Monday, 21 March 2022

A skill system for OD&D?

Many OD&D players and DMs like the fact there there isn't a full blown skill system in the game. Although such systems and mechanics developed in rpgs pretty quickly after OD&D's appearance, in games such as Traveller and Runequest. But TSR resisted the urge to add such things into D&D relying instead on the class system to provide the talents and skills available to the various professions and races. I, for one, am glad they did this. I find very few games have skill systems which really work seamlessly and all too easily clog up game play (or provide pedants and rules lawyers with ammunition to 'game' the system).

But, there are always those situations where the rules don't cover all of the possibilities and sometimes, the DM prefers a less dictatorial approach than simply ruling that this or that PC has or hasn't succeeded in, for instance, lighting a fire in a rainstorm. Most DMs eventually seem to have settled on 'The Ability Roll' as a method for judging such things. This most often takes the form of a 'roll under' your Str/Dex/Int or whatever using either 3d6 or 1d20 (both have advantages and disadvantages). In this mechanic, the DM judges which Ability Score is most appropriate to test for the task in hand, eg. Strength when testing if the PC manages to pull up his friend who is hanging over that precipice or Intelligence when trying to decode an ancient script. The problem with this is, that there is only one degree of difficulty, one target number the character must make. DMs can get round this by adding penalties or bonuses to rolls or target number, or by allowing more or fewer dice to be rolled etc. to simulate presumed levels of difficulty.

There is however, a pre-existing "skill vs difficulty level" system already at the core of the game. That is, the character class+level vs armour class to hit mechanism.

So, here is my (as yet un-tested) idea for using the to hit table as a skill resolution system for OD&D. It uses my philosophy of keeping the existing mechanics of OD&D to create new rules.

We use the OD&D Attack Matrix 1 and replace "Armor Class" with "Difficulty Level": 9 being relatively easy tasks and 2 being exceedingly difficult. You don't need to write out new tables, it's a concept shift only. "The 20 Sided Die Score to Hit by Level" becomes "D20 Score to succeed" and Bob's your uncle. But there's more. Unlike with the common "Make an Ability Check" hack, here, Ability Scores can make a real difference because the DM can add or subtract any bonuses and penalties the PC might have for high or low Ability scores. Here, you have two choices: you could use the -2 to +4 range given for Charisma and apply this to all of the PCs' Ability Scores or the more conservative -1 to +1 for above average (12) or below average (9)  Dexterity scores. So now if a task requires say, Strength, the player can use his Strength Abilty Score modifiers when he rolls vs Difficulty Level on our new Task Resolution table.

Furthermore, as the Attack Matrix is really three tables all in one, a DM could even judge that different classes might be better or less likely to be good at certain types of task by using a different one of the three matrices (Fighting-Man, Magic-User and Cleric). For example, a party must hastily erect a barricade before they are besieged by Orcs. The Fighter is best trained to organise this and so uses the Fighting-man Matrix. But later, our hero is required to write a letter to the Orc Prince asking for the return of prisoners. The DM might judge that his literacy skills might not be up to this, so he has to use the Magic-User Matrix to see if he is successful. Similarly, let's say a Magic-User is required to pull off some highly cerebral task. In this case the DM might consult the Fighting-Man Matrix because (as we are using a combat table) this might give an easier score to hit/succeed. Using this extra level of detail is really just replacing the different levels steps with a statement about the appropriateness of professional skills to the task in hand:

 °Skills very appropriate- use level advances like a Fighting man (steps of 3 levels),

 °Skills relatively appropriate, use the Cleric progression (steps of 4 levels), 

°Skills not at all appropriate: use the magic user level progression of steps of 5.

This is nowhere near as complicated as my poor prose might make it sound and you don't need to use all of it. Simply swapping out Armor Class for Difficulty Level and everyone uses the basic Fighters' Matrix would still work.

I'm sure I can't be the first to have done this, so if you use a better version of this idea, I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Arneson and Gygax's first collaboration.

Cover of first edition

Most of us have heard the story of the collaboration between Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, which led to the birth of Dungeons and Dragons in 1974. But this was not the first time these two game innovators had worked together to produce and publish a game. Their first joint publication, together with Mike Carr, was for Guidon Games and it was a set of Napoleonic Naval wargame rules called: "Don't Give Up The Ship".

Early Naval wargames required clean floors.

