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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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).

Figure 1: Unadjusted survival times

The adjusted times were:

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

and the probability curves are plotted in figure 2.

Figure 2: Adjusted survival curves

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


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.

Having promised it in comments, here is my attempt to put forward a very simple, balanced, and pretty much entirely skill-based d20 system. In keeping with previous entries on this topic, it aims to:

  • amalgamate combat, magic and skills under a single compatible skill-based framework
  • get rid of saving throws
  • make armour a damage reduction system

After 20 or so sessions testing my previous attempt at this system, and after playing Exalted, the main things this iteration aims to add are

  • a unified system of damage which extends the wounds and fatigue framework from the previous version and makes it more flexible and useful, including for social attacks a la Exalted
  • a balancing of primary and secondary skills, so that there is never a risk that, like Anna Labrousse, your primary attack is +21 but you have defenses as low as +2

So here’s how it works.

Ability scores

We have the same standard 6 ability scores, ordered in this way: Constitution, Strength, Intelligence, wisdom, Dexterity, Charisma. The ability scores are represented as bonusses only, with a standard human considered to be +0 in everything, heroes having a total distributed bonus of +2. There are no ability scores per se. It will become apparent that we could do away with ability scores altogether, but for historical and aesthetic reasons we won’t.


We have 6 primary skills, one for each ability, and 6 secondary skills, one for each ability. So each PC has a Constitution (Primary) and a Constitution(Secondary) skill which, as in d20, have a total adjustment calculated as ranks+ability score+magic.

For starters, assume that every primary skill increases by 1 rank per level, and every secondary skill by 1 rank every 2 levels. We could then have points to distribute across both, but that’s just window dressing for diversity. Assume for now 1 point per 3 levels to distribute across primary skills and 1 per 4 levels for secondary skills; assume a maximum rank of lvl+2 for primary and lvl/2+1 for secondary skills.

For example, a 12th level character will have 12 ranks in every primary skill, and 6 in every secondary. They then have an additional 4 points to distribute on primaries and 3 on secondaries; let’s assume 2 primary skills are maxed at rank 14, and there are 3 secondary skills at rank 7. Obviously this is just accounting and can be fiddled for balance.


Each ability has four disciplines, which are: offense, defense, use, state. At first level, a PC starts with four disciplines across all abilities, and can spend feats at later levels to purchase more. If a PC possesses a discipline, then all actions covered by it are resolved using a primary skill for the corresponding ability; otherwise use secondary. So for example, a fighter has offense and defense in strength. When attacking with a melee weapon the fighter uses their primary strength skill; but without offense in dexterity, this fighter will use dexterity secondary skill to attack with missile weapons. Some classic discipline distributions at first level might be

  • Fighter: strength offense, defense; constitution state; charisma state
  • Wizard: intelligence offense, state, use: dexterity defense

Some disciplines will have requirements for their use. Strength defense will require the PC have medium/heavy armour and a shield; constitution defense will require heavy armour and a medium/heavy weapon and/or shield. The disciplines also come with proficiencies, so dexterity offense comes with a proficiency in a single missile weapon of they player’s choice.

The state discipline determines which skill (primary or secondary) is used to determine the maximum wounds a character can take against the corresponding ability before suffering a corresponding penalty. So a fighter with constitution state discipline takes a maximum number of wounds equal to their primary skill in constitution.


Wounds incurred against an ability apply a penalty to all skills for abilities at or below the given ability in the order given above. So constitution wounds apply  a penalty to all skills for all abilities; dexterity wounds only apply to dexterity and charisma-related skills. When the number of wounds a PC has taken equal the total of their state score, they suffer a specific state: dying for constitution, unconscious for strength, confusion for intelligence, rage for wisdom, knocked down for dexterity, and, well I’m not sure for charisma but for the moment let’s call it susceptible.

We can construe most standard penalties as wounds. Armour penalties are dexterity wounds. You can’t wear armour that applies a penalty greater than your dexterity state skill will allow, and wearing armour applies a penalty to all charisma-based skills as well, i.e. to all social interactions. It’s hard to pull chicks in full plate. Feeblemind can be construed as intelligence wounds, which means that wisdom-, dexterity-, and charisma-based skills also suffer. It’s hard to do anything requiring judgement, fine motor skills or charming people if you’ve been rendered dumber than you’re used to being.

