23 December 2014

The Scout Class

I use a variant Thief class in my campaign called the Scout. The Scout is the Greyhawk Thief with the serial numbers filed off. They can be Lawful, use a light shield called a buckler (+1 vs 1 opponent only, ineffective against missile fire) and missile weapons. They progress in steps of 4 levels in combat, and roll saves as magic-users.

So, why not just use the Thief? Thieves, by both name and alignment, have an implied mandate to steal from other player-characters. In addition, I do not allow Chaotic or Evil player-characters IMC. This is for a variety of reasons, chief among which is I just don't find refereeing evil characters a fun way to spend my time.

I've imagined the Scout class (complete with level specific names) to be agents of good trained in arts generally not known among members of polite society. My inspiration was a variety of characters who skirt the bounds of good and evil in an attempt to protect others: James Bond 007, Batman, Robin Hood. These types look into the abyss every day and struggle to keep the abyss from looking into them.

At any rate, there has been some discussion around 'web lately regarding thief skills. It is said they're next to useless at lower levels and I find myself in agreement with this opinion. Historically I've merely boosted the chance for success but I've been rather unhappy with the results. One variant I've recently envisioned is using the basic mechanic inspired by the "climb walls" skill.

Greyhawk lists the chance of slipping while climbing sheer surfaces to be 13% or, to turn that on its head, and 87% chance of success. The probability of rolling 2-6 on d6 is ... 87%! I've thought this could be applied to all the Thief/Scout skills through 4th level. Upon gaining 5th level, success would be a result of 2-10 on d10 (90%), changing at 9th level to 2-12 on d12 (92%). No matter the die used, the result of "1" would always be a failure.

The only mechanic I'm dithering over changing to this degree would be lock picking.

What do you think? As a referee I don't think being able to reliably sneak and hide is going to create a class of uber-ninjas but I'm interested in what others think about this.

17 December 2014

Unarmed Combat System for OD&D


Players may, at times, either wish to or be forced to engage in combat without the benefit of weapons. Unarmed combat comes in three different varieties: brawling, grappling, and overbearing.

Brawling: Deals a point of damage per successful attack, with fighter-types adding +1 for Strength bonus if applicable [IMC fighter-types get +1 to hand-to-hand damage if STR is 15 or greater]. If the “to hit” score is ≥ 4 higher than to target number, or if a natural 20 is rolled in any case, the victim must save versus spells or be dazed for the remainder of the round and all the following round.

Grappling: May be attempted on a target by up to 6 like-sized opponents. The attackers all roll “to hit” as per normal combat. The hit dice of all attackers who successfully hit the target is totaled and as a group the attackers roll that number of six-sided dice. The target then rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to his own hit dice. If the attackers rolled the higher number, the target is pinned and helpless. If the target rolled the higher number he has thrown off his attackers, who spend the next round recovering. If the die rolls are a tie, the two factions spend the round struggling with neither side gaining the upper hand, another set of grappling rolls are made next round.

Overbear: Simply a charge ending with a grappling attempt. Success indicates the target is knocked prone and must save versus spells to avoid being pinned. If the target makes his save he scrambles to his feet next round, ready for action.

Dazed: A dazed character can only move half-speed (unless aided by an ally), cannot attack, cast spells, or do anything else requiring concentration. A penalty of -2 applies to armor class and, if alone, to his initiative roll as well. A dazed character struck in unarmed combat must roll his Constitution or under on a 20-sided die or be knocked out.

Initiative: This is diced as normal between unarmed combatants. When facing an armed opponent, including one wielding an improvised weapon, the unarmed fighter subtracts -2 from his initiative roll. 

Pinned: These characters may be shackled, bound, or knocked-out at the victor's whim.

Improvised Weapons: Inflict 1-4 points of damage and include: bottles, table legs, sticks, chairs, pitchers; basically anything useable as a weapon in a pinch.

