way moreso.
Emphasis mine.  I think the points about spear charges and high-AC phalanxes are good ones in ACKS specifically, though spear-charges can also work against the players if they encounter organized and appropriately-armed opponents.  The really interesting point (and one which cuts across both ACKS and OSE/B/X) is that that low-wilderness-level play is often very heist-like.  My Bjornaborg game was very treasure-map-centric once it got into the wilderness levels; get to the treasure, kill whatever's guarding it (if anything), and get back to town with it, avoiding encounters whenever possible.  And intuitively, it seems like there should be some parallels between low-dungeoneering-level and low-wilderness-level play, in that you don't have all the tools for either yet, under a theory of spell/class design where new abilities tend to be appropriate for the phase of the game where they become available.  To gather intel, you don't have Invisibility at 1st, and you don't have Wizard Eye at 5th.  To slow pursuit, you don't have Web at 1st, and you don't have Wall of Fire at 5th.  So it sort of makes sense that a style of play appropriate to the early-dungeon phase might re-appear in the early-wilderness phase, because you're in a similar lacking-tools situation.

This might also have something to do with my players' frustration with low-wilderness play.  I have never run 1st level before.  They've never played 1st-level OSR games before.  So we've never had to "solve" 1st level.  Hence, having to learn 1st level's lessons at 5th level instead.  But by 5th, you're more invested and the stakes are much higher; if you're learning heist play at 1st and you mess up, oh well, new characters are easy.

I wonder if this is the whole root of the problems I've been having with running wilderness game for literally a decade at this point.  It would be pretty funny if for all my theorizing about wilderness as dungeons and hiding maps and resource models and microsandboxes, the real answer was "make sure your players have had to survive 1st level."  A simple, practical, culture-of-play thing with unexpected consequences being the answer would be so perfectly on-brand for the OSR that I wouldn't even be mad.

But since, we're here and theorizing - there are some important differences in the resource model between 1st in the dungeon and 5th in the wilderness.  Fireball is pretty analogous to sleep - except that often in the wilderness you can regain fireball most days.  So that's a tremendous difference in your ability to deal with repeated encounters in a single expedition.  On the other hand, there's still some similarity in tackling lairs; one fireball isn't going to win a wilderness humanoid lair fight any more than a single sleep is going to win a dungeon lair fight.  And this is what drives the back to the heist dynamic - it's really about inability to take lairs head-on, since that's where the treasure (hence XP) is.  On the other hand, the ability to replenish fireballs daily opens up Fabian options for gradual lair reduction during a single expedition not available in the dungeon at 1st level.

The mercenaries-and-hirelings situation also bears examination through this lens.  Mercenary troops in the low wilderness levels probably serve about the same function are hirelings at 1st level; you're not going to be able to acquire and finance enough of them of high quality to rely on them alone to take out humanoid lairs, but they can even your odds against humanoid encounters, and at least help hold the line, pin the humanoids, and help prevent you from being overrun.  I'm really curious whether Moldvay would push against the use of mercenaries in the low wilderness levels in the same way he pushes against hirelings right out of the gate, so that players learn to do without them rather than using them as a crutch.  It seems worth considering to me; we certainly had fights in low-wilderness that my players "cheesed" with massed troops and then I got butthurt and wrote a long post about it.  I guess maybe I should go read Expert and see if Moldvay expresses an opinion on this.

In any case - thanks again Arb for pointing this parallel out!

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Snakebites and Magic Rocks

Or, I spent 15 hours reading wikipedia pages on venomous snakes so I guess I may as well make a post out of it.

I am not a herpetologist.  I am not your herpetologist.  Nothing in this post should be construed to be medical advice, nor expected to be perfectly accurate.  Everything here is gross generalizations for the purposes of gaming.

The two big families of venomous snakes dangerous to man are the elapids and the vipers (there are some dangerous ones in other families like the colubrid boomslang though)

  • Elapids
    • Include cobras, taipans, sea snakes, coral snakes, kraits, mambas, pretty much all of the various intensely venomous Australian snakes with unassuming names like the Western Brown Snake...
    • Often relatively long and thin body form 
    • Mostly have round pupils
    • Mostly lay eggs
    • Have relatively short, non-folding fangs at the front of the mouth
    • Venom is often primarily neurotoxic and kills by stopping respiration
    • In some cases, venom is almost entirely neurotoxic in action and causes no pain or swelling at the bite site, making it hard or impossible to tell if a bite was "dry" until onset of symptoms
    • The combination of short fangs and quick-acting venoms often lead to an attack pattern against their primary prey of wrapping around and biting multiple times to guarantee some good deep killing envenomations
    • Hunting pattern is often active - seeking out prey, going into burrows
    • In humans, time to kill from a wet bite is often 30 minutes to six hours
  • Vipers
    • Include rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, adders, pit vipers, bushmasters, fer-de-lance, ...
      • Pit vipers are called this because they have a pit on each side of their head between the eye and the nostril which can sense infrared, not because they live in pits.  It's actually a pretty big category and includes most (all?) New World vipers
    • Often relatively stocky/girthy/thicc body form 
    • Many have slit-pupils like cats
    • Mostly give birth to live young
    • Have long, thin fangs that fold up against the roof of the mouth when not in use, and lower jaws that hinge out past 150 degrees to let them strike with the long fangs
    • Venom is often primarily toxic to blood and muscle tissue, causing clotting, hemorrhage, blistering, necrosis, kidney failure from rhabdomyolysis.  May require amputation of the bitten limb even if it doesn't kill you.
      • I have now seen some pictures of necrotized viper bites that I cannot unsee
    • Wet bites are typically very painful and swell up
    • Between the fragile but long-reach and deep-injecting fangs and the slow venoms, attack pattern against primary prey is often a single lunging bite and then backing off and waiting for the prey to die.
      • Some can track bitten prey by the smell of some components of the venom acting on the prey's blood
      • Often a passive hunting style, waiting in ambush for passing prey to tag
    • In humans, time to kill from a wet bite is often 10+ hours (overnight or the next day) unless the bite was onto a vein  

