Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Appendix N: Part of a balanced breakfast

So I just returned from my final trip to the local used book store, which is closing its doors at the end of the day.  I wish that I had had more time--and cash--to spend on the trip, and a better idea of what I wanted to look for, but alas, I managed only four tomes: The Song of Roland, an Elric saga, a calculus textbook--I'm spending my free time re-learning calculus, what of it?--and an abridged volume of Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Though I spent a goodly portion of my time pondering the extensive Fantasy/Science Fiction section of the store, I started to think about all the Appendix N-ish books I've purchased off the shelves of this store over the years.  Poul Anderson's Three Hearts Three Lions, several A. Merritt tomes, some Avram Davidson, Ursula K. LeGuin, L. Sprague de Kamp, CAS, Vance, Zelazney, etc. etc.  And I thought about the numerous books of this ilk that line the stacks of my library, how many of them are marked with old receipts, odd business cards, and torn-off grocery lists standing watch at the frontier, patiently awaiting my order to advance into unread territory once again.  I wonder if they realize that I've deserted the cause.

It seems that more and more when I turn to Appendix N tomes, it's not for the enjoyment of the read, but to exercise my D&D credentials.  Reading Appendix N tomes has become the equivalent of heading to the gym after work*; I don't do it because I like it, I do it because I believe that if I keep at it, I will gain something from the effort.  Specifically, my sorties into Appendix N are mostly an effort to uncover the roots of The Game, to give myself a broader understanding of where it all started. Sometimes the evidence is satisfyingly obvious such as Anderson's Tres Hearts, Trois Lions; you'd have to be comatose to miss all the elements that were co-opted into D&D.  Other times a books contribution is more of  a sense of exploration or a particular tone of adventure, not a specific monster or character class or justification for some rule or other.  For instance, I've found few, if any, direct, concrete elements of A. Merritt's work encoded in the game, though my reading of his work is less than thorough.  Merritt's works tend to be of the Lost World variety, a subgenre that for some reason I just can't get into.  I've been tackling The Moon Pool and The Face in the Abyss off and on for several years with little chance of finishing them.

* It should be noted that my gym membership lapsed several years ago.

Except for Conan--who I read mostly in comic book form nowadays--I rarely read "fantasy" just for the fun of it.  Rather, when I venture into the genre there's always this underlying sense that I'm researching the genre, and it becomes sort of like doing homework.  I can't say for sure if it's the books that are failing to engage me enough to overcome the sense study, or if I'm letting  my studies prevent me from truly engaging the books, but the end result is that I kind of have a lukewarm view of most Appendix N tomes.  Now some of them truly suck--this is blasphemy I know, but I find that most Elric books, with all the dreadfully serious pawns-of-fate stuff that dominates the story, are unreadably dull--but others such as Jack Vance and... someone else... seem lighthearted enough that I should be enjoying them more than I do.  But it's becoming increasingly difficult for me to return to the fray.

Friday, October 18, 2013

D4 Thieves Can Suck It Revisited

It would seem that my endless back-linking to this post from last year has finally sparked a debate--yes, around here, a single comment constitutes a debate.  
Ugh. Not him again.

In a nutshell, folks generally seem to agree that the thief class's fast level advancement compensates for their sub-prime hit dice.  I don't agree with that. Sit tight and I'll tell you why.

I'm of the school of thought that your hit point potential (aka hit dice) at the outset of your career--which is to say at level 1, not level 4--are a product of your background, and therefore there is some basic assumption about your background that justifies your hit points at inception.  For instance, Fighters are hardened from combat training and perhaps even actual warfare--especially if we take the "veteran" level title literally,as some do--and thus warrant heightened hit dice.  Magic Users, meanwhile, earn their pathetic pyramidal hit dice either from a sedentary life of study, or from contact with the soul-sucking arcane forces of the universe, or some other wussifying factor.