Instant Capture: Successful grappling attacks by four similarly sized opponents in the same round results in an automatic overbear and pin. [I got this rule directly from Gary's house rules and I really liked the way it played.]

Knocked Out: These may be dispatched in a single round by an armed opponent.

Son Of "What Wasn't In The Box?" ... The Sequel!

Original Edition Dungeons & Dragons was a compact game with an open matrix, making it easy to add modules of rules into the system without breaking game play. This calls to mind the old saw about "that isn't a bug, it's a feature!" What are sometimes seen as errors of omission were often intentional, the base assumption being the referee would of course write his own sets of rules add-ons to fill in the blanks.

Pantheons: specific deities were absent from OD&D. There were ambiguous references to "help from 'above'" and "the 'faithful'" in the description of the Cleric. Furthermore, references were made to the Cleric serving either Law or Chaos with no further information given. The Magic-User spell Contact Higher Plane makes references to creatures inhabiting "higher planes of existence" without directly referencing deities. Similarly, the Cleric spell Commune talks about powers "above." None of the following words, including their plural forms, appear anywhere in the 3 booklets of OD&D: god, higher power, deity, or divine. Similarly, no infernal creatures (demons or devils) appear in the rules. On a side note: the Balrog appeared in the early edition of the rules but expunged after a threatened lawsuit from the Tolkien estate. This monster would reappear in a later rules supplement as a Type VI Demon. Curiously, the name "Balrog" is directly referenced in that work, too.

Coins: the rules list copper, silver, and gold coins. Electrum (a gold and silver alloy) and platinum coins are listed as "optional" and electrum is suggested be either half or twice the value of gold pieces. In the equipment lists, however, everything is priced in terms of gold coins.

Armor: you had the choice of leather, chain, or plate. Field plate or full plate, what most non-gamers envision when you say the word "armor" doesn't exist in the D&D milieu. Leather armor is never explained and the likely assumption war gamers would understand this to be cuir bolloi, leather shaped then boiled in oil or tallow. There was no jack, scale, banded, ring mail, or any other historical types appearing in later editions. The rules contained no references to zero or negative Armor Class, the toughest monster listed was AC 2. Magic armor subtracted its bonus from the "to hit" roll of the attacker, meaning the target number to hit either mundane or magical armor would remain the same. The rules also state that either the magical bonus of the armor or the shield apply, 2/3 or 1/3 of the time respectively, but not both.

Unarmed Combat: no rules for wrestling, brawling, or the various unarmed fighting arts such as karate or tae kwon do. A curious omission, though I feel the combat system lends itself well to running unarmed combat and brawling. It's worked well for me, anyway.

Critical Hits & Misses: to the best of my admittedly faulty recall? With one exception, the first official critical hit rule appeared in the 1st Edition AD&D Unearthed Arcana supplemental rulebook. The exception appears in Book III: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures in the section dealing with aerial combat. This system uses hit locations for flying mounts, making the presence of a critical hit logical. Taking out the wing or head of an airborne creature would, after all, cause a rather precipitous return to earth!  In my experience, which was rather limited with regard to games outside of [small town in Texas], critical hits were not popular at all though that certainly doesn't seem to be the case any longer. For myself, I don't care for them.

Variable Weapon Damage, Weapon Versus Armor Class Adjustments,  Weapon Speed Factors: presumably it was felt Chainmail addressed these issues for gamers wanting these factors coming into play when conducting combat. If true, that line of reasoning was short lived, ending when Supplement I: Greyhawk was released.

Segments: as in Turns/Rounds/Segments. By implication a combat round was a minute long and not divided into smaller units.

15 December 2014

Coming Soon

Planned posts in the next few days:

Son Of "What Wasn't In The Box?" ... The Sequel! A look at what are now old standards that weren't actually there right from the beginning.

Rolling The Dice For The First Time: so, how did a complete "new boot" do running his first game?

