Sunday, May 23, 2021

Updating my House Rules — and Watching Classic Monster Movies

So, you know those links sitting over on my sidebar? With the separate house-rules docs for D&D and AD&D? Major overhaul to those this weekend. For my D&D rules, I incorporated those totally sweet new rules for prime requisites outlined in the previous post; I added my little fix to the Mentzer/RC clerical spell progression; and I took a hatchet to the rules for thieves and just simplified the ever-loving crap out of them. On the AD&D side, I applied the same revisions to thieving skills (simplifying across the board, to the extent possible for a game like AD&D) while also taking the opportunity to drastically reformat the document for length and readability. If you don't count the reversed attack and saving throw tables, my D&D house rules remain two pages long (which means that they fit neatly onto a single sheet of printer-paper), and I've condensed my AD&D house rules down to five pages. Not bad at all.

In other news, I've decided to go back and do something that I haven't done since I was in high school: I've started watching through all of the classic Universal monster movies, in chronological order. (I'm also trying to get my wife to watch them with me, since she pretty much hasn't seen any of them—not even the famous ones, never mind the schlocky "monster mash-ups" that came later). We've watched Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, and now it's time for The Invisible Man—after which we'll move onto one of my all-time favorites, Bride of Frankenstein, and then one that I've actually never seen before, Dracula's Daughter. There are more sequels after that (Son of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man Returns, and The Mummy's Hand) before we even get to the last of the "classics"—The Wolf Man—and something like a dozen schlocky B-movies before we close things out with the Creature from the Black Lagoon flicks.

I can't wait. ∎

Friday, May 21, 2021

OD&D Prime Requisites

When I play red box OD&D, I generally allow players to make the 2-for-1 swap to lower one or more of their non-prime ability scores to raise their prime requisite. I've done this for years. I've also generally ignored the caveats that say you can't lower Dex, Con, or Cha (a holdover from the white box OD&D rules, where those three scores aren't prime for any class and instead provide direct mechanical benefits to the characters). Part of this is because in red box D&D, all the stats grant bonuses that matter. And part of it is because I've generally added classes to the lineup that do use Con and Cha as prime (generally monks in the former case, bards or druids in the latter).

But, while it is the case that I've long used the rule, I've never really liked it. Because it foils the beautiful bell-curve distribution of 3d6-generated abilities, and because it forces a build choice on a player creating a new character. I'm philosophically opposed to character-building in a system that's supposed to be about random generation, and twiddling with the ability score points after-the-fact in this manner just feels wrong. I've always permitted it, because, hey, it's in the rulebook. But in practice, it grinds the otherwise quick and simple process of character creation to a halt, forcing the player to weigh tradeoffs and compute modifiers. And that's just a bother and a drag.

But recently, a post on Grognardia—which inspired further analysis over on B/X Blackrazor—pointed out that the white box rules don't necessarily work like that. Those rules are famously unclear about whether the scores are actually altered, or whether having so many points in a non-prime score counts as a virtual bonus to your prime requisite for the sake of XP adjustments only. JB makes a solid case for the latter viewpoint, and I have to agree: it's a better reading of the text.

I've avoided using the white box rules for prime requisites in the past because they're unclear, they're a bit fiddly, and—unless you read them very carefully—it makes it seem like it's nigh impossible not to have the maximum +10% XP bonus. Because if a fighter gets to count his full Strength score, half his Intelligence score, and a third of his Wisdom score, and sum that up? Even average rolls of 10 across the board will total a virtual 18, well above the threshold of 15 that a white box fighter needs for the +10% bonus.

In other words, it's really, really easy to miss the language that implies you only count non-prime points above 9, because that line in Men & Magic reads: "Note: Average scores are 9–12. Units so indicated above may be used to increase prime requisite total insofar as this does not bring that category below average, i.e. below a score of 9." (This line, incidentally, really does imply that the non-prime scores are getting lowered to raise the prime! So this other method—"virtual counting"—isn't totally clear or perfectly rock-solid. But let's run with it anyway, just to see what happens.)

So going by the corrected white box method, what's actually going on is that (depending on the specific score) every 2 or 3 points above 9 in one or two specific non-prime scores will count as +1 on your prime requisite for the sake of figuring the XP bonus only. Just as an example, if I roll up some stats here—

Str 12 Dex 10 Con 10 Int 12 Wis 6 Cha 8

—yeah, it's definitely not the case that the XP bonus is a foregone conclusion. If this character were a fighter, the Str 12 would get to count as 13 (thanks to having at least 2 points of Int above 9), which is just enough for the +5% XP bonus. 

