Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Over on the HackMaster forums, the question of campaign settings came up. For his part, Topher presented a rather convincing argument for using a historical locale as the basis for a fantastic setting. He points out that, not only is much of the work already done for you, but such a backdrop is already both highly detailed and believable.

As he mentions, his most recent game is set in a fantasy Samarkand before the rise of the Timurid Dynasty. This is another great contribution, as I suspect many referees (myself included) often neglect the lesser known ancient world as a source to draw inspiring material from. Areas like Transoxania, Bengal and Scythia have always existed on the borders of great empires, but are also themselves the seats of ancient civilization. Transoxania alone saw the rise and fall of countless nations of antiquity which flourished brightly once but eventually disappeared under the sands of time (one thinks of the Sogdiana, Samanid, Kharezmid and Timurid dynasties, to name but a few).

What is perhaps most interesting about these regions is that, not only are they cradles of humanity, but also crossroads and borderlands for very different civilizations and empires. Transoxania accomodated Persian, Chinese, Arab, Greek and Mongol cultures, as well as Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Christian and Muslim faiths. This sort of setting, with its countless variables and a complete lack of the stability found in the neighboring empires, is rife with story potential.

In the future, I'd like to revisit Transoxania in particular, as per Topher's suggestion, as a potential campaign locale. If the readership has similar experience, I would be happy to see this engender a further conversation.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Campaign Frames

Since receiving the unexpected but always welcome guest known as "leisure," I have recently gratified myself in novels again. As a side effect, I have then lately revisited a more narrative style of campaign: something apart from the usual extempore sandbox that I have become accustomed to. Now, I am uneasy to promote a heavily scripted endeavor, but I have been musing about general campaign frames that structure a story, one that hopefully my players might fill out with their choices and blunders alike.

The nice thing about campaign frames, of course, is that they allow you to really dive into strong themes and questions that are otherwise hard to excavate from the erratic and somewhat superficial style of sandbox campaigns. As an example, imagine a campaign frame that started the players out as magistrates working for a pact of sovereigns that ruled peacefully over the nations. A mission to uncover an assassination plot might first be cast as a dutiful defense of the pact, and thus international peace, but would quickly change colour if the assassin's death were to reveal the true grievance; the sub rosa abuse of an underground slave-race by one of the main sovereigns (a witch perhaps, in homage to C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair). When these atrocities go unacknowledged, the players must choose between sustaining peace or undermining their masters for the cause of justice.

It's also surprisingly easy to incorporate fairly divergent sub-plots. If further investigations led the players to discover that the Brobdingnagians that ruled one country were not natural giants at all, but a race of shape-shifters that had descended from the moon, you could easily delve into elements of science fiction without digressing irretrievably from the original plot line.

This departure from the sandbox style of campaign also requires some mechanical considerations. As the campaign is no longer locally confined, but rather based on a journey that can ultimately span much of the world, character advancement and reward must be adjusted to accommodate the more peripatetic adventuring. Accumulating huge piles of treasure may certainly be a part of this style of storytelling, but it is usually something reserved for the final chapter, and thus the heroes will have to earn their experience points through other means for much of the narrative. One easy way to do this is to introduce story awards, where experience is earned when the heroes uncover plots or unfold plots of their own, thereby encouraging the players to engage the general campaign frame itself. Experience from combat can be similarly reworked, perhaps awarding full reward for each defeated opponent to each player, without the normal subdivision between players.

In any case, I am continuing to think about more narrative campaigns. As long as one reasonably avoids over-scripting, such a campaign can offer an engaging and refreshing change from the whimsical yet shallow experience of the sandbox game.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Height, Weight and Plate Armour

I have always struggled with how best to prevent character inheritance from spoiling the balance of my campaigns. This is brought into special relief by plate armour, which I give to newly rolled up Fighting-Men for cheap (50 coins, as per Men & Magic) and then sell for a much steeper price in the marketplaces of the campaign world. My reasoning is as follows: new warriors should already come equipped with the critical boost of plate armour, but such a powerful resource should be a pricy upgrade for later characters and henchmen. Yet at gaming tables as deadly as mine, those plucky warriors do end up dying, thus leaving their priceless plate for the rest of the party's malfeasance.

Plate armour, of course, is the nicest thing a low-level party has to inherit. At higher levels, inheritance does not cause such imbalance problems in my experience, so I can happily focus my efforts on the specific problem of plate armour. Loathe as I am to import overly artificial or contrived constraints on our favorite numeral three armour class, we must look to the particularities of the historical suit of full plate.

What immediately stands out is that, more so than any other piece of armour (let alone equipment), plate armour is custom tailored to its owner. Here, the height and weight of the wearer are of principle importance. Not only does transferring the suit to a new owner entail a thorough scrubbing to remove any remnants, but the body type of the new ward must be similar enough to the former, lest the suit require an extensive retooling to properly balance and fit comfortably. We must therefore provide a method to determine the height and weight of characters in OD&D. And Lo!;

Human: 5 feet*
Elf: 4 feet*
Dwarf/Hobbit: 3 feet*
*Add 3d6 inches for males or 2d6 inches for females.

1 Stone per foot (rounded) + 2d6 (average build) or + 1d6 (slim) or + 3d6 (heavy)

For the uninitiated, this results in an average male hero of 5'11" and 182 lbs. If the dispossessed and the new owner are within 3" of height and 3 stone of weight, the inherited armour can be worn without difficulty. Otherwise, the armour must be retooled - to the price of a new suit of armour!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Sage

Here is my final optional class for pulpy campaigns: the sage. Also, check out the wanderer and the rogue if you missed them.

