Monthly Archives: June 2012

Alexandrian Hex Crawling

Justin Alexander has been putting out some posts on hexcrawls. Here are some links:

They assume the 3E skill system, but are still interesting reads. For comparison, see my old wilderness movement costs post (which is really just a slightly simplified version of the B/X wilderness movement system).

In particular, his concept of “watch” seems like higher temporal resolution than I need. What I have been doing is one encounter check per day (with a die roll to determine time of day). This is pretty much as specified by the original Expert rulebook. There are also rules for discovering fixed features through exploring hexes rather than moving through them (like searching a room for secret doors in a dungeon). It is also possible to notice some fixed features without searching form them.

Justin also left this provocative comment on one of the posts:

If you find yourself starting to worry about where the PCs are “in the hex”, you’re doing it wrong.

I need to think about that more. Should the hex be an atomic measure of wilderness space? It has a pleasing absolutism to it. It does remove the idea of zooming hex levels, but perhaps that is unnecessary complexity anyways.

Power Levels

In a previous post, I praised the flattened power curve that 5E seems to be groping towards. Jack (of Jack’s Toolbox), left the following comment:

I like the vast spread of potential power levels in D&D 3.X. I don’t think that it’s a game that reasonably can or should be played straight from Level 1 to Level 20 or beyond, but the system gives you the option of playing wherever you want from gritty adventurers to wushu-style heroes to nigh-demigods. I don’t think that flattening that curve or ‘simplifying’ the system along that axis is going to be a benefit for people like me.
My own preference is towards more grounded play. As a DM, managing a low-power campaign is more tractable, and, as a player, a low-power campaign is more exciting (because the stakes are higher, the motivations more immediate, and the treasure is more special). I’ve never played in a satisfying high-level campaign. This is entirely a subjective preference, I readily admit.
That being said, I think Jack has a point regarding the potential of the 3E system (as elaborated in The Alexandrian post he links to). I suspect that the original authors did not have such a sophisticated intention, however, due to how challenges are scaled. In 3E, adventure design seems relatively constant (and is even more so in 4E); that is, the primary difference between a low-level and a high-level adventure is the cosmetic dressing (sewers in the beginning, planar travel at the end) and the tactical complexity of the combat (due to the increase in things like numbers of attacks and spell selection). I think it was designed to be played straight through from level 1 to level 20, and I also think this is the assumption of the vast majority of players.
However, assuming that supporting a vast spread of power levels is a good thing, doing it mechanically via difficulty levels doesn’t work very well, because it assumes a sameness to play, and I think that dooms any kind of lengthy campaign. It seems to me like much of the design of 3E and 4E involved embracing only a limited part of the full traditional D&D campaign arc, discarding the parts presumed to be not-fun, and extending the remaining part over the full level spectrum. In 3E we can see this in the generalized multiclassing, removal of level limits, and continuing accumulation of hit dice. In 4E we can see this in the extension of the 3E “sweet spot” (roughly levels 4 through 10) over the entire game experience.
I like the idea of bounded accuracy, but I think there is a danger that the designers will try to fit the entire game into another limited box using this principle. There is actually an impartiality to difficulty class systems (generalized with 3E) which could in theory work well with wide-open sandbox games, exactly because such DC systems are not centered around character stats. This is in contrast to systems like “roll under” stat checks, which, while more traditionally old school, are also more solipsistic (even if you keep the math the same). One crafts bonuses or penalties around character abilities when using a roll under system, rather than just describing the external entities.
Here’s Zak on campaign evolution (that is, how game play changes as a game progresses over multiple sessions). Along similar lines, there was a Save of Die interview with Frank Mentzer where immortal level play is discussed. To paraphrase Frank, the focus of the game shifts from how to defeat (or circumvent) the monsters to preventing collateral damage to mundanes (the mortals that the characters presumably care about). He compares immortal play to Superman stories; it is assumed that Superman can triumph “mechanically” over his foes in most direct confrontations, but he must protect those he cares about (and avoid being tricked into succumbing to his weaknesses).
We can also see this in the traditional domain game that comes when a D&D character builds a stronghold and begins to attract followers. This was always present in the B/X and BECMI systems, was present in AD&D (though somewhat obscured by the popularity of high-level tournament-style modules), and then embraced again by recent revival systems like ACKS, the very name of which embeds the expectations of the campaign arc (fist adventurers, then conquerors, ending as kings).