But the scores themselves remain blissfully unaltered; I don't have to agonize over whether I want to sack my Int by two points to raise my Str by one; and the rule itself makes a sort of intuitive sense (because the fighter gets to advance faster than normal by virtue of being both strong and smart). In short, despite the fact that it's a bit quirky, the white box rule is actually significantly more elegant than the red box rule. I like it.

But could I like it more?

What would I have to do to convert the very specific and fiddly white box rules to something that I could apply to red box D&D, which has a tendency to broaden and universalize its predecessor's otherwise very specific rules? An example of this is the way that Moldvay Basic does away with the 3-for-1 counts and just has every non-prime become open to a 2-for-1 buy-up. I think that I'd go in the other direction (since we're doing a virtual count here and not an actual buy-up that raises the prime and its modifier at the cost of lowering the non-primes and their modifiers). So I'd say something like: "every 3 points above 9 in a secondary requisite counts as 1 point added to your prime for the XP bonus only."

That is, for fighters, Strength is their prime requisite, and Intelligence and Wisdom become the fighter's secondary requisites. Every 3 points of either stat above 9 (so +1 at 12, +2 at 15, +3 at 18) count as a virtual bonus to the fighter's Strength when figuring XP bonuses, and since this is red box rather than white box, we're aiming for a threshold of 16 (rather than 15) to get that maximum +10% bonus. (The threshold of 13 to hit the 5% bonus remains the same in both editions.)

Well, holy crap and smack me dead, if that doesn't look a wee bit like the red box D&D modifier table! In fact, we can simplify this rule even further (and never have to "count points above 9") by restating it as follows: each class has one prime requisite and two secondary requisites, and the secondary requisites add their modifier (if positive) to the prime requisite for the sake of figuring the character's XP bonus. So now we're just adding a few numbers that are already on the character sheet to begin with! 

Then it's just a matter of setting the stats. For historical reasons, we'll keep fighters, clerics, and thieves where they are. For mages (which in white box could count Wis but not Str), we'll give them Dex as their second secondary ability (which makes sense, because in AD&D, magic-users require Int 9 and Dex 6). This gives us:

• Fighters: Str prime, Int & Wis secondary.
• Mages; Int prime, Wis & Dex secondary.
• Clerics: Wis prime, Str & Int secondary.
• Thieves; Dex prime, Int & Wis secondary.
• Dwarves and halflings just count as fighters (with halflings adding their Int & Wis bonus to both their virtual Str and virtual Dex to figure their effective primes). Elves get to count as both fighters and mages, figuring their two prime requisites separately (and they still need at least a virtual Str 13+ and Int 13+ for the 5% bonus, or virtual Str 13+ and Int 16+ for the 10% bonus). 

So, for example, a thief's prime requisite is effectively his Dexterity score + his Int bonus (if any) + his Wis bonus (if any). A cleric's prime requisite is his Wis score + a positive Str bonus + a positive Int bonus. For elves, their mage prime requisite is their raw Int + Dex bonus + Wis bonus, while their fighter prime requisite is raw Str + Int bonus + Wis bonus. And so forth.

Yeah, that's cool. Plus, Intelligence—which doesn't have a lot of mechanical impact as it stands—becomes the de facto secondary requisite for every non-mage class, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Yep, this is super-cool.

I'll have to tweak the specifics to get it working for my expanded class lineup, but for now, I think this is just a honey of a house-rule. In one fell swoop, it does away with the most agonizing and confusing aspect of D&D character creation, and that's about as useful as a house-rule can be. ∎

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Clerics: Reconciling Cook & Mentzer

It's a well-known fact that the clerical spell progression in the original edition of D&D is unusual compared to later versions, most notably for the 3rd and 4th spell levels both kicking in at the cleric's 6th experience level, and that this oddity carried on into the Cook/Marsh Expert Set rules. Whereas AD&D gave clerics new spell levels on odd-numbered levels just like mages (1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th), and Mentzer's revised Expert Set spread out the spell levels but kept them on the even-numbered levels (2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 10th), the white box and the cyan box have the cleric's first five spell levels coming with no apparent pattern (2nd, 4th, 6th, 6th, 7th).

