Monthly Archives: November 2011

Fighters & Weapons

There have been many proposals over the years for making the fighter a more interesting class to play. In OD&D, fighters can use any weapon or armor (including being the only class that can use magic swords). In addition, they can make one attack per round per hit die against enemies of 1 HD or less. Supplement I: Greyhawk added a weapon vs. AC table (pages 13 and 14). This applied to all classes, though fighters probably made the most use of it just because they were most likely to enter direct combat.

AD&D added weapon vs. AC, weapon space required, weapon speed factor (PHB page 38). Second edition added weapon specialization. This is another bonus mechanic that could stack with ability bonuses and magic bonuses (did AD&D have a specialization system, maybe in Unearthed Arcana?). Third edition added combat feats which allowed further bonus optimization and access to new powers (and recast weapon specialization as a series of combat feats). Fourth edition practically eliminated basic attacks (other than for opportunity attacks) and gave the fighter a stable of spell-like powers, including stances (buff-style persistent bonus powers, only one of which can be active at a time); 4E also retained maneuvers as combat actions such as bull rush, charge, and total defense (4E PHB page 286).

The class features that distinguish the fighter are:

  1. The ability to use all weapons and armor (*)
  2. The best combat attack bonus

Practically speaking, the ability to use all weapons and armor is quite formidable. Psychologically, “lacking penalties” is not very enticing. This advantage is further eroded when players (myself included, sometimes) chafe at weapons restrictions for other classes. While it’s true that probably all characters use weapons to some degree, it is the fighter that should, in my opinion, be the “weapons” class.

Regarding the fighter having the best combat attack bonus, every other class has a combat bonus (**), the fighter just has the best bonus. This is something of a problem, as, to use Second Edition as an example, a 7th level cleric is better at fighting than a 4th level fighter (THAC0 16 vs. THAC0 17, 2E PHB page 91). At no level is a fighter ever better at spell casting than a magic-user or cleric.

Returning to the idea that the fighter is the “weapons” class: why not bring back some version of the weapon vs. AC table, but only apply it to fighters? In order to do this reasonably, the modifiers must be all bonuses, as we don’t want fighters to be worse than other classes when using a specific weapon. This gets away from the simulation aspect of weapon vs. AC, but as simulation is not really my primary motivation here, that does not bother me.

As this post has already taken me long enough to write, I’m not going to try to put together a full table right now. Most approaches to such a table have been either by individual weapon (as in Supplement I: Greyhawk and AD&D) or by weapon class (as in 2E and most house rule systems I have found). Creating a separate entry for every weapon seems like overkill. It is both cumbersome to work with, and probably redundant. Do light, medium, and heavy lances really deserve different modifiers (as they have in AD&D)? Probably not. On the other hand, the slash-pierce-bludgeon trinity of 2E also seems less than satisfactory if what you are going for is tactical variety for fighters. So, I’m going to propose five categories, with some examples:

  • Slash (sword, glaive)
  • Pierce (spear, arrow, pick)
  • Bludgeon (club, night stick, staff, unarmed)
  • Crush (flanged mace, morning star)
  • Chop (axe)

Some weapons are versatile and can be used in more than one way. For example, a sword can be used as a piercing weapon or a slashing weapon, so the fighter can use whichever category gives the best bonus. I haven’t tried matching these categories against types of armor yet, but I can’t imagine that I would need more than 5 (multiplied by 2 due to shields): unarmored, leather, chain, light plate (encompassing scale and banded), and plate. I expect that this should be by named type rather than by armor class, which should allow it to be licensed under the OGL without needing to ape the SRD. Rob Conley took a similar approach in this Grognardia comment.

These bonuses are only applied against corporeal enemies. For enemies with some form of natural armor, the referee should just make a ruling if the player asks. For example, a bear could be considered as leather or hide armor, and a dragon could be as plate. Some enemies may be so tough that they have no tactical weapon weaknesses (such as an iron golem). There is no need to be too systematic about this, as different enemies of the same type can still have some level of uniqueness. There is also no need for the referee to worry about it; it is the player’s responsibility to make sure these bonuses are active (which even makes sense narratively, if you think about it, because a fighter would have to proactively attempt to exploit the weaknesses in an enemy’s defenses).