On reflection, it seems like regular-sized mundane venomous snakes are really more like traps than they are combat encounters.  You didn't poke the pile of leaves with a 10' pole before you stepped in it, save vs poison, and unless you roll a 1 you still have at least half an hour to get a Delay Poison or Neutralize Poison in before you keel over.  The necrosis angle on viper bites could be somewhat interesting, might play out a bit like ACKS' Dismember spell on a failed save.  2HD for a 5' pit viper that probably weighs 5 pounds seems really high.

Where you'd expect to see save-or-die poison with a pretty quick time to kill would be in snakes for whom humans are a common prey species.  I recall reading somewhere that most predators hunt prey that is something like a 10th of their own mass to minimize the risk of being injured by the prey.  I don't know how true this is but it sort of passes the smell-check; a mouse is much smaller than a cat, a mosquito is much smaller than a bat or sparrow, a seal is much smaller than a great white shark.  I would expect pack hunting, ambush, and venom to all shift those closer to 1:1, since these strategies reduce the risk of injury to the predator.

The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is typically about 6 feet long and weighs about 5 pounds.  It commonly preys on cottontail and marsh rabbits, which weigh about 2-3 pounds.  Scaling up mass with the cube of any single dimension, we'd expect a 12 foot rattlesnake built to the Eastern Diamondback's proportions to weight about 40lbs, and a 24-foot rattlesnake to weigh about 320.  That seems a size at which hunting adult humans as a primary prey sounds plausible.  Incidentally, this is also about the size of a large reticulated python, which have been known from time to time to prey on humans, including adult male humans.  I think this length and mass would be a better match for the 4HD giant rattler stats than the 10' in its description.

Anyway, a few other fun snake "facts":

  • King cobras have a really low-pitched growly hiss apparently
  • The yellow-bellied sea snake can get about 33% of its oxygen needs by absorbing oxygen from the water through its skin
  • We're pretty sure sea snakes don't drink seawater, but nobody is really sure where they get fresh/brackish water.  It's theorized that they might drink the layer of brackish water at the top of the water column during heavy rains
  • The small-scaled burrowing asp can rotate its fangs sideways out of its mouth and uses this in confined spaces where it doesn't have room to bite.  It has also been observed to sting each rodent in a burrow containing multiple before stopping to eat any of them.  Next time your players meet a snake and complain that trying to bite each PC in turn was too smart, show them this.
  • Some venomous snakes which hunt by ambush use "caudal lures", where the tip of their tail look like a tasty worm or grub.  A dungeon-snake whose tail looks like some sort of unattended treasure would be pretty funny.

I also wandered into some articles on treating snakebite.  Antivenin is made by injecting large mammals like horses with small doses of venom and then harvesting their antibodies.  Antivenom can have some pretty significant side effects, called "serum sickness", from reactions to horse proteins.  These can take up to two weeks to appear and in rare cases can kill you.  In folk medicine, there's a whole genre of magic healing stones, some of which nominally work on snakebites (bezoar stones from inside of toads and snake-stones or black-stones often made from burnt animal bones) and some of which might be made by snakes (adder stones).  There were also madstones, which might not have been stones at all but body parts of albino deer used to try to treat rabies?  In conclusion I feel OK about having some non-magical treatments for snakebite that give you a second save but also entail bed rest afterwards.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

1e's Time in the Dungeon

The introduction to the AD&D 1e DMG mentioned that it's reasonable to omit random encounter wandering monster rolls if you understand the purpose of random encounters and it doesn't apply.  It doesn't tell you what that function is, though.  So I went looking for it and sadly didn't find it.

Instead, I found the table of how long various actions in dungeon exploration take.  It's split across a page boundary (pages 96 and 97) so I have reproduced it in text here rather than as a screenshot:

  • DOOR - search for traps: 1 round
  • DOOR - listening for noise: 1 round
  • ROOM - mapping, and casually examining a 20'x20' area: 1 turn
  • ROOM - thoroughly searching after initial examination: 1 turn
  • SECRET DOOR - checking for by simple tapping of floor or wall, by 10'x10' area: 1 round
  • SECRET DOOR - thorough examination for means to open, by 10'x10' area: 1 turn

I was very surprised to see the time-costs of some of these actions listed in rounds (which in 1e are minutes, 10 per turn, not 6-10 seconds) rather than turns.  I went back and checked and B/X (well, OSE) simply doesn't have times listed for any of the interactions with doors, and doesn't distinguish between types of searching - it just says that searching a 10'x10' area takes a turn.  I think I had been running listening at doors, searching them for traps, and searching for secret doors as taking a turn each.  I'm not sure how I feel about breaking the atomicity of the exploration turn and allowing it to be subdivided further into rounds.  I also find it very amusing that on page 97 shortly after this table of suggested times to perform these actions, Gygax complains about players who search everything and listen at every door.

