Role for Initiative!

David “noisms” McGrogan has an interesting post on his Monsters and Manuals blog on initiative and some ways you might simulate it in RPGs. After some discussion of what initiative is and some examples from history, he proposes something along these lines:

Initiative
When one side is surprised and the other is not, the side that is not surprised has initiative for the entire encounter.
Otherwise, roll a d6 to determine which side has initiative for the entire encounter.
A side which “has initiative” acts first.
A side which does not have initiative can attempt to “wrest” it from the other. The method for doing so is as follows:
The player (or DM if acting for NPCs) announces his character is attempting to wrest the initiative by either carrying out an attack or – at the DM’s discretion – performing a difficult task. He declares his intended action in the ordinary way at the start of the round. If he succeeds in hitting his target or performing the declared task, he wrests initiative and his side has initiative from the next round onwards. If he fails, in the next round he cannot act at all because of loss of focus.

So, it’s not a bad way to simulate the flow of initiative in battle at all…but I think simulating initiative in battle is like simulating solving a puzzle.  Yes, you could absolutely give them a roll against a stat or skill to see if they solve the puzzle, and that would kind of feel like what happens when somebody solves a puzzle… except it takes the fun out of it.

Backtracking a bit to the start of his post describing initiative: “Suddenly, it seems as though one side gains the capacity to act, while the other can only react.”  That’s exactly it: initiative belongs to the side that’s taking actions which the opponent must react to, or suffer the consequences.  So the real way to seize initiative is not to declare “Attempting to seize initiative” but to come up with (or luck into) a course of action that leaves the enemy no real choice but try and stop it.   Attempt to flank them, cut off their retreat, disrupt their supply lines, target their leaders or their sacred banners, stampede their draft animals, free the prisoners, force them to react.

The real job of the DM in this isn’t to decide whether the task is difficult enough to justify changing the initiative, but to play the enemy side as something other than a bunch of automatons going about their programmed tasks.  Actually try to weigh how much trouble it would be for them if the PC’s ploy succeeds and what would they risk to head it off.   Think about the ways they might try to seize the initiative from the PCs along the same lines, modified by how savvy they ought to be at warfare.  Make the players come up with tactics and strategies to seize the initiative and hold on to it. You don’t even need to declare which side “officially” has the initiative: it becomes evident through play which side is acting and which is reacting.  The side that’s going first according to the standard “Initiative” roll might still be stuck reacting if they’re busy preventing a flanking maneuver or stabilizing somebody who got hurt from a previous round.

Standard D&D has a few mechanics to help with this,  primarily morale and the list of things that automatically cause morale checks (first friendly death, leader death, more than half the forces now dead or disabled).  Failing a morale check should definitely cost you the initiative… and don’t forget to check the morale of the PC’s hirelings and retainers.  Actually tracking ammunition and expendables like light sources (or faking it with “exhaustion rolls”) contributes as well: if the archers are running low on arrows or the spell-casters on spells… Gaining surprise or going first certainly gives that side first crack at putting their opponents on their back foot, but such opportunities are easily squandered.  A few bad/good rolls and suddenly a morale-check condition is met or they just get too busy not losing to spare actions that put the enemy in a bind.

Now, I realize that there may be times, particularly to the observer, when it’s not at all clear what exactly is causing the enemy to act as if they were stuck in reaction mode, some of it may be psychological more than practical after all. It might be tempting to go with formalized initiative rules to try to capture that… but I feel that most of the time the best way to simulate psychological factors is with real people’s psychology.  Let the players decide whether they need to react to the latest enemy actions or they can drive forward their own plans; as DM decide the same way, unless you think you’ll have trouble being fair given how much better view of the state of the battle you’d have versus the commanders you’re controlling.  Then maybe you could throw in an informal morale roll or int check or something, but I’d resist the urge to create a hard-and-fast rule.

So that’s my take on initiative: play as if it mattered, but don’t try to formalize it into a set of rules. IOW: Role and not Roll. There’s a lot in gaming that I think works best that way.

http://www.armorclass10.com/products/keep-calm-and-roll-initiative

OSR Guide for the Perplexed: My Take

OSR Guide For The Perplexed Questionnaire From Zak S.

