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.

D&D and The Art of the Steal

So, I’ve been thinking again (as one does) about Thieves’ skills and bonuses in OD&D and B/X lines. I wrote about this before, in It Takes A Thief back in 2008. Nowadays, Original Edition Delta has a nice simplification of calculating them to eliminate the weirdness of the percentiles (that are almost always increments of 5% anyway) by just using the Thief’s level as a modifier on a Target 20 roll, but by design it sticks very close to the RAW chances of success. The problem, for me and my players at least, is those numbers are so low for everything except climbing that the thief shouldn’t bother trying them unless there’s nothing really riding on it or they’re almost to “name” level: you don’t hit 55% in anything except climb until level 7 in OSE(B/X) . That’s pretty much the opposite of how you want a thief to play. There is a school of thought that you should just drop the Thief as a class, and “if you want to be a Thief, steal something” but I’ve encountered a lot of players over the years whose favorite class is Thief, so there’s something about the archetype that speaks to them and I want to accommodate that.

Using the interpretation that Thief skills are near-magical abilities (I think due to Philotomy: anyone can hide, but a Thief can hide in shadows) doesn’t really help. Even if you don’t mind the flavor of thieves with semi-mystical abilities, they’re still not going to do it with any degree of reliability until near the end of the campaign. Other adjustments such as allowing repeated tries or treating a miss as indicating success but after a delay, proportionate to how much you missed by kind of works for some things like picking a lock that it might be possible to attempt until you get it right… but for something like moving silently that’s no help at all, and still leaves it that you shouldn’t bother rolling unless it’s either desperate enough that you have nothing else useful you could try on your turn or you have no real pressure and the Referee should just give it to you and move on.

Taking a step back, how reliable should these skill be at first level? Well, how powerful are they? The answer is “not very.” A first level Fighter will hit an unarmored opponent about half the time (give or take about 5% depending on edition), and on the average that hit will kill a 1 HD foe. A first level Magic User can cast a spell (admittedly once a day) that can also on the average slay a 1 HD creature regardless of AC (Magic Missile) or put up to 2 dice worth of 1 HD creatures to sleep (or proportionately less up to a max of 4 HD creatures). And the first level Thief can… open a lock? Hide?

Looking at it this way, is there any reason in the game not to make the default success rate for Thieves’ abilities pretty much the same as for Fighters? About 50% of the time it works, at least in the typical situation you’d find on the first level of the dungeon or back in town? If you can actually open the chest, or find the trap, or move silently past the guard that doesn’t seem like it would break the adventure… unless your adventure assumes that the players would never be able to do that. And if you’re writing adventures like that, well I won’t tell you to stop, but maybe you should get rid of Thieves as a class.

So, where does that leave us? I think for OED, I’d just make it Target 10; for more or less by-the-book B/X or Old School Essentials you could keep the percentiles and just add 50%, but my inclination is to make it about half-way between OSE and OED. Use a d20 and resolve, but adjust the percentiles by dividing by 10% (rounding down) giving a bonus range from +0 to +10 and allowing the Thief’s Dexterity modifier to apply. The Target Number would 10 for 1st level challenges (the kind you’d find while fighting 1 HD creatures) but scale with the level of the dungeon (5th level dungeon has TN 15 locks) or the equivalent in overland/city adventures. A wealthy merchant can probably afford Target 15 locks, a 10th level Lord Target 20. That way the challenges for Thieves roughly keep pace with the challenges that the Fighters and Magic Users are facing in terms of AC and spells saves. I like that this makes it really easy to convey a sense of some tasks are harder than others even for master Thieves while still letting the players have a good guess of how hard it’s likely to be instead of springing modifiers on them lock-by-lock. Keep the usual 1 is automatic miss, 20 is automatic success from the combat system. For Pick Pockets instead of looking for rolls of more than twice the chance of success to see if the Thief is caught, I’d change it to getting caught if the Thief misses by more than the Thief’s own level.