Assume that your players are continually wasting time (thus making the so-called adventure drag out into a boring session of dice rolling and delay) if they are checking endlessly for traps and listening at every door. If this persists despite the obvious displeasure you express, the requirement that helmets be doffed and mail coifs removed to listen at a door, and then be carefully replaced, the warnings about ear seekers, and frequent checking for wandering monsters (q.v.), then you will have to take more direct part in things. Mocking their over-cautious behavior as near cowardice, rolling huge handfuls of dice and then telling them the results are negative, and statements to the effect that: “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far —“, might suffice. If the problem should continue, then rooms full with silent monsters will turn the tide, but that is the stuff of later adventures.

But...  my brother in dice, you set the time cost to perform these actions so low that players would be stupid not to search for traps and listen at every door.

Maybe it's stupid to require a turn to listen at a door - but it works well and it's an actual choice!  And if it takes a turn to listen at a door, search it for traps, or try to pick a lock, then maybe you really don't need the no-retry clauses.

This does force me to consider that maybe I should give the party "free" attempts at finding secret doors in passing, assuming that they're tapping as they go because it's quick, and then make a successful turn-length search primarily for finding the mechanism of action / trigger.

There is also an interesting bit in here:

A gnome, for instance, must remain relatively quiet and concentrate for a turn to detect facts about an underground setting. Likewise, a dwarf must work at it. An elf doesn’t detect secret doors 162/3% of the time by merely passing them unless he or she is actually concentrating on the act. A character with a sword must have it out and be thinking about its power in order for the weapon to communicate anything to him or her. To sum it all up, DON’T GIVE PLAYERS A FREE LUNCH! Tell them what they “see”, allow them to draw their own conclusions and initiate whatever activity they desire.

Emphasis mine.  I think grouping in the use of magic sword detection abilities with these inherent racial abilities is telling about the expected frequency and ease-of-use of sentient swords.  There are no swords with detection abilities on table III.G. Swords on page 124 - swords with detection abilities only arise from the Sword Primary Abilities table for "unusual" (sentient) swords on page 167.  In conclusion, further evidence that the sentient sword rules are significant and have a purpose.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Getting a Sense for 24-Mile Hexes

I'm considering doing some mapping on 24-mile hex scales, and wanted to get a sense of just how big that was.  Previously I had imposed a ~24-mile hex grid over parts of France, but that doesn't really tell me much.  But the same technique was easy to apply to more familiar country:

One could reach most of these same conclusions from just looking at numbers - distances between cities, areas of states.  But it's still interesting.

Pennsylvania is something like 85 or 90 24-mile hexes - enough area to be a Kingdom by ACKS' standards.

Massachusetts is maybe 16 hexes, somewhere in the large duchy to small principality range.  The projection might be messing with this a bit, I think taking MA's land area and dividing it by the area of a 24-mile hex I get closer to 20 hexes.

Lake Erie is something like 16 24-mile hexes - enough area to be a merfolk duchy.

Even Rhode Island is good hex or two (or three by the numbers).

It's only about four hexes from DC to Richmond - about a week encumbered on foot at 60' speed or with a cart with plenty of draft animals.

Megacity Ruin Hexes

New York City proper basically occupies a whole 24-mile hex; it's 32 miles from Yonkers to the southwestern tip of Staten Island, 25 miles from that tip of Staten Island to JFK airport, and 18 miles from JFK to Yonkers.  And that's ignoring Newark and most of Long Island.  Washington DC proper is 70 square miles (about two full 6-mile hexes) and is maybe a 6th of the DC metro area.  The DC beltway and the ring-road around Boston both have radii of about 10 miles, and there's plenty of 'burbs outside those rings.  In a post-apocalyptic setting, one could readily fill an entire 24-mile hex with terrain type "ruined city" and it wouldn't be crazy.

Culture Distances

New York City is 13 hexes by land to Richmond or 14 by sea to Norfolk, and 14 hexes by sea or 8 by land to Boston - and those were distances great enough for significantly different cultures, accents, and modes of life to emerge and persist for a long time, even starting from a shared language.  This checks out if you look at France too - Paris to the middle of Brittany (which was unified with the French crown in 1532 but where only half of the population spoke French in 1900) is about 10 hexes, and Paris to Zurich is about 12 hexes.  From the southwestern tip of Flanders to the northeastern end of the Netherlands, the whole region where Dutch is the primary language, is only about 240 miles - 10 hexes.

Philadelphia to Pittsburgh is 11 hexes across a mountain range, well up into that "cultural divergence" distance.  Hence the Westsylvania movement.  Pittsburgh to Chicago is another 19 hexes - enough distance for at least one complete divergent regional culture (and likely a dialect if not a whole new language) in between them.

This 10-hex cultural divergence distance is also interesting from the perspective of kings of people, not of places - if every 10 hexes or so of forest and hills you have a culture shift, then the natural size for a kingdom of a people, of a culture, is about 10 hexes by 10 hexes of such terrain.  Which is on the low side for a kingdom in ACKS, but it's in the right range.  It's possible I've accidentally picked odd boundary situations (though I'm not aware of a big natural barrier between Brittany and Paris...).  At this size, you can march your army from one side of the kingdom to the other and back in about two months.  "Two weeks from the center to the border" might be a reasonable heuristic.  Beyond that you start getting into empire - you can conquer them and extract tribute, but they'll retain their own culture for a long time (longer than the campaign will run, in any case).