This approach has a number of practical benefits. One of the reasons that the weapon vs. AC modifiers are ignored is that if the rules are applied generally they add complexity to almost every attack roll. Since all the modifiers are modeled as bonuses, the fighter’s player has an incentive to keep track of them. It even makes sense under this regime for the DM to ignore these bonuses for most NPCs, since most NPCs are not classed fighters. Using this rule, I would expect that most non-fighter characters would carry one or two weapons to use in a support role, but that fighters would carry a whole host of weapons so that they would have one for each possible situation. This just feels right to me. Win, win, and win.

Weapon vs. AC bonuses can be used with either variable or constant damage dice. Delta said it better than I could:

I have no problem with weapon-vs-AC being used at the same time as variable damage dice. In D&D armor and hit points simulate different things.

I am actually considering using it with class-based damage. Characters will roll their hit die for damage (there is a similar idea in this Grognardia comment). Larger or two-handed weapons will be: roll two dice and take the highest. Thus, fighters would use d8, clerics d6, elves d6, magic-users d4, etc. A magic-user can use a two-handed sword, but it would only do 2d4 take the highest damage, and the magic-user would not be able to apply any bonuses for slashing or piercing. This incentivizes smaller (for encumbrance purposes) and cheaper weapons, which seems to make sense. Why spend extra money and backpack space on a military weapon if you are not trained to use it?

1975 Ryth Chronicle via Risus Monkey: Ryth Chronicle (1975-1977) Table on page 4
1976 Supplement I: Greyhawk Pages 13 and 14
1978 AD&D Players Handbook Page 38
1978 AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide Pages 28, 71
1989 Second Edition Player’s Handbook (weapon type vs. armor modifiers) Page 90
2003 05 12 Dragonsfoot Weapon vs Armor Type – Natural Armor?
2008 10 11 ODD74 Alternate Combat Matrix
2008 11 17 Grognardia Weapon vs AC
2009 02 06 Alex Schroeder’s Wiki Weapon Specialities
2009 02 09 Dragonsfoot Weapon Types versus Armour Class
2009 02 13 Grognardia Request for Assistance
2009 02 14 Delta’s D&D Hotspot Proposal: Weapon vs. AC
2009 02 24 Delta’s D&D Hotspot Proposal: Weapon Classes
2009 06 17 Akratic Wizardry Class-Based Weapon Damage
2009 08 19 The Wheel of Samsara Recreating the Weapon vs. Armour Class Chart
2009 09 05 Blood of Prokopius Another Weapon vs. AC Table (East Asian weapons)
2009 09 09 The Wheel of Samsara Some Ideas on the Weapon vs. AC Chart (for Spellcraft & Swordplay)
2009 09 24 The Wheel of Samsara Weapon vs. AC: Once More, With Feeling (for Spellcraft & Swordplay)
2010 01 30 Bat in the Attic Revisiting Weapon vs AC for Swords & Wizardry (by weapon class)
2010 02 01 Bat in the Attic Revisiting Weapons vs AC – Weapons Aspect
2010 10 14 Blood of Prokopius Weapon vs. AC (again)
2011 02 25 Dragonsfoot Weapons vs. AC table
2011 07 16 Huge Ruined Pile “Alternative Combat System” + Weapon Type vs. AC matrices – any interest?
2011 07 16 Dragonsfoot Weapon “To Hit” vs. AC Adjustment Question
2011 07 16 Dragonsfoot nagora’s Making Wep. Vs Armour easier to use
2011 07 18 The Aspiring Lich Decoding the weapon “to hit” vs. AC table
2011 09 29 Strange Magic Weapon vs Armor Tables for B/X D&D
2011 11 08 Grognardia The Articles of Dragon: “Should They Have an Edge?”

Things to check that I don’t have access to:

  • Oriental Adventures weapon vs. AC table
  • The Complete Fighter’s Handbook

One final note: the OSR Search Engine I put together was very useful in doing the research for this post.

(*) Well, in systems that use weapon proficiencies, fighters are not proficient with all weapons, but they do get the most weapon proficiencies by a large margin.

(**) – Excepting LotFP, where no classes other than the fighter ever get better at fighting. I think this is quite inspired for a number of reasons, not least of which is the way this rule combats bonus inflation.

Wandering Plot Checks

Do your PCs start as strangers meeting in a tavern? There’s nothing wrong with this, if it works for your players, and you have a method for communicating adventure leads (a rumor table is the traditional mechanism). Here is another approach, if you (or your players) would like PCs to have a reason to work together, other than a burning desire to get rich or die trying.