  1. One article or blog entry that exemplifies the best of the Old School Renaissance for me:
    All Hail Max!
  2. My favorite piece of OSR wisdom/advice/snark:
    Stop looking at your character sheet for answers.
  3. Best OSR module/supplement:
    The Dungeon Alphabet This is a really  hard choice, because there are so many amazing supplements like Vornheim, A Red and Pleasant Land, Yoon-Suin, The Umerican Survival Guide, Sailors on the Starless Sea, Death Slaves of Eternity, and on and on.  But the thing I actually get the most practical use out of is either The Dungeon Alphabet or one of Richard Leblanc’s d30 companions, and in all honesty  I think about using the latter more than I actually do consult them.
  4. My favorite house rule (by someone else):
    Death and Dismemberment tables by Trollsmyth.  I know a lot of folks go for Shields must be splintered! (also Trollsmyth), and it has its merits, but I use Death and Dismemberment or a variation for every non-DCC D&D-like game I run. To me the former solves more problems with D&D combat than the latter. They both make combat a little less lethal, which is fine, but death and dismemberment also addresses the somewhat bloodless abstraction and the lack of long-term effects, while splintering only solves the somewhat esoteric complaint that shields aren’t as useful in D&D as they seemed to be historically. That said, any good critical hit table (not boring stuff like double damage) like Arduin or DCC have accomplishes pretty much the same as Death and, while good reasons for shields are harder to squeeze in without making big changes to how combat works.
  5. How I found out about the OSR:
    Through Jeff’s Gameblog, and specifically his post “I’ve got your threefold model right here, buddy!”  really resonated with me and led me to his other posts, and Gary Gygax day led me to wanting to run a straight up game of D&D in his honor.  That didn’t go very well, actually, because over the years I’d lost a lot of my chops as an old-school Referee, relying way too heavily on mechanics and rules-as-written, which led me to things like Philotomy’s musings and Grognardia to figure out why the lightning had seemed so easy to get in that damned bottle in 1975.
  6. My favorite OSR online resource/toy:
    Purple Sorceror, and the wonderful generators, plus the Crawler’s Companion app.  I probably would have read DCC and thought, well, that’s probably ok but it’s way too much work looking up stuff in tables if it weren’t for Jon Marr’s site.  Now that I’m steeped in it, I can easily make do without, but it lowered the bar to running DCC and running it well down to the floor.
  7. Best place to talk to other OSR gamers:
    G+ might still be it, for a while, though the ship is obviously sinking.  MeWe seems to be the place to jump to currently.  I don’t know of any forums that I think are worth the time to log into, but you can find a ton of blogs via The OSR OPML file at Save vs. Total Party Kill. It’s possible you can find stuff on reddit or tumblr that’s worthwhile, but I’ve not found the discussion to be very high quality on any topic I’ve pursued so far.
  8. Other places I might be found hanging out talking games:
    1. MeWe
    2. I’ve got strong reservations about Twitter, but I’ve dipped my toe back in as @Logomacy.
    3. Still on G+ as Joshua Macy for however long they keep it open
    4. I’m on Tumblr as Majyc, but honestly I almost never remember to even look over there.  It is set up to reblog Rambling Bumblers, though, so if you like Tumblr you can see this stuff there without having to mess with an RSS reader or anything.
  9. My awesome, pithy OSR take nobody appreciates enough:
    If only people had called it “Roll to Hurt” instead of Roll to Hit, it would have been completely obvious to everybody why heavier armor making the number you need to roll higher is a great abstraction.
  10. My favorite non-OSR RPG:
    Not counting my own stuff, I suppose D&D 5e.  I used to be quite fond of Savage Worlds, but lost my taste for it. The farther I get from “the rules should be the physics of the world” the less patience I have for systems that try to nail down not only all the details but how they mechanically interact.  To me the important kernel of Rulings not Rules or Rule Zero aren’t that the referee should just make up whatever whenever, but that as little effort as possible should be spent on nailing down bizarre edge cases.
  11. Why I like OSR stuff:
    The thing I like about the OSR is the DIYness of it all.  It’s baked into its very bones that in order to make it work, you have to make it your own.  Nobody could play white box D&D “rules as written”, there were just too many gaps; nobody could play without making up their own adventures, it was four years before TSR even published their first module.  Eventually there would be enough published stuff that you could play only official setting material, but despite playing RPGs for my practically my entire life it wasn’t until the past couple of years I even played a published D&D module (we did do one or two Call of Cthulhu scenarios back in the day, and that odd Judges Guild Traveller adventure aboard the abandoned alien base).  Now, when so much of the hobby is embracing “Adventure Paths” and other such prefab campaigns, it’s OSR folks that are carrying the flag for hacking up published material to make your own thing.  Even though there are plenty of OSR modules, most of them seem to me to be designed to drop into your own setting, or pulled apart for their components, and not presented as “Here’s a complete campaign for you to run, no imagination necessary!” Heck, the two best settings-in-a-book I know of for the OSR (Vornheim and Yoon-Suin) are both kits, not completely mapped out spaces or strung-together adventures.
  12. Two other cool OSR things you should know about that I haven’t named yet:
    1. Delta’s D&D Hotspot – a game blog about original edition D&D, that really tries to dig into the rules and figure out  how they work, how they compare to the real world (e.g. when it comes to the distance or accuracy of archery fire) or sometimes how they might have worked if Gary and Dave had been better at math (scale and time).  It might sound dry, particularly if you’re math-phobic, but it’s really not, and the result of it is probably my favorite restatement/clone of white box D&D: Original Edition Delta.
    2. Hack & Slash – Courtney Campbell’s blog.  Courtney is way more into nailing down and turning what happens in every aspect of an RPG into a mechanical procedure than I am, but even when I think he’s wrong, I think he’s wrong in interesting ways that are worth chewing over.  And sometimes he’s very right, and you can improve your game by adopting something he’s written.
  13. If I could read but one other RPG blog but my own it would be:
    TenFootPole – by Bryce Lynch
  14. A game thing I made that I like quite a lot is:
    Roll M – turn any web page into a click-to-roll random table with this handy Chrome extension.
  15. I’m currently running/playing:
    • Running Dungeon Crawl Classics every other Sunday, with  my  home group.
    • The other Sundays I’m playing a game set in the Warhammer 40K universe but using my Zap! rules that my friend Dan is GMing.
    • I’m also running DCC at work every Wednesday night
    • and playing in a 5e game every other Saturday, with the same coworkers
    • Every month or two I’m a player in a long-running AD&D game. It used to be almost every Friday, but has gotten less and less frequent now that the GM’s kids are grown up and have gone off to college…we mostly play when one or more is back in town for a weekend.
  16. I don’t care whether you use ascending or descending AC because:
    They’re mathematically equivalent, and I can show anybody how to convert them on the fly in about a minute:  Roll a d20 and beat AC, or roll a d20 and add AC and see if that beats 20.  Apply mods to the roll or to the target. It just doesn’t matter.
  17. The OSRest picture I could post on short notice:

    4Ob6nia

    image by Stefan Poag

 

featured image “Keep Calm and Roll Initiative” courtesy of Armor Class 10.

A THAC0 PSA

(from a G+ comment that might be of use to somebody some day)

THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0) was introduced in an an appendix in the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, but didn’t become a staple of D&D until 2nd edition and has been confusing too many people ever since, despite the fact that it’s really quite easy.

Here’s a way of looking at it that sometimes helps people who find THAC0 confusing: THAC0 is your Target Number. Roll your d20, add the critter’s AC and see if you get your Target Number or higher. Functionally it’s exactly the same as rolling a d20 and adding your attack bonus, it’s just that instead of your attack bonus getting higher as you level up, your Target Number gets lower. The part that varies from critter to critter is always the AC, whether you’re adding it to the roll or comparing the roll + your fixed attack bonus to it.

Where it gets confusing is that lazy DMs who want to conceal the AC from the players expect them to announce they hit AC X, forcing them to take their roll and subtract from THAC0, which most people find harder than adding their bonus to the roll and announcing that as the AC they hit. A non-lazy DM who wanted to conceal AC would just have everybody’s THAC0/Attack Bonus written down and then they’d just announce their roll.

Personally, I think DM’s shouldn’t conceal AC, at least not beyond the first round of combat; firstly, AC started as simply a designation for the armor you were wearing: Shield Only was 8, Leather was 7, Leather with a shield was 6, Chainmail was 5, Chainmail with a shield was 4, etc.  Dexterity didn’t even figure into it, so if you saw somebody in armor you knew what Armor Class they were, the DM didn’t have anything to conceal.  Monsters were just given AC to fit in this scheme.  Eventually other factors such as high Dexterity, small or large size, and so forth were figured in, but I don’t think the system was ever suited to the kind of guessing games that concealing the exact AC promotes. It seems to me that even if you believe that it’s logical for the players to not know how fast or what kind of magic the target has that might make it harder or easier to hit than its size and visible armor would indicate, after spending anywhere from six seconds to a minute (depending on edition) locked in combat players ought to have a good sense of what it would take to actually land a telling blow.  Moreover, unless you also conceal their die-rolls from them, they’re going to learn the minimum necessary to hit after a few attempts anyway.  Finally, if you’re open about the AC you make it easier for the players to make reasonable decisions (always a good thing, IMO) and you can speed up the game by reducing the back-and-forth; it’s more satisfying for the player to be able to declare “I hit” than “I rolled a 14, does that hit?”

Save vs Charm

(from a comment on G+ that got too long)

+James Brigham  asked on G+Our wizard casts Charm Person at +6. It regularly occurs that she casts so high that only a natural 20 can save – and the check is repeated only in weeks or months. I know the game is not about balancing, but this seems wacky. Or maybe I got it wrong?  (correction,  James says it was originally Oliver Korpilla’s question and he was just sharing it)

A couple things to think about before you decide it’s OP:

1) the wording of the spell is that the target “falls under the caster’s complete control, as if it were his friend.” As Judge, I would emphasize the friend, not the control; there are strong limits on what people will do even for trusted friends, and the more evil the character the more likely they will be willing to betray or even murder a friend under the right circumstances. Rather than altering the mechanics of the spell, work through the role-playing aspects of it.

2) The spell grants no extra ability to communicate with the target. Maybe you’ve charmed that Reptile-man, but have fun pantomiming what you want him to do. (No, really, have fun with it: make them act it out.)

3) There are penalties for trying to apply it to anything except standard mundane humanoids, and it’s entirely up to the Judge what counts as mundane. Depending on your campaign by the time characters are at levels where >20 DCs on the checks are routine, a 0 or 1st level mundane humanoid doesn’t pose much of a combat threat anyway. If they could kill someone easily, then it’s not particularly worrisome they can befriend it instead as long as you don’t let them turn their friends into complete puppets. If the target is high enough level that’s not true, it’s high enough level that it may have some magical protection against spells like that or boosts to its Will save beyond Per Bonus + Class Bonus. Or be able to cast that spell against the players. Which leads to

4) it’s a core principle of DCC that NPCs and monsters aren’t limited to following the same rules as PCs. If you’re really having a problem with the players blowing through things that you thought would be fun and challenging by befriending everything in sight, consider what kind of situations you could put them in where that wouldn’t help. It could be as simple as if they can neutralize/ally with 2d6 humanoids per round it’s time to  up the stakes to adventures where there are potentially hundreds of humanoid enemies if they play recklessly.  Or perhaps the next enemy employs automata that are immune to charm.  The point isn’t to thwart them so much as to only play out the stuff that’s interesting because it’s hard for them.  Treat the encounters they can  just charm their way through as routine.

5) Try to work out the logical consequences of things and if they seem to be a problem consider how the world would react. If you look at a spell like Charm Person and ask given that, why are there any kings as all that aren’t under the thrall of some 3rd level Wizard? it’s up to you as Judge to make that work for you. Maybe you only get to be (or stay) king if you have some kind of magical protection against that sort of thing; maybe the very fact you’re king grants you a blessing from the gods of the kingdom that protects you; maybe successful kings are paranoid and don’t let strangers within casting distance of them; maybe some are in thrall to their court wizard and anybody attempting to charm the king has to deal with that wizard, etc.

