Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Attribute Shuffle

I've been looking at the attributes in Basic/LL, because there's something about them that I've never quite been happy with. I remember that around the time I got into D&D, prime requisites (PR) were becoming quite controversial: a common complaint was that characters with high scores in their PR attributes were doubly rewarded for it, by getting an XP bonus and getting the bonuses of the high attributes themselves. I think that there's something to that: as I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm happy enough with random-rolling for character creation (in certain types of gaming), but the double-rewarding (or double-penalising) factor of PRs puts heavier emphasis on the dice than I like.

I don't think that just removing the XP modifier for PR is really an ideal solution either. Something that I noticed and thought odd even when I was new to D&D was that Fighters got a hefty benefit from a higher Strength as well as the extra XP for a higher PR, but magic-users got nothing from Intelligence that directly improved their magic, only the XP modifier. Ditto for Clerics and Wisdom, and Thieves and Dexterity (though a good Dex could certainly help a Thief's weak AC).

What I didn't know at the time was that this asymmetry didn't exist in OD&D. In fact, OD&D is highly symmetrical in it's attribute system: the first three attributes (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom) are the PRs for the three classes (Fighter, Magic-User and Cleric respectively) but have few direct effects, while the other three attributes (Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma) have more effects on their own, useful to any class. In the original game, Strength didn't affect to-hit or damage. That seems weird to modern gaming sensibilites, but like many things D&D, makes perfect sense when properly understood as a highly abstract system. A level 1 Fighter, a level 5 Fighter, or whatever, means a certain level of fighting ability. That fighting ability can come from being a mighty scrapper, a cunning dirty fighter, or a student of the Eight Hawks school of swordsmanship; all that matters is that a level X Fighter is X good at fighting. There's an appealing transparency in that. Where Strength enters the picture is its role as PR, giving extra XP to a strong Fighter. That makes sense in context, too: if a Fighter has natural muscle power, he can more easily learn to become better at attacking than a peer who has to work around a lack of might and learn more techniques to compensate.

That's a little more minimalist than I want, though. I chose a Basic retroclone instead of an OD&D retroclone for a reason! So, if direct combat modifiers for high Strength are to stay in, and Strength isn't to both give that AND bonus XP to Fighters, removing the bonus XP is the only alernative. Of course, assuming that Fighter isn't the only class to lose the XP bonus for high PR (and it shouldn't be; Basic Fighter's don't need nerfed compared to other classes), then Magic-Users and Clerics (and Thieves, to an extent) are left with no class-related benefit from their PR attribute. The typical solution for this is to borrow a page from AD&D or 3.X, giving bonus spells for a higher spellcasting attribute. I'm not really sold on this either, because it tends to be a huge benefit at low-mid levels and very little of one at higher levels, and the same goes for bonuses to Thieving abilities for a higher Dexterity.

I finally hit on something when I combined this quandary with something I'd thought of a while back: using Intelligence for a all characters' XP modifier, regardless of class. Combine this idea with a house rule I saw on the Dragonsfoot classic D&D forum long ago: use Wisdom modifier with all saving throws, not just magic saves as in the rules as written. This creates a situation with something like OD&D's symmetry, but instead of having 3 PR attibutes with little other function and 3 non-PR attributes with more direct uses, you're left with 6 non-PR attributes all with direct functions, but some are more useful to certain classes than others, which helps keep the flavour defining the attributes and classes.

Strength: Affects to-hit and damage in melee combat. Most useful to Fighters, but helps anyone who gets up-close and personal sometimes (notably Clerics and Thieves).
Intelligence: Affects XP gain and therefore the pace of gaining levels. Most useful for Magic-Users, who are notoriously limited and fragile at low levels and powerhouses at higher levels.
Wisdom: Affects all saving throws. Most useful for Clerics – it helps the whole party if the Cleric resists a mishap and so can help heal or protect everyone else.
Dexterity: Affects AC and ranged attacks. Most useful for Thieves, who need all the help they can get with their poor AC when they have to get into melee, and favour ranged attacks because their AC and HP are low.
Constitution: Affects HP. Everyone wants this!
Charisma: Affects reaction rolls, and retainers/hirelings (often overlooked in old-school gaming).

