Tuesday, November 29, 2011


If combat is broken off, the fleeing party must accept an attack without any return on his part, the attacker adding +2 on his die roll for hit probability, and the armor class of the fleeing party can not include a shield. (J. Eric Holmes on what would later become known as the Attack of Opportunity, Dungeons & Dragons, p.21)
One of the common criticisms of OD&D is that the combat system isn't realistic, and the common rejoinder to that is that D&D combat is abstract.

That's a perfectly good reply, too, in my opinion, and it reflects D&D's roots in earlier games like Chainmail and other wargames. In those, pieces often represented units of 100 men or more, and the attack/damage resolution was necessarily an abstraction, due to the aggregate nature of the unit. D&D simply evolved from that perfectly adequate system by dividing 100 men by 100, giving us the abstractions of Armor Class and Hit Points.

Nonetheless, there is abstract and there is Abstract. We don't talk about Triangle units hitting Squares and knocking off three points from the Blue Column; it's swords and axes hitting goblins and manticores and knocking their h.p. down. And dividing up an aggregation to derive the individual suffers from the "average family" problem, where every household has 2.73 children. So even in the early days, there was some desire to add a little bit of verisimilitude to combat, as evinced by the quote above.

Of course, combat was never the sole activity in the game, nor even the central one, despite what some might say, so it makes sense that it be dealt with on a level that reflects how much time and effort it should occupy. But weighed against this is the reality that in combat, more than any part of the game except maybe traps, your character can go down due to a bad die roll, and that giving the players more fiddly bits to twiddle can give them a feeling of control and fairness even when their hero meets an untimely end.

I mention all of this because I like Armor Class and Hit Points for the abstractions they are, but for me, the right level of detail is a moving target, and I sometimes find myself wanting more. I'm not thrilled by how complicated the rules have become on that score, however. I prefer my tactical flash to be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Something like this is a good start; a collection of easy-to-state and easy-to-adjudicate rules. Although I don't agree with all of them, this kind of thinking seems more elegant than all of the cumulative bonuses and multiple attack feats of later editions. So I'll be asking about this kind of thing in the future, and offering some suggestions of my own from time to time. I hope you'll find them useful.


The Legacy of Vecna

Release of word/sound-stored energy is not particularly debilitating to the spell caster, as he or she has gathered this energy over a course of time prior to the loosing of the power. It comes from outside the spell caster, not from his or her own vital essence...[B]ecause spells tap power from other planes, any improper casting is likely to cause the spell not to function... (Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master's Guide, 1st ed., p.40)
 The tomes which held Turjan's sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan's brain could know but four at a time. (Jack Vance, "Turjan of Miir", from The Dying Earth)

Magic is not an exact science in Gygaxian D&D. Magic-Users study, learn their spells, absorb the words of power and marshall their material components, then cast them; I think that term is appropriate, not least because it summons up an image of a quarterback throwing a Hail Mary pass. The power comes from other planes, other dimensions, and no matter how skilled a mortal becomes in its use, there's still the danger of failure and unintended side effects.

I like that. It makes magic eerie and wondrous, no matter how familiar I become with the game. Something in your brain disappears as soon as you use it, as though the spell were some kind of symbiotic entity waiting to be unleashed. How freaky is that?

I also acknowledge that the Vancian explanation of magic neatly limits the power of Magic-Users, especially at lower levels, and I have no doubt that it was this game consideration that led Gygax and Arneson to adopt the "fire and forget" aspect of the Dying Earth's magic. But they could have done otherwise. They could have made spells less potent; they could have had made magic an alien technology that needed periodic recharging; they could have decided that expensive and hard-to-come-by material components were necessary for all spells. But of all the limits they could have placed on magic, they selected this one. That D&D uses Fire and Forget is a sign that the weirdness of Vancian magic was intended to be a part of the feel of D&D, and not just a mechanical limit on the class. (The other sign is the inspiration for this post's title: "Vecna" is an anagram of "Vance".)