I don’t think that high power campaigns are inherently bad or unsatisfying (I have a copy of Nobilis on my shelf), but I do think they need to be different in some meaningful way from the first level character experience. It’s not enough to have a higher attack bonus, more spells, and +N equipment. RPGs have more potential than that.


I saw Prometheus over the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. There have been many overly critical reviews going around, so perhaps this can function as a dissent. In addition to suspending your sense of disbelief (something necessary for engaging with any work of fiction), you must also be willing to accept a story which can support multiple interpretations, as not everything is spelled out. If you don’t like any kind of symbolism or theme in movies, this is not the movie for you. If you are irritated by characters that go to investigate dark hallways alone in horror movies, this is not the movie for you.

Some of the characters made bad (even stupid) decisions. Many reviews I have read latched onto these plot elements as flaws in the movie. However, people can be stupid, vain, greedy creatures who don’t necessarily think things through, even when they are spending trillion dollar space ship budgets (and this is when they don’t need to make split-second decisions). Consider Christopher Columbus spending Queen Isabella’s money (and all the other explorers that were not as successful). And speaking about some of the mercenaries, what kind of person rents their life to a megacorporation and risks death in a two-year suspended animation in order to make some money? Apparently, some people are only satisfied with stories about people who always make smart decisions (see The Alexandrian’s take, for example).

That being said, there were some problems with characterization in the movie. It was hard to feel sympathy for many of the characters, and some motivations were not terribly clear, especially for Charlize Theron’s corporate ice queen. Why was she there? What did she hope to get out of the mission? And, the captain’s final action. The motivation did not feel authentic to me for the captain, and it felt even less so for his subordinates, who, as far as I could tell from what came beforehand, were basically just hired technicians.

It is possible that Prometheus is one of the better cinematic adaptations of Lovecraft that has yet been produced, despite the fact that it is not directly based on any Lovecraft story. It is certainly more in the spirit of Lovecraft than either Alien or Aliens. I would also add that many of Lovecraft’s protagonists also make “stupid” decisions, and that this is part of the point. Humans tamper with an unknown and dangerous cosmos. To quote from Joe the Lawyer’s list of D&D rules broken by characters in this movie: “Never trust the unknown. Everything in the universe is fucking hostile.”

There are a few minor problems of pacing. I could have done without the entire section near the beginning depicting the android teaching himself about human culture while everyone else was in stasis on the ship. I feel like more mileage could have been gotten from the exploration of the alien ruins. And the writing was not spectacular, though I didn’t feel like it was bad enough to negatively affect the rest of the movie.

I can’t say for certain that the makers of Prometheus consciously meant to allude to Dungeons & Dragons, but there certainly seemed to be a number of references. For example (paraphrasing from memory here), near the beginning there is the following dialogue: “Before the adventure begins, Ms. Vickers would like to speak to you.” There is a “skull mountain” vista which looked like it was straight out of Holmes. I suppose these could just be coincidences. Also, the mapping robots. All I could think of here was that this is a DM with players who clearly don’t like mapping. Did I mention that the entire plot revolves around what is essentially an alien megadungeon?

In total, I think the visual power of this movie is enough to carry it for a viewer that appreciates such things. The score was good too, in an unobtrusive sort of way (I generally don’t like scores that call too much attention to themselves, with the exception of Kubrick, but then all bets are off with Kubrick anyways). And, if you play D&D-style adventure games about exploring dungeons, you will see a lot in Prometheus that is familiar, and probably get some ideas from it too (I certainly did).

Holmes cross section, just because

Evasion & Armor

Here is a quick method for changing how armor works that has been floating around in my head. I don’t claim any originality for this system. It was inspired by Combat Musings over at The Jovial Priest and St. Innocent of Alaska over at Blood of Prokopius.

This assumes a B/X substrate. It would play well with damage by hit die rules, I think.

First, instead of AC there is an evasion score. This is 10 + dexterity mod. This is how hard it is for a character or monster to be hit. You would need to improvise the evasion score for monsters, but I think that should be easy. Sample: goblin, 12; pixie, 17; dragon, 10.

Second, armor provides a damage reduction die. Light (leather) armor is d4, medium (chain) armor is d6, and heavy (plate) armor is d8. If you are wearing armor and take physical damage, you roll your armor die and reduce damage by that much. This is similar to “soak” rules in other games, but I think this implementation integrates nicely with other traditional D&D rules. Monsters also require improv DR scores. Sample: wolf, d4; bear, d6; dragon 2d6.

