Saturday, October 2, 2021

Revisiting Racial Level Limits: How Demihumans Work When I Run AD&D

Before I turn to the main subject of this post, there are two side-topics that I want to address.

• First is the "big news" that I couldn't personally care less about: WotC has announced that they'll be releasing revised core rulebooks for 5th edition D&D* in 2024, on the game's 50th anniversary. It's hard to muster up any enthusiasm for this announcement, given that WotC D&D* isn't, y'know, actually D&D.

• It's closing in on three years now since I decided to finally part ways with the Old School Renaissance, and in that time, I've gained some perspective. I think I have a better understanding now of where I feel like the OSR failed. Soon enough, I'm going to need to write a long post summarizing my thoughts on the matter, where I plan to take my gaming projects in the future, and also articulating my response to lots of other recent old-school gaming blog activity (which I'll link to at the time).

In the meanwhile, though, I want to turn my attention to the subject of AD&D, demihuman level limits, and what is very likely my last substantive post concerning any particular version of Dungeons & Dragons for the near future.

• • •

In my last post, I outlined the structure of the character class lineup in my OD&D games, which necessarily includes all of the playable nonhuman types, since nonhuman characters get their own unique classes in the basic game. I made it clear that while elves, dwarves, and hobbits are still limited to the 10th, 12th, and 8th experience levels respectively, I do allow for the possibility of surpassing those limits using the attack rank and caster level systems found in the Companion and Master Sets, the Rules Cyclopedia, and GAZ5. Demihuman characters who hit their level limits don't have to fade from the campaign right away; but they do advance more slowly, they gain fewer benefits from advancement, and their means of advancement is necessarily restricted (in that demihumans have to "learn" the attack ranks from high-level human fighters, and elves can only advance their magic in an elvish homeland). It's just a normal and expected part of high-level D&D play that nonhuman characters will turn their attention to nonhuman concerns: their homelands, their clans, and probably the creation of special artifacts. While human characters can advance as high as 36th level (and start questing for immortality well before that point), demihumans in D&D have an inherent cap on their capabilities that sits somewhere between 22nd and 28th level for an equivalent human character (but the XP required for a demihuman to reach these heights remains comparable to a human advancing all the way to 36th). 

Now, I want to pause here to inject a bit of a tangent: one of the reasons that the modern old-school gaming movement fixates so heavily on the 1981–2 "B/X" edition of D&D is the fact that it only covers fourteen experience levels. (Well, not really. The booklets promise a "Companion Set" that will run human characters up to 36th level, along with some suggestions of how it will actually work. What actually happened, of course, was that Frank Mentzer was given the job of re-writing the Basic and Expert Sets, and the rest of the game was published as the Companion, Master, and Immortals Sets — and these are the legitimate continuation of "B/X" into levels beyond the 14th. This is not to dismiss the alternative Companion Sets written by JB or Barrataria, but as far as the rules officially published by TSR are concerned, the Mentzer Companion Set is the high-level continuation of both the '82 and '83 Expert Sets. So it would be more accurate of me to say that the change of authorship between the Cook/Marsh Expert Set and the Mentzer Companion Set gives certain old-school gamers a legitimate-seeming excuse to treat "B/X" as a self-contained and even complete edition of D&D, when in fact it is no such thing.) The desire to silo off "B/X" into its own little universe flows from a number of impulses, like the desire to play the game with few rules and few rulebooks, and the desire to keep D&D gameplay confined to the lower levels of experience—when all adventurers are poor, vulnerable, mud-grubbing mercenaries, scrambling to get their hands on what wealth and magic they can grasp at, and never having the power (be it temporal or magical) to really affect the campaign milieu in a big way.

This is, of course, one of the great failings of the OSR: the culture-wide banishment of high-level play from the expected course of a D&D campaign. It is… tragic, the degree to which high-level play has been either ignored or outright ridiculed by the old-school gaming community, and I for one am happy to stand against that trend. Modern D&D gets attacked for being "too much like anime fantasy superheroes"—but it's rarely pointed out that the problem isn't fantasy superheroics. (An 8th level fighting man is a superhero for a reason, after all!) The problem is unearned superheroics taking place at 1st level. Up above 10th level? Superheroism and wuxia and flashy anime moves definitely have their place, alongside the Elric-levels of planes-hopping and the world-shaking magic! 

So I think it needs to be shouted from the rooftops, loud and proud: D&D has official rules for taking characters up to 36th level (and beyond, into Immortality). AD&D has official rules for taking characters up to 30th level (and again, possibly ascending to the status of a demigod afterwards). The impulse to halt human advancement at 9th or 10th or 14th level is understandable, given the inherent difficulty of running a high-level campaign… but it's also wrong, given that a healthy campaign necessarily includes at least the possibility of viable high-level play.