This set-up also makes a lot of intuitive sense. Strength helps anyone in close combat, not just Fighters. Intelligence benefits anyone; even Fighters can improve in their skills by having knowledge of different fighting styles, the strengths and weaknesses of different weapons and creatures, etc. Wisdom obviously benefits everyone: who doesn't want better saves? When you consider Wisdom as described in 3.X – including willpower and general alertness – it makes sense that it could help against disease or poison (having the determination to survive), or to avoid blundering into a trap, and various other non-magical threats.

One effect of these changes are that the spellcasting classes seem much less closely tied to their PR attributes, Intelligence and Wisdom. Magic-Users get XP modifiers from their PR attribute just like normal, so their situation isn't much different; Clerics are quite different though. The first instinct of a D&D veteran is probably to rail against this, but I'm not sure that it's such a bad thing. Clerics with high Wisdom just become more survivable, not more magically potent, and I quite like the fact that since their magic comes from “on high”, they only get more of it through their experiences: Intelligence can help them learn from it, Wisdom can help them survive it!

Not Quite Forgotten

(Cross-posted to my LiveJournal.)

Owing to an extended idea-drought, I've stopped working on my homebrew setting for Labyrinth Lord. I'm going to use the new version of the Forgotten Realms that was released for 4th Edition (though I'm definitely not using the 4e rules – I'm sticking with LL).

I mostly like what they've done with FR. It's a big change: there's not only been a “Realms-Shaking Event” justifying the rules changes, but also a hundred-year gap. That's obviously put off (to say the least) a lot of the long-time fans of FR. I'm a long-time fan myself, but while I liked the setting as it was, I was finished with it. I felt that FR was suffocating under the sheer volume of accumulated lore and metaplot, and that was one of the main things that made me decide several years back to part ways with the FR setting; but FR4e has changed so much that most of that old info is obsolete. I suspect that was a specific goal in FR4e's redesign, a sort of “clearing the decks”. There's not going to be any quick return to the setting-clutter either, since FR4e is only getting a single Campaign Guide and Player's Guide and an adventure trilogy, and no more RPG material (though the novels are going to continue).

Although I like the setting, I'm not as impressed with the Campaign Guide (FRCG) itself. In a lot of ways it's like a return to the original 1e grey box set, filling in the world in broad strokes with atmospheric writing (some of which is really inspiring). Unfortunely, the level of detailing is highly inconsistent, and a lot of the vagueness in the FRCG looks more like bad editing than artistic intent. A prime example is the off-hand mention that the Harpers were disbanded decades ago, with no further explanation. Um, what? The Harpers were a major part of FR since even before the 1e box set, when the setting appeared in series of articles in the pages of Dragon – surely that event merits some kind of description. The book continually describes locations that aren't on the map, and vice versa (i.e. places on the map get no description). To give the benefit of the doubt, some of this might be a deliberate design choice – DM's get a free hand to place the described adventure sites where they wish, or to take the names of places from the map and fill them out themselves – but there's just too much of that in the book. I can't help but think that the designers have tried to cram too much into too few pages, and the required editing to make it fit has cut bits out haphazardly. Oh, and the index? Useless.

Despite the FRCG's shortcomings in presentation, I still like the setting itself. It's got just the right balance of old and new for what I'm looking for. Also, it's luckily a perfect fit for LL in one way: the Spellplague (the “Realms-Shaking Event”) has left behind ruined wastelands and magical mutation, which would make a good reason to use material from Mutant Future, LL's post-apocalyptic (and LL-compatible) sister game.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Power Attack

So far, I've been posting opinion pieces here. I think that having usable content as well is part of a good gaming blog, so I'm going to put up something I've come up with for Basic-edition games (B/X, BECMI/RC, Labyrinth Lord, etc.).

