ReTurning to Thieves

So, now that we have our Universal Mechanic for all older D&D editions, where does that leave us regarding Thieves? I’ve written before on how I felt the RAW versions of their skills are nearly useless, and my house-rule solution to that, but at the time I was trying to stick to the bonus chart and a d20 resolution. But if we were to go rogue, ahem ahem, we could completely supplant that with our lovely Turning mechanic.

Compare the Thief’s level with the level of the dungeon/degree of difficulty and roll 2d6 modified by DEX, INT, or CHA modifiers depending on what skullduggery the Thief is up to. We can use the 1/2 HD Skeleton row for mundane situations such as trying pick a pocket of some schmo in the town square, or pick the lock on an ordinary building in town. For opposed checks, such as bamboozling an ordinary shop-keeper, we can include any WIS or INT modifier they might have against the target number. E.g. a 2d level Thief (Footpad) would ordinarily automatically succeed in passing a dud coin against a 0-level merchant, but if the merchant had a Wisdom bonus of +2 then the Thief would actually have to roll a 7 or better… though he might have his own attribute mods to add in.

I like this pretty well.

To everything turn, turn, turn

The universal mechanic that was hiding in D&D all along!

There are a lot of ways that DMs have turned to over the years since the D&D white box in order to adjudicate various actions players want to take that aren’t covered explicitly in the rules. While there are definitely defenders who claim part of the charm of old editions is that every way of adjudicating something in the game required its own idiosyncratic sub-system, over the years a lot of DMs have spent a lot of time and energy trying to come up with a universal mechanic, if not to replace any of the “core” mechanics at least to fall back on when there isn’t a clearly defined procedure in the rules.

One of the commonest stabs at this universal mechanic is “ability checks”, usually against the characters’ attributes. Vague Countries has a nice discussion here.

The classic method, enshrined in Tom Moldvay’s Basic D&D (p. B60) is just to roll d20 below an attribute the DM picks. On the one hand, it’s nice and simple, on the other it really makes attributes much more important that they are in OD&D or in other parts of the rules; instead of a 16 granting a mere +10% on a d20 roll it suddenly becomes an 80% chance of success. Another method, apparently used a lot by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz is roll 3, 4, or 5d6 under an attribute, depending on how hard the task is. Dan “Delta” Collins has an analysis of the odds of the various rolls here.

But aside from the various complaints about the odds and the inflation of importance of attributes, generally speaking I find attribute checks not particularly satisfactory. It strikes me as a problem that most of them neither scale well against harder and easier tasks nor take into account level, which is the overall scale of competence that D&D is built on.

Recently, though, I’ve realized that there has been an almost perfect universal mechanic hidden in plain sight in D&D ever since the white box: I’m talking about the Clerical Turning mechanic!

Here’s how it was presented in the white box, rolling 2d6 on the following table:

Typical of Gary’s approach to rules, it presents as a table something that’s actually a simple formula, but that’s by no means obvious shorn of the numbers. The columns are actually the cleric’s level, 1-8, and the rows are the monster’s hit dice, 1/2 through 7. So really what this is presenting is that clerics have a Target Number of 7 against undead 1 hit die less than them, and it gets 2 points harder for each additional hit die the undead has, and 2 points easier for each hit die less. If the number is below 7 turning is automatic, and if it’s literally impossible to fail the undead is destroyed; similarly if it’s impossible for the cleric to succeed, the result is No Effect. Building in the automatic success, critical success, and automatic failure in this way is really sweet, and pegging the target below which you don’t even need to roll to better than 50% chance of succeeding really speeds up play, in my experience.

Turning Table as Target Numbers

So here’s the thing: here we have a method of comparing a character’s level with a target difficulty. For undead it’s just their Hit Dice, but you could imagine it being the dungeon level a hazard or lock is found on, or any sort of ad-hoc decision by the DM. What’s more, the 2d6 scale fits in nicely with attribute bonuses ranging from -3 to +3 as per Moldvay and its descendants. +/-1 is not quite as good/bad as being 1 level higher, +/-2 is equivalent to a level, and +/-3 is a bit better than being a level higher/lower. That seems pretty nice to me.

But wait, there’s more! How much does each bonus improve your chances of hitting the Target Number? Here’s a quick chart:

TotalExactAt least+1improvement+2improvement+3improvement
Chance of rolling at least N on 2d6, rounded nearest

The improvement in probability of success isn’t uniform, but you can see that the biggest differences fall right at the fat part of the distribution. It’s a bigger difference on your average roll than on the extremes, not surprisingly, and none of them are over 50%, so not overwhelming. Even nicer is that at best, a +1 is adding about 1/6 to your chances, a +2 is adding about 2/6, and a +3 is adding not quite 3/6. It could hardly be easier to remember or reason about.