Which brings us back to the subject of demihumans. I've heard it said many a time that "B/X" and its not-really-a-cap of 14th level for human characters makes the demihuman level caps make sense. Hobbits 8th, elves 10th, dwarves 12th, humans 14th. And… yeah, no. Given the advantages that dwarves get over human fighters, a cap of 12th vs 14th is hardly a balancing factor at all. Only elves and halflings will ever really "feel" the cap, and even then, it won't happen for a very long time. Already, we run into the most common criticism directed at level caps when considered as balancing factors: they don't matter at all until you hit the cap, and then suddenly they matter too much and constitute the harshest of punishments for having deigned to play a nonhuman character way back at the start of the campaign.

The "harsh punishment" criticism, naturally enough, evaporates when you realize that D&D players are supposed to be running several characters at a time, and that these characters' levels are expected to spread out over time, so that you'll eventually wind up with a stable of characters with a wide variety of experience levels, suitable for tackling a wide variety of adventures. And even the "poor balancing factor" criticism takes a serious hit when you realize that it's not about balancing the raw power of, say, a human fighter vs. a dwarf fighter; rather, it's about balancing out the campaign milieu as a whole, ensuring that the human species collectively has more power in the game world than the dwarvish species collectively. That is to say, level caps are chiefly a tool for enforcing setting flavor, and they're a game-balance mechanism second.

But!—and this is a big "But!"—that game-balance mechanism absolutely must be in place, and it must be inviolable. The 1st and 2nd edition Dungeon Masters Guides agree on this point, even though AD&D 2nd edition considerably raised the level limits for most demihuman character class combinations well beyond even the expanded limits from 1st edition's Unearthed Arcana. Without it, there is usually no direct incentive to play a human character. And then the campaign devolves into, not the "weird wizard show" that Gary Gygax feared from magic becoming too powerful, but a "silly fairy show" where every character is some new nonhuman species, and eventually the players are all trying to one-up each other in the "not just being a boring human" department. And that's how you go from a sword & sorcery milieu with mostly humans and a few elves, dwarves, and hobbits, to the present-day scene, with its influx of player character planetouched and furries. 

(Second tangent: I've just realized that Dragonball, which has been "the silly Saiyan show" ever since the moment Kuririn threw a ki-en-zan at Cell and it had absolutely zero effect, is basically a universe where the humans are level-limited and doomed to fade from relevance at high-levels. The Saiyans are, in D&D terms, the "humans" of the Dragonball universe! Which is why, now that we have Dragonball Super, Goku and Vegeta are literally the only characters in the show that matter at all.)

…Where was I? Ah, yes. Demihumans. For the level cap on demihumans to matter, it can't be so low that it keeps you from wanting to play a demihuman at all, but it can't be so high that it comes within just a couple levels of maximum human potential. It has to be… somewhere in the middle to upper-middle of the human level range. And its purpose is to keep demihuman characters from being the powerful movers-and-shakers of the campaign world. Or, in more practical terms, the purpose of such caps is to cause players to prefer selecting their human characters more and more as the campaign starts to involve more and more high-level adventures (including dominion management, planes-hopping, "save the world" type stuff, and so forth). To that end, I think that the best model for demihuman level caps isn't the "hard ceiling" given in both AD&D 1st and 2nd editions, but rather, the "soft ceiling" of D&D—a slowing of advancement that will eventually peter out at a point where the demihuman character has needed to earn just as much XP as the maximum-level human, but the demihuman's raw power is somewhere between one-half and three-quarters as powerful as the human in terms of total experience levels.

And, in fact, the mechanism for accomplishing this is buried right there in the rulebooks themselves. 

AD&D 1st edition's solution for demihumans exceeding their level caps is to simply raise the cap when the character has an exceptionally high ability score. This is a terrible idea. All it does is promote stat-bloat, and it delays the "hard ceiling" by a couple of levels at most.

AD&D 2nd edition mentions several times that demihumans may be allowed to surpass their caps if they're instead required to earn double, triple, or even quadruple XP to gain levels, either right away from 1st level, or only once they've hit their cap in their class. This is a better idea, but it's not very elegant, and any rule that outright removes the level cap (even if the cost in XP becomes so high as to be not practically attainable in a real campaign) isn't doing its job to incentivize players to prefer human characters.

But if we combine these methods, in particular starting with the lower AD&D 1st edition level limits and then gradually slowing advancement until the character hits a hard ceiling at the AD&D 2nd edition level limits (only reachable after earning a considerable amount of extra XP), then that just about does it. Instead of "punishing" the player with a low hard cap and halting advancement, we instead have a mechanism that models the demihuman character gradually losing interest in human concerns (like adventuring, amassing wealth and power, and ruling), becoming less and less able to keep up with the power-accumulation of ambitious humans—and knowing full well that while a human can eventually reach 30th level in their class, a demihuman will eventually be limited to the mid teens in two or three classes.

