We’ve all been there: Your PC is up against a much weaker opponent, deploying your primary power or skill, but in the crucial moment the d20 roll comes up low for you or high for the opponent, and you once again find that your best power failed you when you were sure it would work. This happens all the time in D&D because the d20 has a flat distribution and that means that low rolls are just as likely as high ones. Although this means on average you might expect your best power to work, unless you are absolutely obliterating your opponent you can’t rely on the dice to turn up even in the ballpark of where you need them to be. This is also a problem in Cyberpunk (d10) and Warhammer 2nd Edition (d100). I have always found it really frustrating, because if use a peaked distribution we can be fairly confident that the dice will roll around about the middle of their distribution more often than the edge. I have complained about this many times, but I have never bothered to see how big a difference a peaked distribution would make to the flow of the game. So here I compare the easiest peaked distribution, 2d10, with 1d20 as a basic die structure for D&D. I have chosen 2d10 because the average roll is about the same as 1d20, and its most likely value is close to the basic DC values of D&D, which are abut 9-11.

Method

For this analysis I have conducted three basic calculations, on the assumption that a PC (the “attacker”) is in a challenged skill check with another PC or enemy (the “defender”):

1. Comparing the probability of success for the attacker for every die roll on a 1d20 and a 2d10 basic roll
2. Estimating the total probability of success for the attacker across a wide range of possible skill bonuses, and comparing these probabilities for 1d20 and 2d10
3. Comparing the probability of success for a highly skilled attacker against a low-skilled attacker, across a wide range of defensive bonuses

For objective 1 I have performed the calculations for attackers with skill values of +0, +4 or +8, against a defender with a bonus of +4 or +0. The specific pairings are shown in the figures below. I chose +4 because it is the basic bonus you can expect for a 1st level character using their proficiency bonus and their best attribute, and +8 as a representative high bonus. For objective 2 I have calculated total probability of success for attackers with bonuses ranging from -2 to +10, against defenders with skill bonus of +0, +4 or +6. I chose +6 because this is the typical bonus you expect of a 5th level character who is working with their proficiency and has sunk their attribute bonus into their top attribute. For objective 3 I have compared a PC with a +6 bonus to a PC with a +0 bonus, for defense bonuses ranging from -2 to +10.

Probabilities of success for any particular die roll are easily calculated because the distributions of 1d20 and 2d10 are quite simple. Total probability of success is calculated using the law of total probability as follows:

P(success)=P(rolls a 1)*P(defender doesn’t beat 1)+P(rolls a 2)*P(defender doesn’t beat 2) +…

I have presented all results as graphs, but may refer to specific numbers where they matter. All figures can be expanded by clicking on them. Analyses were conducted in R, which is why some axis titles aren’t fully readable – you can make them bigger but then they fall off the edge of the graphics window. Stupid R!

Results

Figures 1-3 show the probability of success for every point on the die (from 2 to 20) for 1d20 vs. 2d10. In all figures the 2d10 is in red and the 1d20 in grey, and a grey vertical line has been placed where the probabilities of success are equal for the two die types.

Figure 1 shows that the 1d20 has a better chance of success for all die rolls between 2 and 15. That is, if you have a bonus of +0 and the defender has a bonus of +4, you are better off in a 1d20 system for almost all rolls. The point where the probabilities for 1d20 and 2d10 are equal is a die roll of 16. This corresponds with the defender needing a 12+, and all die rolls after this (17-20) correspond with the defender needing to get a high number on the downward peak of the 2d10 distribution. It may seem counter-intuitive that the 1d20 system rewards you for rolling low, but it is worth remembering that the comparatively low rolls – below 10 – are less likely on a 2d10, so although if you do roll one you are less likely to succeed than if you had a 1d20 system, you are also less likely to roll one. We will see how this pans out when we consider total probability of success, below.

Figure 1: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +0 bonus and defender +4

Figure 2 shows the probabilities of success for an attacker with +4 and a defender with +0. In this case we expect the attacker to win on a wider range of dice rolls, and this is exactly what we observe. Now the point where 2d10 is better for the attacker than 1d20 corresponds with dice rolls of 8 or more – in this case, dice rolls that the defender needs to get 12 or more to beat. We see the same process in action.

Figure 2: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +4 bonus and defender +0

Figure 3 shows the probabilities of success for an attacker with +8 and a defender with +0. Now we see that the 2d10 is more beneficial to the attacker than the 1d20 from rolls of 4 and above – again, the point beyond which the defender needs to roll 12 or more.

Figure 3: Probability of success at die rolls from 2-20 for 1d20 and 2d10, where attacker has +0 bonus and defender +4

These results are summarized for two cases in Figure 4, which gives the odds ratio for success with a 1d20 compared to 2d10 at each die roll. The odds ratio is the odds of success with a 1d20 divided by the odds of success with a 2d10, calculated at the given dice roll point. I use the odds ratio because it is the correct numerical method for comparing two probabilities, and reflects the special upper (1) and lower (0) bounds on probabilities. The odds ratio grows rapidly as a probability heads towards 0 or 1, and reflects the fact that a 10% difference in probability is a much more meaningful difference when one probability is 10% than when one probability is 50%.

Odds Ratios of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10, for two attacking cases

In this case I have shown only the case of an offense of +4 and a defense of +0, and an offense of +8 vs. a defense of +0. I used only these two cases because the case of +0 vs. +4 has such huge odds ratios that it is not possible to see the detail of the other two cases. This figure shows that for an offense of +4 and a defense of 0, the 1d20 has 2-3 times the odds of success at low numbers, but also much lower odds of success at high numbers. Effectively the 2d10 smooths out the probability patterns across the die roll, so that you get less chance of success if you roll poorly, and more chance of success if you roll well, compared to a 1d20.

Figures 5 to 7 show the total probability of success for 1d20 and 2d10 in three different cases. The total probability of success is the probability that you will beat your opponent when you roll the die. This is the probability you roll a 2 multiplied by the probability your opponent rolls greater than you, plus the probability you roll a 3 multiplied by the probability your opponent rolls greater than you, up to the probability you roll a 20. I have calculated this for a range of attack bonuses from -2 to +10, against three defense scenarios: 0, +4 and +6.

Figure 5 shows the total probability for 1d20 and 2d10 when rolled against a defense bonus of 0. Probabilities of success for both 2d10 and 1d20 are quite high, crossing 50% at about an attacking bonus of +0 as we would expect. The 2d10 roll has a lower probability of success than 1d20 for bonuses below 0, and a higher probability of successes for bonuses above 0.

Figure 5: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +0

Figure 6 shows the total probability of success for 2d10 and 1d20 against a defense bonus of +4. The ability of the 2d10 system to distinguish between people weaker than the defender and stronger than the defender is clearer here. At an attack bonus of -2 (vs. defense of +4) the 2d10 system has about a 10% lower chance of success than the 1d20; conversely, at attack bonus of +10 (vs. defense of +4) it has about a 10% higher probability of success. Both systems have an approximately 50% chance of success at a bonus of +4, as we expect.

Figure 6: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +4

Figure 7 shows the total probabilities against a defense bonus of +6. Again we see that the 2d10 system slightly punishes people with a lower bonus than the defender, and slightly rewards people with a higher bonus.

Figure 7: Total probability of success against defense bonus of +6

These results are summarized as odds ratios of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10 in Figure 8. Here the odds ratios are charted for the full range of attacker bonuses, with a separate curve for defense bonus of +0, +4 or +6. Here an odds ratio over 1 indicates that the 1d20 roll has a better chance of success than the 2d10, while an odds ratio below 1 indicates the 2d10 roll has a better chance of success. From this chart you can see that for all offense bonuses lower than the defense bonus, the 1d20 system gives a higher probability of success than the 2d10 system. As the defense bonus increases this relative benefit grows larger.