Attack rolls for very high level fighters can get to the point where they often miss only on a natural 1, and so bonuses to hit often become irrelevant. Also, against the high HP of very high level enemies, physical attacks can often feel weak compared to the blasting attacks of magic-users.

To try to solve both issues at once, I intend to "borrow" the concept of Power Attack from 3.x. I don't want to import the rule as-is, because I don't want Power Attack's 1:1 ratio for exchanging to-hit for damage. That's because it would, I think, be overpowered out of the 3.x context and become overly dominant, especially since 3.x characters need to invest a feat to have the option (no equivalent to that exists in Basic).

The basic Power Attack is available to any Fighter, Dwarf, Elf, or Halfling. This reduces the attack roll by -4, but if the attack hits, damage increases by 1d4. Greater Power Attacks are restricted to higher level characters (of the above classes only):

Level 2: -6 to hit, +1d6 damage

Level 4: -8 to hit, +1d8 damage

Level 6: -10 to hit, +1d10 damage

Level 8: -12 to hit, +1d12 damage

Monday, October 5, 2009

Armour Class and Me

Given the recent mini-controversy over the AC change to leather armour in the revised edition of Labyrinth Lord (from 7 to 8), I'd like to talk about a related issue: ascending versus descending armour classes in D&D retro-clones. Some clones have 3.x-style ascending AC (and to-hits), others have traditional descending AC with descending THAC0 and/or a to-hit chart.

This issue is a bit of a special case in the old-vs-new D&D debate, because new-schoolers seem prone to claim that ascending AC is objectively superior. Jonathan Tweet (co-creator of 3rd Edition) said that it's “just clearly better” in his blog:

So... is it? Well, with descending AC, you need to either work from a chart or use THAC0. Dependence on a chart for a fundamental combat function can be inconvenient when juggling all the other things involved, while THAC0 and subtraction makes the mental arithmetic just that bit harder. The descending AC doesn't bring many advantages as such in return: I don't count the fact that descending AC is a D&D tradition as an advantage in itself, because I don't think that tradition for it's own sake has any value.

However, whether it's objectively better or worse isn't the right question to ask, I think. A better question is: “Is it actually a problem?”. This is where you really need to look at the AC system in the context of the combat system as a whole. 3.x's ascending AC may be a tiny bit easier to work with, but this is in a system that desperately needs any little bit of streamlining because the overall system is overly complex and bursting at the seams with modifiers. In OD&D/BD&D, the system is already simple and easy to work with. So you might need to look up a table for every attack roll – but there's only a couple of tables that you need in total, so it's easy to have them all on a single page right in front of you. If you use THAC0 instead, the mental arithmetic added still doesn't make running combat hard.

Also, a positive advantage of descending AC is seamless compatibility with old D&D material (plus, descending AC tends to be a de facto standard in the OSR (old-school renaissance) community, and there's plenty of free content available online). What little speed in-play that might be lost through working with descending AC is gained right back by not needing conversion.

All in all, I think that Tweet's claim that ascending AC is “just clearly better” than descending is (pardon the pun) fantasy, and irrelevant besides. It's really no big deal either way in the games it was used in; it would be awkward if (for some reason) descending AC were ported into 3.x, but that points more to a problem with 3.x than with descending AC.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

AD&D 2nd Edition Retrospective

I've noticed that, despite there being a lot of online interest in the older editions of D&D, one edition seems to get no love: 2nd Edition AD&D (2e). Original D&D (OD&D), Basic (BD&D) and 1st Edition AD&D (1e) have thriving fanbases and retroclones, while 3rd Edition (3.x) is still effectively in print through Paizo's Pathfinder. 2e, though, seems to be the red-headed stepchild.

I think that a big part of the reason for this is the very conscious and deliberate division between old-school and new-school fanbases. For old-schoolers, 2e is part of the post-Gygax era, when the “grit” and the “heart” had gone out of the game. For new-schoolers, 2e is still archaic: THAC0, descending AC, class/race restrictions and demihuman level limits, etc. In other words, each of the two main schools of thought sees 2e as being too much a part of the other camp; basically, it's unfashionable.