Here's the final table:

As noted, it works by allowing demihumans to advance normally until they hit their "first cap" (which is usually, but not always, their level limit from the 1e PHB). Beyond that, the character requires double the normal amount of XP to attain the next two levels, triple XP to reach the next two levels after that, and quadruple XP for their final two attainable levels, with the second "hard cap" always being six levels above the initial one. 

As an example of the caps in action, let's take the classic combination, the elf fighter/mage. Elves hit their first fighter cap at 7th level and their first mage cap at 9th level. Beyond that, an elf can eventually hit 13th/15th level as a fighter/mage, but the XP required to reach those levels is multiplied considerably. The elf's advancement table would thus be:

Level

Fighter

Mage

1st

0

0

2nd

2,000

2,500

3rd

4,000

5,000

4th

8,000

10,000

5th

18,000

22,500

6th

35,000

40,000

7th

70,000

60,000

8th

180,000

90,000

9th

430,000

135,000

10th

1,180,000

365,000

11th

1,930,000

615,000

12th

2,930,000

1,740,000

13th

3,930,000

2,865,000

14th

 

4,365,000

15th

 

5,865,000

Now, keep in mind, multiclassed characters do have to continue splitting their XP even after reaching an ultimate cap in one of their classes, so in order to actually attain 13th/15th level as a fighter/mage, an elf character would actually need to earn a grand total of 11,730,000 experience points — far more than it would ever take any human to reach 30th level. (Well, except for druids and monks, but druids and monks are outliers.) In fact, as a point of comparison, here are the XP requirements to reach 30th level in each class, assuming no +10% XP bonus for high prime requisites:

Fighter … 5,500,000
Ranger … 6,600,000
Paladin … 7,700,000
Cleric … 4,950,000
Druid … 10,500,000
Monk … 9,750,000
Thief … 4,400,000
Assassin … 5,250,000
Bard … 6,400,000
Mage … 7,500,000
Illusionist … 4,620,000
Necromancer … 5,250,000
Psionicist … 6,000,000

As you can see, the system I've devised ensures that AD&D demihuman characters can always, in principle, continue to advance alongside their human counterparts… it's just that for demihumans, the actual rewards for advancement will becoming increasingly rare and less worthwhile, gradually falling off to nothing. This should, in my estimation, provide the "gentle nudge" (rather than the original "sudden slap in the face") that will have players picking their human characters over their nonhuman ones as a campaign transitions into epic-level play.

• • •

So there you have it. This is the last post I'm going to make on either OD&D or AD&D for a while, because I feel like "I've done it." I've hammered my house rules for both systems into an elegant and functional shape that works well, while still honoring these games' original forms. I don't feel like there's much more work to do on the rules themselves. All that's left is to build campaigns and just play

That said, there is still one related project I have in the works: I'm presently working on a set of spell cards for BECMI (including the druidic spells and those weird extra magic-user spells from the Rules Cyclopedia) that I'll eventually post here and also try and spread around the blogosphere and the r/osr subreddit and what-not. My motive for doing this is a combination of the usual desire to have a handy play-aid on hand and to share it with the community; and also (perversely) to evangelize for the continuity between B/X and BECMI. After all, these days? The majority of gamers who will be using something like this will probably be Old School Essentials players. They need to know that there aren't just fourteen levels of "B/X" and then some adulterated AD&D rules that can optionally be tacked on as the "Advanced Fantasy" supplement. There are also levels 15th through 36th and Immortals play out there waiting for them—waiting for old-school gamers to rediscover the true source of gonzo, bonkers, super-powered fantasy that is the epic level campaign! 

Thursday, September 30, 2021

A Catalog of Classes: Playable Roles in my OD&D Campaigns

Note: This is a repost of an earlier entry that was mysteriously swallowed by Blogger when I tried to update some information on the table below. Unfortunately, the post was unrecoverable, and along with it, some entertaining conversation about bards was forever lost from the comments section. C'est la vie.

• • •

Purely for my own edification, I've decided to post a list of the character types that I'm currently allowing in my OD&D campaigns. It may look a mess, but there's actually a method to the madness, as I'll explain shortly.