That’s the core of the system. Here are a few optional rules for added detail.

  1. Armor damage. If you ever take a full damage blow (e.g., 4 points from a d4 attack or 6 points from a d6 attack), you roll damage reduction as normal, but mark down a point next to your armor. When N such points have been accumulated (e.g., 8 points for heavy armor), the armor is degraded one step (so degraded plate armor would reduce damage by d6 after one level of degradation). Armor can be repaired, probably at half cost.
  2. Weapon versus AC. Using a weapon that is “good against” a particular armor drops the damage reduction die by one step. So, plate armor would only block 1d6 damage from a military pick. Firearms could ignore armor entirely or drop the damage reduction die by one or two steps, depending on how much influence you would like gunpowder to have on your setting.
  3. Bulky armor. Armor reduces evasion by one point per class. For example, plate armor would reduce evasion by 3, leather by 1.
  4. Armor competency. The damage reduction die is limited by class hit die. So magic-users can wear plate armor, but they still only get d4 damage reduction, and all evasion and encumbrance penalties still apply. Maybe there is some method to gain proficiency with armor for classes other than fighters? That’s beyond the scope of this post, though.
I’ve worried before that this sort of system might make dexterity overly important, and I still think that is true. Another reason to use 3d6 in order to generate stats, as if we needed more.
From the armchair, this looks like a pretty slick system that would be fun to play and potentially feel more realistic to people who don’t like the “armor makes you hard to hit” paradigm.

Edit: damage reduction numbers for d6-centric OD&D using 2DTH: light (leather) 2d6 take lowest, medium (chain) 1d6, heavy (plate) 2d6 take highest. Evasion calculated using the B/X dexterity modifier, though it would not apply to anything else.

Wilderness Rumors

One of the major draws of a sandbox campaign is that players get to choose their own paths. But in order to make informed choices, players need setting information. There are two major ways of communicating such information: 1) setting documentation and 2) learning about the setting through play. Option 1 is also known as the infodump; published setting canon belongs to this category. Unsurprisingly, I favor the second method, but it does sort of beg the question: if you need info to play intelligently, and you gain info only by playing, does that mean that you must play stupidly to begin with?

You could take a hybrid approach, which I suspect is actually the most popular in the wild. Something like: read this small infodump, and then learn the rest through play. And I’m certainly not against some amount of background info (though it does have the tendency to grow once unleashed). However, under the principle of restricting preparation to elements likely to affect the game directly, there is a traditional structure that can be used: the rumor table.

It seems to me like we already have an integrated rumor table without any extra work required: the stocked hexes. You just need an impartial way of deciding which areas you want rumors to be about, and (optionally) their truthfulness. I’m not sure that much actual utility is gained by seeding false rumors (as is usually done in old modules), but it is easy enough to roll for truth if you so desire (maybe 1 in 6 rumors are false or misleading). Here is the method I am considering.

Rumors (d6):

  • 1 – 3: current hex
  • 4 – 5: adjacent hex (roll again for direction)
  • 6: farther hex (roll again for direction and for distance)

Optionally, in the case that a 6 is rolled for both farther hex and distance, you can have the possibility of a rumor from even farther afield. Here is one way to do this. Roll a d6 to “confirm” the far-distance rumor, and then another d6 for the actual distance and add it to the previous distance. Continue this process as long as you roll 6s on distance rolls. Or stop at the edge of your stocked hexes.

When PCs enter a hex, roll for one rumor automatically, no matter what the characters do. This information may be conveyed in any way you like, via encounter, dream, whatever. These may be framed in whatever way works best for your particular group (some ideas include: leads, quests, and direct encounters). I imagine the appropriate number of leads will vary by group.

Additional rumors can be uncovered by PC action. Maybe roll d6 more times, and maybe adjust that result by charisma or intelligence as appropriate to the context. For example, if the PCs are in a tavern, charisma is probably more relevant, but library research might use intelligence.

Example uses of the rumor system:

  1. Rumor roll: 3. Select a rumor from the current hex.
  2. Rumor roll: 4. Adjacent hex. Roll for direction: 3 (southeast).
  3. Rumor roll: 6. Farther. Roll for direction: 2 (northeast). Roll for distance: 6. Roll for even farther: 6. Roll for additional distance: 3. So, the rumor should be taken from 9 hexes away to the northeast.
In a separate G+ conversation about encounter tables, a similar method (but for random encounters) was brought to my attention (I had seen that one page dungeon before, but didn’t notice the random encounter method). See here too. This seems like a nifty way of doing encounters too, and I’ll probably consider it more when I get to the post on random encounter tables.

