Sunday, April 29, 2012

Experience for Monsters Slain is badwrongfun

There. I said it. I'm an edition warrior. Getting experience for killing monsters is intrinsically bad.

Hyperbole? Sure. Right? Absolutely.

Here is what I have been noticing: as player's increase in skill (which in 3+ D&D largely means character optimization and ability on the battle mat, although my players are starting to pick up on my traditional D&D tricks a bit too) it becomes increasingly difficult to pose appropriate challenges to them. It seems that most fights wind up being one said pummeling the other.

Okay, you say, but why does that matter? I thought we OSR folks hate the idea of the "appropriate challenge?"

True! But therein lies the problem. In 3+ killing monsters is the only way to gain experience. That means that to progress players must figure out ways to kill the baddies. If I am doing my job as a DM they have to use their brains to kill them, but kill them they must. This means that player's have a big incentive to try to make their characters as combat worthy as possible. So if I place a monster that is truly too difficult for them I am basically cheating them. It would be like placing a dungeon with zero treasure inside in traditional D&D. In fact it is slightly worse, because I am not only wasting their time but I am going to retard their progress. An unkillable monster is much worse than a normal red herring because it slaughters the PCs as well.

Actually after writing that I a have come up with a better analogy for traditional D&D: imagine a huge chest brimming with gold and jewels. The chest is surrounded by horrific traps that you, the DM, know the PCs have basically zero chance to pass through alive, no matter what they do. We also know that the players will spend enormous amounts of time trying to get that gold. They will spend hours of real time and more than a few characters trying to get it. This is an unfair situation. Figuring out how to get that gold is exactly what we have told them they should be doing, and in fact it is heavily incentivized. They will be frustrated and confused if there is truly no way for them to get it.

Likewise, in 3+ they see a big fat monster, dripping with CR. We have told them that the purpose of this game is to kill as many monsters as they can, so of course they try to kill it. They can try to kill in a smart way or a dumb way. It might be a tough fight, it might consume many of their irreplaceable resources. It might even kill a few characters. However, if the fight is fundamentally unwinnable for some reason (monster is simply too tough/has too big damage output, damage resistance, nasty magical abilities, etc.) then we have cheated the players.

When x is the objective of the game, we should not create situations where going for x makes you lose. Sure it can be hard, there can be tricks, traps, and pitfalls. But the goal of the DM should be to create fun for everyone. Frustrating the very objective of the game for players is not fun.

That being said CR sucks. I am not going to spend a lot of time beating that dead horse, but suffice it to say that the idea of adventurers going out and encountering a series of fights carefully tailored to their ability levels is just dumb. Also Conan runs away a lot.

So awarding experience for monsters slain makes CR matter.

CR is badwrongfun because it is stupid. 

Therefore, experience for killing monsters is badwrongfun.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

When ghouls attack! (and players do nothing?)

Something very interesting happened in our last Pathfinder session. Only 3 players showed up and carefully finished clearing out pretty much the rest of the first dungeon level that they had been working on. The only thing left was the earth elemental that had previously wiped out most of the party. So this time they approached with a plan and were prepared to fight it carefully. They went back to town to rest and make final preparations.

On their way back to fight the elemental they encountered 3 ghouls in the graveyard above the dungeon. They saw them a long way off and were not surprised. They did . . . nothing? To be fair the ranger attacked them with arrows, but the two spellcasters basically passed. These are 3rd and 4th level Pathfinder characters so the ghouls really should not have been a serious threat.

But here is basically what happened:

[I am leaving out the fiddly 3e maneuvering around crap, this is the essence of the fight]
Ranger shoots and kills a ghoul.
Remaining ghouls charge and paralyze the ranger.
Witch and summoner frantically begin casting summoning spells.
Ghouls kill the ranger.
Summoned monsters kill the ghouls.


If the spellcasters had taken their second round actions in the first round of combat the Ranger would have lived. Is this sort of thing common in other people's experience?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - sort of a review

So as I mentioned previously at long last I recently acquired a range of AD&D books. I have at this point read a great deal of the Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide. I cannot claim to have read them in their entirety.

I'm not sure it is possible to read these books straight through. I am also not sure it would be possible to learn the game from scratch from them. While they are chock full of fascinating play tips, design notes, and other commentary, they lack the coherent explanatory framework that say, second edition or the Rules Cyclopedia have (they are my counter examples because they are the books I own). Both books seem to have been assembled at random. That being said, if you already know how to play D&D it is quite straightforward to look up rules on specific topics and to find a deep and thoughtful explanation of why the rule is what it is.

I also find it interesting how clear the wargaming roots show in these books. As a sometime Warhammer player things like random resolution of targets in mass melee and the one minute combat round stand out to me as perfectly sensible rules if you want D&D to accommodate or at least be compatible with unit scale wargames. Not to mention a choice between measuring in inches, hex, or grid combat. Or of course abstract combat, but there are an awful lot of rules for modeled combat. I would wager that Gygax had in mind something like what I've settled on for Pathfinder - abstract combat when it is simple, modeled combat when it is complex.

Now that I am thinking about it, I am not sure why D&D has moved to a grid, it seems like it would be more sensible to measure or to use hexes. Maybe it is to simplify things in the dungeon.