Human Characters

Class

Requirements

Prime Requisite

Level Limit

Fighter

Strength

36th

Mage

Intelligence

36th

Cleric

Wisdom

36th

Thief

Dexterity

36th

Monk

Str 11+, Dex 11+, Wis 11+

Constitution

36th

Druid

Cleric Lv2–5

Charisma

36th

Knight (Paladin)

Fighter   Lv4–8, Wis 13+

Strength

36th

Knight (Avenger)

Fighter   Lv4–8, Wis 13+

Strength

36th

Knight (Bard)

Fighter   Lv4–8, Cha 13+

Strength

36th

Dual-Class

Fighter, Mage, Cleric, or Thief Lv2–8; natural 17+ in old & new primes (but no Mage/Cleric or Cleric/Mage allowed)

Though a B/X purist may deem it heretical, I've decided to allow dual-class humans in my D&D games. Following the model mentioned in Men & Magic, a human character may be permitted to change classes, but not cleric to mage or mage to cleric (and I also don't allow druids, monks, paladins, avengers, or bards to dual-class — unlike AD&D, where the sub-classes are explicitly permitted to do so if the PC has the stats for it). I've placed two limits on the practice, though: first, a character cannot dual-class if they surpass 8th level in their first class (becoming name level in more than one class is the special province of demihumans — only elves get to be Lord/Wizards, and only orcs get to be Lord/Master Thieves). Second, where AD&D requires that a character have 15s or better in their first class's prime requisites and 17s or better in all subsequent classes' primes (yes, in AD&D, you can in fact dual class as many times as your stats allow, and thereby potentially have a warrior / rogue / priest / wizard / psionicist), the OD&D rules require only that the character have 16+ in the prime of the class they switch to. That would make dual-classing too accessible to my way of thinking — I'll allow it in my OD&D games, but I want it to be rare, more rare than in AD&D — so I'm requiring 17s or better in both the character's first and second classes. Dual-class humans are powerful, rare, and special.

As for the other human classes, the changes are minimal. I've tweaked the requirements for monks a bit, from 13s in two stats to 11s in three stats. (This way, the monk's requirements in my OD&D games line up quite well with their AD&D requirements: AD&D monks require 15+ in Str, Dex, and Wis and 11+ in Con, while my OD&D monks require 11+ in Str, Dex, and Wis and treat Con as the prime requisite.) This means that only about 10% of a given set of rolled stats will qualify for a monk, which feels just about right to me.

Druids and all the knight-types, meanwhile, have their level requirements lowered from 9th (as in the Companion Set and Rules Cyclopedia) to 2nd for druids and 4th (i.e. hero) for knights. In the case of druids, this is just practical: if 1st level druids were allowed, you'd have a 1st level character who can't cast spells (druids use the clerical spell progression), can't turn undead, can't use edged weapons, and can't wear heavy armor. They couldn't do much of anything, in fact. But by allowing clerics to switch to druidry after reaching 2nd level if they choose, I can incorporate the choice to follow nature (and Neutrality) into the choice between Law (clerics) and Chaos (anticlerics) that all OD&D clerics have to make before reaching the upper-middle experience levels. The knight-types, meanwhile, are just fighters who devote themselves to the same religions as clerics (paladins), anticlerics (avengers), or druids (bards—which in my OD&D games are mechanically represented not by any version of the bard class, but by the Mystara druidic knight from Dragon Magazine #177—which I consider to be akin to the original AD&D 1e PHB bard, which is a fighter first and foremost, and the fighter sub-class bard from Castles & Crusades).

So in the end, the human character types boil down to the classic four: fighters, mages, clerics, and thieves; plus two special classes, druids and monks, which are the "Charisma" and "Constitution" classes respectively, are a bit harder to qualify for, and play very much like a mage/cleric and a fighter/thief; and the three specially aligned paladin-types that a fighter can "promote" into. As for demihumans:

Demihuman Characters

Class

Requirements

Prime Requisites

Level Limit

Elf

Intelligence 9+

Str and Int

10th (M/20th)

Dwarf

Constitution 9+

Strength

12th (O)

Hobbit

Dex 9+ and Con 9+

Str and Dex

8th (K)

Orc

Strength 9+

Str and Dex

10th (M/20th)

Dwarf Knight (Goði)

Dwarf Lv4–8, Con 13+ and Wis 13+

Strength

12th (O)

Demihuman Thief

Elf, Dwarf, or Hobbit Lv1; Dex 15+

+ Dexterity

4th, 6th, or 8th

As usual, these character types are more restricted than the human roles. I'm sticking with the BECMI/RC implementations, including attack ranks and the choice for elves to raise their effective magic-user level (as per GAZ5) if desired. Dwarves can achieve a higher attack rank than elves (roughly equivalent to a 24th level human fighter), and they can also acquire their own version of the paladin upgrade, the goði (which I've modeled loosely on the dwarf-cleric from GAZ6). Hobbits remain limited to level 8 and attack rank K, but up in the attack ranks they get the magic-reflecting Denial ability from GAZ8, so playing a hobbit remains worthwhile. Orcs are my own custom class, a fighter–thief combination that works pretty much just like the elf class. (Orcs and only orcs enjoy the unique ability to employ thief skills while also heavily armored.)