Hex Stocking Interlude

Aplus of People the with Monsters left a comment on one of my recent posts:

For another example of how one dude handles wilderness, I just make a short table (12 or 16 entries). The players tell me the direction they are heading (I do have terrain figured out beforehand, but nothing else) and I check each hex for a random encounter. Most of these encounters are lifted from Carcosa, so they have a lot of underlying depth in a sentence or two, and are also easily modified to suit near any campaign.

This is a really interesting approach. It lies somewhere between having nothing other than terrain and rolling wandering monsters and keying up hexes statically. In computer science terms, this method is somewhat like late binding. I see several advantages: one, less material is needed; two, the referee can be surprised along with the players; three, you end up building a setting through play gradually rather than all at once prior to the game (compare to the character build versus development through play game styles).

There are several things that I want in a hexcrawl that are not supported by the Aplus method though, assuming I am understanding it correctly. I would like the direction chosen by the players to matter regarding more than the terrain type. Assuming that there is only one list of encounters in play, it seems like you would have the same die roll no matter which direction was chosen. It’s not exactly the same thing as a quantum ogre, but it does seem to preclude information gathering beforehand.

Unless information gathering, in addition to actual travel, is grounds for determining hex contents. In other words, things start to exist only when you look at them, and researching rumors and travel are both ways of “looking at” hexes. That sounds promising, but I suspect it would fluster me at the table, so I still think I would prefer to precompile. Also, I’m really bad at taking notes during play, so I fear that I would end up losing much of the richness created at the table. (I really think good session note taking is one of the most valuable referee skills, and I’m terrible at it.)

There are two other little subsystems that I have been working on (for future posts) which also require having some hexes set down beforehand. The first is autogenerating rumor lists based on the contents of adjacent hexes. Yes, it’s about as simple as it sounds, but I added a few complications to decrease the predictability somewhat. The second is creating relationships between the contents of different hexes. For example, the wizard in the tower in hex A might be interested in capturing the creature in hex B or taking vengeance on the fighter is settlement C. I don’t really have a system for that yet, but I’m working on it.

All that being said, I like the Aplus method and think it is very practical, especially for people like me who probably tend to make the perfect the enemy of the good. I may try it the next time I want to get a game going with minimal prep. It did also make me step back from the systems that I had been working on and ask myself what I was gaining from the amount of work I was doing, which is useful to do periodically.

Hex Stocking II

Recall: 1-2 monster, 3 trap, 4 special, 5-6 empty. Yes, differing chances for treasure too, but ignore that for now. Translating these possibilities into wilderness terms:

1-2 lair, 3 hazard, 4 special, 5-6 empty.

What are these things? They are subtly different than the dungeon equivalents, so here are some definitions.

  • Lair: a place where monsters reside. Probably counts as a small dungeon, and may sometimes connect to the underworld. Examples: goblin caves, bandit fort, zombie graveyard.
  • Hazard: something that is potentially dangerous, but only if PCs interact with it. Examples: lava flow, quicksand, time-stopped wizards mid-duel, town where everyone was killed by a disease, magical radiation.
  • Special: something with interesting utility, unlikely to be directly dangerous (though don’t underestimate the power of creative players to make anything dangerous). 50% chance that a special is a settlement. I wish I had a better word than special for this category. Non-settlement examples: wizard’s tower, oasis, dimensional gateway, healing spring, antigravity zone.

If followed rigorously, this system will result in hexes with at most one interesting feature. Frequency is variant, since one third of all areas will probably be empty. A six mile hex is a big area though, so I would sort of like the system to provide the possibility of more than one result per hex. So, new rule: Keep rolling per hex until you roll a 5 or a 6. Each result rolled will be progressively more hidden or off the beaten path. Basically, I see a hierarchy of obviousness regarding hex contents:

  • Impossible to miss: if you enter the hex, you are aware of it. If you are following roads, then anything on the road is of this category. Examples: a mile high tower on a flat plain, the smoke from an army’s campfires, New York City (probably doesn’t fit in a 6 mile hex, but you get the idea).
  • Standard: some chance in 6 of discovery. If you’re just trying to move through a hex, you still get a passive chance of discovery.
  • Less: some chance in 6 of discovery, and you must proactively spend time exploring the hex.
  • Least: like above, but lower chance of discovery.