To me this is actually pretty amazing: Roll 2d6 vs Target 9 against things that are even-on with the character in terms of level/hit dice, adding in any attribute modifiers, and Bob’s your uncle! If I were coming up with a mechanic de novo, I might be inclined to make even-on a target 7 but I can see an argument that if you have no particular reason to be good at a task it’s realistic that it’s more likely than not you’ll fail. I’m tempted to use Target 7 anyway as just being a little easier to remember, and being a bit more like the way combat works, with Level 1/HD 1 attackers being about 50-50 to hit unarmored foes, but I’m not sure whether I like Clerics vs. Undead then being a special case…

So there you have it, my new go-to Universal Mechanic for all older editions of D&D and their kin.

Eclectic ART IN RPGS

I think when it comes to RPG books, it’s good to have an eclectic mix of art styles in the illustrations. The early D&D books were aces at this, ranging from the actual cartoons of Tom Wham, to the grounded illustrations of Dave Trampier, to the trippy works of Errol Otus. I think this kind of diversity is important because you never know what will strike a chord and provide inspiration for a game. Books that have a very clear “house style”, like some of the later editions of D&D, have a harder time of this, imo. If it hits, it hits, but if it doesn’t there may not be anything in the whole book that really sparks your imagination.

Now some of the time, like maybe a setting guide or something based on some specific IP like StarWars, setting tight boundaries on the tone and imagery might be exactly what you want. But I think in the general case, you want to have the art run the gamut.

The Adventuring Party – Tom Wham

Players Handbook – Trampier

The Discovery of Treasure -Trampier
Sutherland – Versus the Orcs

Basic D&D – Errol Otus

Conventions of Play

Not playing at conventions, but conventions I’ve adopted in my games (mostly regardless of system or genre) to try to shape the play experience to encourage or avoid certain kinds of play at my table. These aren’t house-rules, most of them being meta-rules about what is and isn’t allowed by the GM or the players. Also most of these are guidelines, and might be relaxed on certain occasions or if everybody is agreeable.

  1. No Player-vs-Player action. No attacking other PCs, no stealing from them, no actual intra-party conflict. “Pretend” intra-party conflict, where the players roleplay that their characters are squabbling like Legolas and Gimli, but pull together as a team when the action starts, is fine. But if tempers start to rise, I cut it off. There are a lot of players and groups where this kind of stuff is meat-and-potatoes to them, but I’ve been burned too many times by what’s started out as a bit of fun and escalated until it ruined the game for everybody, so I take a hard line on it now.
  2. No Torture. Torture is something evil NPCs do off-screen to other NPCs, or a player might have as something that happened to their character as part of their back-story, but it never gets any play time. As a corollary, captured NPCs will always spill their guts to the PCs at the slightest encouragement; they may not know much, but I explicitly promise to the players that as GM I will never create a situation where they would be better off torturing a captive for the information they need regardless of how plausible they might find that in real life.
  3. No Using PC’s Attachments Against Them. Unless the player volunteers for it, I promise as GM that if they form bonds or connections with various NPCs and locales, I’m not going to use that for cheap drama or as a way for an NPC villain to compel their cooperation. Yes, that cuts off a bunch of seemingly interesting stories and scenarios, but you know what also cuts off a bunch of interesting RP? Players refusing to form any bonds or connections with any of the setting for fear of having it held hostage or weaponized against them.1
  4. Mercy Works. There’s a thing that some GMs like to do (and I admit I’ve done sometimes in the past) where if you let a bad-guy get away, it’ll come back to haunt you. It’s tempting because recurring villains are a staple of a lot of genre fiction, and the players having a back-story with the villain can be so satisfying, particularly when the players come to really hate the villain. He shows up again and they’re automatically invested. The same thing can happen with un-named mob monsters or bandits, where if you don’t kill them when you have the chance, they’ll just bother you another day. The problem is that players are usually very rational, and very ruthless, so unless you’re enforcing genre conventions that forbid it (e.g. codes against killing in super-hero games) the players learn to leave no living enemies… but that can really mess up the tone of the game, and I think contributes to murder-hoboism. It’s also relatively unrealistic, at least if you go by the history of warfare in our world. There were lots of reasons historically to take captives and not kill them, or to let fleeing soldiers get away, if for no other reason than it stiffens the resolve of the enemy to die rather than be captured but the structure of a lot of games (especially dungeon crawls) makes that difficult to implement. My solution to keep my players from committing war-crimes (or at least reduce their number) is to have the players’ intelligent foes be permanently defeated: if the players show mercy, they will never again oppose them (whether from fear or gratitude) and if the players are generous they might change their allegiance. They explicitly will not be constantly searching for ways to backstab the players.
    This one is a bit more squishy than the others, because it really depends on what it means to defeat the enemy. If they fail a morale check and rout, then yeah, they might regroup and be a problem later. What I’m really trying to prevent is pushing the players into feeling they have to slaughter helpless captives or go around the battle-field applying a coup de grâce against anybody who might merely be injured or unconscious.
  5. Surrender is an Option. Bad-guys in my games will usually accept surrender, and it doesn’t mean the end of the PC who surrenders. Even for unintelligent monsters I might think about whether it would drag the victim back to its lair to eat later or something. There will usually be consequences, a ransom to be paid, or they’ll have to escape, but I try not to ruin the character for acting reasonably in the face of overwhelming force. At the very least I’d prefer that Death before Surrender! be a choice that says something about the character and not, well the GM is going to kill my character anyway so might as well go down fighting.
  1. Naturally there are exceptions for game/genres where it’s an explicit part of the game; if you’re playing a super-hero game with the concept of a “Dependent NPC” like Aunt Mae who will get into trouble as a complication for the PCs heroic guise, then something happening like her getting engaged to Doc Ock is still on the table.