Now, the strongest argument in favor of the original, odd-looking spell progression is that it puts much-needed restorative spells in the hands of the player characters quickly. There are no 2nd or 3rd level spells that cure hit points, so it makes sense to give clerics access to cure serious wounds and cure critical wounds as soon as is reasonable. The spells that remove "status effects" (paralysis, fear, blindness, deafness, curses, poisons, diseases) are divided somewhat arbitrarily, too, so while having 3rd and 4th level spells come at the same time is certainly quirky, it just means that a 6th level cleric can cure disease once a day and also neutralize poison once a day. And having the cleric learn how to raise the dead as soon as possible is obviously of great benefit to players who would rather not see characters that they had worked up into the middle experience levels (the adventuring sweet spot!) get snuffed out by a run of bad luck with no recourse.

The strongest argument in favor of Mentzer's revised progression is that clerics are already a pretty damn strong class as it is, and that having their spell ability not just catch up to that of mages but also even surpass it for a while (which it is apt to do given the fact that clerics have, long-term, the fastest XP track in the game), isn't balanced. Mid-level clerics are pretty kickass frontline warriors, with their only real weakness being the fact that the coolest magical war-hammers aren't as potent as the coolest magical swords. That said, I don't find this argument very compelling, because it doesn't really track with my experience in actual play. I've generally used the Mentzer/RC spell progression for all of my long campaigns in the past, and in truth, mid-level clerics are usually pretty underwhelming! (A second argument for the Mentzer progression would be the aesthetic one: it's a pretty pattern, and I'll grant that, but that's no reason to suppose that it's balanced or good game-design or makes for better gameplay "on the ground." If I've learned one thing from my years tinkering with game rules, it's that patterns of numbers that look pretty from a bird's-eye view are no guarantee of a positive effect on actual play.)

Before I dive into my "patch" for this little issue, I'd like to make one more point, which concerns the text of raise dead. In the Cook Expert Rules, the Mentzer Expert Rules, and the Rules Cyclopedia, raise dead mentions that clerics of 8th level can raise a body which has been dead for four days, and that this limit goes up for four days per level above 8th, such that a 10th level cleric can raise a body which has been dead twelve days. But white box and cyan box clerics get 5th level spells starting at the 7th experience level, not the 8th, whereas Mentzer and RC clerics don't get 5th level spells until the 10th experience level.

Does this bug anybody else like it bugs me? It's a minor annoyance, but… okay, sure, clearly the text of Mentzer was never edited to correct for the re-shuffled spell-levels, but the text of Cook/Marsh implies that a 7th level cleric can't raise the dead at all, because a 7th level cleric could only affect a body which had been dead for zero days! Maybe it's just an oversight, or maybe the original intent was that only a patriarch (an 8th level cleric in white box OD&D) could raise the dead. But by the time B/X rolls around, clerics don't hit name level until 9th (just like everybody else), so if that was the intent, it's not just buried now, it's deprecated. 

Anyhow… that's part of my justification for wanting 5th level clerical spells to kick in at the 8th experience level (rather than the 7th or the 10th). Ideally, I would want the cleric's spell level progression to see the first five spell levels kick in at the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th experience levels. And, while it would certainly be possible to simply finagle with the numbers for the cleric spell chart between levels six and ten to come up with a progression that sits somewhere in between Cook and Mentzer, I noticed that there's an even easier fix, one that borrows just a soupçon of complexity from AD&D. Here's my patch.

So as you can see, it largely retains Mentzer's revised progression, but with the addition of some zeroes and an asterisk that have a special function for clerics of exceptional Wisdom—which, let's be honest, is going to be most clerics. Effectively, clerics with Wis 13+ get access to 4th and 5th level spells one level early, and clerics with Wis 16+ get access to 5th level spells two levels early. The Mentzer/RC progression is otherwise unchanged, which makes this IMO the ideal sort of fix. It's better, in my mind, to add a teensy bit of complexity (and to make Wisdom just that tiny bit more valuable to clerics) than it is to simply overwrite the 7th, 8th, and 9th level spell progressions with something entirely new that kludges Cook/Marsh and Mentzer together. 

Also, "Lama" is a stupid title for 8th level clerics, and that's all I have to say about that. ∎

Friday, May 7, 2021

And So It Begins…

A new campaign. Second session in. The thief, like a dumbass, tries to sneak past a dozen armed berserkers, gets noticed, and decides to take his dagger and his Strength score of 6, and attack the berserker who noticed him head on. Hence Jacob the thief died, and he took Barry the mage down with him, and thus did half the party perish on session two of the campaign.

The wall of shame beginneth.