Sages: Living on the very border of civilization and wilderness, the reclusive sage is a lifelong student of ancient lore. These eremites have unlocked the secrets of the empyrean and learned how to transcribe both arcane and divine magic into precise formulas. Sages prepare and cast spells exactly as a magic-user and they may also transcribe cleric spells into their spellbook, although due to their peculiar celestial equations they cannot prepare the same spell more than once at a time. Sages have the same restrictions on equipment and magical items as magic-users, but are far more bookish and will only pick up and use a weapon or magic item when pressed by immediate and dire necessity. Otherwise, sages fight, save and require the same number of experience points for each level as magic-users do. Additionally, sages have a superior ability to know fragments of ancient lore, and any elaborations a sage makes on such a piece of knowledge has a chance of being fairly accurate.

Dice for Acc Fighting Spells & Levels
Sages umulated Hit Capability 1 2 3 4 5 6
Recluse 1 Man - - - - - -
Hermit 1 + 1 Man + 1 1 - - - - -
Hedge Wizard 2 2 Men 2 - - - - -
Wise Man 2 + 1 2 Men + 1 2 1 - - - -
Shaman 3 3 Men 2 2 - - - -
Savant 3 + 1 3 Men + 1 2 2 1 1 - -
Augur 4 Hero - 1 2 2 2 1 1 -
Scholar 5 Hero 2 2 2 2 2 -
Magus 6 + 1 Hero + 1 3 3 3 2 2 -
Philosopher 7 Wizard 3 3 3 3 3 -
Sage 8 + 1 Wizard 4 4 4 3 3 -

Monday, July 19, 2010

Referee Screen

Here is another little freebie for the readers. I couldn't find a good referee's screen that used Chainmail, so I quickly threw one together. The intended layout has the Underworld and Wilderness section as the leftmost pane, the Chainmail tables in the center and the list of monsters on the right. I tried to include only information that would be relevant during a game, so I left out dungeon design notes, treasure tables and so on. Let me know what you think.

Referee Screen for Dungeons & Dragons

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Reavers from the Wastelands

The original world, tucked away and hidden in the white box, is one of fierce nomadic bands of humans and humanoids that scour the badlands. Why should we think this, when every later edition of the game has portrayed a very different, more civilized setting? A quick look at Volume II gives us our first clues to this barbaric backdrop.

Unlike their later counterparts, original heroes could expect to meet wandering groups of several hundred men and humanoids in the wilderness. Large mobs of humans, in particular, are some of the most common outdoor encounters. This is particularly interesting, given the relatively low numbers of settled communities on the default wilderness map. As others have noted before, the three little brown booklets expected the referee to use Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival board game for all wilderness adventures, just as much as referee was intended to use Chainmail for combat encounters. Volume III finally gave a scale to this map ("the greatest distance across a hex is about 5 miles", pg 17), meaning each hex represented just over 16 square miles, and the total outdoor map represented 23,740 square miles (or just about the size of West Virginia). It is perhaps surprising that such a massive country has only 9 towns and 26 castles.

Furthermore, we can use the rules for clearing a barony of monsters to determine the average wilderness population of the Outdoor Survival map. In the 1,462 hexes, 601 are clearings, 395 woods, 98 rivers, 36 swamps, 254 mountains and 78 are deserts. By terrain type and encounter odds, this indicates the whole map contains an average of 44 large hordes of men and 41 small parties of heroes. Of the hordes, about 17 are bandits, 12 brigands, 7 nomads, 6 berserkers, 2 dervishes, 2 cavemen, 1 buccaneer and 1 group of river pirates. The heroic parties are equal numbers of fighting-men, clerics and magic-users with an average of 8 individuals per party. All told, this indicates there are 7,588 men roaming the countryside. With only 9 villages on the map, this indicates there are about 843 outcasts per village, which has to be a significant percentage of the total population (if each is a town of 2,500, as S. John Ross suggests, this means one quarter of the human population lives outside city walls).

Granted, Gygax doesn't indicate to us exactly how big each "town" (Volume III, pg 15) on the Outdoor Survival board should be, although the rules for Baronies suggest an estimate of 2,500 is probably not far off. Here, a hero that builds a stronghold is assumed to rule over a base peasantry of around 1,250 villagers in her demesne, some 20 miles distant from the keep. The population density here is about 1 head per square mile, or approximately the same population density as Alaska.

The wandering humanoid population is still significant, although surprisingly lower than the that of men. Compared to the 44 hordes of men, there are only about 6 roaming tribes of orcs (and a similar number of Kobolds, Goblins, Hobgoblins and Gnolls). The relatively lengthy ecological discussion of Orcs in Volume II indicate a possible reason for this. Most of the entry for these humanoids is devoted to their settled life, particularly the defense of their lairs. Half of those found wandering in the wilderness will be escorting wagon trains, which is perhaps evidence of mercantilism. If we assume from this that orcs are at least as settled as their human counterparts, then we can suppose the 990 orcs that wander the Outdoor Survival map are matched by another 3,000 settled orcs (2,000 of which live in caves, 1,000 in villages walled with palisade defenses).

What should we take away from these clues? A world where one quarter of the population is armed and roaming a vast wilderness has tremendous impact on all levels of society. It changes how we should understand the safety of civilization, the economic system, the power of monarchs and how power is conceived generally. With so little stability (one third of the settled populace would have to be constantly mobilized to defend the city walls), rulers would have to rely on shifting alliances with the nomads, and bids for power would likely have rare and dangerous artifacts as their prize, instead of tracts of land or natural resources. Here, the battle between Law and Chaos is sharply realized as a conflict that the forces of order are always on the brink of losing. In this way, the wilderness ecology written into the implied setting of the Original Dungeons & Dragons game tells a striking story of how the early game world might have been imagined. Considering Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival, combined with the guidelines in Volume II and III, this setting that takes shape is radically different from how those of later official publications were conceived.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I just finished my thesis writing. So here, this is for you. Thanks for following the blog so far.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Mmmmmm! System

At my table, I use an informal initiative ordering system, roughly based off the simple turn sequence found in Chainmail and Swords & Spells. Both systems break the combat round down into discrete phases for movement, shooting, spells and close combat. Notably, the sequence in Chainmail provides two steps to fire missiles in the combat round, while Swords & Spells increases this to three shots per round. Yet, both of these games were intended first and foremost to represent mass battles. To portray the freedom and chaos of the small scale skirmishes typical of adventures in Dungeons & Dragons, a little more detail must be hewn from the existing systems.