Fixing Weapons vs. Armor Class

At the risk of turning this into a blog for commenting on Delta’s blog, here are some thoughts on a post of his back in March about the big error in the infamous Greyhawk and AD&D Weapons vs AC charts.

Basically, Dan observed that there’s a fundamental error in the way the chart was derived from Chainmail to convert it to the d20 “alternative” combat system in original Dungeons and Dragons (specifically the Greyhawk supplement), and that chart was just reproduced and elaborated on in AD&D. The error was in converting Chainmail’s chart showing with this weapon vs. this type of armor roll this number on 2d6 to kill the target into D&D’s roll this on d20 to hit the target, they forgot to adjust for the armor class! Basically, the difficulty of hitting the armor is baked into the Chainmail table, but it’s a completely separate consideration in OD&D, so that e.g. in Chainmail a mace has pretty much the same chance of killing regardless of armor (roll 8 or better), that’s presented in Greyhawk as a mace has no bonus vs. any particular armor so the mace gets worse and worse chance of hitting as armor gets better! Oopsie.

So what would a “correct” version of the Weapon vs. AC chart for Greyhawk look like? That is, one that preserves the logic worked into the Chainmail chart as to which weapons are better against which armors, which seem to have at least rough approximation of what weapons historically were preferred against which prevailing types of armor.

The Chainmail Man-to-Man combat chart looks like this:

Armor Class
No ArmorLeatherShieldLeather+
Hand Axe778910101112
Battle Axe888877910
Morn. Star66776788
Pole arms666778910
2 Hnd. Swd66665567
Mtd. Lance55556789
Chainmail Man-to-Man combat

The first thing we have to deal with is all the target numbers in this chart represent kills; in Chainmail there were no hit-points or variable weapon damages. So this chart represents both the deadliness of the weapon and its ability to penetrate various types of armor.

What I’m going to do is assume that the relative deadliness of the weapon is represented by the target number vs. unarmored men, while the penetration ability of the weapon vs the various armors is thus the difference between its “normal” ability to kill an unarmored man and its lessened ability to kill armored men. This normalization gives the following chart of how much worse a weapon is against the various ACs relative to its ability to kill an unarmored man; we’ll presume that in D&D that ability to kill an unarmored man is represented by the weapon damage, from d4 to d12 or whatever.

Armor Class
No ArmorLeatherShieldLeather+
Hand Axe00-1-2-3-3-4-5
Battle Axe000011-1-2
Morn. Star00-1-10-1-2-2
Pole arms000-1-1-2-3-4
2 Hnd. Swd0000110-1
Mtd. Lance0000-1-2-3-4

So here we see the relative values of armor against a given weapon. Against a mace, no armor really helps, though leather + shield is a tiny bit better than unarmored and plate is a tiny bit worse. Swords, though, quickly become ineffective against heavier armors, which take a two-handed sword to punch through. Mounted lances and spears are almost completely ineffective against plate + shield combination. This all seems plausibly historically accurate.