 

Empty Spaces in a Dungeon

A dungeon should be a series of interesting choices, and anything that doesn’t contribute to that should be minimized. A purely empty room doesn’t contribute anything, so if you feel you need them for verisimilitude or on the off chance they’ll provide tactical options in case a fight or chase happens nearby you should spend the least amount of time possible describing them and let the players move through them quickly to the next interesting bit. Similarly, rooms filled with trash or red herrings are just tests of the player’s patience: can you bore them ’til they skip over something relevant isn’t a game you should be playing (imo). Dungeons become much more interesting if every place you stop to describe something at least contains some clue as to what might be nearby or something that might be useful elsewhere in the dungeon. Let them fast-forward through everything that’s just blank or has zero-information choices like left or right down identical blank corridors.

The one exception I can think of is sometimes moving through empty rooms can build tension, but that only works if you establish that the fact you’ve dropped into turn-by-turn describing empty areas means that something is about to go down. If you deliberately do the opposite so the players won’t “meta-game” that they’re about to encounter something significant you lose that opportunity.  If you’re playing a D&D-like, you’ve already got surprise rolls to determine if the characters have let their guard down, you don’t need to inflict tedium on the players until they make sub-optimal decisions.

A Touch Less Lame

Quick, what spell requires a melee to-hit roll in addition to the casting roll, and a point of spell-burn, and allows the target a saving throw, all to have a single round to attempt to do an extra 1d6 damage (at least on a minimal success)?  Yes, it’s the worst spell in any DCC wizard’s Grimoire, even less useful than the much-maligned Ekim’s Mystical Mask: Chill Touch. Really, the spell is so bad I’m convinced that some aspects like the Will save to resist are just cut-and-paste errors from some other spell. The chance of a first level caster actually succeeding at inflicting damage with this spell at the minimal level is around 15% against an unarmored target. (Chance of casting the spell times the chance of landing a hit next round times the chance the target fails its save.) And you have to sacrifice a point of Spellburn to even try!

I don’t object at all to some spells having drawbacks, or being generally less useful than others, but I strongly feel there ought to be some circumstance where even a minimal success makes a spell worth casting. With Chill Touch as written you’re strictly better off trying to hit twice with your melee weapon than spending a round and a point of one of your stats charging your weapon and then attacking and hoping the target fails the save.

I use the following house rules to make it a little more worthwhile: 

  1. As discussed in the previous post on touch attacks, allow the chill damage to hit on any melee attack roll of 10 or better. I.e. ignore armor.
  2. No saving roll.
  3. The effect lasts until the caster scores a successful hit, or if there’s duration remaining (iow on rolls of 18+), every hit until time runs out.

It’s still a somewhat questionable spell because of that Spellburn, but at least this way you don’t have to be crazy to cast it. If you succeed you’ll probably manage to do that extra 1d6 at some point, if you don’t get killed in melee first.

Touché: touch attacks in DCC

This one isn’t even a House Rule as much as an observation that any attack that would have hit but for the AC bonus armor grants presumably smacked the target but failed to penetrate the armor. I like to emphasize this when describing the result of the attack. In DCC this is dead easy because the dividing line between a clean miss and at least hitting the armor is just 10, give or take agility modifiers.

I like this both because it makes the description more vivid at almost no cost and because otherwise some folk get hung up on the notion that armor is making you dodgier and want to introduce some sort of damage reduction instead. Best nip that in the bud.

I think it’s a toss-up whether you want to extend that observation to true 3e-style “touch attacks” where spells like Chill Touch only need to beat the AC before armor bonus in order to take  effect, or you stick with beating the AC.  On the one hand, if the caster has to get into melee and beat the AC that makes all the levels of Chill Touch where it only lasts one round pretty damn punk.  A spell that probably has less than 50% chance of affecting a target even if you succeed in casting it (up to a check of 17), and then only if you put your unarmored wizard in the thick of things, and always costs a point of Spell Burn to cast? What a rip-off.   On the other hand, if you allow that kind of touch you actually need to worry about how much of a foe’s AC is armor vs agility bonus, and that’s the kind of finicky drag that I play DCC to avoid. How much of a griffon’s AC 17 is tough hide vs. speed?  Obviously you can just make a ruling and go, but it’s one more thing to remember when it comes up. That said, I’m inclined to allow it, if only because of how much my one player who got stuck with the spell hates it when he’s reduced to trying it.

TL;DR Make note of when an attack roll beats 10 but not the AC and use that to inform your description of the attack bouncing off the armor.