My sequence, obnoxiously entitled the Mmmmmm! system, is broken down into six steps that are followed through each round of combat, as necessary. The first round of combat still starts with an initiative roll (unless one side is surprised), which is kept through the rest of combat. Each round begins with the players announcing their intended actions. The steps are as follows:

3.Magic} †
4.Movement} ‡
5.Mêlée} †
} = Bows/Thrown † = Light Crossbows ‡ = Heavy Crossbows

Missiles: In the Missiles step, all ballistic attacks are made (including artillery), starting with the side that has initiative. Additionally, each later phase is marked by a "Supplementary Missiles" step, according to the type of weapon (as noted above). In this way, bows fire up to six times a round, light crossbows three times, heavy crossbows twice and other weapons (like arquebuses or artillery) fire only once. The supplementary missiles step is taken immediately after resolving the main step (whether magic, mêlée etc.), and if a combatant takes part in the main step, she loses not only any supplementary missile attack from that segment, but also her next scheduled missile attack (whether supplementary or not).

Movement: There are two movement phases that are otherwise identical. Starting with the side that has initiative, combatants can move up to their full normal movement in each phase (12" for men, 24" for cavalry and so on).

Magic: I usually don't allow a spellcaster to move or make attacks in the same round she attempts a spell. Any damage from missiles disrupts the casting.

Mêlée: This step uses the standard rules from Chainmail. While you are locked in mêlée, any non-mêlée action (including supplementary missile attacks, movement, spells and so on) becomes a miscellaneous action (see below).

Miscellaneous: This step is for any remnant action that requires some degree of concentration (such as helping a wounded comrade, imbibing a potion, lighting a flask of oil and so forth). Regardless, you can only perform a single miscellaneous action per round. Whether a player can perform other actions in previous steps and still act in the miscellaneous step is at the discretion of the referee, but any damage taken in mêlée negates the ability to use the miscellaneous step.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On Shields, Helmets and Mail

Enough attention has been given to weaponry lately that certainly armours deserve some like consideration. To wit, we shall casually observe some rules–old and new–for shields, helmets and mails; equipments donned by hopeful heroes seeking some protection against the monstrosities of the Underworld.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. With shields, we must note that the rules for Man-to-Man Combat in Chainmail allow one so furnished a superior deterrent against missile attack, particularly when combined with suits of armour. Strapping on a shield with plate armour or chain mail increases your protection against ranged weaponry by bounds (compared to the jejune static +1 of the "Alternative Combat System" found in Volume I). Alternately, we must also note that shields in Chainmail are easily obviated by particular weaponry. Battle axes have a nasty habit of cutting through such impediments, while flails can usually find their way around edge of the shield. Similarly, shields do little to absorb the weight of maces and other blunt strikes.

Regarding magical shields, it is important to recall that the armour class bonus for these items does not stack with the bonus of magical armour. Even when the shield's bonus is superior, it is only taken into account 1 in 3 times (see page 31 of Volume II). Perhaps this can be considered the same odds for the shield to catch a non-lethal projectile as well, instead of using armour class (a rotten tomato thrown by an angry peasant, for example).

If you want more cinematic shields, I recommend Trollsmyth's "Shields Shall be Splintered!" in its most basic form (i.e. mundane shields can be sacrificed to negate a hit, after the damage has been rolled). Magical shields can, perhaps, absorb a number of hits for "free" each session equal to their bonus (after which, they splinter!).

These are included in Original Dungeons & Dragons without any explicit rules for their use. Volume II implies that magical helms are hit 10% of the time. For what it's worth, I prefer the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule whereby helmets are considered in the overall armour class and attackers will direct attacks against unprotected heads 1 in 6 times. If you are using Chainmail, this is easily represented by levying any attack roll that comes up doubles against the "no armour" column of the Man-to-Man Melee Table (this is also 1 in 6 times, with no particular weighting on strike probability).

Otherwise, helmets would give contextual protection against falling rocks, green slime dropping from the ceiling and so on. They should also limit vision and awareness, making such fighters easier to ambush.

Like those for helmets, the rules for armour are actually fairly scant in Original Dungeons & Dragons. Volume I implies that a more heavily armoured combatant moves more slowly (a holdover from Chainmail), although instead of using categories of armour ("Light Foot," "Heavy Foot" and "Armoured Foot"), the referee is apparently meant to use weight of equipment. To this effect, a warrior with chain mail, sword and shield could easily fall into the fastest category (12") while carrying extra gear into combat could quickly slow her down to the slower categories (9" and 6" movement a turn). Elves and Hobbits have the same 12" base movement as humans, according to Chainmail, while Dwarves halve this.

If you don't use encumbrance rules, I recommend simply allowing chain-type armour to subtract 3" from movement and plate mail to subtract 6" from movement. Either boost dwarf movement up to 9" to absorb this, or just disallow demihumans from wearing plate armour (incidentally, this is what I do in my campaigns).

In his micro-RPG inspired by OD&D, Searchers of the Unknown, Nicolas Dessaux makes armour class inversely proportional to both movement and initiative bonus. This is a clever way to truly represent how sluggish a warrior is in full armour. A simple way to represent this in Chainmail is to allow the combatant with the faster movement the title of "attacker" when two foes charge at each other. This gives the lighter-armoured opponent a little initiative in striking order, without displacing the importance of weapon class and the initiative roll.