This “obviousness” hierarchy is still something I’m working on. The similarity to secret door systems is not lost on me, but I haven’t decided exactly how it should best be systematized yet. I also feel like I read something similar to this somewhere, but I’m not sure where. Also, in case it’s not clear, the default level of obviousness is standard, not impossible to miss.

If there are dangerous things (hazards) and interactive things (specials) there should also be a category of things that are interesting but not so interactive, right? Otherwise, I suspect the hazards and specials will start to feel too common, even if you try to improvise other details at the table. Dungeon stocking systems often have the concept of dungeon dressing; thus, we need wilderness dressing too. Since fluff is crunch, the dressing might still be of use to creative PCs too. My first thought for this was an independent roll per hex, with a 2 in 6 or 3 in 6 chance of added dressing. Like the general hex stocking step, keep rolling until you get a negative result. So, the majority of hexes will not have a dressing element, but a few will have more than one. Hopefully this distribution will feel organic and keep players guessing. Examples of wilderness dressing: abandoned farmhouse, small canyon, half-buried dinosaur skeleton, crater from a past explosion.

To summarize the system as I see it working now: for each hex, roll 3d6 (each die being a different color would probably be convenient). Die 1 determines the main result (lair, hazard, etc), die 2 determines the treasure, die 3 determines if there is dressing. Die 1 and die 3 are each re-rolled until they come up negative, determining ever more hidden hex features. For each result, the relevant subtable is consulted for details about type. I see these tables as a mixture of generic elements that can repeat and unique Vornheim-like entries that are crossed off and replaced with something else once rolled. Monsters are determined by rolling on a terrain-specific table. Treasures are determined by monster hoard type (if part of a lair result) or the standard dungeon “unattended treasure” table (maybe? I haven’t thought this through yet). In the future, I might do some table consolidation, so that fewer die rolls are needed, but I want to leave the various rolls separate for now to preserve the probabilities and make it clear where results are coming from. Also, I don’t think the number of dice required can by much reduced if I want to support a variable number of features and dressing elements per hex.

Hacking D&D

I’m in the process of creating a sandbox using the implied OD&D setting. I’m not sure if this will turn into a game or not; it might just end up being an exercise. While working through this process, I’ve gone through the booklets several times now, and it has got me thinking again about what makes up the essence of D&D. Just about all the things that I now consider important to the game are here in the beginning. I think it’s valuable to see all the parts working together before you start to swap out bits, and I’ve never really done that systematically. So, paradoxically, in order to investigate hacking D&D, I’m doing the opposite.

Here is a summary of what the 3 LBBs cover, and how much space is dedicated to each topic. The space allotted to some topics is surprising.

  • Men & Magic
    • Classes; Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, Clerics (2 pages)
    • Demihuman Races; Dwarves, Elves, Halflings (1 page)
    • Alignment (1 page)
    • Abilities and character creation example (3 pages)
    • Hirelings; negotiation, monsters as, loyalty (2 pages)
    • Inheritance (1 page)
    • Equipment (2 pages)
    • XP tables and advancement (4 pages)
    • Combat and saving throws (2 pages)
    • Spells and turning undead tables (2 pages)
    • Magic-user spell descriptions (9 pages)
    • Cleric spell descriptions (3 pages)
    • Magical research and spell book rules (1 page)
  • Monsters & Treasure
    • Monster stats reference table (2 pages)
    • Monster descriptions (17 pages)
    • Treasure types (1 page)
    • Magic item tables (4 pages)
    • Magic swords (4 pages!)
    • Other magic items (8 pages)
    • Artifacts (1 page)
    • Coins & gems (1 page)
  • The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures
    • Dungeon maps, traps, dungeon stocking (4 pages)
    • Movement, time, surprise, dungeon encounters (2 pages)
    • Dungeon encounter tables by level (2 pages)
    • Example dungeon session (2 pages)
    • Wilderness strongholds and their inhabitants (2 pages)
    • Wilderness encounters (2 pages)
    • Wilderness encounter tables by terrain (2 pages)
    • Evasion and pursuit (1 page)
    • Construction of castles and strongholds (4 pages)
    • Mass combat (3 pages)
    • Naval combat (8 pages)

Men & Magic contains almost all of the player interface to D&D. In that sense, it is the precursor to the Player’s Handbook. It has the character generation rules (including special powers), equipment, the way combat and advancement work and a few aspects of implied setting that impinge on PCs (such as alignment). Most modifications of this material will increase the cost of entry for new players.