But what is there about the thief class that should make them universally sub-normal in the HP-category?  Sure, some of' em--even a lot of them--might be underfed pipsqueaks who stole their last meal from a fruit cart.  But even so, thieves are out-and-about, actively sneaking around, climbing stuff, and, if they come from the illicit branch of the class, they're probably even getting in more than their fair share of fights: administering beat-downs on deadbeats and narks when they're not rumbling with rivals; whatever it takes to get ahead in the world.  They are survivors.  All of which should at least allow for a normal hit point potential at the outset; but saddling thieves with d4 HD negates this sort of thief.  While there is definitely room for malnourished street urchins, why should they be the sole model for the class? 

Admittedly, my counter-argument assumes that a Normal Person gets 1d6 HP, a tenet of AD&D that might not have existed in Basic.  Holmes, to the best of my knowledge, was mum on the topic; the only corollary I've found being the bandits in the monster section, though they get 1d8 hit points, making them actually better off than their AD&D compatriots--and making d4 thieves look even more pathetic by comparison.  I can't speak to the Original rules or the Moldvanian or Mentzerian versions; they may very well insist that all normals get d4 hit dice.  If such is the case, you may ignore everything I just said.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Holmesian Non-system: or Who cares how you roll intiative?

I gotta be honest with you: the Holmesian initiative thing I prattled on about the other day doesn't really evoke a sense of Holmeliness to me at all.  Not in the least.  Indeed, this sort of granular rules-tinkering in general seems to defy all-that-is-Holmey about Basic D&D.  To me, no particular rules could possibly evoke Holmes, because when I played Basic D&D back in the day, the rules were only vaguely understood and were almost irrelevant to the experience.  All you needed was a rough grasp of the core concepts of a> role playing and b> using dice as arbiters of action.
By Source, Fair use,
What made that old blue book special to me was the sense of adventure it evoked.  Just look at that cover; I distinctly remember the feeling of awe I had when I first laid eyes on it: the way the dragon was looking right past Malchor the magicuser and Bruno the battler, right at me.  You got the sense that you were part of the party facing the dragon and that if you didn't think fast you were going to be toast.  I think this image made it clear what "role playing" was all about in a much more meaningful way than any Intro to any rulebook in the genre has ever accomplished.

As the Holmes set we used back in the day came without dice, we often got our D&D on using only 6-siders plundered from board games.  We ditched the silly chits as too cumbersome--plus, by the 3rd or fourth session, several chits had gone missing.  As I recall, a 4 or higher on a d6 was considered a hit, regardless of the attacker's hit dice or the target's AC and everything did d6 damage (true to the Holmesian rules, coincidentally).  We may have cobbled something similar together for Saving throws, or perhaps ignored them entirely.  And we assumed that a 1st level magic user could cast each 1st level spell once, 2nd level MUs could cast all the 2nd level spells, etc.  It seemed completely obvious that that was how magic was supposed to be handled, there was no need to delve through the text to decipher the precise meaning of the author.  Basic D&D was a means of exploring the world in a brand new way, not a collection of rules to be tampered with and argued over by a pack of middle aged men with ADD.

Advanced D&D changed all that.  Daddy Gygax made it clear that our free-wheeling ways were the wrong way to play, and we were only too happy to absorb the new, more sophisticated rules.   We quickly digested the hardcover tomes, though, like everyone else, we couldn't swallow a few things like psionics, segments, speed factors, and about two thirds of the DMG.  But sadly, we were no longer explorers in the ways of gaming, now we were more like middle managers toeing the corporate line while foisting grief on our underlings.

So when I say that Holmesian Basic is the Official Rules of Record for the Holmsmouth Urban Megadungeon Project, it has nothing to do with how you determine initiative, how fast zombies move, or even--amazingly enough--what type of hit dice thieves get to roll.  It has more to do with a feeling fostered by the sometimes--often--cartoony artwork of Tom Wham and the Daves than by how many seconds are in a melee round.  Or with the sense of old school horror brought on by the Thaumaturge with the caged ape in his lab and the green flames that engulfed crazy old Zenopus's tower all those years ago, which was a big change for us kids who were still giddy from watching "The Empire Strikes Back" in its original run.  We were exploring not just a new genre--fantasy--but also a new way of playing games.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Holmes-ish Inititative

I've been using Holmes Basic as the Official Rules of Record for my systemless Holmsmouth Urban Megadungeon Project cuz, well, it's in the name, among other reasons.  But despite having cut my teeth on Blue Book Basic back at the dawn of the 80s, I really haven't played it since.  So I've been brushing up on it lately, and, of course, there are a few things that I've gotta mess with.