Addendum: Movement
Many others have lamented the oddities that have always plagued movement rates in Dungeons & Dragons. For my part, I like the simplicity of converting outdoor yards to indoor feet, but Gary's figures are still quite baffling. While Volume III allows only two moves per turn (that is, 240 yards in 10 minutes), Chainmail does a little better and allows one move per round (120 yards in 1 minute). Arguably, the latter rate is still too slow, and was likely intended to account for things like keeping formation, waiting on battlefield commands and other delays that do not factor into the small scale skirmishes of man-to-man combat. In my games, I allow two moves per round (in place of, and immediately following, each missile fire). Thus, an unencumbered fighter can run (240 yards per round, or 8 miles per hour) or walk (120 yards per round, or 4 miles per hour). An encumbered Dwarf would move about a yard per second, which also seems right. This is all keeping in mind that close combat range is 3".

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Wanderer

Another optional character class for pulp swords & sorcery games, I present the wanderer.

Wanderers: Considered dangerous savages by society, wanderers hail from the utter ends of the world. These wild men have shunned the ways of civilization for the laws of the wilderness, and have learned how to survive on their own. Relying on their own prowess, wanderers are mistrustful of sorcery and may only use one magical item at a time. They may use any weaponry, but are limited from wearing armour heavier than chain mail. Due to the raw fury of their attack, wanderers gain a bonus to all damage they inflict equal to half their level rounded up. Otherwise, wanderers fight, save and require the same number of experience points for each level as fighting-men do. Wanderers have a superior ability to traverse natural obstacles, navigate difficult terrain, track enemies and survive in the wilderness.

Dice for Acc Fighting
Wanderers umulated Hits Capability
Nomad 1 + 1 Man + 1
Wild Man 2 2 Men + 1
Roamer 3 3 Men or Hero - 1
Ranger 4 Hero
Outlaw 5 + 1 Hero + 1 or 5 Men
Marauder 6 Hero + 1 or 6 Men
Outlander 7 + 1 Superhero - 1
Wanderer 8 + 2 Superhero
Barbarian King 9 + 3 Superhero + 1
Barbarian King, 10th Level 10 + 1 Superhero + 1

Monday, June 28, 2010

Spears & Swords in Chainmail

After a quiet May, chipping away at my Master's Thesis, I finally have a breather to talk shop again. I just want to briefly address the noble spear and sword, two ancient and remarkably versatile weapons that perhaps don't get all the respect they deserve in Chainmail.

The spear holds esteem as being the most ancient of elegant weapons - a simple design that invites a profound depth of mastery. Others have bewailed the poor sorts the spear has been dealt before. Indeed, a weapon that E.O. seemed to favor in his art has generally been relegated in Dungeons & Dragons to dealing less damage than the competition, with no advantage granted for its superior length and versatility.

Yet, Chainmail presents much more detailed rules for individual weapon types, and should more than account for the different strengths and weaknesses of each armament. The spear's high weapon class of 8 certainly allows it to strike first against a majority of weapons on the charge. After the first round, however, the high weapon class becomes a disadvantage, penalizing the spear with a subordinate striking order - a drawback meant to handicap unwieldy weapons like the two-handed sword or pike. The parry rules (which could equally represent the quick, warding jabs of the spearpoint) further punish high weapon class, meaning the spear is actually a terrible choice for a defensive weapon.

While I don't think, as Sham suggests in his article, that we need to see a proliferation of magical spears (in comparison to magical swords) to offset this imbalance, I would propose a simple house rule to better represent this humble but graceful weapon. But first, lets take a look at the treatment of the sword in Chainmail.

The sword is, of course, a classic weapon. The flexible design of the sword can be employed to jab, slash and parry with equal authority. Looking at the Man-to-Man Melee Table in Chainmail shows that the sword's weapon class represents this well - it is high enough to outreach simple maces, hand axes and daggers, while it is also low enough to strike faster than (and effectively parry) all other weapon types. The only apparent disadvantage is the low kill number for the sword. It is comparable to neighboring classes of weapons against lightly armoured foes and significantly worse against heavily armoured enemies. I'm loathe to adjust this directly, considering that the aforementioned proliferation of magical swords already impacts this. Instead, I suggest the same presaged house rule to allow the humble, mundane sword even more flexibility to strike faster, more often and to parry more effectively.

Swords & Spears
When wielding these versatile weapons, a Hero may employ the full weapon class or half the weapon class at any time.

This allows swords and spears to strike more quickly (both in terms of number of strikes and strike order) and to serve as excellent defensive weapons (with regards to the rules for parrying), without sacrificing their advantages in reach (due to high weapon class). Thus, spears and swords are good, tactical choices for arms. For blunt striking power, the heavier armaments are still ideal, but if you want an edge in fending off monstrous claws and humanoid weaponry in the dark hallways of the dungeon, or if you value an earlier strike, spears and swords are the weapon of choice.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chainmail Combat, a Redux

I've been watching a lot of discussions about this pop up lately, so I've decided to collect one final summary of my (eminently reasonable) interpretation of using Chainmail with Original Dungeons & Dragons. Examples of this system in play can be found here and here.

Summary of Terms and Rules
Scale: 1" = 10 yards (wilderness) or 10 feet (dungeon). 1 turn = 10 rounds = 10 minutes.
Melee: An exchange of blows between combatants within melee range (3") during a round of combat (1 minute).
Normal Men: Combatants (whether men or monsters) with fewer than two hit dice or equivalent fighting capability. By default, the fighting capability of a normal man is a single attack with no modifiers to hit.
Normal Combat: Melee where at least one side is comprised of normal men. Combatants make attacks according to their fighting capability, using Chainmail Man-to-Man combat. Normal men making attacks against fantastic combatants are reduced to one unmodified attack. Attacks against tough, squamous monsters will use the monster's armor class or the armor class of Horse: No Armor if it is superior. Unarmed monsters use small claws and teeth (dagger and hand axe), large claws and teeth (sword and battle axe) or large fists (mace).*
Fantastic Combatants: Combatants (whether men or monsters) with two or more hit dice or equivalent fighting capability.
Fighting Capability: The number of attacks a combatant may make against normal men, with any bonus added as a modifier to hit for a single attack in the series (i.e. 4+1). By default, a monster's fighting capability is equal to his hit dice (minimum 1+0). If a class has two fighting capabilities (i.e. the Swordsman), the heroic entry is used in fantasy combat and the other entry is used in normal combat against normal men.
Fantasy Combat: Melee where both sides are fantastic combatants. Player characters may either fight as normal men or make fantastic strikes. Other opponents make monstrous strikes.
Fantastic Strike: q.v.**
Monstrous Strike: A single attack as a normal man in normal combat, with an added bonus to hit equal to half of the attacker's hit dice (rounded down).**
Hit: A successful strike from normal combat, inflicting 1-6 points of damage.