So What's The Difference Between Hit Dice and Hit Dice? Level, level, level, or level?  A new hobby struggles with defining terms and multiple usages.

13 December 2014

What Wasn't In The Box?

My previous post told you what was in the original edition Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. But, what wasn't in the box? There were some surprising omissions from the set, as well as non-included items that are only notable in retrospect.

Dice: polyhedral dice were not impossible to find in the mid-70's but they weren't easy to obtain. Folks at TSR and elsewhere caught on to this fairly quickly but of all things not in the box this seems the most glaring oversight.

Chainmail: cited in the rules as a method of resolving combat. Indeed, the rules refer to the combat system actually included as the Alternate Combat System. Not quite as surprising a lack since few folks actually used Chainmail for running D&D except when resolving mass battle scenarios. Gary Gygax, one of the co-authors of D&D, also co-wrote Chainmail and even he didn't use it for resolving one-on-one combat.

Outdoor Survival: a product by another company: The Avalon Hill Game Company. Outdoor Survival's rules and game board formed the backbone of the wilderness (non-dungeon) based adventures in D&D. As with Chainmail, most of what you really needed to know was repeated in the rulebooks, but the playing board was very useful for "lost in the wilderness" scenarios.

Adventure Module: not as surprising a lack. The lack of a module is more notable from looking back at years of introductory boxed sets that did include a starter adventure.

Thieves: now a staple of D&D, this fellow was notably absent from the original rules. The thief didn't appear in official rules until Supplement I: Greyhawk was published a short time later. When asked by a newer player how we opened doors (etc.) without thieves the referee in me came out and replied, "How would you do it?" For the record, a lot of doors got bashed in, a lot of chests were pried open with a crowbar.

How To Run Elves: the rules implied the elf was played as two distinct characters, a fighter and magic-user. Depending upon which he was playing as during an adventure the elf would have abilities he might not have when playing as the other. An elf magic-user couldn't wear armor or wield a sword, an elf fighter couldn't cast spells or use certain magic items [on a side note, co-author Gary Gygax confirmed this interpretation was how he intended the elf player-character to be played]. So, how do you figure "to hit" in combat, saving throws, or hit points? Was a 4th Level Fighter/2nd Level Magic-User a 4th level character of a 6th level character? Later editions of the game would hand-wave all this away and meld the 2 classes into a hybrid F/MU class many folks found more palatable. I felt, and still do, the original way of running the elf makes them feel more unearthly and fey, preferring it to the more modern interpretation.

Any Sub-Class: sub-classes or variant classes of any kind. Paladins were the first sub-class and were introduced along with the thief class in Supplement I: Greyhawk. The ranger and the illusionist appeared in the pages of TSR house organ The Strategic Review. Druids and monks appeared in subsequent rules supplements.

Magical Armor:
by implication was limited to maximum bonus of +3 and only for plate.

Magic Swords: increased chances "to hit" but didn't always grant bonuses to rolled damage.

Monsters: many not included in the boxed set would later be considered rather iconic to D&D such as Beholders, Bugbears, Doppelgangers, Mind Flayers, and Umber Hulks.

Initiative: not included anywhere in the rules. It can be argued the initiative from Chainmail was a part of the rules but since that booklet was not in the box I'll still count it as an omission.

Missile Fire Ranges: fortunately, missile fire ranges were rarely an issue at first because most of the adventures were underground. Later, I just looked up the range for a longbow in the Encyclopedia Britannica and applied it to everything. Not very scientific perhaps but it worked just fine for my campaign.

Combat Example: this omission was remedied quickly with an example of combat in the official FAQ. Though combat was rather simple to run, writing an example for the rules might have highlighted to the co-authors the lack of certain information (such as initiative or missile ranges) in the printed rule books.

Psionics: added in a later supplement, the lack of psionics wasn't a stand-out at the time. It's probably more notable to a person familiar with later versions of the game.