These numbers are also kind of in the right ballpark for a couple of other thing sin ACKS.  A kingdom in ACKS tends to have a single Class II market city, which has a trade range by road of 144 miles (6 24-mile hexes), which is a little short but means that the whole trade range (by road) is probably within the kingdom if the city is centrally located.  These sort of 10-hex distances are also towards the outer limit for supplying your army from a centrally-located capital city in Domains at War: Campaigns without having forward supply bases, too - the base range is 96 miles (4 24-mile hexes), but this is multiplied by 4 on roads or by 3 through "settled" territory.  Assuming a ring of settlement around the central market and then diminishing population density and road construction at the frontiers, we might reasonably expect to get x3 supply chain length for a good portion of the way but then logistics break down at the edge and we end up a little short of x3 overall.  So it's the area you can definitely project power into with no prep.

...  it's about 290 miles from London to Dublin as the crow flies and that's sure a culture-border that has persisted over centuries.  London to the south edge of Scotland is about 275 miles by land, 11 hexes.  London to the edge of Cornwall is only about 7 hexes and the Cornovii have mostly lost their own language (though it took a thousand years from when the Saxons arrived) and have a dialect of English, while London to the edge of Wales is a mere 6 hexes - but there's some rough country in Wales, and the English language didn't start making inroads into Wales until the Industrial Revolution, which is well after the period we're interested in modeling cultural dynamics for.

(I eagerly await corrections from my readers in the UK)

I don't really have a good theory of these sort of culture-distances along nautical routes yet.

Nautical Matters

At 72 miles per day (three hexes), it would be four days by sail from NYC to either Norfolk or Boston with favorable winds.  Those numbers don't seem totally crazy - the Everglades Challenge is a motorless small craft race from Tampa to Key Largo, which is 275 or 300 miles (11-12 hexes) or so, and the winning time in 2013 (which mostly had a favorable wind out of the north) was around two days of near-constant sail with very little sleep.

The continental shelf is also interesting, 2-4 hexes of shallow ocean off of the coast before the bottom drops off and it gets deeeep.  It might be merciful to have separate encounter tables for littoral vs pelagic ocean with different weights for dragon turtles.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

AD&D 1e's Time Sinks

I've been working my way through the 1e DMG and translating/summarizing the DMing advice out of Gygaxian into plain english for my own use.  I'm not that far through it yet but one thing that is constantly sticking out at me is that there are many time sinks.  For example:

  • Every time you go digging through a pile of rotting crap or spend time holed up in unsanitary conditions you might catch a disease, which may cost you 2-4 weeks of downtime (and possibly ability score damage, death, blindness...).  You can also catch parasites from drinking bad water, with similar effects.
    • As an aside, the paladin's disease immunity sounds amazing if the disease rules are played straight
    • I'm probably going to end up writing another post about this at some point.  I think there's a good disease system waiting to be derived from this system - one not as crushingly awful as LotFP's corruptions and not as "all-or-nothing" as B/X's save-or-die diseases.
  • When a paladin hits 4th level, he gets a vision of a horse.  Not a horse, just a vision.  And then he gets to go on a ~2 week quest to get his special mount.
  • Thieves and assassins can go spying and infiltrate organizations.  Simple missions take up to a week, complex missions take multiple weeks.
  • High-level assassins can study poisons, which takes many many weeks (and costs lots and lots of gold).  Once they've done their course they can create pretty arbitrary poisons, which takes a week or two.
  • If you miss your initial window for Cure Disease after contracting lycanthropy, one of your options to remove it is to spend a month or so in an abbey drinking holy water infused with wolfsbane out of a silver chalice (for a considerable donation to the monks hosting you, of course).

That's all in the first 23 pages.  It's not like there's a big list of "campaign activities that take time", it's all mixed in with everything else, and if I didn't have time on my mind I probably wouldn't see it.  But it's there.  Lots of ways for time to get spent.

Maybe it would be fun to compile that list of all the ways to spend downtime (or to have downtime inflicted on you) in 1e.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Surviving First Level: The Heist Hypothesis

I'm still trying to figure out what a reliable or intended strategy for surviving 1st level is supposed to look like.  In part so that I can design a dungeon that supports it, or at worst not design a dungeon that accidentally hard-counters it.

Assume for the sake of argument a Big Four party of fighter, MU, cleric, thief.  Total XP required to get them all to 2nd is 7200.  Assuming stats roughly typical for 3d6, with +5% prime reqs all around and not much else, bringing us down to about 6850 XP.  Assume also that we're following Moldvay's advice to not let new players lean on hirelings as they learn the game.

A single dungeon encounter of 2d4 (average 5) goblins is a pretty fair match outside of the party's one sleep per day.  3d4 (average 7.5) skeletons are liable to get messy if the cleric fails the turning roll.  And those are both bite-sized random encounters with pocket change at best for treasure.  Lairs are much bigger, and dividing and conquering them requires shared languages, decent luck with reaction rolls, and ideally multiple humanoid lairs to pit against each other - but we can't count on getting that from the stocking tables.

Fighting monsters for their treasure seems like a pretty bad idea at 1st level.  You don't have any healing resources and your one sleep might be best used to survive a fight that you didn't want to be in, rather than offensively to win a fight that probably won't have treasure.  Oil and war-dogs are great and all, but...  is that really the intended solution?