Roll (or select) a party background from the table below. Each player then needs to figure out how their character fits in. This need be no longer than a sentence. I have used this method successfully several times. For example, in the Blackwater Falls campaign, the PCs were all inheritors of the archmage Wolfgang Constantine’s mansion (including the catacombs beneath). In my current game, the PCs are the second generation of a higher-level established adventuring company (the first generation went missing in the first session, so the PCs are left to figure out what happened, and deal with any loose ends, including outstanding adventuring commissions).

The point of these backgrounds is to open up possibilities for the PCs, rather than to funnel them into one obviously right course of action. They can also motivate recurring costs, the satisfaction of which can easily drive adventuring. For example, the PCs in the Blackwater Falls game also inherited the archmage’s considerable debts. This is actually, in my opinion, one of the most open-ended ways to structure PC challenges: the PCs have a problem (in this case, debt service, but the problem could just as easily be evil ninjas that want their secret manual back) and they need to figure out how to solve it. There is no right answer. They can try to accumulate GP to pay off the debt collectors. They can kill the dept collectors and deal with the consequences.

Many of the entries in this table have an element of looming or ongoing danger. This opens up some interesting referee challenges and opportunities. Challenges, in that you probably don’t want to decide beforehand what is going to happen. That’s boring for the referee and unfair to the players. Opportunities, in that you have more fodder for adventures. This element of the background story can function as a temporal version of a wandering monster check. Before play, you should write up a chart of things that could happen, and then every (in-game) day, (or whatever increment of time makes sense), roll a wandering plot check. 1 in 6 causes one of the events or encounters on the table to occur. This is yet another way that good timekeeping can help drive the game. The danger is, of course, that players just wait for the next “wandering plot” encounter. The key to avoid this is to making the encounters unprofitable in the same way that wandering monsters are unprofitable and avoided by skilled players. Also, you don’t need to explain the mechanic.

This table is just a proof of concept and is by no means complete.

PC Party Background. Roll d12.

  1. Shipwrecked! PCs thrown together by circumstances. Inspiration: Lost.
  2. Trapped in a haunted house. This could also be a ship or other kind of vehicle. You will need to think of a reason why they are all there to begin with.
  3. Escaped prisoners. Fairly or unfairly accused? In any case the PCs better work together or be captured by the authorities.
  4. Ex-slaves. Raised from birth by a mad genius? Super soldiers whose mind-control devices malfunctioned? Escaped slaves or freed slaves? Some slaves could have been left behind, clear adventure fodder (and a source of new PCs if you want to maintain the origin story).
  5. Boomtown! Some valuable resource (maybe a dungeon?) has been discovered. This is similar to a conventional “start in the tavern” game, but you can also add something like employment by an business which specializes in dungeon delving. You can also emphasize the frontier, town-building aspect (which can also make resource management more important). Inspiration: Deadwood.
  6. Second Generation of an Adventuring Company. The PCs need to deal with all the enemies the first generation made, and all the intrigue that goes along with it. The first generation may now be masters of a stronghold, or may not have reached name level yet. Traditionally, the first generation would have also been PCs at some point, but this is not required.
  7. Servants of Chaos. This need not be a party of evil characters. A job’s a job, right? You just happen to work for a red dragon. Or whatever.
  8. Explorers! Maybe you have a charter from the Resident Authority Figure to map the unknown, like Lewis and Clark. Or Star Trek. Party may have a vehicle of some sort; be careful with map scale here as old school D&D is primarily a game of exploration, and vehicles might allow them to venture farther and faster than you expect, making it hard to avoid the quantum ogre effect.
  9. Privateers. Bandits or pirates that can operate legally (because they prey on an enemy of the state).
  10. Rebels! Members of a resistance front against the evil oppression of X. Inspiration: Star Wars, Robin Hood.
  11. Black-ops. Covert team for lord or other powerful figure. Or some wizard’s apprentices & henchpeople. PCs get missions and may be paid. Inspiration: Mission Impossible, Charlie’s Angels.
  12. Ex-black-ops. You and your friends know too much. Or The Organization thinks you do. Or maybe they just have to downsize, and need to clean out the old file cabinets, as it were. Or The Organization was wiped out and the only survivors are the PCs. Inspirations: Burn Notice, Red.

Quests are problematic as the basis of an entire campaign, unless you are running a mini-series type of game that you expect to end once the quest is fulfilled. Because of this, you will notice that there are no quests on the table above, because they don’t really work well in a sandbox context. Once the quest is done, the logical reason for the adventuring seems to end (The Hobbit: retake Erebor and reclaim the dwarven treasure; Lord of the Rings: destroy the ring). You can just keep pushing back the completion of the quest artificially, but that makes player choice less meaningful (for example, in Inuyasha, there is always one more shard of the magical Jewel of Four Souls to collect). Not recommended, unless the quest is peripheral to the driving force of the campaign as a whole.