Initiative is going to be the first target of my tinkering. (After thief hit dice of course).  For those not in the know, Holmesian initiative is a straight-up comparison of Dexterity scores of the combatants.  This means that Holmian initiative is individual--not team--based.  And, once established, the order remains fixed: no re-rolling each round since there's no rolling to begin with.  And it also means that if you have a high dexterity you are likely to get in the first blow every time.  And, probability being what it is, there are going to be a lot of folks tied-up around the 9-12 range.

But what it also means is that you're going to have to roll up a dex score for every orc, kobold, and displacer beast that decides to take on the party.  And then you'll have to track each one of your uniquely dextertied critters throughout the combats.

That, for me, is a deal breaker in itself. But there's still one more nail in the coffin: the implied assumption that the 3-18 ability range that we use for  humans and their ilk would be applied universally for all creatures from purple worms to pixies, zombies to giant ants.  [Actually, maybe not zombies; isn't their a rule that they always lose initiative? Or is that in AD&D?]  Who ever heard of a cat with a 7 dexterity?  Impossible right?

I want a score that:
  1. Reflects all the various things that go into making you quick on the draw; things like your size and your general quickness, and, most importantly
  2. It has to already exist in the rules; I don't wanna be making up new statistics here.  You figured this out yet? 
Movement.  Think about it, it already takes into consideration things like your size and quickness.  Long legs allow you to cover ground more quickly, but at some point the cumbersomeness of your limbs starts to slow you down.  As illustration of this principle, famous sprinters you have heard of are pretty much all between 5'8" and 6'2" tall; at 6'5", Usain Bolt--the current 100m world record holder--is an outlier.*  Giants have very long legs, but have far surpassed the optimal balance between size and quickness, thus they move at the same rate as humans even though they're twice as tall.

*Hence yesterday's post, in case you were wondering what brought that on. No idea how tall that Tiritelli dude is.

So your move in olde school "inches" will be the baseline.  Actually, Holmesian basic lists movement in feet, e.g. elves move 120', dwarves = 60', etc.  Just drop the trailing zero for the same result.  You're going to get an awful lot of ties though, since every dude in chainmail and every orc are going to have the same initiative value.  So we're going to add a couple of variable to the mix: your dex adjustment (In Holmes it's +1 for dex of 13 or greater, -1 for 8 or less, I believe) and a randomizer, also known as a roll of the dice.  But, in keeping with the Holmesian method, you don't re-roll every round; just once until the combat comes to a meaningful ending.

The Holmesy-Dice Chucker Initiative Formula:  

Initiative = Movement + Dex adjustment + Randomizer (d4,d6, or d8 based on hit dice)

Yes, the initiative die rolled is dependent on your hit dice; MUs roll 4-siders, fighters roll d8, thieves and clerics d6 (thieves only get d4 in Basic D&D,you say?  Then you haven't been paying attention). In fact, I'm thinking of extending HD to also include damage rolls: fighters would do d8 damage with whatever they use as a weapon, thieves (and clerics I suppose) do d6, and MUs will always plop down the pathetic pyramid for combat results.

Anyway, this puts encumbered folks at a serious disadvantage, which I'm ok with.   At least this is a matter of players deciding how to allocate resources rather than a result of a single die roll made during k-jen that will haunt/bless your character for the rest of eternity... or until they die on the 2nd level of Skull Mountain

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Matt Tiritelli: Wiki Record Holder

This is why I love Wikipedia:

From wikipedia 100 metres, October 8, 2013, ca.3:45 PM PST, but it won't last long.
Who is Matt Tiritelli, you ask?  According to wikipedia, he's the fastest man on the planet.  This dude ran so fast he didn't just shatter Usain Bolt's record by an entire second, he caused an anomaly in the space-time continuum that rippled all the way back to 2009 and negated Bolt's achievement altogether!  Damn, that's fast.