Is it possible that you're meant to spend first level skulking about, looking for trapped or unguarded treasure and avoiding almost all encounters?

Well...  I'm not sure the math works out.  In ACKS, the expected value of an unguarded treasure on the first level of a dungeon is 870 GP, so you'd need about 8 unguarded treasures to get everyone to 2nd, for that cure light and extra sleep per day (the thief, incidentally, will level after only about four such treasures).  Buuut between trap rooms and empty rooms, about 9% of rooms (1 in 11) have treasure but no monsters.  So on average you'd need to explore 88 rooms on the first level of the dungeon to level by unguarded+trapped treasure, and that's assuming no casualties to traps, random encounters, stumbling into lairs, etc (granted, also assuming no monster XP - but if you're avoiding lairs and start heading for the exit when you've burnt your one sleep on a random encounter, you're talking maybe 25-50 monster XP per expedition). 88 rooms is huge for the first level of a dungeon - when I'm building standalone non-mega dungeons, I often have about that many rooms across three levels.  But it's sort of plausible that one could build a ruin that large, all of dungeon level 1.  88 rooms is also going to take quite a lot of play time to get through - my players in Rat-hell were exploring maybe 10 rooms per session, so we're looking at 9 sessions without any resets from casualties.  That seems like a long time to spend at 1st level.

The situation is much worse in OSE.  It's still 9% of rooms with treasure but no monsters, but the expected value of that treasure on the first level of the dungeon is a paltry 160gp - about a fifth of what it is in ACKS.  So you'd need to explore over 400 first-level dungeon rooms to level everyone off of unguarded treasure in OSE.

Is the answer to go deeper?  If you're already adopting a Robinsonian posture towards monsters, and the unguarded loot is better at lower levels, maybe this isn't crazy.  And traps don't necessarily scale up when you go down; ACKS' list of traps is the same for 1st-3rd dungeon levels, and OSE doesn't specify.  2nd level unguarded treasure in OSE has an expected value of 492 gp (about triple), while in ACKS it's 1491 gp (almost double).  And many of the random encounters on the 2nd level dungeon table are still susceptible to sleep - 5 2HD lizardmen vs 9 HD affected on average by sleep, for example.  So a 2nd level random encounter isn't necessarily any more of a game-ender than a 1st-level one is...

With ACKS' treasure numbers, I could see a dungeon with 30 rooms in the first level and 30 rooms in the second level yielding enough unguarded/trapped treasure to get a party to 2nd.  'course, in those 60 rooms you've got about 20 monster rooms, of which probably 2 are lairs...

There is also the question of surviving the traps.  In 60 rooms, we're talking about 20 traps (of which 6-7 have treasure).  Most of the "treasure traps" are threats only to whoever interacts with the treasure, but some of the "room traps" are threats to the whole party at once.  In 20 trapped rooms, we'll probably pull the "room fills with poison gas" one at least once, and it could easily happen twice.  Saves at 1st are pretty bad (we should expect ~1.5 survivors based on saves).  Finding and Removing Traps at 1st is also pretty terrible.  The Trapfinding proficiency in ACKS is actually a huge boost at this point in the game, almost doubling the thief's chances of successfully finding or removing a trap (granted, it's 15% chance of success to 25%, which is still not great).  ACKS also removes the poison gas room trap, though the falling bricks from the ceiling for 2d6 is arguably worse at this point since Petrification and Paralysis saves are slightly worse than Poison and Death, and its average damage is still going to be enough for the vast majority of 1st-level characters.

On the other hand, when you frame Finding Traps as "15% chance to detect non-monster TPKs before they fire", thieves start to sound pretty good.  It's not a high chance, but it's better than nothing.

Thursday, January 19, 2023


So I've been thinking about running a game at the office in the spring.  And I'm contemplating starting it at 1st level.

I have never run a game starting at 1st level, in any edition, that I can recall.  And I'm worried about the wild fragility of 1st level characters, and that 2000 XP is a lot if you're taking regular casualties.  You could easily end up having to earn something like 5k XP each before getting any particular character to 2nd level, losing it all over and over again.  I don't know that I want to spend that much time running super-low-level dungeons, never mind trying to retain players during massive attrition of PCs.

Reserve XP is, of course, an option, particularly with the interpretation where it isn't spent when you bring in a new character.

But another thought that occurred to me was that we could instead make 1st level more granular.  The big difference between 1st and 2nd is that your HP doubles, in expectation.  And you'll always gain at least 1 HP.  What if, at XP halfway between 1st and 2nd, you gained 1HP?  And then when you hit 2nd, you lose that 1 bonus HP but instead gain a rolled hit die?

1HP doesn't sound like much.  Even for a fighter it's 20-odd percent on average.  And for a 1st-level wizard, it's a 40% increase in HP, on average.

So it's kinda like 1.5th level.  And then Arbrethil on discord pointed out that going from 2nd to 3rd is also a really big power bump, between 2nd level spells and a further 50% increase in HP (even without ACKS' fighter damage bonus increase).  So maybe we need a 2.5th level too...

(If we did Iron Heroes-style hit dice, where d6 got turned into d4+1 and d8 into d4+2, we could be even more granular - could cut 1st level for fighters into four segments, one with d4+2 HP, then d4+3, d4+4, d4+5, and then finally 2d4+4 at 2nd level)

It also occurs to me that, in light of the big increases in survivability already taking place from 1st to 3rd level, maybe it's actually OK to delay improvements in saves and to-hit until 4th like B/X does.  I don't know that continuing to do big jumps in to-hit and saves every couple of levels makes sense after that point, but at the very beginning it almost seems defensible.