Back to the topic at hand: It may be a good thing I started playing with second edition. I had no older gamer friends to teach me the game. I did not know what the game was supposed to look like before I started DMing. The second edition rules did a very good job explaining what exactly all of this was about. The AD&D core books are inscrutable. Until the Player's Options and revised core books were published, none of the enormous bloat of second edition changed the fundamental character of the game (whereas by all reports - I do not own it yet - Unearthed Arcana destroyed the nature of AD&D). The second edition supplements were just useless (I should know, I have a decent sized collection of them). As a young player it is very hard to be discerning about what is good and what is bad - anything official is seen as good and required.

That being said, if I were to play AD&D now I think I'd be more inclined to play first edition (actually in reality I would probably use OSRIC, I don't want to pass my ancient books around the table). Why is that? Grognard group-think? Social shaming about my nostalgia for second edition?

I actually think it is the greater detail of first edition. Second edition is largely a streamlined version of first edition. There are some superficial changes but in terms of core rules the only differences seem to be areas where second edition reduced or removed rules - a good example being henchmen. There are extensive rules on how to acquire henchmen in first, second basically says roleplay it. Other than those sorts of things (and the slightly different list of races and classes, oh and the whole demons and devils thing) THEY ARE THE SAME GAME. This makes me wonder why the generally "rules light" OSR people have such loathing of second edition. In the core rules (excepting nonweapon proficiencies, which is one of three skill options) second edition is a substantially simpler game than first.

Can anyone explain that?

(side note: does anyone else find it weird when they see 3E adherents referred to as Grognards on the internet? 3E drove me away from the game for a decade, and I'm only 30).

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Flight rules are terrible

In all three editions of AD&D there is a reliance of flying maneuverability classes to govern flying. From a game designer perspective this seems reasonable. Some creatures are more maneuverable flyers than others. However, the worst flyers are horribly bad at flying. For example, in AD&D a dragon can only turn 30° per round. That is 30° per minute. That means it takes a dragon after making one pass at a point 12 minutes to return to that point on the wing. Third edition appears to use similar rules with more paperwork involved, I haven't used them thoug. The problem is mitigated by a shorter round time, but dragons are still lousy flyers.

Let's take the dragon as our example in think in terms of Gygaxian naturalism for a minute. Here we have the ultimate predator. Intelligent, winged, breath weapons, claws and fangs. They are enormous and are going to need to hunt large quantities of prey. However, since they are too clumsy in the air to hunt on the wing like a raptor, they are going to have to do one of two things: blast everything with their breath weapon and then scavenge whatever remains; or fly somewhere, land, hunt on foot. The latter makes no sense really - whatever are the wings for then? The former is sensible but makes dragons kind of sad. Dragon attacks will involve a quick blast of death from above and then everyone hiding while it makes its turn, and then staying hidden while the dragon roots around in the ashes. Sucks to be a dragon, they are going to need to resort to stealth. I do see an opportunity for dragons ambushing and sneak attacking shepherds, adventurers, and other unfortunates, but that would be a complete reimagining of the dragon as the iconic enemy.

These rules appear to have been by people who have never seen raptors hunt. On my way to work I pass through a wide stretch of flood plain where I sometimes see hawks hunting. They really don't seem to have any trouble with these rapid banking maneuvers and dives that are deemed impossible. For what its worth, I am no ornithologist, nor even a serious bird watcher. I just have seen birds around, you know? I think the authors (of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions) have confused raptors and airplanes. Birds are good at flying. Shouldn't flying monsters be good at flying? If we take Gygaxian naturalism seriously at all, flying predatory monsters should fly like predatory birds. Why does being big mean they have to be clumsy? A dragon probably should have hollow bones and the wings will be governed by enormously powerful muscles. They should fly like an eagle. Wyvern's should fly like hawks.

I think a little imagination can replace all of the flight rules completely. Watch some Wild America (is that still on?) or something. Think about what kind of flyer this creature is. Rule appropriately.

Note: Pathfinder eliminates this sort of absolute thinking and replaces it (like everything else) with a skill check. Not a bad idea, since it encourages flexibility, but it has all of the difficulties that all Pathfinder skill checks have. Endless tallying of modifiers.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

How I actually played second edition AD&D

Teazia's comment on my last post got me thinking about how I actually played second edition AD&D. When I started playing as a child I devoured source books, splat books, campaign settings, and optional rules with the reckless abandon of a young person. Knowing nothing else I drunk deeply from the well of second edition folly. As I grew older I began to realize that my game had lost something important. So in my late teens (the last time I played a lot of D&D until my late twenties) I began to pare down the monster of second edition until I was left with the things that had originally enthralled me.

My selected optional rules and house rules (as best as I can remember) looked something like this:

  • 3d6 in order for stats.
  • Secondary skills - no non-weapon proficiencies.
  • No kits.
  • No sub-races.
  • Actually, pretty much nothing from the Complete books series.
  • No specialty priests.
  • No weapon proficiencies - I at first experimented with weapon groups from The Complete Fighter's Handbook (which sees final fruition in third edition) but ended up abandoning proficiencies entirely.
  • A 10 second combat round.
  • Nothing at all from the Player's Options books.
I might be missing something, but that gives you the gist of it. What I find fascinating is how close it is to Labyrinth Lord + Advanced Edition Companion (no half-orcs or assassins, but . . . bards?). Obviously, not everyone likes this sort of paring down. I had players who really didn't think much of it. Those players went on to become avid third edition players and I (largely) stopped playing.