Another big part of the reason for 2e's unpopularity is that it was the basis of arguably the biggest and most blatant “supplement treadmill” of D&D's history (depending on whether you count the third-party supplements for 3.x). Volume of support is a double-edged sword, depending on individual preferences – some DMs feel like they must have every splatbook published, others are happy to pick and choose; some like to have things set out in sourcebooks in fine detail, others like to have broad strokes and fill in the detail themselves.

Personally, I ran the game for close to a decade, and by the time I was finishing up that campaign to begin a new one with the then-new 3rd Edition, I had a love-hate relationship with the system that had slid most of the way towards hate. With the passage of time, that's cooled off. I had a quick look at the books again recently, and I've been inspired to give the game a bit of a defence. Maybe there's still a bit of the love from the love-hate still in there somewhere.

First of all, the game's core systems are really quite simple and stripped-down. A lot more than I remembered is flagged as “optional”. All classes except fighter/mage/cleric/thief? Optional. Individual Initiative? Optional. Proficiencies? Optional. Detailed Encumbrance? Optional (and, by the way, there's a simpler system there too as an alternative). 2e is, without all the optional material, almost on a par with BD&D for simplicity, but with a selection of advanced options. It's a toolkit system, more so than any other edition of D&D.

Another good point of the system is the game worlds published for it, during it's era. This touches on the supplement treadmill I mentioned above, but I think it deserves special mention as a strength of this edition. So many classic worlds were made for 2e: Dark Sun, Planescape, Spelljammer, Al-Qadim, Birthright, Ravenloft, just to mention some of the bigger ones. It shows the enduring appeal of these settings that two editions and a new publisher later, Dark Sun is being rereleased as the next setting for 4e (and there are plenty of fans calling for the others). 2E critics might say that it was a mere accident that a weak edition got good settings, but I think that 2e's flexibility (the toolkit approach) made it an ideal basis for experimentation.

Many other editions of D&D are criticised for having fighters become irrelevant at high levels. That's not the case in 2e (in fact, I think 2e goes too far in limiting mages). Spells like Fireball and Magic Missile are capped in 2e, unlike some early editions. At higher levels, magic resistance (which caster level doesn't help against, unlike 1e) and high saving throws of opponents keeps the mages' offensive power in check, while the risks and costs of spells like Teleport, Haste and Polymorph Self curb some of the excesses that 3e is vulnerable to.

Despite all that, 2e is not a system that I intend to ever go back to. First of all, it has the AD&D attribute charts, which I consider to be a succinct example of everything wrong with AD&D – they're ad-hoc and cobbled together, adding more complexity for little benefit to the game – but worst of all, they give heavy bonuses for the very top ability scores and little or no bonuses for scores just a few points less, widening the gap between characters in the same group rolled up the say way. The second reason is bloat – the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (BD&D's final version) does most of what 2e does (and many more things 2e doesn't) in a single book about the size of each of 2e's core rulebooks. I know that one of the things I got fed up with about 2e by the end was carrying around three big core rulebooks, at least one other hardcover (High-Level Campaigns) and a selection of the Complete Handbooks, plus all the Forgotten Realms stuff; and that was just the basics.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rolling Over Some Ideas

For years now, I've been an advocate of point-buy (PB) instead of random-roll (RR) for generating attributes in RPGs, especially D&D. One of a number of things I loved about 3rd Edition (3e) when it launched was that it included a PB system (for the first time in D&D core rules) as an alternative, and I even liked the specifics of the stepped costs (so it costs more per point the higher the attribute is). I've even been known to comment that 4e, by making PD the standard method, is where D&D has “finally seen sense”.

And yet, for Labyrinth Lord (the Basic D&D retro-clone), I'm going to have attributes be created by RR instead of PB. Why the U-turn?