Further, I'm also allowing non-orcs with a natural Dex score of 15+ to be split-class thieves if desired; but elves are very limited in this respect, as they'll be the only possible "triple-class" in the game, and so an elf/thief can only raise their thief level to 4th before it caps. A dwarf can likewise only go to thief level 6th before hitting a hard ceiling. (Note that in both cases, 4th and 6th were the elf and dwarf's original fighting man level limits in Men & Magic!!!) Hobbit/thieves fare better, being allowed to raise their thief level all the way up to 8th along with their inherent racial fighter level (again tossing a bone to the class that otherwise fares the worst in terms of level limits).

Now, looking at all of this, you may notice that the more advanced options are gated off by increasingly onerous ability score requirements which in fact follow a pattern. Observe:

Fighter, Mage, Cleric, or Thief … no requirements
Druid … no ability score requirements (just need to reach 2nd level as a cleric)
Elf, Dwarf, Orc … 9+ in one ability score
Hobbit … 9+ in two ability scores
Monk … 11+ in three ability scores
Paladin, Avenger, Bard … reach 4th level as a fighter, have 13+ in one ability score
Goði … reach 4th level as a dwarf, have 13+ in two ability scores
Elf/Thief, Dwarf/Thief, or Hobbit/Thief … 15+ in one ability score
Dual-class human … 17+ in two ability scores

The end result is a hierarchy of rarity that quite naturally makes the basic human types the commonest sort of playable adventurer in the game, followed by the basic demihuman types, then monks and paladins, multiclass demihumans, and finally (the rarest of the rare) dual-class humans. Just as it should be in my humble opinion! ∎

Friday, August 13, 2021

Taking Another Look at Level Drain: The Latest Iteration of My D&D House Rules

In the past, I've generally avoided using level drain as a mechanic. It has a very emotional effect on certain sorts of players — the ones who don't easily roll with the punches and are apt to become sullen when things don't go their way. All the way back in the original DMG, of course, Gary Gygax advised his fellow DMs not to play with such players at all; but for my part, my strategy has always been conflict-avoidance, preventing any confrontations over the turn of ill luck that is level drain by simply not using the mechanic at all (and instead replacing it with temporary Con drain, or hp drain, or something else entirely).

But as my current mini-campaign winds down to its natural conclusion, I've noticed that the mid-tier undead (wights, wraiths, spectres, vampires) really lack "oomph" if they don't drain levels. They don't inspire fear or caution; they don't really justify having such a prominent class feature as clerical Turning dedicated entirely to avoiding them. (Yes, it's true that undead don't check morale, but neither do berserkers or golems, and there are no whole entire class features devoted to driving them away.) And so, last night, when the players randomly encountered a lone wight, I decided (since the campaign is nearly over anyway) to put this to the test and give level drain a try. The wight attacked one of the player characters, drained them from 3rd level down to 2nd, and… it felt right. That's what wights should do!

Beyond not wanting to disappoint and annoy players, I've held to two other opinions about level drain in the past: that it's cumbersome to apply (because removing an experience level from a player character is a fiddly exercise in numerical tedium) and it's contrary to the literary and cinematic flavor of the undead. The tedium issue proved to be a non-issue thanks to my newly redesigned character sheet, which places all of the information for each character class's level advancement right on the back of the sheet. The second issue, meanwhile, I've decided to solve by giving the mid-tier undead creatures their flavorful literary and cinematic abilities in addition to level drain rather than instead of it.

Thus: wights can either drain a level with their touch or put an enemy to magical sleep (resulting in a docile victim that's easier to drain further). Wraiths and spectres can choose to inflict disease and poison, respectively, with their touches instead of draining levels (shades of Ringwraiths and the Witch-King). And vampires can either drain levels or bite and suck blood, and the latter has the power to hasten the vampire, making it an interesting tactical choice for the monster.

On the other hand, I still don't like the idea of making drained levels so terribly permanent that the only recourse is earning those lost experience points all over again. That can still certainly be the outcome if there are no healing magicks available to alleviate the drain, but at least in principle, I want the game rules to support the possibility of healing from level drain without needing wishes or 7th level restore spells.