But I'll probably chicken out and start them at 2500 or 3000 XP like I usually do.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Reading Holmes Basic

No standardized ability score modifiers like in B/X.

Trading down ability scores to boost prime reqs sounds like it's literally trading down here, not just "counting as" (vs the ambiguous "use" language in OD&D)

No explicit mechanical modifiers from Charisma are evident, either in the section on ability scores or in the section on reaction rolls (DM's discretion to give a bonus for a high Cha).

Thieves are not truly good and are usually referred to as neutral or evil, so that other members of an expedition should never completely trust them and they are quite as likely to steal from their own party as from the Dungeon Master's monsters.

How's that for setting expectations?

At the Dungeon Master's discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience.

Looks like balrog's back on the playable menu, boys!

If a character is killed, then for the next game the player rolls a new character. The new character, of course, starts with no experience. A character may be allowed to designate a "relative" who will inherit his wealth and possessions (after paying a 10% tax) on his death or disappearance.

So there's none of the "once per player" inheritance business here that we see in B/X.  Having to wait until next session to bring in a replacement character is rough though!

Retirement of a successful character is explicitly called out as a reasonable thing to do.

Hiring mercenaries and henchmen is brought up quite early, just as it was in OD&D.  Searching for candidates seems quite expensive but the minimum cost to hire is quite low.

Monsters can be hired as henchmen if they're of the same "basic alignment."

Subdued monsters are "salable."

Two-axis alignment, law/chaos and good/evil.

Players may choose any alignment they want and need not reveal it to others. Note that the code of lawful good characters insures that they would tell everyone that they are lawful.

Do they have to tell everyone they're good, though?

One free language per point of Int over 10.  Wizards are all massive polyglots I guess.

Movement rates in the dungeon seem unusually high - an unarmored and unencumbered man can move 240' per turn rather than usual 120, with armored characters moving 120'.  In OD&D you might manage 120' in armor, but there's nothing pointing to 240' while unarmored and unencumbered.  Looking at 1e, we have 120' for light armor down to 60' in plate.  This would help address the complaint that dungeon movement rates are unreasonably slow...  Ahhh, but in OD&D you could make two moves per exploration turn (according to my notes anyway).  So this is about the same total as OD&D's movement rates, just as a single move per turn.

There's a note about reducing the chance to find secret doors on lower levels of dungeons.  Don't think I've seen that before.

Still has the "drop stuff when surprised" rule from OD&D, but now it's only 1-in-6 instead of 1-in-4.

Wandering monster check every three turns rather than every two.  This also lines up a wandering monster check with the rest turn.  Not sure how I feel about this.

The number of wandering monsters appearing should be roughly equal to the strength of the party encountering them. First level adventurers encountering monsters typically found on the first level of a dungeon should be faced with roughly equal numbers, i.e. a party of three would encounter 2-6 orcs, 3 - 1 2 giant rats, etc. However, if the party were second level, or the first level monsters were encountered on the second level of the dungeon, the number of wandering monsters encountered should be doubled. In a like manner, the number of monsters should be tripled for third level adventures or in the third level of the dungeon if the monsters appearing are first level. If justification is needed, simply consider that a small party is relatively quiet, thus attracting less attention than a large group, and powerful characters will similarly bring more numbers of monsters.

Emphasis mine.  Whaaaat. Scaling number of monsters appearing by party level independent of dungeon level.  Wild.  How do the monsters know that there are powerful characters about and to gather up more guys?  I don't know.

Treasure is usually divided equally among members of the party and therefore the experience is also. If, for some reason, one character gets more of the loot, such as a thief stealing gems from the saddle bags on the way home, then he should get the additional experience points.

Dohohoho.  Emphasis mine.  Again, further precedent for giving players control over how XP from treasure is allocated.

"Using or hurling missiles" is called out as a special ability for monster XP calculation purposes.  That's...  kinda reasonable, really.

XP from monsters can be reduced if they're killed by a character of higher level than their HD.  Presumably this happens before XP is totaled and allocated?  Are you supposed to track who struck the killing blow against each monster?  But it's not lossy if you just soften 'em up and then let your 1st-level henchman finish the job?  No wonder this rule fell by the wayside.

Wait dwarves don't cost any more XP to level than regular fighters, and since the level cap is only 3 that doesn't matter either.  Dwarves OP, plz nerf.

The second roll in turning is to determine number of undead turned, not number of HD of undead turned.  I kinda like that, since the target number already scales with HD.

It's really funny that they don't get around to explaining the different flavors of "level" (character level, dungeon level, spell level...) until we're already quite a ways in, after random encounter tables for different dungeon levels and a discussion of leveling characters.

MUs require "at least 1 day" to prepare spells, and can't bring their books into the dungeon.

BUT MUs can make scrolls, starting at first level.  So that's interesting; I had heard that Holmes had this rule about early scroll creation, but it makes more sense in the context of needing "at least" a full day to re-memorize spells.  And also notably, none of this is aimed at mid-level wilderness play, since Holmes only goes up to 3rd level.

There is a reading of this text (at least up to this point) indicating that fighters can't use potions - in the class description it says they can use magical arms and armor but do no other kind of magic, and then there's this list of magic items that MUs can use which includes potions right in among wands and staves.

