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.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Fun with ability scores, modifiers, and data analysis; or, when is a player character unplayable?

The 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons has a caveat that after you roll your ability scores (4d6k3, arrange to taste, the same default method as 1st Edition AD&D), you can discard the scores and re-roll if the sum of all the ability score modifiers is 0 or less, or if you didn't roll at least one score of 14 (a +2 bonus) or greater.

The D&D Rules Cylcopedia (where scores are still rolled on 3d6 in order) also includes guidelines for when to discard a character as "hopeless": on pg. 145 (in the section of Chapter 13: Dungeon Master Procedures on "Creating Characters"), the book recommends that a character with all scores below 9 (i.e. all penalties) or two or more scores below 6 (so multiple −2 or −3 penalties) should be discarded unless the player wants to keep the character anyway

Since I'm currently running a Cyclopedia campaign, it's this latter standard that I'm using at the moment. But it also got me thinking: whenever I next get a chance to run Engines & Empires, which uses only four ability scores and a modifier table that runs from −2 to +2, what should the standard be? I used to allow mulligans for any sets of ability scores that add up to less than 42 (because 10.5 × 4 = 42, and because it's an easy number to remember thanks to Douglas Adams). But then it occurred to me that fully half of all rolled sets of ability scores can be discarded by that standard, and if you weed out all the below-average sets, that's really no better than the requirement from 3rd edition that the sum of all your modifiers should be at least +1. At that point, you might as well be rolling 4d6k3 instead of 3d6.

So I've decided that I need a new standard for minimum playable ability scores in E&E, one that accounts for the reduced number of abilities from six to four, and also the fact that the modifier table looks like this:

3 … −2
4–7 … −1
8–13 … no modifier
14–17 … +1
18 … +2

My feeling is, in a game derived from Classic D&D, a character whose modifiers add up to 0 or even −1 is perfectly playable. It's when the total modifiers start coming out to −2 or lower that things get sketchy. Just going by my intuition, I'd say that a character whose total modifiers add up to −3 or less ought to always be discarded, and that a character with modifiers adding up to −2 exactly should be discarded unless the player wants to play that character in spite of subpar stats.

That's just my bare intuition talking, but whenever I come to this point in a deliberation, I crave data. And for that, I turn to something that always makes my nerdy heart sing: Python coding. So I wrote a little script that generated half a million Engines & Empires characters using 3d6 in order and totaled up their modifiers, binning the data into a distribution as follows:

-8:  0/500K ...  0.0 %
-7:  0/500K ...  0.0 %
-6:  1/500K ...  0.0002 %
-5:  52/500K ...  0.0104 %
-4:  786/500K ...  0.1572 %
-3:  7431/500K ...  1.4862 %
-2:  38843/500K ...  7.7686 %
-1:  115510/500K ...  23.102 %
±0:  174884/500K ...  34.9768 %
+1:  115586/500K ...  23.1172 %
+2:  38728/500K ...  7.7456 %
+3:  7288/500K ...  1.4576 %
+4:  837/500K ...  0.1674 %
+5:  53/500K ...  0.0106 %
+6:  1/500K ...  0.0002 %
+7:  0/500K ...  0.0 %
+8:  0/500K ...  0.0 %

Now that is just a lovely normal distribution, isn't it? That part is as expected. But as to what we can glean from the data… that's just beautiful. The first thing we notice right away is that characters with all 3s or all 18s (or nearly so: three 3s and a 4–7 or three 18s and a 14–17) do not occur in half a million characters rolled. There was precisely one instance each of all the modifiers adding up to +6 and −6 (possible with three 18s or three 3s and an average score of 8–13, or possible with two 18s and two +1 bonuses or two 3s and two −1 penalties). But these extreme outliers are essentially negligible. In fact, all of the characters whose modifiers add up to less than −3 or greater than +3 add up to less than 3.3% of all characters rolled! So, really, if we want to clean up the data, we can present it in a form that's a little easier to parse:

-3 or less  ...  2%
-2:         ...  8%
-1:         ...  23%
±0:          ...  35%
+1:         ...  23%
+2:         ...  8%
+3 or more: ...  2%

Looked at this way, it becomes clear that characters whose modifiers add up to −1 or more account for about 90% of all possible score sets. If we say that characters whose modifiers add up to −3 or less must be discarded and characters whose modifiers add up to −2 may be discarded, that's only 10% of all rolled characters, and that feels pretty good to me! It basically confirms my intuition: characters with really bad stats—stats so bad that the character is practically hopeless—are actually pretty rare, only about 2% of cases, and that one character in ten is either a "definitely discard" or a "maybe discard" (with the latter being significantly likelier—fewer than one character in twelve vs. fewer than one character in fifty). I think that just feels right.

The code that I wrote is easily modified to expand the range back up to six ability scores again (or five or, hell, seven for you Comeliness fans out there, or more). And it's no big deal to change the modifier spread to match Swords & Wizardry (−1 for scores below 9, + 1 for scores above 12) or the standard ±3 range shared by Classic D&D and Castles & Crusades or even the ±4 range employed by WotC's d20 System games. I'll definitely need to play around with this and find out what happens when you change the number of scores and the frequency and magnitude of modifiers! 

ADDENDUM: I just ran the code for Swords & Wizardry (six scores, ±1 modifier range), and here's how it plays out!

-6:  ...  0.0 %
-5:  ...  0.0 %
-4:  ...  0.4566 %
-3:  ...  3.3562 %
-2:  ...  11.2074 %
-1:  ...  21.7054 %
±0:  ...  26.7484 %
+1:  ...  21.6188 %
+2:  ...  11.1392 %
+3:  ...  3.3384 %
+4:  ...  0.4296 %
+5:  ...  0.0 %
+6:  ...  0.0 %

What's interesting to me is that the overall picture isn't that different, but in Swords & Wizardry, with six ability scores in play, a character with a pair of −1 penalties and no bonuses still feels totally playable. For S&W (or any of its many, many derivatives), my feeling here is that a character with penalties in three scores and average values in the other three may be discarded at the player's option, and that a character with four or more penalties but no bonuses is best deemed hopeless and re-rolled.