To that end — and also because I've come to believe that the higher-level clerical healing spells are fucking lame — I mean, a 5th level cure critical wounds spell, the same spell level at which point clerics can raise the fucking dead back to life, is only three times as effective as a 1st level cure light wounds spell? Lame — to that end, I've indulged another impulse of mine and rewritten the chain of clerical healing spells to make them notably more powerful at healing hit points, status effects, and most importantly lost levels. It's all to be found in detail on the last page of that document I've linked to up above, with the newly redesigned character sheet and class info sheet-backs and pre-calculated XP and hp totals and finally a single page of house rules. But in brief:

• Cure light wounds, level 1, range 10' (rather than touch), cures 1d6+1 hp or ghoul paralysis.
Cure moderate wounds, level 2, range 20', cures 2d6+2 hp or 1d4 points of shadow Strength drain. (Replaces know alignment on the cleric's spell list.)
Cure serious wounds, level 3, range 30', cures 3d8+3 hp to one or more targets within range (if cast on multiple targets, the cleric player rolls 3d8+3 for the total number of hit points cured and then decides how to divide those points of healing among all recipients) or cures blindness, deafness, or muteness. (The spell replaces cure blindness on the cleric's spell list.)
Cure grievous wounds, level 4, range 40', cures 4d8+4 hp to one or more targets or lifts a level drained by a wight or wraith. (Replaces cure serious wounds on the spell list.)
Cure critical wounds, level 5, range 50', cures 5d10+5 hp to one or more targets, or lifts 1d2 levels drained by a wight, wraith, spectre, or vampire.
Cure-all, level 6, range touch, cures all hp damage or any status effect or 1d3 levels drained by any monster or magic item.
Restore, level 7, can reverse the effects of staff of withering, regenerate a lost limb, restore 1d4 levels drained by any cause (including the reverse of this spell), or even restore the ability to gain XP and levels to a character who had previously been drained down to level 0.

All of the healing spells affect undead in reverse (something that was only ever canonically true, I believe, in D&D* 3rd edition—but I hold to this rule because it's a Final Fantasy mainstay and I love it). The reversed healing spells that work at range now no longer require an attack roll; instead, targets can save for half damage. This manages, I think, to keep the cause wounds spells from being utterly lame and a waste of a spell-slot. They're still not anywhere near as effective as magic-user attack spells, but they're useful in their own way. And finally, any casting of a healing spell to restore one or more lost levels to a character leaves both caster and recipient exhausted for 1 week per level restored (and the casting cleric actually drained of said levels until rest shrugs off the loss), meaning that the act of restoring lost experience levels, while much more feasible now, is never trivial or without consequences.

This manages, I think, to strike the right balance between old-school harshness and modern convenience. (Let nobody ever claim that I was some sort of hardline grognard, after all. Clearly, I'm not.) So… yeah; my classic D&D house rules have been all updated and streamlined and bashed into this shiny new document that makes them really easy to reference at the table.

And now, I suppose, I'm going to have to do pretty much the same thing for my AD&D house-rules, which are (very much like my OD&D house rules) something like 95% changes to the character classes in the game. ∎ 

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Nnfff. The Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster is SO pretty. It's like a sucker-punch in the nostalgia dick.

 A few weeks ago, I randomly felt the nostalgia bug and started playing through Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II again. I mostly wanted to compare the various remake versions that I was familiar with: the PSX Origins release, the GBA Dawn of Souls version, and the (until now definitive) PSP releases which I had only lately acquired. It was clear that playing through these, the PSX versions had stayed truest to the NES originals while also providing nice graphical and musical updates; the other, more recent releases had adulterated the original games with soulless bonus content and a drastic reduction in difficulty. That said, the PSP versions easily gave the PSX versions a run for their money in the graphics department.

But now, Square Enix has released the first three Final Fantasy games on Steam and mobile phones as the inaugural entry their "Pixel Remaster" series (with the next three FF games due to come out in a month; no word on such a re-release for Chrono Trigger, alas). This is the first time that the western world has seen a proper release of Final Fantasy III in all its 2D-glory, and I frankly can't wait to play through it again. The 3D remake of FF3 was a disappointment to many, myself included, on account of its altered battle mechanics. But now I get to experience it again, only with all of the usual quality-of-life improvements we've come to expect from modern JRPGs (like a run button and auto-battles)!

As for the Pixel Remasters themselves, they are, in my opinion, gorgeous. The mix of old-school pixel effects (such as, for example, the way enemies disintegrate pixel-by-pixel when defeated, just like in the NES original) and modern music and graphics is phenomenal, and it blows even the PSP versions out of the water. 

I think I'm going to have to play through FF1 and FF2 all over again before I even touch FF3!