* The last two lines of this rule have been added to supplement the normal rules with greater detail.
** I have deigned it necessary to add these rules to the corpus, see my reasoning in other articles. All other rules have been inferred directly from the text without modification.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Following proper OD&D pacing, a clever referee should be able to engineer a short term campaign that thrusts the characters into the limelight as rising heroes. The grit and horror of low levels is still there, of course, but gone is the drudgery of dozens of sessions stuck at first level or the foregone conclusion of lethal combats with absurdly high mortality rates. To that end, I propose the concept of the "Micro-Megadungeon" to illustrate the breadth of Dungeons & Dragons campaigning to new players (perhaps in the "con game" milieu). With these mini-settings, you can give a demonstration of the range of play styles essential to the D&D experience - from low level survival, to mid-level heroics and into the stuff of legends at high level play. For our purposes, we will focus on a dungeon that catapults the players through three levels, to the fourth (when characters enter the heroic stage).

Central to the idea of the micro-megadungeon is speed. Trust the players to slow the pace down with roleplaying, exploring, decision making and so on, but the environment you build for them has to be trim and fighting fit to curtail extraneous delay. At the same time, for the locale to count as a megadungeon, it has to be in itself completely sufficient for a whole campaign. Striking a balance between these two aspects in each element of the megadungeon is key.

If the megadungeon is the tent pole around which an entire campaign evolves, the same remains true for the micro-campaign. Thus, while the megadungeon deserves the greatest detail (and its inestimable depth provides limitless adventure), it is not the only celestial body in its cosmos. Rather, the megadungeon anchors many other lesser locales. With a micro-setting, we can limit the environs to the bare minimum, including a Town and three minor adventure locales (one designed for encounters at each level, one through three).

These five destinations should be within short walking distance of each other, to prevent the need to camp outdoors or incur wandering monsters while traveling. If the Town is in the valley, the forlorn monastery (underneath which is the megadungeon) should be just up the hill (with the three adventure spots down the valley, up the valley and on the opposite hill). Wilderness adventures are still possible, but should only occur when the players are specifically seeking them. Furthermore, it may help to confine traveling to within the immediate environs. There may be a bigger world out there, but for the moment the roads are washed out and the characters are forced to stay in this secluded purlieu.

The Town
Like the rest of the backdrop, the Town is minimal in detail. Dramatis personae should include an armourer, an innkeeper, a merchant, a liege lord and a priest, each with their own estate. The first three provide obvious services, while the liege lord can give quests and hire out his garrison (10 coins per spearman, with 5 coins per week upkeep) and the priest can Raise Dead for a number of coins equal to the characters accumulated experience points (a flexible way to scale costs to player progress, but be mindful of the survival rates for low Constitution).

Adventure Locales
Each minor adventure locale should be tailored to a different level, with perhaps two dozen monsters at each site and a quarter their value of experience in coins and treasure. Typical camps might be bandits (600 coins), Gnolls (1200 coins) and Bugbears (1800 coins). Any victory against these enemies will license a similar reduction of monsters and wealth from the megadungeon, to keep adventuring in that locale on track.

The Micro-Megadungeon
The centerpiece of the micro-campaign, the micro-megadungeon is considerably more dense than your regular megadungeon. Ideally, each level should be crammed onto a single page of Michael Shorten's "One Page Dungeon Template," a 30 x 30 square space (with each square equaling 10'). (Unfortunately, "Chgowiz" has decided to pull out of the online community for the time being, so instead I offer up my version of his famous template.) Each level should have monsters of roughly the corresponding level, with enough hit dice of monsters to provide 50% of the experience towards the next level (where 1 hit die is worth 100 experience points). The remaining 50% of experience should come in the form of coins and treasure. Each level should also have 1d3 magic items scattered about. Assuming a party of four characters, our micro-megadungeon might breakdown as follows:

LevelHit DiceTreasureTotal EXP*
1404,000 coins8,000
2404,000 coins16,000
3808,000 coins32,000
*After defeating this and all preceding levels.

Thus, the first level of the dungeon will contain between 30 and 40 rooms (this is a good example of density), around 40 inhabitants (1 hit die each) and 4,000 coins in treasure. The second level will contain about 20 inhabitants (2 hit dice each) with a similar amount of treasure, while the third level will have around 27 inhabitants (3 hit dice each) with twice the treasure. A crafty party should be able to defeat one stage each game session and reach fourth level by the end of the third floor of the dungeon. The dungeon can go deeper, branch off in areas, grow and develop, of course (in fact, to count as a megadungeon, it must), but with these tightly designed first few levels, your players should be able to get to mid-range fairly quickly. More than anything, this allows you to showcase two distinct stages of Dungeons & Dragons, as fourth level characters are noticeably more competent than first level ones, displaying to new players the different play styles brought through this growth in character power.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fantastic Combat: An Example

Here are a few examples of the Fantastic Combat system I proposed earlier.  I want to reiterate that it is important to keep the base odds against the players (so a target number of 8+ or worse).  This is mainly to keep fantastic strikes the exception and not the rule, so that players resort to them in a last ditch effort to turn the tide.  This ratio also keeps the dice rolls more fun, as players are generally only upset when they botch a roll where the odds were in their favor, and die rolls are more exciting when they rely on a good deal of luck.