There you have it, a pretty minimalist change that I think opens up the play possibilities for Thieves a great deal. Even a first level Thief has at least a coin-flip’s chance of accomplishing any of their core abilities, while retaining the flavor of the old school Thief with the slightly different advancement of the distinctive Thief skills.

Update: Just to make it clear, I do let non-Thieves try any of the Thief skills (except read scrolls). They roll as 0-level Thieves: 1d20 versus whatever the target is with no bonus, not even attribute modifiers. High attributes only help if you have the slightest idea how to apply them properly; I don’t want high Dex, say, to automatically be as good as a Thief who had to work for those levels.

Smoothing Attack Bonus Progression

One of the things that I really like about Original Edition Delta (Dan Collins’ restatement/mild reworking of Original White-box D&D) is how he adjusted the attack bonus charts for men attacking monsters to make a smoother progression as characters level up. The original chart divided Fighting Men into groups of three levels, e.g. 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, and then had the number you had to roll to hit each armor class improve by 2, 3, or 4 each successive category. I have literally no idea why Gygax & Arneson did it that way, unless it was desperation to save space in the tiny booklets. To make it worse, the instructions told you to rework the columns into groups of 4 or 5 for Clerics and Magic Users. Apparently they couldn’t even spare the space for two extra header rows! Though I’m not sure I’d have the patience to do much better with nothing more than a typewriter to do the layout.

I’ve been playing a bunch of Old School Essentials lately, which reworks this so that instead of a clunky chart, each character class lists its bonus to hit/THAC0 (for ascending/descending Armor Class), in a beautifully laid-out, easy to read fashion thanks to modern tools, more space, and a better graphic design sense than Gary had.

OSE Fighter Progression Chart

Unfortunately, it keeps the odd, bumpy progression so characters can go level after level with nothing improving except their hit dice or maybe spells for spell-casting classes. I found I really missed Dan’s approach to it, which ended up nearly the same place give or take a pip on a d20 at each level break, so I implemented a similar progression as a house rule in my game. If you’d like to do the same, here you go. Just replace the Thac0/Attack Bonus listed in the OSE Class tables with the bonus from the appropriate column in the following. Dwarves, Halflings, and Elves advance as fighters (in OSE every three levels). I tried to stick as closely as I could to matching the OSE tables, particularly when it came to the earliest level that the character got the improvement for their “band”, e.g. if a Thief got the +5 bonus at Level 9 I tried to preserve that.

Smoother Attack Progression for OSE

Unfortunately, WordPress’ stupid custom html doesn’t show the table correctly except in preview mode, so I used an image. The actual sheet as a web page is available here, if you need it.

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.

Cleaving Attacks

Dan Collins of Delta’s D&D Hotspot has a new post on what he calls “Cleaving Through the Ages”, where he goes into the history of making multiple attacks against low-level foes through every edition of D&D, as well as the pre-history in Chainmail. And an exhaustive round-up it is, too. Without repeating it here, the basic idea is that ever since Chainmail, every edition has had some variant of a rule that allowed Fighters (and usually only Fighters) to plow through multiple opponents in a round. Among other observations, this turns out to be an important balancing factor in very early editions between the PCs and the huge numbers, into the hundreds, of 1 Hit Die enemies they might encounter in the wilderness according to the standard encounter charts. In Chainmail and OD&D, a heroic figure could attack as many 1 Hit Die enemies as the hero had Hit Dice (more or less, you can see Dan’s post for the gory details), potentially eliminating them all at once.

Later editions tended to tone it down, and often made it contingent upon success: If you hit the enemy and you killed the enemy, then you could immediately try to hit another adjacent enemy until you either failed to kill one or ran out of enemies. It’s this version that’s usually called “Cleave” in D&D and its kin. Personally I like the name “Sweep” since that’s what we used to call it back in the day.