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Reconciling Cook and Mentzer: Take 2

A couple of months ago, I wrote about revising the cleric's spell progression to make the table used in Mentzer Expert and the Rules Cyclopedia line up a bit more with the table from Cook Expert and Men & Magic. I like the idea of clerics gaining early access to 4th and 5th level spells, because it's at the middle experience levels that clerics start to feel a bit lackluster compared to other classes. The problem is, in that earlier post, the solution that I hit upon involved something very AD&D-like: giving clerics at certain levels bonus spell-slots based on Wisdom.

But I don't want Wisdom to have that much of an effect on clerical spellcasting in Basic D&D. After all, Intelligence doesn't have much impact on arcane casting (at least, it doesn't post-Greyhawk and post-Holmes), and I think this was a good change between Holmes Basic and Moldvay Basic, because it makes low-Intelligence mages viable (if not necessarily desirable). It frees players up to choose their class without having to bow too much to the tyranny of the randomly-rolled ability scores. This is exactly opposite to the change that Moldvay's new ability score modifier table wrought upon fighters: after 1981, Strength penalties in combat ensured that low-Strength fighters were always a sub-optimal play in Basic D&D. 

But, as I discussed in my last post, I now intend to curtail ability sore modifiers in order to solve that problem. And to fix clerics while staying true to this philosophy, the solution can't depend on Wisdom scores. Hence, another revision is needed, and here it is.


There's much to be said for the simple approach, and this is it: contra the first time I discussed this topic, I've decided to go ahead and construct a gimmick-free progression that stays closer to the Cook/Marsh numbers (though it still avoids the weird "both 3rd and 4th level spells at cleric level six" thing) while still flowing neatly into the high-level progression found in the Companion Set and the Rules Cyclopedia. The cost is that the revised progression is entirely detached from both the Cook and Mentzer progressions, matching neither table from levels six through twelve, and instead hewing a "middle road" between the two in terms of total numbers of spells per day. Which is, perhaps, not just the simplest and most straightforward solution, but also the downright obvious one. ∎

Friday, July 16, 2021

Tweaking the ability score modifiers for importance and impact

As of last Wednesday, my group and I are eleven sessions into our current (red box D&D) mini-campaign. And in this time, as I always do when I run D&D, I've tried to pay attention to how the rules are working. I look for areas where the experience could be improved. I can't help doing that; I like to tinker.

And as this campaign has gone on, I've noticed something yet again that has bothered me in the past: I don't like the Basic/Expert ability modifier table that ranges from −3 to +3. I really don't like it. In fact, I kind of hate it—because it makes ability scores too important, high scores too desirable, and low scores too punitive.

Now, since this is just a mini-campaign that's already in full swing, I'm not going to implement any additional house rules mid-stride. This bit of theorizing is strictly to inform the next occasion that I run some form of OD&D. But it solidly reaffirms that I have to do something about that modifier table. ±3 is just too much variation, despite the expected rarity of extremely high or low ability scores. Such scores do occur, via both the dice and the acquisition of magical items (gantlets of ogre power, gloves of dexterity, amulets of health, periapts of wisdom, headbands of intellect, and cloaks of charisma), and they have a psychological effect on the players. They make the ability scores a focus of play in a way that seriously rubs me the wrong way.

In fact, it reminds me of what I hate about 5th edition D&D, where scores are central to play, high ability scores are downright essential, and even a mediocre score in a key area can cripple a character. It's a paradigm that happens to be totally at odds with the ability-scores-as-prime-requisites model,  generating scores on 3d6 in order, letting them inform (but almost never dictate) your choice of character class, and play decisions being the primary determinant of success. It's the first step on that slippery slope to bloated stats and slanted methods of character generation that eventually become character creation or the despised build.

But I digress. To briefly summarize my current thoughts on the matter of ability score modifier tables:

• The d20 System table, where modifiers for ability scores in the 3–18 range run from −4 to +4, is basically the worst of the worst. The ability scores have far too much mechanical impact on gameplay.

• The classic D&D table, which runs from −3 to +3, looks beautiful with its "exaggerate the already-present bell curve" distribution of modifiers: −3 at 3, −2 at 4–5, −1 at 6–8, no modifier at 9–12, +1 at 13–15, +2 at 16–17, and +3 at 18. But I now firmly believe that this is one of those all-too-common examples of an RPG rule that looks pleasing to the eye and pretty on paper, while also being actively detrimental to actual gameplay.

• The table I use in Engines & Empires (and which I'm also given to understand is used by Kevin Crawford in Stars/Worlds Without Number) is essentially the d20 System table halved and dropping fractions, so that modifiers run from −2 to +2. Specifically, they are: −2 at 3, −1 at 4–7, no modifier at 8–13, +1 at 14–17, and +2 at 18. This table has a lot to recommend it. I like that the no modifier range of 8–13 means that fully two-thirds of all naturally rolled scores will fall into this average band, with only one-sixth of scores having a bonus and one-sixth having a penalty, nearly always just ±1 (but scores of 3 and 18 are still as impactful as their rarity merits). I think this table is superior to the ±1 spread used by Swords & Wizardry. But, while it works well in Engines & Empires (with its four scores and very limited list of things that the modifiers apply to), I'm not certain it's the best fit for classic D&D.