Figure 8: Odds Ratio of success for 1d20 vs. 2d10 across a wide range of offense bonuses, for three defense bonuses

The odds ratio curves in Figure 8 raise an interesting final point about the 2d10 system vs. the 1d20 system. Since the 1d20 system has higher probabilities of success at low offense bonuses, and relatively lower probabilities of success at higher offense bonuses, it should be the case that the difference in success probability between a skilled PC and an unskilled PC will be smaller for the 1d20 system than for the 2d10. That is, if your PC has a bonus of 6 and is attempting to do something, he or she will have a higher chance of success than a person with a bonus of 0, but the relative difference in success probability will not be so great; this difference will be more pronounced for someone using 2d10. To put concrete numbers on this, in the 1d20 system a PC with a +6 bonus trying to beat a defense of +2 has a 65% chance of success, while a PC with a +0 bonus has a 39% chance of success. In contrast, using 2d10 the PC with the +6 bonus has a 72% chance of success, while the PC with the +0 bonus has a 34% chance of success. These greater relative differences are important because they encourage party diversification – if people with large bonuses have commensurately better chances of success than people with small bonuses, then there is a good reason for having distinct roles in the party, and less risk that e.g. even though someone has specialized in stealth, the chances that the non-stealthy people can pull off the same moves will be high enough that the stealth PC does not stand out.

This effect is shown in Figure 9, where I plot the odds ratio of success for a PC with +6 bonus compared to +0 bonus, against defense bonuses ranging from -2 to +10, for both dice systems. It shows that across all defense bonuses the odds ratio of success for a PC with +6 bonus is about 3 times that for a person with +0 bonus when we roll 1d20. In contrast, with 2d10 this odds ratio is closer to 6, and appears to grow larger as the defense bonus increases. That is, as the targeted task becomes increasingly difficult, the 2d10 system rewards people who are specialized in that task compared to those who are not; and at all difficulties, the difference in success chance for the specialist is greater than for the non-specialist, compared to the 1d20 system.

Figure 9: Odds ratio of success for bonus of +6 vs. +0, in both dice systems, against a wide range of defense bonuses

Conclusion

Rolling 2d10 for skill checks and attacks in D&D 5th Edition makes very little overall difference to the probability distribution of outcomes, but it does slightly change the distribution in three key ways:

• It increases the chance that a high dice roll will lead to success, and reduces the chance of success on a low dice roll;
• It lowers the probability of success for PCs targeting enemies with higher bonuses than they have, and raises the probability of success for PCs with higher bonuses;
• It increases the gap in success chance between specialist and non-specialist PCs, rewarding diversification of skills and character choices

The 2d10 system does not change the point at which the PC has a 50% chance of success, but it does reduce the probability of criticals. It is worth noting that with a 2d10 system, the process for advantage requires rolling 4d10 and picking the best 2 (rolling 3d10 and picking the best 2 actually reduces the probability of a critical hit). Some might find this annoying, though those of us who enjoy dice pool games will be happy to be rolling 4d10. For those who find it annoying, dropping advantage altogether and replacing it with +3 will likely give the same results (see e.g. here and here). But if you like rolling lots of dice 4d10 choose 2 sounds more fun than 2d20 choose 1.

I don’t think that switching to 2d10 will massively change the way the game runs or really hugely unbalance anything but it will ensure that when you roll high you can have high confidence of success against someone of about your own power; and it will ensure that if you are the person in the party who is good at a task (like picking locks, sneaking, or influencing people) you will be consistently much more likely to do it than the rest of your group, which is nice because it makes your shine really shine. So I recommend switching to 2d10 for all task resolution in D&D.

A final note on DCs

The basic DC for a spell or special power used by a PC in D&D 5e is 8+proficiency level+attribute. This means that against someone with proficiency in the given save and the same attribute bonus as you, they have a 60% chance of avoiding your power. I think that’s very poor design – it should be 10+proficiency+attribute, so that against someone with your own power level you have a 50% chance of success, not 40%. It could be argued that 40% is reasonable since people often take half damage on a save and the full effect of a spell is quite serious, but given wizards have few spells (and most other powers are restricted in use), this doesn’t seem reasonable. So I would consider adding 2 to all save DCs in the game, regardless of whether you switch to 2d10 or stay on 1d20.

Last  week I had the opportunity to play an extended session of D&D 5th Edition, using the pre-generated characters and adventure from the starter kit. We had three players so I played two PCs: an elven wizard called Althiel Moonwhisper (Chaotic Good, indeterminate gender, overly elegant in speech and manner but completely lacking in empathy or social skills); and a human fighter called Xander (Lawful Neutral, fancies himself a noble, but turns into a savage, violent bastard when fighting with his great axe). This post gives a few of my first thoughts about the newest version of our old and faithful system. I didn’t have the rules myself, nor did I read them, so what I report here is based on my experience of the rules as played and as dictated to us by the GM, who assured us he wasn’t house-ruling anything – but we’re a fairly rules-light gaming group so we didn’t kill ourselves trying to answer questions about rules. The rules can be downloaded from here.

First of all, it’s good; and secondly, it’s not really very new. It is essentially a backward step into 2nd edition in feel, using a stripped-down version of the 3rd edition rules and keeping almost nothing from 4th edition. It retains the d20-and-skills structure, ascending armour class and base attack bonus of 3rd edition, but with major simplifications and reorientations to rebalance power. Skills and weapons work on the basis of a d20 roll vs. target DC, modified by an attribute plus proficiency bonus. Proficiencies can exist in weapons and skills, so my wizard had about four skill proficiencies (from memory) and a range of weapon proficiencies (from being an elf). The proficiency bonus at first level for all of us was +2, so depending on attribute bonuses we got total modifiers ranging from +1 to +7 in our core skills, and -2 to +5 outside of them. Proficiency bonuses increase by +1 per 4 or 5 levels, so it’s no longer the case that you’ll have a fighter at 9th level with a +9 Base attack bonus. Essentially attack bonuses scale more slowly than they used to, which keeps them more in line with armour classes. Fighters are the only class that get extra attacks, and I think they also get other attack bonuses and damage bonuses, so the reduced increase in attack bonus is made up for (we thought). Thieves also have less advantage at first level (recall in 3rd edition the skill system meant thieves could get up to a +4 base bonus in a range of skills if they had good intelligence). The skill system has also been stripped down so there is a smaller and more manageable number of skills (only a few more than Warhammer 3, by way of comparison). The reduced importance of the proficiency bonus means that if you need to do something directly covered by these skills, a simple attribute test will do the job. So that makes the GM’s job easier (though maybe this will become more problematic at later levels).

Most of the ideas from 4th edition have been dumped. Things like daily/at will/encounter powers are gone, and the idea of short/long rests introduced. There are no “recoveries” but fighters can recover d10+lvl HPs once between short rests, and once a day a wizard can recover some spell slots in a short rest.  The short rest is a really good idea, enabling parties to partially regroup once in a day, which seems consistent with how I can imagine adventuring groups actually working (and, incidentally, we really needed this short rest). This short rest/single recovery approach keeps the basic idea from 4th edition of being able to regroup and recover some of your damage, without making it so flexible and powerful that the challenge drops out of the game, and does open the possibility of a group of PCs taking on a fairly lethal adventuring task without a cleric, and having some options other than skulking around and running away, since if a brave assault goes pear-shaped they have something to fall back on.

The biggest system change I could see was in the way magic works. In overall style it is a flexible mix of 3rd and 4th edition, but consistent with the feeling of 2nd. Wizards have spell slots, arranged by level, and they are quite restrictive (my first level wizard had 2). They can memorize something like their lvl+Intelligence bonus in spells per day, and these can be of any level they know. They can then shuffle these between slots as they like. For example, my wizard had 6 spells in his/her book, but could memorize 4; he/she could use 2 slots a day, taken from any of these 4 spells at will. This gives flexibility without borking the idea of spell slots, and without quite going all the way into power points. Any spell can be cast out of combat as a ritual without using a slot, so Althiel didn’t bother memorizing detect magic. This gives wizards flexibility as utility casters, but doesn’t suddenly give them the ability to do anything in combat. The best improvement, though, was to give wizards cantrips at will, and to make the combat cantrips more powerful. This essentially means that a wizard has a basic attacking power that does 1d8 damage and hits on an intelligence check vs. AC, but which doesn’t scale with level. It was also cute to see that the Sleep spell and been reset to 2nd edition power: it affected 5d8 hps of enemies, which was just great when we entered the goblin caves, and really brought back that feeling of the wizard as once-per-day artillery. These change meant my wizard could participate in every combat effectively, but without the destructive power of rogues or fighters, so he/she could deploy bigger spells without fear of being completely useless once they were used. The short rest recovery option got him/her back one slot, which meant that Althiel could be useful three times in the day. This makes playing a wizard fun from first level, without making them indestructible artillery. There is no sense of controller/striker/tank as was often complained about in 4th edition: wizards and clerics have gone back to their utility roles, and although the rogue’s backstab is more frequent than in 2nd edition (it works whenever an enemy is engaged with someone else), it is not a multiplier, just a +d6 per couple of levels, and the rogue is very much a glass cannon – ours died in the third combat. In fact our rogue wasn’t so useful – trying to explore a goblin cave complex with a halfling rogue who can’t see in the dark is pretty challenging, and we couldn’t find any evidence that the rogue was particularly good at finding or disarming traps (there is no disarm traps skill!) I think the rogue would be more useful at higher levels, and for scouting in a more suitable environment (the rogue’s stealth skill was quite awesome).