There are a couple of problems with this, but for me the biggest one has always been it just takes too long to resolve at the table. One PC getting multiple actions on a turn always has the potential to make things drag, and it’s exacerbated when there’s potentially a big disparity in the number of actions. An 8th-level fighter getting 8 attacks vs a wizard’s one (maybe) spell can drag on, and making it so that they have to be resolved in order and you have to determine for each attack how much damage it did and whether that kills the foe before making the next attack and then updating the HP on the final foe makes the worst case even worse, even if often it’ll cut the round short before every last foe is attacked.

On the other hand, something along those lines has been part of every edition of D&D and really is needed to let the fighter’s keep up with the later-game area-of-effect spells that casters get. Carving through hordes of creatures one per round is for the birds.

So what should we do? My favored approach is to look all the way back to Chainmail, where you just roll one d6 per the PC’s hit dice and if you hit the appropriate target number you eliminate the foe. Against 1 HD foes this is pretty justifiable: in OD&D all weapons do 1d6 so the average will exactly kill a 1 HD enemy. You can roll them all at once, count the successes, and cross off or remove that many foes, so minimal book-keeping. If, as seems reasonable, when you’re using variable damage dice for weapons you say you can’t cleave with a small weapon (i.e. no d4 weapons), then it’s at least 50-50 that any hit kills, and more likely than not if you have any Strength or magic bonuses at all.

But how does that stack up against the normal (aka “alternative”) combat system using d20s to hit? I mean, you could roll a fistful of d20s and count successes whenever you got better than 15, 16, or whatever based on the foe’s armor class, but that seems…a bit fiddly? What would it look like if you wanted to use d6 for that, like the good old days? Would it be that different?

As it turns out, no. Take a look at the following chart, showing what an ordinary man with no bonuses needs to hit the various armor classes (for simplicity using Dan’s Target-20 system)1.

ACArmorTo hit on d20To Hit on d6THD6 roundedTHD6 truncatedThe Heck with Shields
2plate + shield186666
4chain + shield165.33555
6leather + shield144.67544
Roll needed for a 1 Hit Kill

If you divide it by three to reduce the max needed 18 to a 6, you get the To Hit on d6 column. Then, depending on whether you round or truncate that result you get some pretty easy to understand patterns. Either plate needs a 6, chain needs a 5, anything less needs a 4, or only plate and shield needs a 6, combos down to chain needs a 5, down to naked is 4, and naked is 3. A final option is to fudge it and say we don’t care about shields: Plate 6, Chain 5, Leather 4, Unarmored 3. I’m a little bit torn between saying come on, at least pick up a shield and saying chain and plate really ought to be different, but in the end any of these seems perfectly workable since it’ll be really rare to have a situation where the 1 HD foes have mixed kits. Most likely you just write down the single target number for the whole lot of them and you’re done with it.

So that’s my current plan for handling Cleaving/Sweeps in all the D&D-like games I run. Against 1 HD foes (or likely against any foes where your average damage is a 1 Hit kill) just roll d6s against the target number based on their armor and sweep them off the board.

  1. Justification for this, if needed, comes from the fact that at least the earliest versions specified that the attacks were carried out using the normal man row of the table, and that in any case allowing for both multiple attacks and bonuses to the attacks is a form of double-dipping.

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?

D&D & Me (part 1)

Back in 1975 my father took me to The Games People Play in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and bought me a copy of the new game Dungeons and Dragons, which he had read about somewhere (I think in some science fiction magazine). That gift literally changed my life. Hardly a day has gone by since then when I haven’t read, written, or done something to do with RPGs. All of my closest friends, save one, are people I met doing RPGs, and almost all them I still game with at least semi-regularly.

My first game group was my 6th grade friends, none of whom had ever even heard of the game, and a teacher I roped into running an after-school club for us to play D&D. I played D&D almost every chance I got, and when I wasn’t playing I was making dungeons, doodling monsters, or reading fiction that would work its way back into the game. I remember actually running a fairly longish campaign in High School set in Xanth, based on the first two books. The girls in our group1 liked that better than the previous Arduin Grimoire-based campaign; I’m not sure whether it was because it was more whimsical or they just liked having what were in effect super-powers instead of magic spells.