Finally, though, we have to convert this to d20, taking into account the way armor class is worked into the target number to hit on a d20 (the crucial step the author(s) of that section of Greyhawk forgot). This yields the following chart of modifiers that preserve the penetrating power of weapons from the Chainmail rules:

Armor Class
No ArmorLeatherShieldLeather+
Hand Axe01111222
Battle Axe01235655
Morn. Star01124445
Pole arms01223333
2 Hnd. Swd01235666
Mtd. Lance01233333
Weapon vs Armor Adjustment Corrected

And here we see, as intended, against an unarmored foe a 1st level Fighting Man armed with a mace would need to roll a 10 to hit, and against somebody with plate + shield would need… a 10 to hit. (To Hit of 17 from the Men Attacking Matrix in original D&D, with a bonus on the roll of +7) Armed with a dagger he’d need the same 10 to hit an unarmored man, but a 16 vs plate armor + shield.

Is it worth it? Frankly, I have my doubts. If Gygax himself never bothered with it, it’s hard to see the added complication of the table lookup every time you switch weapons or foes (assuming they’re not all equipped identically) adds that much. On the other hand, it is kind of logical that you ought to prefer the weapons that were historically favored against particularly heavy armors. One thing that is clear to me, though, is that if you want to have that kind of mechanic in your game you’re better off starting with the Chainmail assumptions and not their mistranslation.

Strength is Size

One thing I tend to do in D&D-esque games is treat the Strength attribute as indicating size as well. (Other games, such as Chaosium’s Basic Role Playing and its kin have a separate Size attribute.) It seems to me, though, that there’s a bunch of pretty good arguments that the two are at least highly correlated, if not one and the same.

In most combat sports, from boxing and wrestling to taekwondo, as well as sheer strength-based sports like weight lifting, competitors are divided into weight classes for both health and safety reasons as well as to make the competitions more fair (and interesting). The average winner of the World’s Strongest Man competition stands 6′ 4″ and weighs in at 390 pounds!

Moreover, at least in the earliest editions of D&D starting with Supplement I Greyhawk, the two biggest mechanical differences from exceptionally high or low strength scores are to-hit, damage, and carrying capacity. To-hit I think makes perfect sense as reach, which is a huge factor in hand-to-hand combat, as does damage as function of mass (again thinking about weight classes in combat sports). Carrying capacity is a little less clear, in that the additional weight of your body seems to count against your maximum carrying capacity, at least over distances1, but since the bonuses tend to be linear while body weight increases exponentially, I call it good enough for D&D.

As a quick approximation for human, you can look up Strength in the following chart. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to apply adjustments for non-humans, and of course you might decide that any particular character is a bit bigger or smaller than the chart indicates. 2 Or you might decide (as my long-time Friday night GM did) to just roll size separately on 3d6.

Strength5′ 9″69.301695′ 4″64.10135
3-2.535′ 2″61.901014′ 9″57.1373
4-2.205′ 3″62.891104′ 10″58.0682
5-1.865′ 4″63.871194′ 11″58.9990
6-1.525′ 5″64.861284′ 0″59.9298
7-1.185′ 6″65.851375′ 1″60.85106
8-0.845′ 7″66.831465′ 2″61.78115
9-0.515′ 8″67.821555′ 3″62.71123
10-0.175′ 9″69.301695′ 4″64.10135
110.175′ 10″69.791735′ 5″64.56139
120.515′ 11″70.781825′ 5″65.49148
130.845′ 0″71.771915′ 6″66.42156
141.186′ 1″72.752005′ 7″67.35164
151.526′ 2″73.742095′ 8″68.28172
161.866′ 3″74.732185′ 9″69.21181
172.206′ 4″75.712275′ 10″70.14189
182.536′ 5″76.702365′ 11″71.07197
  1. Backpack Weight and the Scaling of the Human Frame
  2. Distribution of Body Weight and Height . It’s actually pretty hard to look up data on raw weights instead of BMI, and I’m not particularly confident that the standard deviations in weights correlate exactly with standard deviations in height as the chart would indicate, but whaddaya want for nothing?

It’s Marvelous!

A while back I wrote a web page to help play Marvel Super Heroes, by automating the roll on the “Universal Power Chart” to show you exactly what cell and color your percentile roll lands in based on the Power Level Column (the old Feeble, Poor, Typical, Good, Remarkable, Incredible, Amazing, etc. rating that MSH gave character’s powers). I don’t think it actually got much use, because it does require that you have a browser open when you play… but that was before plague stalked the land like some great stalking thing. Now that folks are doing most of their gaming online, it might be a bit more useful

Marvel FASERIP Universal Power Chart

I’ve moved it to github, since Google is closing down the classic Google Sites where I used to host it.

