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.