The system has also responded to the way people actually play in some minor but polite ways: any PC can sense that an item is magic by touch, we could check the use of potions by sipping them, and in general the rules on actions and movement were a little looser than in the horrors of 4th edition. Battlemaps are no longer essential, though the rules are still structured around them. Movement rates were relevant in our battle map, but we didn’t spend long periods of time fiddling around with the details of movement. Combats were over relatively quickly, without huge amounts of fiddling, though this will likely change at later levels. This edition of D&D also seems to have dropped the hideous complexity of feats, one of 3rd edition’s clunkiest and most unbalancing aspects. Each class gets a few bonus powers and special abilities, but feats don’t really enter into the development of the class. As I understand it you get a feat at 4th, 8th etc. level but you have to forego an ability score modifier to get it. That enables players to avoid a huge set of complex and frustrating decisions that can really unbalance the game (though at the cost, I guess, of some degree of character diversity at low levels), and makes character creation faster. Also I think when feats do arise they’re going to be big game-changer moves. D&D and AD&D both had relative conformity within character classes (all members of the same class were very similar at first level) and this version of D&D has returned to that, but with a little bit more diversity through skills and unique starting abilities based on package choice – the core rules we used specify only one domain for clerics, but each cleric domain will have slightly different spell choices and some difference in abilities, which was most noticable in the fighter (which had five different starting types available, each with its own skill – Xander was a defender, meaning he gained +1 to AC when wearing armour). I think this idea of broad brushes with small changes in detail that are primarily fluff – due to small differences in skill, and background character descriptions – is more consistent with older brands of D&D, but doesn’t make characters as completely cookie-cutter as they were in those older systems. So, again, a nice balance between the complexity and chaos of 3.5, and the wargaminess of 2.

This edition of D&D has also introduced the dice mechanism of advantage and disadvantage, which replace +2 bonuses/-2 situational modifiers. This system requires the player to roll two twenty sided dice and take the larger or the smaller of the rolls, respectively. Andrew Gelman’s blog has a discussion of how much difference this makes to outcomes – suffice to say it’s huge – but it is a nice way to enhance attacks and I think will retain its power across levels (as opposed to a +2 bonus, which loses value at later levels in 3rd edition, especially for fighters). There are other small changes too, but overall it feels like a fast-flowing, relaxed and less finicky version of 3rd edition, dialed back perhaps to the freewheeling feeling of 2nd edition, without the deep nerdy clunkiness of that old-fashioned game. It has still kept a few of the basic problems that i think make all versions of D&D look a bit dated:

• Uniform distributions for skill and damage resolution make long chains of bad results and good results inevitable, and make it hard for players to make plans on the assumption that PCs will be able to do well what they are meant to be good at on average
• The step from 1st to 2nd level still contains that huge power leap as your hit points double
• It still has that strange incongruity between the combat mechanics and the explanation of how hit points are supposed to work – e.g. at 4th level the fighter gets an extra attack rather than just rolling once and doing more damage, even though combat is supposedly abstracted, so that the d20 roll doesn’t reflect a single discrete attack
• It has still stuck to the general principle of spell slots, which I still find restrictive and dumb – a system that keeps the richness and diversity of 2nd edition spells, but makes wizards fully functional as spell-users would be much better, in my opinion

Overall though the system is broadly functional again, retaining the best aspects of 3rd edition/d20 but stepping away from the depths of complexity that were beginning to make that system a fractal nightmare (and which have, in my opinion, turned Pathfinder into a form of intellectual interpretive dance rather than a RPG). It has gone back to the simpler days of basic D&D, with the adult feel of 2nd edition but the sense and practicality of 3rd edition. Fortunately, 4th edition has basically been dropped: we can all breath a sigh of relief and put “that little unpleasantness” out of our minds for good.

A word on the introductory adventure too: it is a rich and detailed little gem, starting off with a goblin ambush and opening up slowly into a whole sandbox built around a town undergoing something of a renaissance, but under threat from complex and apparently inter-related forces of human and demi-human evil. It has side adventures, a cast of characters that the PCs need to interact with as more than just purveyors of level-appropriate treasure, and enough detail to form a mini-campaign by itself. It is also linked to the process of learning the rules, so that as you step through stages of the campaign you are introduced to more complex and detailed aspects of the game (e.g., random monsters don’t occur at the beginning of the adventure, so the GM has time to get used to the system before having to handle that most irritating of distractions).

Overall I think this system is a good forward step in the D&D oeuvre, though hardly a radical advance in game design. It’s a return to the solid and respectable traditions we all know and understand, recognizably D&D again but with enough sense to revise some of the old-school version’s weakest points, and enough wisdom to realize that game design really has advanced since the 1970s. I will certainly be trying to play it again, because it rekindles some of the enjoyment I felt when I first returned to D&D through 3rd edition, before its complexity blew into orbit. It will be interesting to see how Pathfinder and the Old-School rip-off world respond to this system – it could be the death knell for both of them …

I think it’s safe to say that OSR gamers aren’t big fans of 4th Edition D&D, and one of the (many) complaints about it seems to be that healing surges are a terrible idea. We can see this objection floating around in connection with D&D Next, which has retained them and therefore must be a terrible game.

I think they’re actually very consistent with a Gygaxian approach to hit points and combat. Here is Gygax on hit points (courtesy of Dragonsfoot):

It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage – as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection. Therefore, constitution affects both actual ability to withstand physical punishment hit points (physique) and the immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck (fitness).

I read this explanation when I was 15 or 16 and it’s always made perfect sense to me (though I prefer systems where physical frailty is built in, like Rolemaster or Warhammer, rather than this style of abstraction). In fact, this is the only way one can possibly explain away the basic multiplicative mechanics of hps in D&D:

• A fighter can go from 1 hp at first level (killable from any dagger blow) to 11 at second level (killable with two good sword blows). How is that possible from a small improvement in skill level?
• This reduction in killability applies to everyone and continues to 9th level, where a fighter can conceivably be hit 8 or 10 times with a longsword and just keep coming
• Rounds are 1 minute long, and it’s ludicrous to think that each PC gets a single attack only in that round – so the damage they do can’t reflect a single simple physical hit

But if this is so, then healing surges of the kind used in 4th Edition D&D are perfectly consistent with this old school approach to hit points. After the battle, the PCs stop to take stock and through various means they recover some of their luck, divine blessing and poise – the fighter regains his courage and combat poise, so he’s better able to take advantage of small breaks when the next fight starts. The priest prays to her gods and gains a little favour, as well as a few blessings to take the worst sting off the bruises; the thief takes a piss and a small tupple of gin, and his sixth sense is restored. All of them adjust their codpieces (well, I suppose the priest doesn’t) and tighten shield straps – it’s the little things that count, after all – and put a fresh steak on an old bruise. All of that in total is a healing surge. Similarly, mid-combat, one can take a standard action to regain a bit of poise – stepping back to take a breather, reassess the situation, say a brief prayer, gird one’s loins, or recover one’s footing before reentering the fray.