Gimbusk and his company of dwarves have retreated into a small mountain crag, pursued by what is most likely an enormous troll.  As the creature stretches its hideous arm into the chasm, Gimbusk declares his intention to drive the monster off, perhaps by severing its limb.  The referee agrees this is in the purview of a hero, and as Gimbusk fights as a Hero -1, he may roll two dice against the target number with a -1 penalty.  The referee sets the difficulty at 8 or higher, and they agree that if the roll is not made, the troll will grope around the crevasse and cause a cave-in, trapping the party in the gorge.

Brøtfr has been badly wounded in battle against Brannolagolan.  As a last desperate attempt, he declares his intention to smite the wyrm.  The referee agrees that Brøtfr, who fights as a Superhero +1, can attempt this task, rolling two dice against the target number with a +1 bonus.  Furthermore, since Brøtfr is using Glamrill, a magical sword +3 vs dragons, he gains another +3 bonus to his roll.  The referee decides that the stakes are not very high (Glamrill's point will break on Brannolagolan's scales if the roll fails) but the attempt will be difficult (needing an 11 or higher).  Brøtfr rolls 2d6+4 and gets a total of 11, a partial success.  The dragon is merely driven off with a wound.

Solon stands before the ruins of Caer Dòmril, but is unable to find the secret entrance.  Without recourse to other aid, Solon attempts invoke the peculiar positioning of the stars to magically divine the door.  The referee sets the target number, but threatens that a mistake in the incantation will draw the horrible creature from below the lake, just a few paces behind the party.

Thus, while instant death certainly remains a noble stake for the heroic feat, the loss of equipment or change in tactical or strategic situation also provides a lot of opportunity for interesting gaming and storytelling.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fantastic Combat

As I mused earlier, Dungeons & Dragons seems much more set to use with Chainmail right out of the box than most people realize. The mysterious "Fighting Capability" is intelligible, if occasionally inelegant, and the division between normal and fantastic combat is traceable from Chainmail to many references made in the three little booklets of the original game. The only problem remains in the confusing decision to make a successful roll on the Fantasy Combat Table from Chainmail into a mere "hit" in Volume III, implying that it is only worth the 1-6 damage of a mundane strike.

So what is the issue here? If we look at the chances for a normal man to harm a fantastic creature (such as an ogre) in normal combat, his chances of landing a hit are actually better than the hero's chances of succeeding against the same creature in fantastic combat. In Chainmail, this was balanced with the fact that the monster was slain outright with a successful fantastic attack, while normal men had to overwhelm and wear down the creature with multiple wounds. Not only was fantastic combat suitably dramatic, with the hero running the fearsome monster through with a single strike from her sword, but it involved an exciting element of risk - your hero could be smote just as suddenly as the foe.

In Volume III, the successful fantastic strike was demoted to the station of a normal man's attack, equalling a mere "hit", and even had worse odds of hitting than a regular attack. So what made the hero better than the normal man? Is it possible that normal men were meant to be simply unable to engage fantasy creatures in D&D? The presence of armour classes for every monster in Volume II seems to discredit this, as does the entry for Elementals, which specifically prohibits attacks from normal men (thus implying these are normally to be allowed). This would also be breaking with Chainmail, which allowed normal men to fight any fantasy opponent except where specifically prohibited. Perhaps heroes retained their multiple attacks against monsters? Again, in addition to breaking with Chainmail, this seems contradicted by the Attack/Defense rules found in Volume II, which indicate combatants that can fight with the strength of multiple men only do so when fighting with normal men.

There are at least two obvious ways to proceed, if one plans to salvage the Fantasy Combat Table that defined pre-D&D campaigns. Either the matrix is revised to allow much better striking chances than normal men, or the rule in Volume III that demotes a successful roll to a mere "hit" is ignored. The first option is difficult (due to the vastly variable monster armour classes found in Volume II) and bland (a merely superior chance to wound is not very heroic). The second option brings a perhaps unacceptable level of deadliness to fantastic combat - giving a dragon a 28% chance to slay an 8th level Fighting-Man outright with a single attack (and an ogre equal odds to kill off a 4th level Fighting-Man). Combats against such creatures would be very quick, and character turnover very high (which would both work well for a wargame but don't fit well with a D&D campaign).

Both of these solutions involve greatly expanding the Fantasy Combat Table to try and fit the much expanded bestiary of D&D. If the referee is already going to such liberties, I recommend instead a third solution that combines the use of risk, heroics and player choices.

Fantasy Combat
When a Hero faces a fantastic opponent (with 2 or more hit dice) in combat, she may attempt a fantastic strike on the enemy. The player declares the intended effect, the referee sets a target number and they negotiate the stakes. The player may then roll two dice against the target number - higher indicates success, equal indicates a partial success and less indicates a failure.

The referee should determine whether the effect is in the realm of the Hero, Superhero or Wizard when determining the target number, and the stakes should be relevant to the intended effect. Thus if a Superhero wants to slay a dragon in one strike, the stakes should probably be death. But if the Superhero merely wants to distract the dragon, or slay a lesser monster like an Ogre outright, the stakes should be much less dire (entailing a complication in the situation, loss of equipment and so on). In any case, odds should always be against the player and the stakes high, making these fantastic strikes more dramatic and desperate. Of course, if the player does not want to go to such risk, a normal single attack may still be levied. I would not allow a monster to make fantastic strikes, although I would instead give its normal attack a bonus to hit equal to half the monster's hit dice (to keep monsters dangerous).