Monsters & Treasure contains the risks and the rewards. It also interfaces with the advancement rules (because of XP for GP), but not in a player-facing way. That is, players know from Men & Magic that XP is rewarded for treasure, but the rules in this book encode the frequency and distribution of the rewards. Several subsystems (such as dragon subdual) are described here, which PCs should probably know about, but these can easily be introduced diegetically within the game as necessary. This material is relatively modular and it easily swapped out for custom monsters and treasures.

The Underworld & Wilderness Adventure encodes the three different game modes. These modes also correspond roughly to three different campaign phases: low-level dungeon crawls, mid-level wilderness adventures, and high-level domain rules (stronghold building and mass combat). Each of these modes makes use of the previous mode (for example, mid-level characters still have encounters in dungeons or rooms). This book is almost entirely for the referee (and thus is a predecessor to the later Dungeon Master’s Guide), and provides tools for setting building (stocking dungeons and generating NPC strongholds). The evasion rules probably count partly as player-facing rules. The mass combat rules should also probably be considered player-facing, but most games don’t actually get to that stage in my experience.

So what is the core of D&D? The aspects of characters that are class invariant (ability scores, mostly). The way combat works. The advancement system and incentives (that is, what is XP rewarded for). This makes up 10 to 12 pages depending on if you include equipment. The domain rules if your campaigns reach high levels. Classes and races are extra character generation options; the core game can be played without them (18 of the pages in Men & Magic are dedicated to classes and spells). Hirelings and inheritance rules occupy a strange place in the rules. Superficially, they look like setting details that are included here because they are part of the player interface, but in terms of how the game plays they are probably more integral than classes and special abilities like spells or turning.

Consider Carcosa as a case study. It is built on Men & Magic, but the only classes allowed are traditional fighters and the new sorcerer. Monsters are mostly custom (though there are a few creatures in common with the traditional game, such as mummies and oozes). Treasure is replaced with space alien technology and ancient technological artifacts. The underworld is only hinted at obliquely, but the wilderness is given by example (hex descriptions) rather than formula.

Thus abstracting the sections marked out above, this is what you might replace when building your own custom version of D&D:

  • Player’s Interface
    • Classes & races (and powers such as spells)
    • Equipment (this implies places to buy equipment)
    • XP incentives (this will determine the type of adventures)
  • Referee’s Interface
    • Systems
      • Time keeping and resource tracking
      • Non-combat resolution (searching, traps, etc)
      • Encounters; surprise, initiative, etc
    • Setting
      • Bestiary
      • Treasures
      • Encounter tables by terrain type or region
      • Map or terrain generation system
      • Dungeon and dungeon stocking guidelines
      • Hex stocking system (not really present in OD&D)

I believe the above list to be entirely genre-independent at this level of abstraction, though you may need to add other layers of maps for games that allow space travel. If you work through those elements, my thesis is that you will have the smallest complete setting that could potentially satisfy all aspects of the original game. Am I missing anything?

Surprisingly, the part of the 3 LBBs that feels most lacking to me is actually the part that I also think is most unique and valuable, at least compared to other similar games (because it’s usually totally absent): wilderness stocking rules. TU&WA punts by only giving you half of a system. The referee is instructed to get a copy of the Wilderness Survival hex map (page 15):

OUTDOOR SURVIVAL has a playing board perfect for general adventures. Catch basins are castles, buildings are towns, and the balance of the terrain is as indicated.

Then rules are provided for generating the inhabitants of the stronghold and for interacting with the stronghold (including very interesting guidelines for the occupants venturing out to meet adventurers). And random encounter tables are provided for other wilderness inhabitants. Now, this is not bad, but I still find myself somewhat blocked when I go to create a wilderness area. Basically, I think the wilderness setting guidelines in the 3 LBBs are more example than generator, so anyone that is building a setting from scratch will need to come up with their own system (something similar to the dungeon stocking system is what I am experimenting with, but it still requires some modifications).