Charisma wounds are slightly special. If you have charisma wounds they obviously make it hard to resist charm and intimidation-type effects, but they can also be construed as applying a penalty or bonus (depending on the situation) to combat checks against the people who caused the wounds – this is an effect of fear. Also, constitution-based wounds could be considered as wounds against charisma when the person who caused the constitution-based wounds attempts to intimidate the injured party. Once a person has sustained their total in charisma wounds, they’re considered to be unable to act against the person who caused the wounds, and susceptible to further suggestion/intimidation from others. I’m not sure how this would work in practice, but possibly it would mean they can’t apply special social powers to defend against intimidation/charm attempts, and can only take 10 on defensive attempts. Constitution and strength wounds should be seen as bonuses rather than penalties in defenses against non-intimidation checks by the person who inflicted them,

Consequences of this are:

  • Bashing someone helps you to intimidate them but if you subsequently try to bluff or persuade them, the amount of damage you did will be added to their defensive skill check against you
  • Talking to someone before battle in a way that is intended to question their allegiance or scare them (through intimidation) will do charisma-based wounds that are then incurred as a penalty in battle – propaganda, intimidatory displays, and reputation can all work in this way
  • Trying to use diplomacy when you’re pissing blood from multiple wounds generally won’t work, because they give a penalty (but in some circumstances the wound total could be construed as a bonus)
  • Spells like confusion can be partially successful, and there’s a natural mechanic for determining the effects of casting multiple partially successful charm, confusion or fear spells.


All saves are handled by the appropriate defense discipline for the appropriate attribute, based on the situation. So dodging falling rubble is a dexterity defense, resisting a bard’s attempts to get you to kill yourself is a charisma defense, and so on.

Skill resolution

Ordinary skill-based tasks use the appropriate primary or secondary skill corresponding to an ability’s use discipline (so swimming is strength use, etc.) Target DCs can be determined based on how you want performance to work, so for example if you want a 1st level character to do an easy task 50% of the time and a 5th level character to do a medium task 50% of the time, the appropriate DCs are probably 15 and 20 respectively. These DCs (and the skill points per level, too) can be adjusted for low/high skill or heroic campaigns.


Spells are cast using the appropriate use discipline against a DC determined by the spell level, and attacks are resolved using the appropriate offense vs defense challenges, with the outcome determining the number of wounds applied. Spells can have various maximums, with a recommended maximum being caster level. A spell like charm person will be assumed not to work if it does less damage than the target’s charisma state; perhaps a spell can have a higher DC in order to bypass the wound mechanic and give a guaranteed effect. So save vs. death is just a higher-level version of inflict wounds. A caster can know that partial success with charm person repeated multiple times will charm their opponent, and the partial success will reduce their effectiveness.

Spell resolution can be sped up by combining use and attack rolls. In either resolution method (1 or 2 die rolls), failure to beat the DC leads to a single wound incurred against the chosen state discipline, which then applies a penalty to all subsequent spell use (and attributes lower in the attribute order). Failure to beat the target (DC-lvl) leads to spell failure plus a wound.

Different magic domains may have different required disciplines, so bardic magic uses charisma, cleric magic uses wisdom, and so on. A cleric who casts too many spells becomes enraged (my god has left me), a wizard becomes confused (my brain has fried) and a bard becomes an antisocial jerk, easily frightened, intimidated or seduced (i have exhausted my charms).

See the section below for taking 10 on defense.


Combat is a challenged skill check, offense discipline vs. defense, with the difference between the rolls, minus damage reduction from armour, determining the amount of wounds of damage done by the attacker. This damage will have a maximum determined by the weapon, probably capping at about 5 for a 2-handed sword. If the difference is zero or negative the armour is assumed to have absorbed all damage but the target takes a single strength wound.

To speed up combat (and spell-casting if necessary) the defender can be assumed to be only able to take 10 if they also want to attack, so the attacker rolls vs. a DC equal to 10 plus the defender’s appropriate defense skill. The dodge feat will enable the defender to roll for this DC at the beginning of the round, and choose the maximum of 10 or the dice roll. This mechanism can be applied to magic too.