The healing surge is entirely consistent with the old school abstraction of HPs. Jeff Rients, one of the OSRs luminaries, had the chance to recognize this the other day but his response was a simple “What I am against is another abstraction sitting on top of the original abstraction.” How does that work? The entire system is an abstraction – how can any objection to abstractions be anything but arbitrary? And in this case the abstraction fits very nicely with the original. In fact, it’s the original abstraction that jars – if you look at the history of the game’s development, there’s always been a tension between the Gygaxian vision of hit points and the way other parts of the rules operationalize it, as well as the way player’s implicitly understand hit points. Healing spells are universally presented as repairing physical damage, and they scale up according to the HPs of the fighter. Cure Serious Wounds is not called Regain Poise or Reassess Tactical Objectives, is it? And maximum damage for melee weapons is clearly constrained to represent seriousness of the physical damage such a weapon might be expected to deliver. If HPs were really an abstraction, a fighter would be able to do equal amounts of damage no matter what weapon he or she used.

If you look through OSR blogs and documents you’ll very quickly get a sense of a genre in which PC death is meant to be easy and there is no easy recovery from physical damage. Objections to healing surges, fate points and the like tend to be heavily biased towards this view. This is an approach to hit points that I favour, but it’s inconsistent with the practical mechanics of the HP system in D&D, demanding as it does an assumption of super-heroism for fighters and clerics that is inconsistent with the OSR vision of PCs as grotty realists; and it is also inconsistent with the original conception of HPs as stated in the rules. The practical result of properly implementing Gygax’s vision of one minute rounds and abstract HPs is that no one should ever receive more than one action per round, haste spells should confer no additional attacks, and healing surges should be routinely implemented in all early versions of D&D.

When I played AD&D I think one of the first aspects of its magic system I dropped was the material components. It’s a shame, but they just represented too much of a constraint on what was already a hideously underpowered class (especially at first level). Some of the material components even for first level spells are quite challenging to provide, and they’re consumed in the casting of the spell. Consider, for example, the following spells:

• Alarm: A tiny bell and a very fine piece of silver wire
• Armor: A piece of finely cured leather that has been blessed by a priest
• Color Spray: A pinch each of powder or sand colored red, blue and yellow
• Dancing Lights: A bit of phosphorus or wychwood, or a glowworm
• Friends: Chalk, lampblack and vermillion
• Identify: A pearl worth 100gp and an owl feather soaked in wine
• Light: A firefly or a piece of phsophorescent moss
• Protection from Evil: Powdered silver

and so on.  The spells Burning Hands, Detect Magic, Charm Person and Magic Missile require no material components of any kind. These material components are very cool and really add to the romance and style of wizards, but they’re an enormous burden, especially on low level wizards. A first level wizard starts with 20-50 gps, so will not be able to cast Identify and probably can’t afford the ingredients for Protection from Evil, Dancing Lights or Color Spray in most medieval settings. That’s without considering the difficulty of carrying phosphorus, glow-worms and phosphorescent moss. Some of these spells also can’t be cast in the casting time given in their description, because the ingredients need to be steeped, smeared or scattered in a circle. Find Familiar, much more powerful than its 3rd Edition version, requires 1000Gps of herbs and incense. Even Sleep is probably beyond the reach of a lot of wizards, requiring as it does a pinch of sand – sand would have been a rare sight in 12th Century Glastonbury, I’m willing to bet. So here you have a first level wizard with 40 GPs, and before he goes adventuring he needs to gather together a piece of silver wire, several portions of powdered silver, a collection of tiny bells, some phosphorescent moss, some sand and a drop of bitumen (!! for Spider Climb).

One can imagine what happens if the party kills a gnome, who has a small admantite file in his toolkit. The file is worth 50gps and everyone else just wants to sell it, but the Wizard recognizes here an opportunity to make himself self-sufficient in powdered minerals, and snaffles it up. A libertarian party would probably charge him 200gps premium for it[1]. And at higher levels it gets ridiculous, of course:

• Invisibility: An eyelash encased in gum arabic[2]
• Melf’s Minute Meteors: nitrite[3], sulphur, pine tar and a (reusable) fine tube of gold worth 1000gps
• Evard’s Black Tentacles: a piece of tentacle from a giant octopus or squid
• Feeblemind: a handful of clay, crystal, glass or mineral spheres
• Chain Lightning: A piece of fur, an amber, glass, or crystal rod, and a small silver pin for each experience level of the wizard

Some of these material components are very very difficult to get hold of. I doubt I could get most of them easily, even living in Tokyo. If one were to rigorously adhere to the spell components rules, every wizard would need the regular services of an alchemist, silversmith, blacksmith, and a couple of other extremely talented craftspeople; the wizard would also need to be very assiduous about cutting up and preserving any roadkill or adventure-kill he or she came across. There’s no doubt that this sort of thing makes these PCs much more interesting, but it also makes them virtually unplayable, because it essentially restricts the number of spells the PC knows in any one day, as well as the number they can cast – effectively it puts a bunch of spells beyond the PC’s reach at any time, while maintaining daily limits on those that the player does have the ability to use. A good example is Identify: a wizard at first level can’t use it, but by second level may be able to afford a pearl of suitable value. They can then cast the spell; but they can only cast it once, on one object, and they can’t cast it in the dungeon because they only know two spells a day and they need Shield and Magic Missile in the dungeon. So the party stumbles upon a ring that may be of great use right there and then, but the wizard can’t cast the spell even though it was a week’s work to find the owl feather and the pearl. So then they have to wait till they leave the dungeon, at which point they have a second item to identify but they can’t do so because they don’t have enough ingredients. Alternatively suppose that the wizard has spent all their treasure on pearls and owl feathers; they can still only cast the spell once today, because they couldn’t memorize more than two spells; but the party is pressed, and has found a magic sword and armour that they really need to use now, in the dungeon. Even though the wizard has spent his last money on two pearls and two owl feathers, he can only identify one item today.

Suppose then, that instead of using the standard approach to magic of AD&D, one introduced a simpler system in which a wizard can cast any spell they know as often as they like, provided they have the material components. This would mean that the wizard would usually have some spells (such as Burning Hands) on rotation, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. A first level wizard with Burning Hands once per round at will can do 1d3+2 hps damage per round on anyone within combat range (save for 1/2). It’s not a game changer; free use of Magic Missile makes a high level wizard pretty scary, doing 5-25 damage per round with no saving throw, but a few tweaks on minor spells (e.g. fixing magic missile at a maximum of two missiles) would easily solve that problem. Alternatively, you could give these spells simple material components: magic missile could require an arrow per missile, for example. Burning hands could require the wizard be carrying a lit flame source, that is extinguished by the spell. This would reduce the spell to the potency of WFRP 3rd Edition, where wizards have basically unlimited spell use but mostly have to use one every other round.

Even for high level spells with simple components, like the Bigby’s Hand spells, this method wouldn’t lead to infinite amounts of spell casting. Bigby’s Hand requires a glove; no one can realistically carry more than, say, 10 gloves in their equipment if they also have to carry: a small bag full of crystal spheres; a collection of test tubes carrying the components for Melf’s Minute Meteors and Invisibility; 8 or 10 small pouches of different powders, nitrites and the like; a sheath or case with several different rods; some vials of acids, pure water, tears, etc; additional pouches carrying fur, bits of leather, feathers and wings; a jar with a pickled piece of a giant octopus tentacle; a small cage of fireflies; a pestle and mortar to crush gems with; a couple of miniature platinum swords; and a collection of iron, silver, and bronze mirrors. Sure, this would make the task of spell-casting a little like a complex system of inventorying, but you could handle it, I’m sure, and if it’s hard for the player imagine how complex it is for the PC! You could also argue that if a Wizard is carrying components for more than, say, 5 spells on their person, they can’t cast a spell every round (they need a round to find the item[4]).

Furthermore, one could introduce different effects for more imaginative components. E.g. Invisibility lasts a round longer if the eyelash is from a thief (handy if you have a thief in the party); the component is never destroyed if the eyelash is from an Invisible Stalker. Water from another plane makes a spell that uses it more powerful, and the effect of spells like Identify is enhanced with more expensive pearls or more esoteric feathers (e.g. from a Sphinx). Expending a magic arrow adds one to the damage of a Magic Missile spell, and so on. You could also rule that every time a wizard is struck in combat one of their more fragile components is damaged or destroyed (randomly determined). It would also make wizards very eager to kill or capture each other, since they can loot their rivals’ components as well as their spell book.