The title is a reference to the dying words of the captain of the USS Chesapeake in 1812 during the American-English War of that year. 

Gygax had begun writing a set of Napoleonic Naval rules in 1968 but soon realised he was out of his depth (no pun intended!) Then, at Gen Con 2 in August 1969, Gary met a young Napoleonic wargamer by the name of Dave Arneson and gaming history began to happen.

The International Wargamer magazine.

When Gary heard that Dave and his group in Minneapolis were putting their own rules set together, they decided to co-operate and the first version of "Don't Give Up The Ship" was drafted. Mike Carr was brought in as an editor and by 1971 the trio were ready to publish. They tested the game out by publishing it as a partwork in the "International Wargamer" journal starting in issue 57 in June '71. The first, fifty page, edition of the game as a whole was with Don Lowry's Guidon Games in 1972. It sported a slightly reworked cover art also by Don Lowry, which was based on his drawing for the "International Wargamer". A second edition, with extra rules and scenarios by Carr, runs to fifty-eight pages and was published by TSR in 1975 (Gygax having previously begun the company because Lowry couldn't see the potential of "Dungeons & Dragons").

Early ship models for wargames by Joe Morschauser 

The Rules themselves were written for model ships of 1/1200 scale and clearly designed for gamers with lots of space! With ships engaging each other at ranges of up to 21" and ships becoming visible to one another at a range of 200"! Games involving even small fleets were not going to be possible on the dining room table. In fact the rules suggest an area of 100 square feet as a minimum. In this regard, Arneson's game rules reflect those he had been used to when playing WWII games using Fletcher Platt's "Naval War Game" rules across the floors of  local meeting rooms and ball room dancing halls. Platt's rules were first published in 1948 although they originated in 1929 and were themselves influenced by Fred Jane's naval warfare games beginning in 1906. Arneson's rules were for sailing ships however and required many more systems for dealing with movement and the wind, boarding actions, kedging, controlling fires on board and many more. There are essentially three sets of rules, of which the Advanced Rules add so much complexity that the game becomes almost a reconstruction of warfare down to the level each individual man on board ship. Almost a role playing game of sorts(?) Indeed, Jon Peterson in "Playing At The World", makes an argument for the play sheets for each Ship (which came with the first edition) as the precursors to what became the Character Sheets in rpgs later on.

An inspiration for Arneson's game.

From what I can see, the model of game development which Gygax, Arneson and Carr created when working on "Don't Give Up The Ship", was then used again when creating "Dungeons and Dragons" a few years later. Gygax had the motivation and vision to see the project through, with Arneson as the creative driver sending Gygax drafts which later got stitched together and shared around (although Carr edited Don't Give Up The Ship, Gygax didn't bring him on board with D&D until the second, Advanced version of the game needed an editor).

Mike Carr demonstrating Don't Give Up The Ship 

Although "Don't Give Up The Ship" has a long pedigree, it's complexity and space requirements soon made it less fashionable in wargaming circles. A planned follow up: "Ships of the Line" by Arneson, although completed and in use, was never edited and was dropped by TSR.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

OD&D 30+ years on, as played by Gygax

Gygax's House Rules for OD&D.

Three years before his death 2008, Gary ran an OD&D campaign for his group. This is a compilation of notes about the rules for that campaign, with my comments following. This information was gained from answers given in Gary's Q&A threads on ENWorld as well as some tales of the campaign posted by Deogolf. They boil down to these: 

 • Only use the three little books- Gary didn't use anything from the supplements.

Character Generation and Advancement 
 • Ability scores rolled as best 3 out of 4d6. Scores are arranged to taste. 
• PCs started at 3rd level. 
• Fighters get +1 HP/die. All PCs get +1 HP/die if Con >14. 
• No training necessary to gain a level.

 Initiative and surprise 
• 1d6 for surprise: 1=1 round, 2=2 rounds. 3 or more= no surprise. 
• PCs must declare actions before initiative. Caster's must declare the specific spell being cast. 
 • 1d6 for initiative. A tie means simultaneous combat. 
• A casting spell caster who loses initiative will lose his spell if hit. 
• All PCs get 1d6 hp/level. HP rolls are re-rolled on a 1. 
• Fighters do +1 damage if Strength> 14. 
• Dexterity does not affect AC. 
• Dexterity does affect missile attack "to hit" rolls. 
• PCs are unconscious at 0 hp. They can go as low as level +1 before death (e.g a 4th level fighter can be brought as low as -5 hp and just be unconscious). A healing potion or cure spell will restore them immediately. 