Social combat example

Consider the case of a noted cleric trying to convince the local guardsmen not to attack a witch. The cleric rolls her charisma offense against their defense, and the difference is damage against their state. Failure could, under some circumstances (such as in a debate) be construed as damage to the cleric’s state, representing being swayed to their point of view. Let us further suppose they’re in a wagon going to the witch’s house, and the journey takes 30 minutes. Each persuasion attempt takes 10 minutes, so the cleric has 3 attempts to do enough damage to the guards to render them susceptible. Once susceptible, they can be assumed to do what she wants within reason (reason being determined by the context, the nature of the arguments the player decides the cleric uses, etc.) Critical success could represent a change of worldview by the guards, or some additional outcome (they guard the witch against her true enemy, etc.). Suppose by the time they reach the witch’s house the cleric has been unsuccessful, but has damaged them all with 3 charisma wounds. At the house, the cleric’s companions lie in ambush. When the guards begin to break down the door they attack, and because the guards have taken 3 charisma wounds these are applied as a penalty on the guards’ actions – they’re no longer committed to their task. Let us suppose that the guards all have charisma state values of 5. As soon as any guard takes 2 wounds, fatal or non-fatal, we will assume that these wounds stack with the charisma wounds, and the GM can choose either a) they flee the battle or b) they will stand down as soon as the cleric tells them to (but the cleric has to notice and choose to do so).

That’s the whole system in a nutshell.

I don’t know the history or provenance of the Old School Renaissance movement, though it seems from the recent rash of “two years old today” posts to be about 2 years old. No-one in that part of the blogosphere is writing their own history, because they’re too busy writing hagiographies of Gygax et al, but while they may not be too interested in talking about how their movement started they do seem to be very fond of developing their own systems, essentially versions of their preferred flavour of original D&D. This is a pretty interesting project, not least because it’s hard to see how you can have versions of such a simple game – but they’re a creative bunch and I’m sure they can find ways.

This development process presents an interesting phenomenon, as does the renaissance approach to D&D generally. Compared to modern games D&D is very stripped back, and the people playing it in the OSR have gone back to it because they think of this as a good thing. They’re all big on house ruling too, and when they started this OSR process they seemed to have a few common views about a few aspects of the game, particularly to do with skills. The OSR generally rejected skill systems, there was a lot of objection to the thief class and the trend towards “role protection” that it started, and a general belief that all the mechanics of the thief class – picking pockets, disabling traps, finding secret doors, climbing walls, opening locks – should be handled by GM/player interaction. There’s still a lot of talk on OSR blogs about how crap skill systems are and how they should be avoided.

My view of the skill system issue is that skill systems are an essential part of a good role-playing system, and a really important part of making the game flexible and enjoyable for everyone. Sure, if you’re a mechanically-inclined or educated person who is good at arguing with the GM and imagining technical details on the spot then you can do this type of interaction, but in general players aren’t expected to know about the thing their PC is doing.  It’s worth noting too that the players don’t have to be ignorant of these things to fail continuously in game – it just requires the GM to be ignorant. I could, for example, run a game in a modern military setting, with all combat mechanics handled through GM-player interaction, and even if my players were soldiers the game would be a disaster because I would be required to pass rulings on something I know nothing about. That’s why skill systems were invented. Recently, I read an OSR blogger referring to this process as “ask mother” gaming, and it’s true – rulings not rules is a nice idea in theory, but in practice it just leads to a bunch of crap decisions by some guy who knows no more about anything than you do, which given the nature of most gaming groups leads to a lot of arguing and not much fun.