Power limits could be obtained easily by dividing wizards into specialties, so that from first level they are limited only to conjuring or evocation, etc. Many RPGs do this, so that wizards have access to very few spells over their career. This would prevent a single wizard from being able to cast Burning Hands (alteration), Magic Missile (evocation), Charm Person (enchantment), and Chill Touch (Necromancy). I would make the conjuration, divination and abjuration specialties common to all wizards and then force them to choose one of the other four

fn1: libertarian parties probably last as long as the first Cure Light Wounds spell, and then decide socialism is the way to go.

fn2: According to Wikipedia, gum arabic was an extremely valuable export commodity and is an essential ingredient in soft drinks, and the Sudanese president recently implied he could bring down the western world through suspending its export

fn3: I find it hard to believe that nitrite was readily available in the medieval world but nitrates were as saltpeter, again not exactly your common or garden middle-ages corner store product

fn4: This could be a good rule for PCs with more than 5 magic items in general, I think.

Noisms at Monsters and Manuals has written a comparison of gaming systems with political theories, dichotomized into “top-down” games (D&D 3rd Edition) and thinkers (Marx) and “bottom-up” games (OD&D) and thinkers (Hayek). Noisms makes it clear what side he falls on (he’s a “bottom-upper,” oo-er), which he characterizes as “the right” (vs. “the wrong”), but even if you swap sides or dispute the particular product placement (I don’t believe Orwell is a bottom-upper, and others dispute Marx in the top-down category), the idea is interesting and has some bearing on a few common topics in the role-playing world. Noisms isn’t clear in the post about what this top-down vs. bottom-up distinction means, but in comments he adds:

The phrase “bottom-up” as I use it here doesn’t refer to the position of the agents of change on the social scale. It refers to the nature of the social change (i.e. not planned, emergent, incremental, intuitive)

which seems like a reasonable way of simplifying the political theories and the games.

I think in his post though, Noisms is ignoring the importance of structure and planning for achieving emergent or bottom-up change. I think this applies equally well to game systems, and I think a bit of new left anarchist debate (genuine bottom-upping, not the crypto-statism of libertarians like Hayek) can help to inform what I mean.

In essence, “emergent” social change that occurs genuinely without structure or within a limited set of rules leads to a type of tyranny; an unstructured and intuitive game system, without a reasonable extent of rules and systems, leads to a type of tyranny as well.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Back in the 1970s the feminist Jo Freeman wrote a little pamphlet called The Tyranny of Structurelessness, in which she described the problems anarchist and left-wing feminist groups faced in trying to do organized political activism from a framework of having no organization or rules. The key phrase in that pamphlet that critiques both the political theory of unplanned emergent change, and (implicitly) the gamer’s ideal of unplanned and intuitive play, is this:

A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez-faire’ society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones. Similarly, ‘laissez-faire’ philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so.

In political systems we temper these effects by putting strict rules on how much can be achieved through individual contracts. You can’t sell yourself into slavery, there are strict rules about inheriting debts, etc. We further, in the modern world, introduce laws about manufacturing and employment processes – such as clean air laws and equal opportunity laws – because it is very very obvious (from long and painful experience) that without these kinds of structures, the powerful ride roughshod over the weak. Without these systems in place, society goes to the rich, the socially connected and the nastiest people, rather than to those who strive. This is the essence of most rational critiques of laissez-faire capitalism and systems of dispute based entirely on property rights and contract law. Creating a blank space for “intuitive” change opens up the social space to being captured, not by the most intuitive in society, but by those with the most power to act on whatever intuitions they do have.

In game terms this difference is summarized by Barking Alien in comments at the original post:

you get games in which the designers/creators try to govern play as much as they possibly can by coming up with a system that can cover many eventualities, and games in which the designers do not do so in favour of devolving the power to arbitrate, as much as possible, to individual DMs/game groups

What this means in practice is that in-game, the power and benefits accrue to the PCs whose players have most sway over the GM. And, given the fractured and socially backward nature of nerd social interactions, this generally means the most socially manipulative, or those with the loudest voices. It does not mean the most creative people, though it may mean this in a well-run group with a judicious and skilled GM. Even then, though, it rewards a particular creative impulse – the desire to express your clear plans in a way that influences the world. But there’s another type of creative impulse common amongst gamers, which is to enjoy the unfolding of the world through your actions even though you are not yourself capable of expressing your aims well. This type of person is stymied by an unstructured system of arbitration.They may be very good at describing what happens to their PC after the event, but not good at suggesting what they do before the event.

In short, this type of gaming rewards the expressive, not the creative. And it is especially vulnerable to exploitation by manipulative and bullying players, who are actually very common.

A good summary might be that, under one system the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM and/or players. Under the other system, the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM through reference to a well-structured system of action resolution. The former system rewards[1] good negotiators, while the latter rewards good ideas – or even, just rewards participation, which is what we want from a game.

The main way that this structure is reflected in practice is through the skill system and the magic system. An extensive, well-designed and well-described skill system gives the GM an excellent framework within which to handle novel tasks, to set the difficulty and to distinguish PC roles. And in terms of game enjoyment, the main thing this system prevents is a situation in which a single player gets to do everything, because they’re good at arbitrating with the GM over every single task. In open, purely “bottom-up” systems, the socially confident player is able to seize many fields of action for themself, such as trap-finding, diplomacy, fighting, information gathering, etc. while the shyer or less expressive players stand by and wait for the only time when they can fit their actions to a structure – combat. But once you throw a skill structure onto the PCs, suddenly the player loses the power to do some of these things well, and other players pick it up. Those other players may not express their actions so well, but they get to be a part of the group.

This is particularly noticeable in OD&D, which is one of the few old school games not to have a skill system of any kind. It seems to me that the OSR is full of comments and posts by people who exalt this ability to express actions and negotiate them with the GM over the desire to be involved effectively in a group (in the sense that I mean it above), and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Essentially in these kinds of games, social ability is like temporal power in the real world, and the lack of structure in the game rewards social ability just as it rewards temporal power in real life. But this social ability doesn’t make you a better person, just a louder one, and shy or ineloquent people should be able to enjoy these games too. I think it was in response to those peoples’ lack of enjoyment of the game that the later systems incorporated much more extensive structure.

The Tyranny of Tyranny

The classic response to Jo Freeman’s article was the pamphlet The Tyranny of Tyranny, by Cathy Levine, that reads like a bit of a gender-essentialist screed (oh, radical feminism, how you have failed women…) and argues, essentially, that structurelessness is a cultural alternative to existing ways of thinking, and that small groups coming together in voluntary association without a movement behind them can both protect themselves from exploitation and generate new (revolutionary) social change. The key quote relevant to gaming would be this:

What we definitely don’t need is more structures and rules, providing us with easy answers, pre-fab alternatives and no room in which to create our own way of life. What is threatening the female Left and the other branches even more, is the ‘tyranny of tyranny’, which has prevented us from relating to individuals, or from creating organisations in ways that do not obliterate individuality with prescribed roles, or from liberating us from capitalist structure

Dropping all the politically specific language here, we find a claim that less rules governing interaction will give more freedom to individuals to create new social organizations and new ideas.

In game terms we see this with the common complaints about D&D 3rd edition, with its extensive feats and skills and every situation covered by a rule, in which people stop thinking about what they want to do and start worrying about what they can do. There is also a strong risk of gaming the rules when they’re at this level, and also of a type of regulatory capture – that if you can get the ear of the GM you can bend the rules in ways that others haven’t, and this will leave you significantly more powerful or capable than everyone else. I think in fact every GM in a system like Rolemaster or D&D 3rd edition has seen this happen – it happened to me in 2nd edition AD&D, for sure. Also, gaming under these rules systems includes a lot of “red tape” in the form of rules checking, character development, etc. that can be seen as a hidden cost or regulatory burden stifling creativity. This regulatory capture and red tape is exactly a common complaint libertarians make against organized social structures, which brings us full circle to Noisms’ synthesis of Hayek and OD&D.