In the beginning I was the only DM in our group, but my step-brother started to DM as well, and we played a lot of two person games with one or the other of us as DM and the other as a lone PC, possibly with retainers; it never seemed to occur to us that one person could run more than one PC and having a party would make things such as recovering the bodies of fallen adventurers easier. We never worried much about lethality, because resurrection was easy in our games. In my Arduin game, it was something that the inn-keeper at the home base could do for you; granted, influenced by the over-the-topness of some of the Arduin random encounter charts the inn-keeper was a Platinum Dragon, whose human form was a 70+ level “techno.” We made all of our own dungeons and setting materials; I never actually even purchased any of the classic adventure modules, although I did get the Judge’s Guild City-State of the Invincible Overlord and my step-brother used it pretty heavily for a while before making his own cities and overland maps. We heavily modded the combat and magic systems, borrowing from Steve Jackson’s Melee and Wizard tactical fantasy arena combat games.

Actually, though, I moved on from D&D pretty quickly, both through D&D-likes such as Empire of the Petal Throne, and Arduin Grimoire, and also outward to different takes and genres: Chivalry and Sorcery, Runequest, Traveller (lots and lots of Traveller), Villains and Vigilantes, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, The Fantasy Trip… if it was an RPG of the era, I probably tried it. By the time the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook came out in 1978 I mostly thought of myself as an ex-D&D player. It had been fun at the time, but it was too limited and clunky. There were so many better, more coherent, and “realistic”2 systems out there. It chapped my hide that to the general public they were all “D&D.”

My complaints about D&D were the usual ones: what’s a hit point, anyway? How can one person have so many multiples of how much another person has? In what world is a cat a deadly threat to a wizard? Class restrictions are so pointless, and invalidate so many good character concepts. Balancing wizards by making them nearly useless at low levels and god-like at high levels doesn’t actually accomplish anything useful when it comes to day-to-day play. How does armor make you harder to hit, shouldn’t it just reduce the damage? How can people possibly be moving so slowly both in and out of combat?

I kept trying new systems, but eventually most of my gaming moved to various home-brews of my own devising that–mostly by design–rejected most of the features of D&D. It would be a long time before I played D&D again. But that’s a story for Part 2.

1- We had girls in our groups, even from the earliest years. The stereotype of D&D being something that was only played by boys never matched my experience.

2- Yes, I used to value realism, or at verisimilitude, in RPGs very highly, while having a pretty narrow view of what counted. But I’m much better now.

House Rules Swiped from DCC

In my last post I mentioned playing OD&D using Dan Collins’ Original Edition Delta plus some house rules that I swiped from DCC because I feel they’re essential. Commenter tipsta asks which ones and why.