In essence, this reproduces the effect of the Fantasy Combat Table, but remains more reflexive, as it is not limited by a fixed matrix. As it is merely adapted from the "say yes or roll the dice" philosophy of indie-RPG's, it is also easy to expand this framework to other non-combat actions, such as leaping over chasms or conjuring a magical effect. The limitation to all this is that the character has to have the Fighting Capability of a Hero, Superhero or Wizard, and the action has to be relevant to that role. In this way, Fighting-Men are promoted as they can act heroically as early as level 3 with a -1 penalty to the roll (whereas Clerics must wait till level 6 and Magic-Users till level 7), although heroics can often get you killed, making it a bittersweet honor at best.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Man-to-Man Combat: An Example

Here is an example of Man-to-Man Combat using D&D hit points. In this mock battle, three highwaymen accost Bishop Eustace the Useless (a 6th level cleric of St. Marr, armed with chain mail, shield, mace and 20 hits). The brigands are three normal men with leather armour and a shield, armed with a spear (5 hits), sword (2 hits) and flail (3 hits) respectively. The fastest weapons in the fight are the mace (3) and sword (4), while the longest weapons in the fight are the flail (7) and spear (8). The mace is ill-suited to combat leather armour and shield (requiring a 9+ on two dice to hit), while the sword, flail and spear are of varying use against chain and shield (9+, 7+ and 10+ respectively).

After enduring a surprising and withering barrage of insults, Eustace charges the scalawags (he won initiative and chose to move first). The bandits with flail and spear get the first defensive strike (for reach), followed by Eustace (as attacker) and then finally the swordsman brigand (as defender).

As a Bishop, Eustace fights as a Hero - 1 with four attacks (one with a -1 penalty), and as long as he diverts some of his attacks against the flail and spearman, the speed of his mace will grant him a bonus attack against those opponents as well. While the Brigands declare their single attacks on Eustace, the clergyman plans to engage all of his foes (if he does so, he will gain a bonus attack for speed against the spear and flail thugs). Further, Eustace declares his intent to parry the bandits' attacks - a minor parry against the lightning fast sword (costing one attack, in this case the penalized one) and a midi parry against the other two combatants (costing one attack each, but with the possibility of disarming or riposting the enemy).

Now it is time to resolve the action. The spearman strikes first, needing a 10+ on two dice to pierce the Bishop's chain mail and shield, and taking a -2 penalty for the parry attempt. An attack roll of 8-2 proves insufficient, and Eustace will regain his lost attack with a riposte. The bandit armed with the flail needs a 7+ on two dice with a -2 penalty, and connects with a roll of 10-2 (Eustace takes 2 hit points of damage and loses his chance to riposte). Eustace would levy his initial strike here, but by parrying he defers the action to the swordsman, who promptly misses his swing (the Bishop does not regain his spent attack in a riposte, as the sword is not significantly slower than the mace). Now Eustace may foist his initial blow, directed towards the swordsman, smashing him with a roll of 11 for 2 points - enough to kill him outright.

Eustace may now take his remaining strikes - of his initial four, he has lost two in parry attempts and spent another to dispatch the swordsman. The one basic attack that remains is owed to the spearman (the riposte). However, as he has engaged both the spearman and the flail thug with attacks (albeit ones spent on parry attempts), he gains a bonus strike against each for weapon speed. The spearman is clubbed once for 3 points of damage (not enough to fell him) and the brigand with the flail goes unharmed.

As one third of the enemy force has been slain, the bandits must now check their morale (likely testing as light foot, needing an 8 or better on two dice to remain on the field). In the next round, initiative order will switch to faster, lighter weaponry, giving the Bishop the first blow over his opponents.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Understanding Man-to-Man Combat

For its little recognition, Chainmail, the wargaming forefather to the Dungeons & Dragons game, provides a remarkably robust and innovative combat system for small scale skirmishes. It achieves this in just under two pages, in a brief section entitled "Man-to-Man Combat," so short that one might have easily overlooked it. Yet, it was these rules, combined with the Fantasy Supplement, that initially inspired Dungeons & Dragons. To get an idea of what those early proto-D&D games may have looked like, we must take another look at the Chainmail system.

It is worth mentioning that many have tried to implement Chainmail into their games of D&D and have historically run into difficulties. Jason Vey offers the most concise method in his essay, "Forbidden Lore," although his focus on the mass battle rules is clearly contradictory to Gygax's own claim that they were never used with the Fantasy Supplement that inspired early D&D. In particular, players have always wrestled with the mysterious Fighting Capability statistic inDungeons & Dragons. Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the game, this single entry has doubtlessly contributed to the mass adoption of the "Alternative Combat System" that propelled the 20-sided die to its legendary status amongst gamers (well, that and perhaps those early roleplayers were too stingy to pick up Chainmail in the first place).

The crux of the issue, I argue, is the fact that the Chainmail system intended for D&D distinguishes between two categories of combat - normal combat and fantastic combat. The former involves regular combatants on at least one side, which includes non-heroic humans, goblins, orcs and the other "smaller creatures" (Chainmail 44) that loosely adumbrate a group which would eventually be known as 1 hit die creatures in later versions of D&D. The latter, on the other hand, involves fantastic opponents on both sides of the melee, including dragons, ogres and heroes alike (basically, combatants with two or more hit dice). While normal combat used the man-to-man combat system Chainmail, complete with armour classes and multiple attacks and wounds, fantastic combat featured a simple matrix, where powerful opponents are cross-referenced and a single dice roll determines who is slain outright.

Thus, entries like "3 Men or Hero - 1", which have always confused players, indicate the 3rd level Fighting Man fights off mundane foes with three attacks, but also has the grit to assail a fantastic enemy as a sub-hero (with a -1 to his roll on the Fantasy Combat Table) in an all-out attack. Unfortunately, this attempt to bring graduated degrees of fighting capability to Chainmail is an admittedly inelegant addition to that game's originally seamless mechanics. Moreover, the confusing decision to make fantastic strikes inflict a mere "hit" in Volume III further undermines the original heroics found in the Fantasy Supplement. This last rule I recommend ignoring or revising for those who want the true flavor of the original fantasy campaigns of Lake Geneva.

With the peculiarities of the D&D reference to Chainmail aside, it is worth looking at the rather innovative aspects of the Man-to-Man Combat rules, with the concession that these two pages are simply packed with ideas and a summary can hardly do justice to them.