The Balanced Approach: Social Democracy of Gaming

Of course, the most effective model we have for social organization in the western world is social democracy, which protects people from the worst excesses of laissez-faire society while protecting peoples’ freedom of action. Such systems are commonly misconstrued by libertarians as “central planning” or “socialism” (see e.g. Glenn Beck on healthcare), but they’re so far from such a scheme that the comparison is silly. In game terms I think the analogy is with rules-light skill systems, flexible combat and magic systems, and an immediate reward system for creative self-expression (stunting) that isn’t essential for game satisfaction. This rewards all the different social types at the table and guards against excessive effects of bullying and social manipulation without falling victim to regulatory capture or high costs.

In my view the games that best fit this model of a social democracy of gaming are probably the three versions of Warhammer (but especially the third), Exalted, the Japanese game Double Cross 3, my version of the d20 system (or in fact any version that isn’t loaded down with D&D’s heritage), and maybe (? I can’t recall clearly ?) Shadowrun. Original D&D is too unstructured to fit this description, and D&D 3rd edition has piled a huge edifice onto an otherwise quite functional system, so that it carries a high cost in-game and is vulnerable to rules manipulation. I think Rolemaster can meet my conditions for “social democratic gaming” if it’s run by a good GM with a lot of experience, but usually it’s the ultimate communist game – a good idea in theory but it doesn’t work in practice[2].

I think a lot of people who laud earlier versions of D&D are ignoring the often quite toxic social dynamics that sprang up in early gaming groups, and don’t care about the game being available to the shy or the socially inexpressive. I think that just as good GMing has to take into account the social dynamics at the table, good game design has to take into account the many ways the game design can reward or discourage certain types of personality type from playing. Being a good social democrat, I’m all in favour of equality, and I think the game should be available to as many different types of personality as possible, so I think we should eschew strong ideological brands like Marxism or libertarianism, and instead focus on practical, simple systems for enabling everyone to get along…

fn1: by “rewards” here we mean, “provides a chance to act and have your actions resolved in a way that you can have faith in,” not “gets to succeed at the action”

fn: I don’t actually believe this about communism, but I think it’s an excellent phrase.

Everyone knows the political compass, and many people think it’s a good idea but I’ve been thinking ever since I found it (well, since someone showed it to me) that it’s a cheap knock-off of the AD&D alignment system. We’ve all been through the process, haven’t we, of trying to work out what our own alignment is? Well, Sir Grognard (James) over at Grognardia has posted up an ancient picture of the original AD&D alignment system, which basically confirms my suspicions: the political compass folks are simply systematizing what D&D did first.

I think that says a lot about just how sophisticated modern political theory is. Chaps, if what you’re doing – if all of Marx, Hitler, the Tea Party, Paul Keating and Stalin – can be summed up in a page of a quite second-rate role-playing game … you fucked up. Go back to the drawing board and try again. Gary Gygax is pissing on your grave. (In this I’m referring to the polticians, not to the political compass people, whose attempt to map the AD&D alignment system to real life is an excellent idea).

But the iconochasms thing is really good.

Over at “Discourse” and Dragons there is a “rant” about the new edition of D&D, which being inside the OSR echo-chamber is largely agreed to by its respondents, until a chap called Shazbot (from Points of Light) turns up and delivers, in comments, his own handy little rant about old school logic. I believe a good rant deserves credit (where I agree with it) so I’ve reproduced some parts of it here. I think Shazbot ought to turn this into a blog post, because some of its content really reminds me of the way the game was played back in the day.

Why is it that old-schoolers are prone to filibustering and hyperbolic arguments?

“Ohhhh…4th Edition ruined the game forever…all of my previous gaming experiences have been retroactively sodomized. I now know exactly what it means to be a victim of genetic cleansing in Darfur. By proxy. Because of 4th Edition.”

That’s number 1 on my list of stupid old school arguments that I hate.

Number 2:

“It’s not roll-playing…it’s ROLE-playing.”

All because latter editions of the game have included things like fleshed out mechanics for social interactions and skill checks, like say, disabling a suspension bridge. Well hold on there, Crusty Withercock…neither term is actually correct. The term is “roleplaying GAME”. See, the “game” part implies a chance of success or failure which is impartially adjudicated through things like rules. So the first question this leads me to, is what exactly, is the practical…and I stress PRACTICAL…difference between a player rolling his/her diplomacy skill and the DM rolling on a reaction table behind the screen and adding reaction adjustments? Since both use game rules to determine outcome, both would be considered “roll-playing” by the aforementioned standards.

“Oh but Shazbot…our group eschews such rules and the DM simply decides how each interaction plays out.”

Super. Fantastic. But well, that’s not really a GAME then, is it? That’s a magical tea party wherein the DM arbitrarily decides if your efforts succeed or not…based on how his/her day went, or whatever. Hell, this was how just about everything worked in OD&D, because there were absolutely no rules for anything that wasn’t swinging a sword or casting a spell, so everything was either hand-waived or the DM pulled houserules out of his/her ass that inevitably changed week-by-week. OD&D, and you can’t get anymore old school than the old 1974 white box, you started at the entrance of the dungeon, and your character probably didn’t even have a NAME before 5th level…let alone a detailed and compelling backstory. Yeah…that’s role-playing right there. From there, things devolved into a battle of wits with an adversarial DM, laden with semantic booby-traps. “You said you were checking the floor and the chest for traps…not the chandelier…so now you’re crushed. Now get me another Blue Nehi.”

Which brings me to number 3 on my list of stupid old-school arguments that I hate:

“Dwuh? Healing surges? Action points? Daily attacks for fighters??? Bu-bu-but…verisimilitude!”

Okay…tell me how much verisimilitude is in this regular old school occurrence:

“So your unnamed Halfling thief companion has just been crushed by a falling chandelier. Luckily another Halfling just happens to wander through the door.”

Bob: “What-Ho, fellow adventures! Having lost your companion a scant few moments ago…it seems that you are in need of another hand, similarly skilled in the larcenous arts as luck would have it!”

Party: “My! What a fortuitous bit of random happenstance! Why yes stranger, we would be privileged to include you into our merry band! Forsooth!”

A revolving door of interchangeable characters in what amounts to a dungeon fantasy vietnam who, by the end of the adventure, would have absolutely no personal stake in the quest?  Uh yeah…verisimilitude.

Fine…let’s use another example. XP derived primarily through collecting treasure and not, in fact, overcoming challenging foes or completing quests. Please explain to me how picking up coins translates to casting more powerful spells.  In any case, one wonders why adventurers would go adventuring at all, when the safest and most efficient road to god-like power is running a successful business. Also, wouldn’t wealthy merchants ALL be high level characters? Oh, I forgot…PC’s don’t follow the same rules as anyone else…because they’re “heroes”. We know they’re heroes, because PC’s do heroic things, like robbing tombs of their wealth and hiring commoners to run down corridors and set off traps for them.

See here’s the thing…roleplaying games aren’t meant to simulate reality…grandpa Gygax said that himself in the 1st edition DMG…no roleplaying games are meant to emulate fiction.  Now tell me, in which Conan story did the Cimmerian get incinerated by haplessly stepping on the wrong floor-tile only to be immediately replaced by Conan the II. Regale me again with the story of Sir Percival resorting to cowardice and skullduggery to overcome an otherwise worthy foe. Tell me again about the time Merlin the Magician ran out his daily allotment of spells at a critical juncture. Sorry…but the only fantasy that old-school D&D emulates is old-school D&D. It’s become a genre in and of itself…and in my experience this sort of thing makes for terrible reading.

And finally…number 4 on my list of stupid old school arguments that I hate:

“WotC D&D is too videogamey/anime/superheroic/durple”

Because apparently any fighter not wearing a buckskin mini-skirt and a horned helmet is obviously ported straight from a Final Fantasy game.  Someone here has said that D&D should have remained a classic game that has never seen a revision…like Monopoly.  Bull. Shit. Even if Gygax should have been the final authority on all things D&D, he himself revised OD&D into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The original White Box wasn’t a game as much as it was a proof of concept. An experiment.. D&D has gone through a series of revisions over the years because D&D has NEEDED to go through a series of revisions over the years. Anyone who can honestly say that the mechanics haven’t improved over the years, is probably going to write a silly rebuttal, log out, smear poop on their face, put on a bicycle helmet, and promptly ride the short bus to school.