Meaning first

There has recently been another round of discussion about associative and dissociative mechanics. Here is Justin Alexander’s restatement of his original thesis, a post by Zak about diegetic and extradiegetic thinking, Carter Soles on healing surges, and Jeff on whether or not the d30 rule is dissociated. Zak doesn’t use the words “associated” or “dissociated” anywhere, but it’s really the same issue from a different angle. Are players reasoning about cause and effect within the game world or within the structure of the rules?

Consider two examples:

  1. The Labyrinth Lord spell “levitate” (LL page 33):

    For a number of turns equal to the casters level +6 turns, the caster can move up and down as he wishes. The caster mentally directs movement up or down as much as 20 feet each round. The caster cannot move horizontally, but could clamber along the face of a cliff, for example, or push against a ceiling to move laterally (generally at half base land speed).

  2. The Fourth Edition level seven fighter power “come and get it” (4E Player’s Handbook page 80):

    Every enemy (but not ally) within a 15 foot radius is shifted two squares (10 feet) and become adjacent to you do so, and then you get to make a weapon vs. AC attack against them.

In the first example, the meaning is primary. The caster is no longer subject to the limitations of gravity, and can move themselves around at some set speed. In the second example, the effect is primary. Enemies come to the PC to be hit. We don’t know why. Did the PC taunt the enemies? Did the PC lasso the enemies? Either might make sense in different cases, and many people don’t bother at all with narrative explanations. Obviously, it is not an either/or thing, but one of association or dissociation is usually dominant. In the first example, the duration in turns is somewhat dissociated (why would levitation only be available in game-convenient durations that are a multiple of ten minutes?), but unobtrusively so.

The common example of a limited martial resource (such as a daily power) as a dissociated mechanic is really just a special case of this more general “meaning first” or “effect first” principle. It is easier to make a balanced game using effect first design, which is why 4E leans so heavily on dissociated mechanics, as mathematical balance was an important goal for that system.

The examples above also show how this issue is orthogonal to realism. Levitating is obviously not realistic (at least based on my experience), but it is associated. Enemies moving toward you and then you hitting them is realistic, but it is dissociated. Why are they moving toward you? Why do you as a player have the ability to affect the movement of your enemies? You can come up with an after the fact narrative explanation, but the meaning is secondary and the effect is primary.

As has been noted in some of the links above, there are some dissociated mechanics in traditional D&D too. Hit points and experience points are notable. To elaborate, the effects of gaining a level are primary (more staying power, additional spell capability, followers, whatever), and the narrative explanation is after the fact. Was the PC training? Did a demon grant them extra power? We often don’t know. HP and damage are probably the most problematic. How can cure light wounds help with the loss of luck and fatigue? We can come up with an explanation, but it’s certainly not obvious. Weapon and armor restrictions are another common dissociated irritant that has prompted many house rules, my own included (see here for weapon damage by hit die and a system to do away with armor restrictions).

The major difference, as I see it, in how new school games and old school games do things is that the dissociated mechanics of old school games affect encounter-based problem solving less than they do in new school games. And when they do affect problem solving (perhaps equipping every character in OD&D with daggers because they are cheaper and all weapons do 1d6 damage) that is considered pathological, and either fixed with house rules or condemned as against the spirit of the game. From the standpoint of creative problem solving, if meaning is first, the potential effects are limitless, and this is in my opinion why many people are uncomfortable with the extensive use of effect-first mechanics.

Edit: I’m sure this post was influenced by On the Failure of Tactical Combat over at Hack & Slash (though his post focuses, unsurprisingly, more on combat). So go read that too.

First Level Clerics & Spells

There is a really insightful comment over at Grognardling by Mike Monaco (quoted partially) about clerics:

Clerics in B/X don’t get a spell at first level so they spend the first few adventures UNABLE to heal people. This gives them a chance to learn more roles, like throwing holy water, turning undead, backing up the fighters or defending the mages, and so on.

1974 D&D and the various incarnations of basic (Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, and the Rules Cyclopedia) do not give clerics a spell at first level. Strangely, some of the retro-clones (Labyrinth Lord, LotFP) do give first level clerics a spell. The clones that don’t are Swords & Wizardry Core, Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, and Original Edition Characters for Labyrinth Lord. I believe the AD&D Player’s Handbook was the first place that first-level clerics are given a spell, though more knowledgeable people can correct me if I am wrong.

In any case, I much prefer the no spell at first level version of the cleric. It highlights the martial aspect of the character class, which I think is very important to the cleric as demon hunter and crusader rather than purveyor of cure light wounds.