Spells & Spell Books
 • To acquire new spells, casters must find scrolls, spellbooks, or a friendly higher-level caster. 
• Clerics don't need spell books (The original books can be read to imply that they do). 

Magic items
• Gary identified most magic items immediately on return from the dungeon (by charging large sums of money for this service, when players rest and recouperate in town).
• Potions must be tasted to identify them however. 
• Unusual items require a trip to a very high level Magic-User.

I find these house rules interesting in several ways. The first thing that strikes me is how few of them there are. This is Gary playing more than 30 years after the game was first created and there isn't much he wants to change. Mostly, these notes are really clarifications rather than additional or changed rules. Such as the reminder that Clerics don't need spell books and that Magic-Users need to find new spells for themselves. 

Some of these house rules are actually really affirmations of "Old School" playing style such as Potions having to be tasted, high level magicians have to be sought out to identify some magic items and no need for special "training" when a PC has enough xp to go up a level.  Plus the fact that the referee can start PCs off at a level appropriate to the campaign.

The modified rules for surprise are quite fun and it's worth noting how much difference this simple tweak could make. Two rounds of surprise is enough for either the players or the monsters to prepare or inflict quite a lot of damage to their surprised and confused opponents. I think on the whole though, this rule benefits the players more than the monsters as they are more likely to be able to inflict missile or spell damage from a distance before the Melee proper starts.

The statement that players must declare intent before rolling for iniative is interesting too. Of course, many players and DMs may do it that way already, but Gary obviously felt it necessary to tell his players this. Making players make tactical choices before they know who is going to act first should make them think a little harder and possibly be more cautious.

The biggest rule changes Gary makes are around hit points and all are designed to make characters survive longer (a tacit agreement here from Gary with a lot of players, who deemed the game as written was a little too tough!) Fighting-Men get the best deal... an extra hit point per hit dice is a big boost! Interestingly, this brings the average score rolled per d6, up from 3 to 4. Which is roughly the same average per die as BX's d8 for Fighters' hit dice. Fighters (and Fighters only) also benefit from a change in the boundaries on the table for extra damage due to high(ish) Strength. The final house rule to affect survivability is also a big one for those players and DMs who play Rules As Written. In Gary's game, you ain't dead at 0 hit points- just unconscious. To be properly dead you need to lose extra hit points equal to one more than your level. Obviously, this benefits higher level characters and is more generous than some house rules such as using a character's Constitution score as a guide to exactly how dead you are.

These house rules of Gary's have been out in the wild for some years now but I've never heard anyone say that they have tried them out. Perhaps that's because people are either happy with their own house rules for these aspects of the game or they are playing OD&D RAW. So there's my challenge to myself I guess. Next time I crack open my White Box, I need a copy of Gary's House Rules nicely typed out in the right font an tucked in with my Reference Sheets.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Arduin Influences Part 2

Arduin Influences: A Triptych View—Part Two
By Gabriel A. Roark

Arduin, invented and re-invented

Publication No. 1b, Multiversalist Society of Sacramento
© 2021 Gabriel A. Roark
This essay concludes a two-part treatment of the influences on David A. Hargrave’s (DAH) most enduring work, the multivolume Arduin Grimoire Now we will look at DAH’s historical influences: the nonfictional works, mythologies, & religions of our own world. Personal influences consist of DAH’s experiences & relationships, such as those with other gamers.
DAH drew much material from historical sources: real-Earth chronicles & myths find representation in the Arduin corpus (e.g., Hargrave 1985a:25). The Arduin Grimoire (AG), Volume VIII, devotes nearly nine pages to summaries of Arduin’s best known or most prominent faiths. Of the 68 religions & cults summarized in those pages, eleven draw from our world’s mythologies. Some Arduinians worship the deities of the Celtic (the Emerald Star Cult), Christian (Khrysterios, League of Faiths of the Followers of Christ), Egyptian (the Aegyptian Pantheon), Greek (the Olympian Mysteries), Islamic (Falhaine, or The Confederacy of the Followers of Allah), Norse (The Temple of Iron), Roman (Pax Romana), Hindu (The Vedic Mysteries), & Zoroastrian (the Zoroastrian League) pantheons. Each is lifted straight from the pages of our holy texts, oral traditions, & scholarship, albeit with historical trajectories peculiar to their history since entering Khaas. (Hargrave 1985b:85, 1988:71–80, 2008:332–333.)