D&D Fault Lines

James at Grognardia just posted on cleric weapon selection. That got me to thinking about such fault lines in gamer preferences, and the evolution of my views thereof. Incidentally, one of the solutions discussed in the article cited is class-based (rather than weapon-based) damage, which I have a half-written post about (and seems to have been already extensively considered); as often, I am late to the party. 🙂

Here are all the fault lines that I could think of. What am I missing? Where do your preferences lie?

This is the probably the fault line that I have the strongest opinion on. I am in favor. An elf class is very different from a fighter class, but an elf fighter is very similar to a human fighter. Most of the specialness of demihumans bleeds away quickly, and race choice just ends up being another lever to use in maximizing your move silently check (or whatever). Also, not having race separately means one fewer choice at chargen time.
Cleric Weapon Selection
This was the issue that prompted this post, but I have no dog in this fight. I’m fine with the classic mace-wielding D&D cleric, and, as James M. notes, coming up with justifications for this restriction can be fun. There is a compromise solution where clerics are limited to weapons that are appropriate for their particular god or religion (did this start in AD&D, or 2E, or somewhere else?). I’m not a big fan of this approach, though I often played with it, because everyone wants to play a cleric of the thunder god (or whatever god allows the best weapon selection). If edged weapons are allowed, the cleric also works well as a holy knight class, obviating the need for a paladin to fill that archetypal niche. I’m much more interested in the cleric being seen as a demon-hunter rather than a parish priest that for some reason ventures into dungeons in search of treasure. I do like the idea of no weapon or armor restrictions at all, and if I opened up cleric weapon selection, I would probably go this route. I also like FrDave’s solution (in a comment on that Grognardia post) to break weapons into categories and allow fighters access to all of them, but clerics only access to one (chosen at character creation time).
Demihuman Level Limits
I’ve never played a game where these were actually a limiting factor. I am in favor though. I prefer a more human-centric campaign. My experience in 2E and later editions is that adventuring parties end up being mostly made up of elves, with humans being a clear minority. This breaks the sense of the fantastic that I think should be associated with demihumans (though maybe that is an argument for them not to be playable PC races to begin with). I also like the idea of characters retiring and the setting persisting. A level limit serves as a nice reason to move on to another character.
In the past, I was very anti-alignment. It seemed to be a vast oversimplification, and I was a moral-relativist teenager when I started playing. Were not most people, even the villains, good from their own perspective? This is, of course, a popular trend in modern art and philosophy. Antiheroes are still tremendously popular (for example: Batman, Elric, Dexter). Alignment also seemed to get in the way of characterization, which at that time seemed like the holy grail of role-playing. I would probably still have trouble playing with a by-the-book alignment matrix, though re-conceptualizing alignment as arcane and non-arcane is interesting (as in LotFP, where working magic is inherently “chaotic”). This (Blood of Prokopius: Conan and Alignment) is the best post I have read in a while about alignment.
Save-or-Die Traps
Yes, please.
Ability Score Generation
3d6 in order. I still have a fondness for 4d6, drop the lowest die, arrange to taste. This is the way I played through most of the 90s, and it injects some randomness while allowing you to play a reasonably competent character of any class. Any method that takes longer is flawed because I value streamlined character creation. Point buy systems (especially non-linear ones) require too much time and calculation, and encourage numerical min-maxing.
Level Drain Attacks
I’m still on the fence here. They have never come up in games I have played in, either as referee or player. I’m not sure how I would react in practice, so I would like to try it out at some point. Logically, if one is okay with save-or-die traps, I think one should also be okay with level drain attacks. They are one of the few things that truly induce visceral fear in players, and that is nothing to sneeze at.

Sham’s Cover to Cover

Here is an index of Sham’s wonderful D&D Cover to Cover series. I couldn’t find a sequential list of the posts on Sham’s site, so I made one myself. If you have any interest at all in 1974 OD&D, you should read this. I’m about halfway through the posts myself. My content notes below are not reflective of all the subjects that the 3LBBs cover; they are a summary of what Sham is discussing in his posts.