Spell research success chance is a brutal 20%.  But again, that might not be intended to remain true for levels out of scope for Basic.

He gets to choose the spell he will memorize from his books and he does this before the expedition starts off

(emph mine) Yeah now we're thinking in expeditions.

% chance to know and min and max number of spells known by Int are much more AD&D than B/X. Makes Int a lot more important for MUs than in B/X, but also gives them probably more options at low levels (when a B/X MU might only know 1-2 spells, as many as he can memorize), but those options are likely to be worse, since your DM is like 90% likely to pick sleep for you in B/X.  This is an interesting change; I don't recall seeing anything like this in OD&D.

God I don't want to read all these spell descriptions.

No clause in Light about using it for blinding.

Have to roll to hit with Magic Missile I think?

Explicitly no save on Sleep.

Huh, Ray of Enfeeblement.  And it's a bit jank, in a system where monsters don't actually have Str scores.  Amusingly, no such clause for what happens if you cast the Strength spell on a monster.

Wow Web is 10x10x20 feet, instead of a 10' cube.

Good lord do we really need all three of Ventriloquism, Magic Mouth, and Audible Glamer?

Third level spells are listed but not described, so I don't get to see if Fireball expands to volume.

It sounds like clerics don't need to spend time "studying" to prepare their spells (eg the full day to recover), but also don't get the ability to make scrolls at 1st.

Nothing in Cure Light Wounds about removing paralysis.

Bless could be read to be single-target.

Putting melee attack resolution before the combat sequence, it almost sounds like in melee you get an automatic counterattack against anything that attacks you (but after their attack has resolved).

Ouch, direct hits from burning oil are 1d8 on the first round and then 2d8 on the second round, rather than 1d8 each of the two rounds in eg B/X.  50% more total damage!  On the other hand, it is also made clearer that igniting thrown oil is a separate attack, so the action economy is actually worse than igniting and then throwing in B/X - twice the actions for 1.5x the damage.

Also, unless in a very high roofed area, all slinging, as well as long range fire, is not possible

...  what?  Slings are the thing that you're gonna penalize indoors, not archery?  I get that clerics are supposed to have weak offense but this is just silly.

Whoa, slow combat movement speeds - "an unarmored man can move 20 feet per melee round, a fully armored man only 10 feet".

Light weapons such as the dagger allow two blows per round

But...  if all hits do 1d6 damage, why wouldn't you use a dagger?

Ooookay yeah this combat sequence is much Chainmail-ier (but using d20s for to-hit), very different from the initiative-by-side that is stock in both B/X and 1e.  Initiative is just straight Dex, and DM rolls it for monsters on the spot, but if your Dex is close enough to that of your opponent, then you both roll d6s for it.  There's an option to forego an attack in order to parry, but your weapon can break if you do.  It isn't really clear when characters not engaged in melee, making ranged attacks, or casting get to act.

No mention of morale.

6-12 adventures to gain a level of experience is given as guidance.

Skimming monster entries.

Why do dwarves and elves in the monster entries do 1d8 and 1d10 damage, but 1st-level dwarf and elf PCs don't?  Strength doesn't even modify damage here!  ...  I'm not sure it even modifies to-hit, come to think of it.

Gelatinous cube doesn't actually paralyze, just anesthetizes on a failed save vs paralysis.  So you could get eaten without realizing it, rather than freezing up.  Kinda interesting twist.

The only indication that ghouls are undead is that they're on the cleric's turning table.  The description just calls them humanoids, and doesn't note that they're immune to anything unusual!

Several monsters mention Cure Disease in their descriptions, but that's the only place it's mentioned!

Purple worms swallow whole if they beat your AC by a mere two points!  Brutal!

The description of the effects of magic weapons on wights is very strange; magic arrows do double damage, neat.  Magic weapons do "full" damage and add their bonus to damage.  Does that mean max damage on the die, which is similar to double damage in expectation?  Are wights just especially vulnerable to magic arrows for some reason?  We'll never know.

I still don't think I've seen a to-hit table by HD for monsters.

10% of magic swords are cursed.

Randomly-rolled scrolls can be of the effect of a random wand, potion, or ring (with some exclusions like three wishes).  That's actually pretty neat.  I don't know what the duration of a scroll of, say, water walking or fire resistance is, when it would normally last as long as you kept the ring on.

Magic armor is actually quite rare, and it's on the same table as misc weapons.  Armor +1, shield +1, and armor -2 are each 2% of magic item rolls.

No mention of sentient swords or artifacts ):

One player should map the dungeon from the Dungeon Master's descriptions as the game progresses. This is easiest done if he uses a piece of graph paper marked North, East, South, West with the entrance to the dungeon level drawn in near the center. One of the players should keep a "Chronicle" of the monsters killed, treasure obtained, etc. Another should act as "caller" and announce to the Dungeon Master what action the group is taking. Both mapper and caller must be in the front rank of the party.

Emphasis mine.  I've been thinking for a while that it probably makes sense to make treasurer or quartermaster an official party role, nice to see precedent.  Putting the mapper up front is a rule I haven't seen before!

You are sure to encounter situations not covered by these rules. Improvise. Agree on a probability that an event will occur and convert it into a die roll — roll the number and see what happens!

(emph mine)  You're alright, Holmes.  You got a hard job, to be a bridge between OD&D and AD&D, and you really tried to make the first three levels of OD&D a little more accessible.  And the results have some rough edges, but you have the right spirit to the end.  You're still thinking of the game like a gamer, rather than in Moldvay's literary terms.