• The Swords & Wizardry table is the simplest of all: −1 for scores of 3–8 (which is about 25% of rolls on 3d6), no modifier for 9–12 (about 50% of rolls), and +1 for scores of 13–18 (about 25% again). It's simple, clean, and doesn't burden the game with excessive stat modifiers. It's just… difficult to wrap one's head around, the notion that a Strength of 13 has the same mechanical impact as a Strength of 18, for anyone used to the very simulationistic idea that the 3–18 score range is supposed to represent the range of human variability. But this idea could very well be wrong, and maybe Swords & Wizardry has the right of it: maybe Strength 3 doesn't represent sickly invalids, and maybe Strength 18 doesn't represent Olympic-class weight-lifters. And there certainly doesn't need to be Super-Strength of 18/100% in the game to represent the likes of Samson and Hercules. Maybe scores of 3–18 are just there to represent some broad cross-section of human variability, and it's enough to sort everyone's abilities into below average, average, and above average, and call that good?

• Finally, of course, there's the mish-mash of tables we see in the LBBs and Greyhawk and Holmes (and retro-clones of the same). No uniform modifier table. Just bespoke modifiers that fit the particular sub-systems they're modifying, without letting things get as overly-detailed and unwieldy as AD&D. There's something that I instinctively like about this approach, but I don't think that I can embrace it fully yet. Instead, I'm more inclined to come up with a compromise between this method and the Swords & Wizardry method. The bespoke, organic, "perfect fit" of Holmes meshed with the clean simplicity and low impact of S&W seems, to my mind, ideal.

To that end:

Here's how I think I'll revise the six ability scores the next time I run D&D.

Ability Score

Strength

Dexterity

Constitution

3–5

−1 to melee hit & damage

−1 to Armor Class

−10% hp

6–8

−1 to open doors

−1 to hit with missiles

−5% hp

9–12

n/a

n/a

n/a

13–15

+1 to open doors

+1 to hit with missiles

+10% hp

16–18

+1 to melee hit & damage

+1 to Armor Class

+20% hp

Ability Score

Intelligence

Wisdom

Charisma

3–5

Illiterate

−1 to find secret doors

−1 to reaction rolls

6–8

Literate (Common)

−1 to saving throws

−1 to followers & morale

9–12

Literate (Common and Alignment Tongue)

(base 2-in-6 to find secret doors)

(4 followers, ML 7)

13–15

+1 Bonus Language

+1 to saving throws

+1 to followers & morale

16–18

+2 Bonus Languages

+1 to find secret doors

+1 to reaction rolls

Ability Score

Prime Requisite (one per class)

Secondary Requisites (two per class)

3–5

−20% to earned XP

6–8

−10% to earned XP

9–12

n/a

13–15

+5% to earned XP

Virtual +1 to prime requisite for XP only

16–17

+10% to earned XP

Virtual +2 to prime requisite for XP only

18

+10% to earned XP

Virtual +3 to prime requisite for XP only

Taken altogether, these tables represent something of a culmination of the house rules I've discussed on this blog in recent months. In particular, I've retained the house rule that I cooked up earlier for leaving prime requisite ability scores unmodified, but "virtually adjusted" by a character class's "secondary" requisites (which is, in the end, an instance of that +3 modifier surviving after all, albeit in a very low-impact form). Also, for the vast majority of classes, the secondary requisites are Int and Wis, and it makes sense to have these stats—particularly Int—impact the rate at which experience points are gained!

Just sitting back and considering these tables, I think they're almost as clean as Swords & Wizardry, almost as flavorful as Holmes Basic or Greyhawk, and decidedly functional. They do to D&D characters more or less what I want them to do. There's a good range of variation, but nothing excessively overpowering or punishing. 

Guess I'm going to have to another page to my D&D rules document after all… ∎

• • •

FOOTNOTE: It occurred to me a bit later that a house-rule like this would still necessitate a slight tweak to stat-enhancing magical items, to make them suitably desirable and effective. Items like gauntlets of ogre power and such ought, under a system like this, to both set the relevant attribute at 18 and magically double any bonuses granted by such a high score. So, for example, a character wearing gauntlets of ogre power would enjoy +2 to open doors rolls, melee to hit rolls, and melee damage. An amulet of health would boost a character's hit point total by +40%. A headband of intellect would impart to a character a total of four bonus languages. And so forth.