I'll explain first why I opposed RR for attributes in the first place. That came from AD&D, which had big stat modifiers squeezed in the top and bottom ends of the 3-18 scale. Back when I first began running AD&D 2e for my current group, I allowed the option of RR or PB. The results were uneven to say the least, and thanks to AD&D's eccentric attribute bonus charts (which, as an aside, I loathe to this very day) the effect allowed the players with better scores to dominate the game, completely overshadowing those who the dice had been less kind to.

Besides (I thought), surely it's just common sense – apart from keeping things balanced so that everyone is on level ground with each other, PB gives players (not pure chance) control over creating their own character. Case closed in favour of PB, surely? Not so fast – RR has merits of its own. Some of these come down to the specifics of the game it's used for.

One of the arguments that some use for RR is that it's one of D&D's traditions. “Rolling up a character” is an expression that's entrenched into all of RPGs; it's even part of the vocabulary of some MMO players who have never played any pen-and-paper RPG. However, I don't believe in following any tradition just because it's traditional.

Old-school D&D, unlike new-school games (including 3e and especially 4e D&D) doesn't assume that the character you create when you sit down to your first session will necessarily be the same character that you'll be still playing months or years later. This is very relevant to character creation issues: in new-school games, you might have a detailed bio prepared for your character, and maybe a character arc in mind. For something so specific, PB gives a control you might really want. Also, in new-school games, “building” a character to develop game-mechanically over time can be an end in itself (3e really pushed this to the forefront), and being able to put an attribute array together predictably is pretty important to this, which PB enables well.

With old-school, this is turned on its head. When death is a real possibility for characters (permanent death in the case of low-level characters), PB enables players to simply remake the same character again, just like an MMO avatar respawning after death. Needless to say, this can take away any tension and become very silly. With RR, the rules change. Did you roll up a great set of stats? Then your character can't simply be remade the same, so danger to his life takes on some importance. Or maybe you rolled badly in making up your character? In that case, you can get the chance to beat the odds with him by surviving and prospering... or secretly enjoy his violent death and the chance to roll up something better. Characters made by RR are unique, for good or ill.

RR also gives unpredictability, in a good way. Hands up anyone who ever invested a serious amount of points in Charisma for a plain Fighter in a PB system. ... Anyone? Not many, I bet. With RR, you can end up with a smooth-talking magic-user or a wise thief, or various other combinations that you wouldn't normally get, just because the dice fell that way. Obviously, numbers aren't the main ingredient of a memorable character, but this kind of thing can be grist for the roleplaying mill.

Unpredictability also helps RR to avoid one of PB's pitfalls. In PB, a system can either charge extra for top-end scores (like in 3e, where scores of 15-16 cost 2 each and 17-18 cost 3 each), or not (for example, “spread 80 points between 6 attributes any way you like”). The latter is open to major min-maxing, like Fighters with all physical attributes at the absolute maximum, using the mental attributes as “dump stats”. The former solves this problem to a point, but only at the cost of encouraging either a broad spread (like Paladins having lots of 13s and 14s in 3e's system) or heavy focus in a single attribute (like Wizards having maxed Intelligence in 3e); and either way, it still allows for “dump stats”. The problem is that there tends to be a best way to build a particular type of character in PB systems; optimisation works against originality. With RR, well... good luck optimising the dice roll.

The last point is that Classic D&D is much friendlier to RR because the attribute bonus charts are more evenly set up than AD&D's. Basically, an 18 gives a +3, 16-17 is +2, 13-15 is +1, 9-12 is no modifier, 6-8 is -1, 4-5 is -2, and 3 is -3. So unlike D&D, you only need a 13+ to get a bonus (not 15/16+), and that +1 isn't hopelessly behind even the best possible +3 from an 18 score. This bonus progression means that characters don't become either totally dominant or totally ineffective from a bit of randomness in creation, but it has enough of an effect to still matter. I wouldn't be in favour of RR character creation in all games, but for this one, I think it works.