Sham’s own introduction:

D&D Cover to Cover
Being a series of articles in which the author reads the indelible words of Gygax and Arneson as presented the Original Collector’s Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, published by Tactical Studies Rules. Beginning with Men & Magic, and concluding with The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, the author will consider those earliest passages, adding elucidations and interpretations along the way for your consideration.

Men & Magic

Part 1 Forward
Part 2 Introduction
Part 2B Introduction
Part 3 Scope
Part 4 Recommended equipment: outdoor survival (board game), chainmail (game rules), imagination, 1 patient referee
Part 5 Preparation for the campaign
Part 6 Characters: fighting-men, magic-users, clerics, dwarves
Part 7 Characters: elves, other types, alignment, changing class
Part 8 Determination of abilities; bonuses and penalties thereof
Part 9 Languages
Part 10 NPCs, equipment, experience tables, class stats
Part 10B Basic equipment and costs; the cross and religion
Part 11 Alternative combat system
Part 12 Saving throw matrix
Part 13 Spells table, turning undead, evil and chaotic clerics
Part 14 Explanation of spells (pages 23-34), 1st level: read magic, read languages, protection from evil, charm person, sleep
Part 15 Explanation of spells, 2nd level: levitate, phantasmal forces, invisibility, ESP. 3rd level: hold person, dispell magic, fire ball, lightning bolt, slow spell, haste spell
Part 16 Explanation of spells, 4th level: polymorph self, polymorph others, remove curse, confusion, charm monster. 5th level: contact higher plane, cloudkill, feeblemind. 6th level: anti-magic shell, death spell, geas, move earth, control weather
Part 17 Explanation of spells (clerics), 1st level: cure light wounds. 3rd level: cure disease. 4th level: cure serious wounds, turn sticks to snakes. 5th level: dispell evil, raise dead, create food, the finger of death. More on anti-clerics.
Part 18 Magical research, books of spells
Part 19 Conclusion
Part 20 Conclusion: discussion of reader comments

Monsters & Treasure

Part 21 Monster reference table, hostile & benign, monster categories
Part 22 Bad guys: men, gnolls, trolls, giants
Part 23 Dead guys: skeletons, zombies, ghouls, wights, vampires
Part 24 Mythological: manticoras, hydras, chimeras, wyverns, dragons (size & subdual)
Part 25 Myth. (cont.) purple worms (“lurk everywhere just beneath the surface”); Fairy tale: centaurs, dryads, dwarves, elves, rocs
Part 26 Otherworldly: invisible stalkers, elementals, djinn, efreet; “great power demands great caution”
Part 27 Clean-up crew: ochre jelly, black pudding, green slime, gray ooze, yellow mold; “nuisance monsters”
Part 28 Mundane: large insects or animals; other: cyclopses, juggernauts, living statues, geletinous [sic] cubes; robots, golems, androids
Part 29 Treasure types, tables, probabilities, swords, armor, miscellaneous weapons, rare magic weapons, potions
Part 30 Scrolls, maps (“Maps constitute 25% of all randomized items from the ‘any’ category”)
Part 31 Magic swords: intelligence, powers, egoism, alignment, bonuses
Part 32 Armor (“Armor Class is not only defined by the armor worn, but also defines what armor is worn”) , magic shields
Part 33 Potions: giant strength, longevity; rings: three wishes, delusion; wands & staves: paralyzation, staff of striking (“a 1974 beat-stick”)
Part 34 Miscellaneous: medallions of ESP, protective items; elven cloak & boots; non-protective helms; gauntlets of ogre power, girdle of giant strength
Part 35 Magical items’ saving throws (limiting magic item proliferation), artifacts (powerful aligned magic items)
Part 36 Conclusion: “This IS the Holy Grail of RPGs, and it deserves attention and its truths need to be brought forth, that they might stand on their own merits.”
Part 37 Conclusion: discussion of reader comments
The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures

Part 38 Adventure styles, sample dungeon cross section, “the campaign is also the world which emerges from these adventures”
Part 39 The underworld, dungeon size, sample dungeon level
Part 40 Tricks & traps, distribution of monsters & treasure, maintaining freshness

The Joker on Refereeing

The Joker
It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and uh, look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did, to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hm? You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan. But when I say that one, little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
The Joker
[Joker hands Two-Face a gun and points it at himself] Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh and you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.
[with the gun in Two-Face’s hand, Two-Face pauses and takes out his coin]
[showing the unscarred side] You live.
The Joker
[flipping, showing the scarred side] You die.
The Joker
Mmm, Now we’re talking.

Script text source (scene from The Dark Knight, of course)