What first stands out is the melee range - 3" or 30 yards. This goes to show that, even with miniatures on the table, positioning in these early games was rather relative. It was assumed that, within a game turn (1 minute), you could maneuver to engage any foe within 30 yards (making this a radius of influence around your combatant). This is incredibly liberating, especially when compared to the neurotic obsession with grid positioning in later versions of D&D.

Once engaged in melee, the order of blows begins with the attacker (thus likely by initiative order), unless the other side has a much longer weapon or higher ground. In later rounds, the order of strikes might switch to the opponent with a smaller (and thus faster) weapon, again as long as there is no terrain disadvantage. To this extent, all weapons fall into 12 classes, with the lighter and shorter weapons occupying the lower numbers. Smaller and faster weapons can be used to parry bigger ones, with chances for ripostes and disarming strikes. Additionally, the greater the difference in size between opposing weapons, the more attacks the lighter weapon will be able to inflict each round. While the bigger weapons have the advantage of reach and superior attack values versus armour, this choice is not an obvious one.

The final major area covered are the rules for mounted combat. These are probably the best rules for mounted combat available for D&D, and include offensive and defensive bonuses for the rider, attacks by the mount (according to quality), attacks made against the mount, attempts to unhorse the rider, rules for falling off the mount (and becoming stunned), remounting and of course the special attack values some weapons provide against prone foes. There is also a complete set of jousting rules, although this is a whole other system perhaps to be covered another day.

Overall, the man-to-man combat rules from Chainmail, in addition to the fantasy rules, provide a well thought out and engaging system. When combined with the three little books of the original game, one can clearly picture the early origins of Dungeons & Dragons, steeped in medieval wargaming and fantasy heroics. As I have commented before, this speaks to the traditional fantasy origins of a game that quickly became defined by the very different feel of uncompromisingly gritty survival horror.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Old-School Party

Without a doubt, one of the most often neglected aspects of old-school gaming is the old-school party dynamic.  For many reasons, contemporary players have become accustomed to the modern style of party - a small band of specialized adventurers, each filling a certain role.  Originally, however, the troupe of heroes was a motley band with no rhyme or reason.  There was generally a plethora of fighting-men (because with their superior arms and armour, they actually mattered) and a nonsensical assortment of demi-humans and magicians alike.  This led to each party having a very specific feel and approach to the game world, rather than the de facto "diversified" and "balanced" parties we see nowadays.

One reason for this development has to do with the smaller groups of players that are typical today.  Referees are lucky if they can get four steady players around a table each week, compared to the dozen or more players common to the late night game sessions of the last century.  At the same time gaming groups dwindled, the industry started to redefine the point of roleplaying games.  Instead of the play being the thing (solving puzzles and defeating the referee), the dramatis personae increasingly became the focus of gaming, so that players came to care more about what made their character unique or interesting rather than how they could "win".  Indeed, the idea that roleplaying is not about winning or losing became popularized, which is a bald-faced lie when one looks at the original game - the players lose when they are slain and they win when they reach roughly tenth level.  The effect of each character becoming somehow "special" meant that every player wanted a very unique persona, so that the overlap that made old-school parties interesting quickly vanished.

The latter problem, which I term the "special snowflake" syndrome, is merely a question of philosophy.  In this case, I think the Old School Renaissance is in good hands, as it largely recognizes that playing a role is about imaging what you yourself would do in a given situation, not how some persona would act, and thus focuses much more on the problem solving than on the dramatics.

The former problem, that of the diminished population of players, is not so easy to remedy.  By my own approach, I allow for random multiple starting characters per player:

Starting Companions
Each player starts the campaign with 1d3 characters, and may run them all simultaneously as a small gang of companions.

This sets up the prologue to the story well, gives small groups the reinforcements they need and mitigates persona-centric gaming.  In addition, the variable size allows for a diverse party and different play styles for each player (according to the number of characters she has and classes she chooses).  Later in the campaign, I generally only allow new player characters to be drawn from those non-player characters already established in the game world (the popular bartender, the local duke et cetera).  The exception to this is the rule for relatives.

It is also important not to forget the rules for hirelings.  In Original Dungeons & Dragons, hirelings are simply first level characters that can be permanently recruited for 100 coins (and perhaps some other bauble, depending on class).  They have an additional ability, Loyalty, which changes over time and affects morale checks.  The size of your army of hirelings is ultimately limited by your Charisma, but average characters can have around four mercenaries at a time.  The downside to this, of course, is the cost to keep these henchmen fed and paid, as well as the drain on experience.  Finding the balance of which hirelings you absolutely need is key.

The Rogue

As an optional character class for more pulpy games, here is my take on the rogue-sorcerer.

Rogues: Outcasts from the academy, rogue-sorcerers must eke out a living amidst the dregs of society. Rogues develop unique skills while living away from the wizardry colleges, and while they are not as proficient in magic, they more than make up for this in grit and cunning. Rogues may use all magical items and weaponry, but are limited from wearing the heavier armours. Rogues do not use spellbooks, and must rely on the limited number of spells they can learn by heart. Rogues fight, save and require the same number of experience points for each level as clerics do. A Rogue who successfully sneaks up on a mark has a chance to immediately eliminate his target.

Dice for Acc Fighting Spells & Levels
Rogues umulated Hit Capability 1 2 3
Knave 1 Man - - -
Miscreant 2 Man + 1 1 - -
Prestidigitator 3 2 Men 2 - -
Trickster 4 3 Men 2 1 -
Scoundrel 4 + 1 3 Men + 1 3 2 -
Ensorceler 5 Hero - 1 4 2 -
Mountebank 6 Hero 4 2 1
Rogue 7 Hero + 1 4 2 2
Rogue, 9th Level 7 + 1 Superhero-1 4 3 2
Rogue, 10th Level 7 + 2 Superhero-1 4 3 3


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