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.