Over the years, game mechanics have evolved to become more efficient, intuitive and user-friendly…like technology, Even though you may not like the aesthetic direction that newer versions of D&D has taken, as in actually becoming a game centered around adventuring and telling heroic stories, instead of a random menagerie of cheap death traps…you cannot reasonably argue that the actual game portion doesn’t function better with each iteration. And you know what? D&D still has a long way to go before it reaches a sublime state of mechanical nirvana. But it’s slowly crawling there.

Stupid old-schooler argument number 5: And now we come around full circle…back to hyperbolic filibustering…

“WotC has destroyed the SOUL of D&D”

Yeah…no it didn’t. The soul of D&D isn’t in anyone edition. It isn’t in the rules…it isn’t in the art. The soul of D&D is still where it belongs…in the players. Maybe you don’t like what the players are doing these days…whatever. You’ve got your own game…now it’s their turn. Because if you honestly believe that a GAME like D&D is more about some bullshit, imagined ideology that you’ve applied only in retrospect, than it is about actually having fun…then your head is stuck so far up you’re own ass, you’ll be eating your lunch a second time.

Here are a couple of examples of “actions” based on the skill-based d20 system I developed a while ago, combined with the Actions framework discussed yesterday. One is a spell, one a “supernatural ability” and one a “mundane” (and hideous) special ability. The Cost line in each description gives the attribute against which damage is done if the action fails. The cost is always 1 wound. In my conception of magic, arcane magic incurs a physical cost (it is exhausting) while divine magic incurs a mental cost (it drives you a little bit.. irrational and loopy). So failed arcane spells incur a wound against strength, while failed divine spells incur a wound against intelligence. In this system, a critical is achieved by a roll of a 20, at which point 2d10 are re-rolled and added to the previous roll to get a new total. On rolling a critical, all maximum effects (damage, rounds of duration of effect, etc.) are increased by some amount.

Grendel’s Demise

Type: Spell

Level: 7

Cost: Strength

Conditions: Must have one hand free and be unencumbered, not wearing metal armour. Target must be within sight, and have at least one arm or other limb.

Skill check: Intelligence (Offense) vs. Target Strength (Defense)

Critical: Yes (Double)

Effect: This spell attempts to tear off the target’s arm. It does maximum damage 7, and the target is stunned for one round plus one round per point of success (maximum 7, double on a critical). The target is also bleeding (1 wound/rd) until healing is administered. The target loses all use of one arm, either temporarily (due to massive injury) or permanently (due to amputation) at the GM’s discretion.

Hideous death

Type: attack, reaction

Level: 1

Cost: Charisma

Conditions: Attacker must be visible to the targets of the action, who must be allies of the target. Target must have been reduced to 0 hps in this round, by the PC or one of his/her allies.

Skill check: Charisma (Offense) vs. Charisma (Defense)

Effect: The character turns an opponent’s death into a lurid display of horror and gore. Any ally of the dying enemy who witnesses his/her/its death is shaken for 1 rd plus 1 rd/point of success. The target experiences a -2 penalty on all actions and will attempt to avoid combat with the character if possible. If the target is already shaken due to witnessing a hideous death in this engagement by this character, they move from shaken to terrified, and will immediately attempt to flee the battle.

If this action is being used on an enemy the character did not kill, apply a -2 penalty to the skill check.

The GM may choose to allow the player to describe the type of hideous death for an attempt at a bonus on the skill check. This is strongly advised! Note that failure to successfully terrify the target merely makes the PC look like a bloodthirsty maniac (charisma damage).

Infernal Essence

Type: Ability

Level: 1

Cost: None

Skill check: Wisdom (Use) vs. DC 20

Effect: The PC conjures an infernal essence to enhance their weapon or armour, giving a +1 to maximum damage or damage reduction for 1 min + 1 min/pt of success (maximum=character level). This is an infernal effect, so can be dispelled by demon-binding or abjuration effects, but not by magic-dispelling effects. It is usually visible as a faint glow and/or feeling of discomfort or unpleasantness surrounding the PC.

Higher-level versions of this effect are possible, and give an effect equal to the level of the action.

A while back I introduced a simple skill-based d20 system, with 12 skills and 24 “disciplines” all connected to 6 attributes. If you have training in a discipline connected to an attribute, you use the primary skill based on that attribute; otherwise you use the secondary skill. On a first pass, primary skills increase at 2 ranks per character level and secondary skills at 1. There are some additional points to scatter through the skills to make for a little diversity (beyond that obtained from discipline selection) and some discussion still to be had about how fast skills accrue and what they start at. The four disciplines are offense, defense, use, and state. The last indicates the amount of damage you can sustain on a given attribute; the use discipline indicates proficiency in applying that attribute to all ordinary tasks, and the first two should be obvious. As a PC accrues damage against an attribute, that damage applies a penalty to that attribute and all those below it on an ordered list.

Under this system “hit points” are handled by the Constitution (State) discipline; if you have trained in this discipline you have your primary constitution skill bonus as your wound level; otherwise your secondary skill. There are various types of attack for each physical attribute; Charisma (Offense) indicates intimidation, and the remaining two mental skills’ offense disciplines are for use with magic.

As ever with this reconfigured D&D system (and the earlier versions I have introduced here), the issue comes with handling magic and combat. Having played a little warhammer 3 now, and also some Double Cross 3, I am really enamoured of the concept of actions (effects in Double Cross 3). They seem to fit very well with this revised version of the d20 system, and I think they can amalgamate unusual combat moves and magic into one system. This post is intended as a brief outline of how.

A skill check is a basic game mechanic to determine if something a PC does is successful. Out of combat or any challenge against another NPC/PC, skill checks are resolved according to the basic skill vs. Difficulty Class (DC) rule. However, in combat a PC’s actions are restricted to the range of available Actions he or she has learnt. An Action is an activity challenged against another PC or NPC, or performed in combat, with an outcome positively affecting the PC or their ally, or negatively affecting a foe. It is characterised by an effect and a cost (which may be 0), with the cost typically measured as damage against an attribute. Every discipline has associated with it a basic action that has 0 cost and can be enacted every round. PCs can typically use one offense or use action in a round. Defense actions are typically passive, and determined by the attacking PC/NPC, but there may be active actions the PC can also use.

Spells are simply Actions based on the offense or use discipline associated with the Intelligence or Wisdom (or maybe Charisma) attribute. They are enacted as actions in the combat round, carry a potential cost (if the caster fails their skill check) and have an effect which may include damage, and various status effects. This makes them no different to physical actions. However, because the cost of physical actions also affects mental attributes, non-magical physical effects will have a slightly lower level or cost for the same effect. But some effects will be rarer with physical (non-spell) actions, and combinations of effects almost impossible.

In my next post I’ll give a few examples of spells from my Compromise and Conceit game, converted into actions for this system.

A final note

I think this is largely irrelevant because actually Warhammer 3 seems ideally suited to Compromise and Conceit. So I may try converting a few of the same spells into Warhammer 3 Action Cards to see how they work.

In this post I will use some basic probability theory to show that, in essence, the Warhammer 2nd edition combat system is not deadly, as I think is often claimed, but is actually really slow and boring, and inherently survivable.

This assumption of deadliness arises, I think, from the fact that PCs at low levels are poor at doing anything, and the assumption is that if you’re bad at stuff then you’ll die quickly doing that stuff if it’s also dangerous stuff. I think this assumption also lies beneath claims that early D&D was deadly, an assumption which I don’t test here (due to lack of familiarity with early D&D rules) but which is probably somewhat better placed than any assumptions about Warhammer’s relative riskiness.

I came to this comparison because on Friday and Sunday last week I role-played respectively in Pathfinder and Warhammer 2nd edition, and I was struck in both instances by the length and inevitable dreariness of the combat, and by the fact that both combats had to be ended by a non-combat act of the GM’s. This post, about the probability of survival in each of three systems, will serve to show how this comes about and also I think reveals some obvious conclusions about tactical combat rules in role-playing. I aim to expand on this post in future with a proper simulation and statistical analysis, complete with survival curves, but that will take a bit of time.