Guidelines for Awarding Experience Points: they are actually present, but one must read carefully to spot them. The rules are very clear that 1 experience point (XP) is awarded per gold piece of treasure recovered. This is how players gain the most XP. The secondary method is defeating monsters in combat, here the rules are not quite as specific. Still a careful reading of the text yields the formula 100 XP per Hit Dice of opponent defeated. This was heavily revised by Gygax in Supplement I: Greyhawk and one is left wondering if the 100 XP per Hit Dice ruling is from an earlier draft of the rules and never meant for inclusion.

12 December 2014

What's In The Box?

So, I get this cool box home and open it up. What did I find? Three digest-sized booklets, in this case formed by folding a standard 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper in half, in tan covers. There was also a similarly sized pamphlet (no cover) sheet of reference tables taken from the booklets.

  • Volume I: Men & Magic 
  • Volume II: Monsters & Treasure
  • Volume III: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures

First of all, you might be wondering where the game got its name. In Gary's own words:

When I wrote the initial and second drafts of the D&D game [manuscript]. I had it's title as "The Fantasy Game." This was for two reasons: One, I hadn't settled on a name yet. Two, when I did choose a name, I didn't want it known [until] a product was out. During this period I made up a two-column list of names. All in column one could stand alone or go with one in the second column to form a longer title. I read the lists to my regular players, and my family, asking what they thought best. Of course the list had both "Dungeons" and "Dragons" on it. Those two in combination were the favorites, and when my (then) little daughter Cindy clapped her hands and said the really liked that name, I agreed. It was my favorite too--after all, I had formed the Castle & Crusade Society as a part of the International Federation of Wargaming about three years before that.

Volume I dealt mainly with all aspects of player-character creation, their classes, equipment, and descriptions of all the spells.

Volume II was a listing of some now familiar monsters and lists of magic items.

Volume III described movement and exploration. It included information on how to design a dungeon and included a sample floorplan and example of play. There were also rules for wilderness exploration, aerial combat, and waterborne adventures.

The reference sheets included all the tables needed for running the game and were a forerunner for a later product, the Referee (or Dungeon Master's) Screen.

Who Am I?

I'm Cameron (Cam) DuBeers.

I'm Cameron and I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) since there was a D&D. I bought my first boxed set at a record store located in a Texas mall. I had no idea what it was but I wanted to find out. But I digress ...

I was in Chess Club in high school, Chess Club being a euphemism for "war gamer club." My physics teacher, a Viet Nam veteran and war gamer, was the sponsor; meetings took place in his physics lab at the high school. I was a mediocre chess player and an awful war games player, though I loved playing games with my fellow enthusiasts. They understood what my other friends did not: why long and complicated rulebooks for S&T (strategy and tactics) games were preferable to one page of instructions for your typical board game,  why Star Trek was cool, and who J. R. R. Tolkien was and why his books should be required reading.

At any rate, a couple of wargamers up in the northern part of the USA wrote this new game called Dungeons & Dragons and it piqued our interest. There was certainly none of the dismissive tone toward D&D I've since read about both in print and online. I drove to the big city and acquired a copy. I owned the only copy of the game in [small town in TX] for a few months and I therefore became the first referee. I studied the book, drew a dungeon, and began a campaign that had over 30 active participants at one point.

That's my gaming credentials. I've played several editions of D&D and their respective clones, but I love OD&D the most. It has its flaws but I know this system best and I've found running a simpler and more open system helps keep gamers who want more rules and more complicated systems away from my table.

Some folks game seriously. I game for fun. Nothing wrong with the former but hard-core gaming simply ain't my bag. Death at zero hit points, d6 damage for all weapons, no critical hits or misses, level caps for demi-humans, level drain working as in the rules ... I've no issue with any of these and I run my campaign accordingly.

That's who I am. Feel free to introduce yourself if you desire. I'll be irregularly posting about whatever catches my interest. Let's see where this goes.