Arduin borrowed from many mythologies

Other, real-world religious borrowings include the Temple of Timat (Tiamat in AGII) & the Temple of the True Tarot (Hargrave 1985b:85, 1988:71–80, 2008:332–333). DAH’s Tiamat is also called The Destroyer & is supposedly destined to consume or destroy the multiverse (Hargarve 1988:78). A similar concept is contained in the Third Tablet of The Seven Tablets of Creation (Enûma Eliš), a Babylonian cuneiform epic. In this tradition, Tiamat gathers to herself an array of deities & created monsters (mainly dragons & serpents) to war against many younger gods, including her own offspring. Although the Enûma Eliš does not couch the conflict in terms of multiversal annihilation (as did DAH), the cosmic battle occurred before humanity existed & was on a grand scale. (King 1902.) Arduin’s Destroyer is clearly of the Babylonian ilk.
The Temple of the True Tarot is another borrowing or repurposing of real-world spiritual practice into the Arduinian mythos. Taroteers eschew the building of temples in favor of their personal tarot decks. Many adherents also take on a specific card as their patron or deity. The card motifs are identical to those of our world, though not always in their interpretations. (Hargrave 1988:78.)
DAH seasoned Arduin with game mechanics & assumptions garnered from his personal connections & experiences as well. Among these is a pair of supplementary critical hit tables entitled, “Real Medicine and Fantasy Gaming.” Hargrave’s friend, doctor of internal medicine William Voorhees, wrote a set of crits to add a higher degree of realism to AGI’s crit tables. Voorhees levied his knowledge of human somatic capacities to augment both the effects of a crit & the rate of healing implied by the wound. DAH integrated Voorhees’ contributions more-or-less wholesale into AGII. (Hargrave 1985b:29–30, 2008:34–35.) In Mark Schynert’s revision of the Arduin rules toward DAH’s “Arduin, Bloody Arduin,” Voorhees revised the main critical hit table (Hargrave 1992:Table 43; Schynert 1992:iii). DAH sought a core realism to gird his fantastical world; his collaborators followed suit with the posthumous revision & release of The Compleat Arduin.

Arduin Compleat. Book 1

In these essays, we examined a fraction of DAH’s inspirations behind Arduin. We saw how the Dreamweaver pulled threads from science fiction, varied mythologies, & the expertise of personal contacts & friends. Still, one might wonder what is significant about knowing anything about DAH’s influences?” Leaving aside curiosity or sentimentality, I can think of two reasons why one might care. First, knowing the sources that informed a work enhances verisimilitude in the game. The culture of the game milieu & the game rules governing it are more apt to harmonize if referees & players understand the game setting & assumptions. Acquaintance with the designer’s sources is invaluable for roleplaying & refereeing alike; it allows one to tinker with the game mechanics or setting in an intelligent way. Too, studying a designer’s key texts & aesthetic can lead one to works that might otherwise go unplumbed. Be like Dave: sift the immense strand of real & imagined lives, keep what is useful, & implement it in your campaigns such that gems of memorable personae & plausible worlds inhabit your table.
Hargrave, David A. 1985a. The Arduin Grimoire: Volume 1. 4th print. San Francisco: Grimoire Games. 94 pp.
—. 1985b. Welcome to Skull Tower. The Arduin Grimoire, Volume II. San Francisco: Grimoire Games. 99 pp.
—. 1988. The Winds of Chance. The Arduin Grimoire, Volume VIII. October. 1st Ed. Boulder, CO: Dragon Tree Press.
—. 1992. The Compleat Arduin, Book One: The Rules. Revised & edited by Mark Schynert. San Diego, CA: Grimoire Games. 102 pp.
—. 2008. Arduin Trilogy. Edited by Becky Osiecki & Ben Pierce. Cheektowaga, NY: Emperors Choice Games & Miniatures Corp. PDF version, 564 pp.
King, Leonard W. (Translator). 1902. The Seven Tablets of Creation. Electronic document,, accessed July 11, 2019.
Schynert, Mark. 1992. Preface to Book One. In The Compleat Arduin, Book One: The Rules, by David A. Hargrave, p. iii. Edited & compiled by Mark Schynert. San Diego, CA: Grimoire Games.