I'm not reading this whole sample dungeon right at this moment but the map is nicely jayquayed!  Honestly much of the art in this book has been quite good.  The inner cover with the wizard, fighter, and pig-faced orcs.  The lizardman riding the giant lizard.  The beefy minotaur vs the fighter with the curved sword.  There's a cartoony streak in here but it's kind of endearing.  I think the only pieces I really don't like are the grey ooze and this tiny, mostly-empty picture of what I guess is supposed to be treasure on page 33?

Oho, here's the monster to-hit table, at the very end!

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Goblins and Digging

Thinking back to tribal goblins, I still like the idea of having goblins operate primarily in the Morlock Model, hiding in underground dens during the day and then emerging to pillage the countryside at night.  This makes rooting out goblins clearly an adventurer activity rather than a problem you can throw mercenaries at - you can fight them in their holes or you can fight them at night, but either way you're gonna be fighting them in the dark.


But something I'm still fiddling with is how viable it is for goblins to get established.  Say you've got a warband of 30 goblins and you're sent by your chief to go start digging a warren near a human town.  How do the numbers work out in ACKS?  I'm not aiming for perfectly ACKS RAW-compliant here so much as plausibility-checking.

Per Domains at War: Campaigns page 81, digging 20 cubic feet of slapdash unpaved underground tunnel costs 1 gp in labor.  Depending on whether you factor in their poor encumbrance, goblins might have either 0 labor rate or 1sp/day, so optimistically with your 30 goblins and appropriate tools you can dig 3gp/day, or 60 cubic feet.  A 10' cube is 1000 cubic feet, so 16 days to dig one of those.  If you go with 5' ceilings instead and assume a sleeping goblin takes 12 square feet of floor space at a bare minimum, you need 360 square feet of floorspace, 1800 cubic feet, 90gp, 30 days to house just your lads very uncomfortably.  That's a long time to be sleeping in tents on the surface where random encounters can eat you, or where a nearby domain's garrison might discover you by reconnaissance rolls if you're in the same 24-mile hex.

We might consider the possibility that goblins are good at digging, or at least goblin pioneers are selected for their digging ability, and give them the Labor proficiency, bringing their individual construction rate up to 2sp/day or 6gp/day for the warband as a whole.  (If we give goblins Labor as stock, this also explains why orcs and hobgoblins like dragooning them into doing grunt work)  So then we're back down to about two weeks to dig a reasonable shelter.

What else could we do to bring the digging rate up?  The answer, naturally, is workbeasts.  The rules on using non-sentient workbeasts for construction projects in Domains at War aren't entirely clear.  One optimistic interpretation would let you use a workbeast as a number of unskilled laborers equal to its encumbrance over 5st, maybe with a handler.  So for example a mule is worth about four guys, which seems plausible if part of your work is hauling rocks and pieces of wood to use as supports.

But you know what has more carrying capacity than a mule, is more tolerant of low ceilings, fits goblin aesthetic, and eats garbage?  Giant beetles.  A giant fire beetle has 30 stone of encumbrance, so it's worth about six guys.  And adding some fire beetles to a goblin warband is not massively more terrifying for low-level PCs, like adding wargs, giant shrews, or ankhegs would be, if you want to use a goblin outpost under construction as an adventure site for 1st-2nd level characters.  Plus, having some beasts of burden to carry supplies from your point of departure makes a lot of sense; assuming goblins eat as much as a man, you're looking at 30 stone of supplies per week, which is conveniently the carrying capacity of a single beetle.  And it isn't totally implausible that you could train the beetles to do the actual digging, versus hauling dirt like you'd get with mules.

So let's say we add five fire beetles to our warband; a large encounter or a small lair, depending on how you look at it.  A trained fire beetle has a labor rate of 6sp/day based on its carrying capacity, so the five of them are another 3gp/day.  Even if we have to allocate a gobbo or two to supervise them, we have about doubled our digging power for a relatively small increase in required footprint (the beetles are only 2.5 feet long and being bugs may be able to rest in weird spots like on walls and ceilings.  Being 2.5 feet long, I imagine the pack saddles for carrying 300lb must be quite silly-looking, which, again, is pretty goblin).  With trained diggers and some beetles, we can get up around 9gp/day, which lets us dig a 10' cube every 5-6 days, and get a minimal shelter up in a similar timeframe.  In a second week, you could have cramped room enough for a second warband, and then they start digging too...  If you have a 6-warband village, you could have space for all your soldiers in a couple weeks, and then space enough for your noncombatants in a couple months.

Another interesting question, I suppose, is about linear distance.  If you wanted a long tunnel you could move 3 1/2'-tall troops through single-file, maybe you go down to 4' ceiling and 3' wide, so 12 cubic feet per foot of linear distance, or 0.6gp of labor.  Assuming you let that parallelize so they can bring their full power to bear on that 12 square foot surface, your digging crew with 9gp/day could dig about 15 feet of tunnel per day, or a 1-mile tunnel in a year.  So inter-hex tunnels probably aren't constructible in the timeframes of a typical campaign, even under the most charitable assumptions.  Maybe for a project like that, linking up to a well-established "city" type lair, you bring out the giant tiger beetles, with 250st carrying capacity and so 5 gp/day construction rate each.

In any case, I feel pretty OK with having goblins digging burrows and tunnels during the course of a campaign provided they have some helpful arthropods along.