For this reason, I'm not fond of Sorcerors in Pathfinder, or feats such as Eschew Components. Nor am I a fan of insisting on using the term "prepare" instead of "memorize" for spells in 3.5. And the "At-Will" and "Per Encounter" powers of 4th edition completely break with Vancian tradition. Each of these is an attempt to change the specific flavor that the game's creators deliberately put there. I said it to a friend a little while back: it's cool that you like a game that doesn't have Vancian magic; you just like a game that isn't D&D.

I know that sounds a little smug, but I really mean it about the cool part. Lots of great games aren't D&D, and I've had fun playing some of them. I even had a good time playing one game of 4th Edition. And I think there's plenty of room to improve the mechanics of the game in ways that weren't obvious in 1974. But for me, it's only a homonym for the game I love unless it sticks to a few main ingredients, and one of those is the Vancian magic system.



Hi, I'm Adam--or that's my nickname, in any case.

I'm an RPG player and DM/GM. I started back in 6th grade, 1979, in suburban Detroit. It started with a friend, Matt, who pulled out a tiny map drawn on what was probably a 3"x 5" sheet of paper and said, "Want to play Dungeons & Dragons?" I hadn't heard about James Dallas Egbert yet, but someone else said that if you played the game, you'd go crazy. I didn't believe it; still, there was a bit of the appeal of the forbidden to it, even though none of our teachers had any comment about it at the time. And Matt was funny and a little hyperactive, so he was always fun to be around.

Other kids played first. This wasn't a group experience--you had to wait your turn to play D&D, the way he played it. So one kid played and we all watched and listened. Matt started and said "You're a guy, and you have a sword and some arrows and..." then he rattled off a short list of things like torches, oil, and rope. The map he'd drawn was a simple little maze with some larger areas that represented rooms, and the object was to get out. I could see the map and it wasn't that hard to trace the routes, but those rooms, he said, had monsters, and you had to fight them to get out.

He didn't use dice; he simply explained what kind of monster was there (I recall gray ooze being a favorite of his), and someone said what action he too, and Matt said if it worked. More like a Zork-style text adventure than an RPG, but we didn't know better until my friend Bob got the Holmes Basic D&D set.

After that came AD&D, and RuneQuest, and Traveller, and Tunnels and Trolls, and a host of other games. I gamed pretty heavily for about four years, but gaming tapered off when I turned fifteen. Why, you say? I don't rightly know, but other things (work, school, girls) took up a lot of my time, and I put the books away. In the next twenty years I played maybe five games; and somewhere, in the dozen or so times I moved in that interval, much of my game materials was lost.

But I got back into it when I moved out West. In 2003, a colleague of mine who knew I liked Fantasy and Sci-Fi turned the topic of converstation to RPGs one day. He played a bunch of White Wolk stuff, including Vampire: the Masquerade and Aberrant, and I joined in on a few games. I won't say much about that, other than to say that dice pool mechanics were interesting, and it was fun to roll dice. But I really wanted to play D&D. 3.5 was out, and I used an Amazon gift certificate to buy the slipcased set, and started to put together a campaign that had been knocking around in the back of my mind for, oh, ten years or so--more on that another time. I convinced some of the White Wolf crowd to come back to d20, and we had some good times. When 4th edition came around, one of them bought it...I borrowed the books, took a look at them, and the best thing I can say about them is, they're not my cup of tea. (Not that I drink tea, for that matter.)

Things happened. Gary Gygax passed away. James Maliszewski started his inimitable Grognardia . The retro-clone wave started gathering momentum, and the OSR was born, as coherent a group as Occupy Wall Street (with all the good and bad that that connotes). I discovered that I liked the earlier system more than 3.5 or Pathfinder (which I still run), for reasons that I'll go into later. I bought used copies of the 1st Edition AD&D books, as well as Castles & Crusades, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and the freely-downloadable stuff like Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord. I'm running two games now, a Pathfinder game set in a land I call Mellorande, and, for lack of a better term, an OSR game loosely based on  Ben Robbins's Western Marches.

I'm blogging because I'd like to talk about some old-school stuff...nuts and bolts stuff like wandering monster tables, adjudicating combat stunts, and how powerful or common magic items should be. I hope to share ideas (polite terminology for mooching off of creative people), share experiences, and hopefully not offend too many people in the process. So if you see something you like on my blog, let me know!