Oh, and if you have never played it before and want to get into it, you can check out the Classic Marvel Forever website.


Torches & Lanterns

A while back Dyson of Dyson Logos drew up a couple of nifty images to use to track torch and lantern use in B/X D&D, where torches burn for 6 turns and lanterns burn for 24. That was back in the world before, when people could actually gather face-to-face to play. In order to make this a little more friendly for online play, I’ve turned the images into a pair of PDF forms where you can check off each turn as you go. They’re free for personal use, derived from Dyson’s images which themselves are free for personal use.

Torch Card PDF
Torch Card
Lantern Card PDF
Lantern Card

D&D Castle Inhabitants

Since I can’t use a multi-step table without wanting to automate it here’s a Inspiration Pad Pro table I wrote to generate the inhabitants of a castle, according to the charts in Original D&D LBBs.  They looked like this:


Additionally, castles would have 30-180 guards, split 50-50 between Light Foot armed with crossbows and Heavy Foot.

Personally, I think the picture of the world they paint is pretty amazing… far more unusual than the “vanilla fantasy” that D&D is often accused of being.  I’m really looking forward to my players interacting with this in the future.

The generator file is on the NBos Software site.  Example output:

Patriarch, with 6 Superheroes, 70 guards
Evil High Priest, with 10 Spectres, 130 guards , Assistant (level 6)
Evil High Priest, with 5 Spectres, 140 guards , Assistant (level 6), Assistant (level 4)
Lord, with 3 Giants, 120 guards , Cleric (level 3)
Lord, with 3 Myrmidons, 140 guards
Evil High Priest, with 10 White Apes, 90 guards , Assistant (level 6), Assistant (level 6), Assistant (level 6), Assistant (level 7), Assistant (level 6)
Patriarch, with 6 Superheroes, 60 guards
Wizard, with 1 Wyverns, 100 guards , Fighting Man (level 7) , Apprentice (level 7)
Lord, with 5 Myrmidons, 110 guards , Cleric (level 4)
Superhero, with 9 Swashbucklers, 110 guards

These Are the End Times

The world has ended. The great kingdoms have fallen, and their cities lie in ruins. Far to the north the forces of Law clashed against the forces of Chaos, and were defeated. But in their moment of triumph the armies of the invading barbarian hordes overreached, and lost control of the dark powers that had carried them to victory, unleashing a magical corruption that consumed them as well as their enemies. Now the pitiful remnants of the armies of Law straggle back to their homelands, through monster-haunted wilderness, past ruined and abandoned villages. The PCs are among them, searching for means to survive, whether that is wealth, power, or just a safe harbor.

This was more or less the intro I gave my group to our new D&D campaign. I wanted to really take the game back to its roots, 1974-style, but hopefully with the advantage of what I’ve learned since I was ten. We’re using Original Edition Delta, which is a set of house rules by Dan Collins that streamline and clarify the little tan books. Onto that I’m bolting a couple of rules from DCC that I think really fix problems that my players and I have with the  oldest version of the game (more on that later). I want to lean heavily into the insights of Wayne Rossi’s The Original OD&D Setting, namely that the wilderness rules and encounter charts are more in keeping with a post-apocalyptic setting than any sort of semi-realistic medieval or even pre-D&D fantasy fiction setting. The population densities and size of the marauding bandit bands and prevalence of horrible monsters don’t make sense in a well -settled area with stable government and regularly-traveled trade routes. But in a post-apocalyptic anarchy…

I also wanted to try a setting where the status quo was terrible, and there was nobody around to do anything about it except the PCs. Maybe they’d try and maybe they wouldn’t, and either way would be fine…but if they don’t, there is no king’s army or great wizard who’s going to clean it up instead. I have a strong tendency to run settings where the government is basically benevolent, and things are largely peaceful, so I wanted to try breaking sweat from that default, just to see how it goes.

I’m really excited about where this could go. I’m using Delta’s rule for starting the PCs at third level to bypass some of the initial grind that my players have had enough of in our DCC funnels. Initial play is going to be dungeon-centric, because Dungeons & Dragons after all, but I’m hoping they’ll stick with it to name level and maybe try settling the wilderness and pushing back against the tide of Chaos with “domain game” play.