  • Luck replaces Wisdom. Clerics don’t exist as a class (as per OED), which makes Wisdom a dead stat except for things that I really don’t favor rolling for (“insight checks” as modern editions would have it). Replace it with Luck and everything is golden.
    • Allowing players to spend Luck from their very limited supply gives them some say in what rolls are really, really important to them, and somewhat mitigates the fact (mentioned before on this blog) that streaks of unlucky rolls can make a competent character seem like a yutz because every time we see them perform we see them fail.
    • Rolling against Luck or having things that hit a random party member hit whoever has the lowest Luck is a dead simple mechanic that covers a lot of things that come up during adventures that need some kind of decision procedure, and adds flavor.
  • Rolling the Body Roll under Luck after a combat to see if your character thought dead miraculously survived, but permanently reduce Con by 1.
    It’s a great rule for making D&D a tiny bit less lethal. OED has a roughly equivalent Save vs. Death at 0 HP, and white box had a %chance to survive (survive what? It never said) attached to high Con scores. 5e’s Death Checks are maybe more tense, but they’re not self-limiting the way Rolling the Body is: eventually if they keep rolling your body you’re going to run out of Con.
  • Halfling Luck. Halflings get to spend luck on other people’s rolls or themselves and recover level in Luck per day. When Halflings spend luck they get 2 points for every point spent (Halfling Thieves rolling luck dice instead, as normal).
    Differentiates them more from Elves and Dwarves, in a way that really feels like the source material.
  • Mighty Deeds for Fighters. Fighters can attempt a Mighty Deed of Arms by declaring what kind of combat stunt or maneuver they’re attempting (such as knocking a foe down or back, blinding them, disarming them, tumbling between their legs, etc.) They forgo their normal Attack Bonus based on level and roll a Deed Die which gets used as the bonus instead; in addition if the deed die shows 3+ and the attack hit the DM rules on how effective the maneuver was based on how much it exceeds 3. E.g. A blinding attack that rolls a 3 on the Deed Die might get blood in their eyes and give them a -2 next round, while a 7+ might force them to Save vs. Paralysis or be blinded permanently.
    Gary Gygax, with his “fast and furious” one-minute combat rounds didn’t see any need for anything more than the DM adjudicating attempts to do combat stunts like knock somebody down, blind them with your torch, or what-have-you, while later editions piled on rules and maneuvers for special cases. The Deed Die solves all that with a universal mechanic for off-the-wall stunts that still leaves enough room for DM interpretation to keep it from becoming some kind of story-game narrative push. I also allow non-Fighters to use a Deed Die, but theirs is always a d6 with success on a 6, instead of the Fighter’s growing Deed Die with success on a 3+.
  • Luck Die for Thieves. As per DCC Thieves cans add their Luck Die to any of their rolls by spending a point of Luck, which they recover 1 point per level per night.
    Thieves skills suck, and always have. Except for climbing, all of their signature skills start at around a 1 in 6 chance to succeed rising all the way to a 3 in 4 chance at 9th level. Even if you interpret it Philotomy-style as being an extraordinary ability (anybody can hide, thieves can hide in shadows!) for most of the Thief’s career they are going to fail at most things they attempt. OED makes rolling to fail not require looking up anything on a chart, but doesn’t change the probabilities (which, admittedly, is kind of the point of how Dan derived the rules). As soon as you add Luck Dice and Luck regeneration to Thieves they probably *can* succeed in the clutch, when lives or fortunes are on the line… but only a few times a day. In a game where a first level Wizard can have an encounter-winning spell like Sleep once a day at first level, being able to probably guarantee success roughly as often for picking a lock or moving silently is only fair.
  • Re-Casting Spent Spells Through Spellburn. Same as DCC rules, it’s a point of Spellburn (a point off of either Con, Str, or Dex) per level of spell… plus to succeed they’ll have to roll a check d20+Int Bonus+Caster Level-Spell Level against Target 20. The Spellburn has to be done each time you want to cast a spell you’ve already use up for the day. Attribute points recover at the same rate as Hit Points, which in OED is level per week of rest and relaxation in comfortable surroundings.
    The single thing that players have complained most about in all the time I’ve been playing D&D, going all the way back to 1975, is the limited number of spells per day at low levels. A couple of times per day, the wizard gets to be a wizard, the rest of the time he can cower behind everybody and toss daggers. This is one of the first things that used to get replaced with some sort of spell-point system with many fewer spells known but some pool of points limiting how many times they can be cast, or in modern editions “cantrips” that are roughly equivalent to throwing a dagger but can be cast infinitely. The thing is I like the strategic aspect of the Magic User having to decide which spells to equip each day; I think it adds a lot to the game. I also think that encouraging players to use a variety of spells, rather than to save all their spell points/slots to cast their single best spell (usually Sleep at low levels) is an important consideration. Keeping the Vancian casting limits, but including the DCC “out” that you’re never completely out of spells as a wizard as long as you’re prepared to sacrifice something valuable gives you the best of both worlds.
  • Dwarves can smell gold, and Elves are allergic to iron.
    The RP aspects of both of these are just too much fun to do without.