Introduction

The probability of surviving a single round, and the cumulative probability of surviving multiple rounds, are calculated here based on the underlying combat mechanic of three systems – Warhammer 2nd edition, D&D 3.5, and my own Compromise and Conceit modifications of the d20 system. All three are compared with a putative “control” system in which the mechanics are not specified, but are assumed to result in a 50% probability of a hit in any given round, and death after 3 successful hits. The chief conclusion for each system is the number of rounds required to fight before reaching a 50% chance of death, referred to hereafter as the “median survival time,” though strictly speaking this is not a median survival time. In practice of course time to death varies according to the good or bad luck of the player, and how much they lie about their rolls to the GM, so survival time should here be assumed to be roughly representative of a long-run probability. The methods presented here also use various simplifications and approximations, specifically ignoring the role of criticals, fate points, and the death spiral in the Compromise and Conceit system, which makes the order of hits important for survivability.

In all cases, the survival probability is calculated for a fighter-type PC attacking an NPC with exactly the same skills as themselves.

The fundamental mechanics assumed are set out below. The fundamental problem with Warhammer can be seen to derive from the number of defensive manoeuvres available to a fighter in a standard combat round. Once a successful hit has been scored, the defender can then roll a defensive roll using their own combat skill, and then (if a fighter-type character) can roll a damage reduction check against their constitution. For a typical fighter we will see that this reduces a fighter’s successful hit chance to just 15%, and in a series of binomial trials requiring 3 successes, this can significantly extend the run of rolls required.

Method

For each system, a typical build of first level fighter was generated, using average statistics that might be expected for such a system, and pitted against exactly the same fighter character. No special feats were assumed in D&D or Compromise and Conceit (C&C), and the special feat of “Damage Reduction” was assumed for the Warhammer fighter (though as we shall see, it is not an enormously important feat). Other assumptions are outlined in detail below.

The combat method for each of the systems was summarised as a single probability of successfully scoring damage against an opponent. Damage was assumed to be the average for the type of character, and the number of hits required to kill the PC for the given average damage was used as the number of hits required before the PC or their opponent was killed. In each round, the cumulative probability of death was calculated as the probability that the given number of hits occur by that round, which is practically given as 1-P(less than that number of hits occurred). Formally, given a requirement of x hits to achieve death, the probability that a character survived to round k is the probability that they have received at most x-1 hits in k trials. The adjusted probability is the probability that they have survived to round k, or that they killed their opponent in round k-1. This probability in turn is given as the probability that they survived to round k-1 and they delivered 3 or more hits by round k-1.

This problem reduces to a simple binomial distribution for a given probability of a hit. Note that inclusion of critical hits, special moves, fate points, or death spiral effects renders this calculation completely different, and will be handled subsequently in a simulation.

Assumptions for each system are set out below.

Warhammer

A fighter-type character (for example, mercenary or watchman) is assumed to have rolled an average attack and constitution value on 2d10, giving values of 30 in each. The character is further assumed to have added 5 to the attack score, giving a value of 35. The chance of a successful attack is thus 35%, the chance of a successful defence is also 35%, and the chance of a successful damage reduction is 30%. The character is assumed to absorb 3 points of damage (30/10), and does 1d10+3 damage, and so final average damage is the average damage on a d10, or 5.5. The character is assumed to have 13 hit points, and be wearing leather armour (AP 1), so overall average damage is 4.5. Probability of doing any damage in one round is given as the Probability of a successful attack AND a failed defense AND a failed damage reduction. Since the opponent is exactly the same, this gives us the following results vis a vis the PC:

• Chance of being damaged by the opponent in one round=0.16
• Number of hits required to die: 3

D&D3.5

The D&D fighter is assumed to have a +2 strength bonus, BAB of 1, and weapon focus, for a total attack bonus of 4. Armour is chain with a shield, +2 dexterity bonus, and +1 dodge bonus, for a total AC of 19. The fighter is assumed to have maximum hit points, the Toughness feat and a +1 constitution bonus, giving 14 HP. Damage is from a longsword with +2 strength bonus, giving average damage of 6.5, so 3 hits are assumed to be required to kill the fighter. No other feats are assumed. This means that the chance of a successful hit is 25%, because the PC needs to roll over 15 on a d20, giving a 25% chance of success. This gives the following results:

• Chance of being damaged by the opponent in one round=0.25
• Number of hits required to die: 3

Compromise and Conceit

The Compromise and Conceit (C&C) fighter is assumed to have 4 ranks in attack, with a +3 strength bonus, and 4 ranks in defense, with a +3 agility bonus. The fighter is assumed to be wearing armour with Damage Reduction 3, and to have a maximum damage of 5 wounds. The fighter is also assumed to have 4 ranks in fortitude, with a total of 7 wounds. When fighting against himself, this means the fighter would need to roll a 10 to hit, but a 14 to do damage. Calculating average damage is tricky because the probability distribution is truncated between 1 and 5 with uneven probabilities, so for now we assume it is weighted towards the lower boundary of the damage distribution (due to the nature of the 2d10 roll), so assign an average damage of 2. Recall that this system uses a 2d10 attack roll, so we have a final result of:

• Probability of successfully doing damage = 0.34
• 4 hits required to kill the PC

Control system

This system assumes a 50% chance of doing damage, and 3 hits required to kill.

With these results we construct the probability distributions.

Results

The median unadjusted survival time for each system is:

• Warhammer: 17 rounds
• D&D: 11 rounds
• C&C: 11 rounds
• Control: 5 rounds

Figure 1 shows the unadjusted survival times (D&D has been misnamed AD&D).

• Warhammer: 23 rounds
• D&D: 15 rounds
• C&C: 14 rounds
• Control: 7 rounds

and the probability curves are plotted in figure 2.

Recall that these are not true survival curves, but simply cumulative probability distributions.

Conclusion

It actually takes a long time to die in Warhammer, with a concomitant number of die rolls. At the unadjusted median survival time, if the player wins, he or she will have rolled 17 attack rolls and 3 damage rolls (on average); he or she will also have suffered an average of 6 attacks that required defensive rolls, giving a total number of defensive rolls of between 6 and 12, for a total of 26 – 32 rolls. The D&D player will have rolled 11 attacks and 3 damage rolls, for a total of 14 rolls. The C&C player will have rolled just the 11 attack rolls, and the control player will have rolled 5 attacks and 3 damage rolls for a total of 8 rolls.

It’s worth noting that, fiddling with the underlying parameters of the game assumptions for warhammer shows that damage reduction is a significant factor in the slowness – losing this feat increases the base hit chance to 23%, similar to D&D. However, the relative ability scores of the enemy are not that important. If the enemy has only a defense score of 15, half that of the PC, hit probability increases to 20% and the survival time drops (for the person with the higher skills) to 13 rounds, only shaving off 4 rounds. Also, if both fighters have an attack ability of 55%, the overall chance to hit remains roughly similar, at 17%, so gaining levels doesn’t significantly speed up combat.

Even if we assume that the warhammer system represents reality in its long drawn-out slugfests, we have to ask if this is a system that we want to actually play – fights this long are very boring. Also we note that a player has fate points to spend, and that in the “low power” world of warhammer these are one of the player’s main advantages over NPCs. But the average player will have 3 fate points, which can be used to reroll a single roll. Given they have to roll 26 – 32 times to win, it seems that these fate points aren’t going to make a significant difference to the battle’s progress. Also, unlike in D&D and C&C, the absence of other powers and magic means that the player has little else to do in combat but roll to hit, making these 26 rolls considerably less interesting than in other systems.

We also can note that there is no particular reason for a given number of rolls to be made for one attack. Combat systems abstract combat, so we could in essence reduce combat for the Warhammer case to a single roll against a 15% hit chance, and have the same result as described here, at the cost of 6-12 rolls less. Players want a certain amount of argy-bargy in combat, but I think most people would argue (and I think certainly the people I’ve played Warhammer with have agreed) that a little less argy bargy and a bit more fun could be had from a different system.

In a subsequent post, I will consider a full simulation for a set of sample fights, include criticals and death spirals, and give a statistical analysis.

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