The Fallen Lands

I’ve created an Obsidian Portal site for my online Fallen Lands campaign. My Sunday group has actually switched to doing 5e Phandelver on Roll20 during the quarantine, but I fell in with a new group that was playing OD&D and they expressed interest in playing a second night a week with me refereeing. People have a lot of time on their hands thanks to the pandemic.

So far we’re three sessions in, with the next session scheduled for tomorrow, (Wednesday the 26th of August, 2020). I’m using Dan Collin’s Original Edition Delta house rules, which smooths out some of the rough bits of the white box edition, plus some house rules of my own, mostly swiped from the bits Dungeon Crawl Classics that I can’t really do without any more.

It seems to be going well, and it’s a real pleasure to run compared to some of the later, fancier editions. Even 5e, which does away with a lot of the cruft, and with support of some excellent tools in Roll20, feels like heavy lifting compared to OED. But more on that later.


I was just watching a whole discussion that Dan “Delta” Collins and Paul Siegel were having on their Wandering DMs YouTube channel all about Infravision, and just when I was going to leave a comment about how I would rule it, they came to my preferred solution: treat it like thermal imaging.

Basically, if you’re going back to the beginning when Elves and Dwarves had “infravision” and not “dark vision” or “low light” vision, the question is what exactly can they see, and how far. Can they see details?  Colors?  Is the ability washed out by torches? The LBBs are actually silent on the whole matter, while Chainmail says Dwarves and Elves “can see in normal darkness as if it were light”.  Interestingly, so can Wizards (in OD&D that must be the purpose of the Infravision spell).  Greyhawk specifies that Dwarves can see monsters up to 60′ away in the dark.

I’m not 100% sure of how we ran it back in the day, when we didn’t even have Chainmail but did get Greyhawk shortly after it showed up in the local game store.  As best as I can recall, though, we took the “see monsters” and “infravision” description pretty seriously, treating it as the ability to see heat.  That meant no ability to discern anything that wasn’t hot: no stone walls, doors, statues, traps… if it wasn’t warmer than the surroundings it just wasn’t visible without a light source.

Interestingly, I don’t think we arrived at that because of concerns of the distances lanterns and torches worked vs. the 60′ for infravision, because we mostly didn’t track light sources and the like.  It was too finicky for us, we just wanted to kick down doors and kill monsters and take their stuff.  Maybe there was an occasional trap or something that  dunked you in water and doused your torch, but I just don’t recall much if any discussion of how far down a corridor you could see…but I do recall discussions of things like whether zombies were room temperature or not.

The only thing I think I would do differently now is I’d probably let Dwarves and Elves operate in “ordinary darkness”, that is to say outdoors at night, as if it were daylight as per the Chainmail rules.   It’s only in dungeons and caverns where you have near total darkness,with barely a stray photon, that I’d be more strict about the limits of infravision. And I think that Paul has a good point in the video, that you don’t want characters able to see up to 60′ in a dungeon with perfect clarity: most published dungeon maps are drawn to a scale where seeing that far spoils all the surprise about what’s down at the end of the corridor, or lurking in the far side of a big room.  On the other hand, being able to see if there’s a living creature down there, but nothing about its surrounding or maybe even what it is… that’s giving the players options while keeping things still a bit spooky and mysterious.

Having infravision washed out by nearby heat sources like torches, as in later editions of D&D, strikes me as more trouble than it’s worth, particularly if you’re limiting it to only what infravision as thermal imaging would show.

One bit that I  don’t recall seeing much online discussion of, and that Dan and Paul didn’t touch on, is that it’s clear from Book III of the LBB that “Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character.”  I recall somebody somewhere pointing to that as evidence of the “Mythic Underworld” nature of dungeons, and I may run with that for my End Times campaign.  Or I may forget about it  as just another thing that’s too fiddly to worry about.