Original D&D had a skill system, of course, but the OSR don’t want to admit it (actually, a few of them do, like at Robertson Games). Combat is clearly a skill system, but outside of this there was the skill of find secret doors, find traps, etc. This can be presented as an act of DM fiat – you roll a 1 on a d6 and you find the door – but in reality it’s just a 6 rank skill system, with racially-based differences in starting rank (e.g. for Dwarves) and no improvements. i.e. it’s an arbitrary and naff skill system, which had the designers any precedents for thinking about, they would have extended to 2d6, applied to a wider range of skills, allowed attribute bonusses on, and given ranks in. They didn’t because D&D being the original game was arbitrary and naff, and needed a lot of exposure to players and their incessant, unreasonable demands before it could become good. It’s worth noting too that a task resolution system based on “GM sets a percentage chance of success, adjusted for how you approach the problem and your class” is a skill system of sorts, with heavy flavours of arbitrarity and stunting. So in  subsequent years, game designers (including TSR) developed new and better skill systems to encompass all the things they discovered their players wanted to do, and GMs didn’t want to adjudicate on. My contention is that this is a natural development in the game, in which the rule systems were modified to do what the vast majority of players want them to do; it’s inevitable and good .

If my theory about the development of the game is correct, open-minded people playing the original games will begin at some point to house rule in proper skill systems as a natural development of the game. So here’s the natural experiment: how long do people have to play Old School D&D for before they run into all these problems, and start developing a functional skill system, superior to the original, which handles all the things they’ve realised players want to do and GMs are uncomfortable adjudicating on?

Turns out, based on recent reading in the OSR, that it’s about two years.

This being a report of the actual adventure I participated in at Konkon April 2010, Oita, Japan.

We were playing 3 4th level PCs developed only from the basic Pathfinder rule book:

  • Philip Blackstone (“Firippu Burakusutonu,” a 4th level Dwarven Fighter), played by me
  • Machiruba, a 4th level Human Cleric, played by Furudera san
  • Kelp (“Kerupu”), a 4th level Human Rogue, played by Ichinose san

All feats and skills were pretty standard. We used the 24-dice pool method for rolling up stats, so that the characters were pretty hard-arsed. Philip Blackstone, for example, was STR 18, CON 20, DEX 17, WIS 18, INT 12, CHA 10; which for a Dwarven fighter is pretty good going. We also had a 4th level Human Sorcerer NPC, called Kama (after her weapon), as backup. She can be see, with the Dungeon Master, Shiga san, in this photo:

Black sickles in the sunset...

The four characters turned up at an unnamed village in the morning of an early spring day, just at the change of the seasons. The village was nestled in the foothills of a Mountain range, and the hills were still coated in snow and ice but the paddocks of the village were expected to be free of ice by this time, and ready for planting. Unfortunately, the villagers had been waking every morning to find their fields frozen over right up to the snowline of the foothills. A ranger living in the mountains had tales of a family of white dragons living higher up, and the villagers thought that perhaps the dragons were freezing over their fields. So they asked the party to intervene to drive away the Dragons. Being only 4th level, we of course agreed.

However, first, we wanted to make sure we maximised our income in the negotiations over payment, so Kelp sneaked into the village storehouse and had a good look around for any valuable items we might be able to bargain for. He found a collection of golden statues, and so in our negotiations the following day Machiruba was quick to mention these and demand additional payment. When the village headman wavered over the fee she was demanding (4 times usual), Philip Blackstone conveniently charged in, fresh from his once a year bath, wearing only a loincloth and dripping filthy water from his beard over his heavily tattooed chest, and pointed out to all and sundry that disturbing a Dwarf’s annual bath is not a good plan. The village headman folded and offered us 4 times the usual fee.

So, we hatched a plan. We assumed the fields were being frozen by a dragon, and decided for our first trick to draw some massive Hill Giant footprints in the fields, and to place evidence of a Hill Giant camp, because Hill Giants are likely to live in the area and a family of Hill Giants might be sufficient threat to dissuade a white dragon from pointless harassment of a “poor” village (although did it know about those golden statues…?) So this we did, and remarkably successfully (Kelp proved to be very good at hattari, or trickery). So then we settled into a good hiding place, some distance from the site of the frozen fields, to watch.

Evening came, and what should we see but … a Frost Giant (“Furosto Jianto”) wandering down from the hills, leading a medium-sized white dragon (“huwaito doragon”) on a leash, and forcing it to freeze a pathway down to the paddock with its breath. The Frost Giant and its enslaved Dragon froze a good stretch of the villagers’ farms all the way back to the hills, and then when it had finished beating the dragon into this task, turned and waved its massive arm in the direction of the mountain. There in the distance, two other Frost Giants waved in return, and leapt onto the slopes. From the far distance they came sliding down the icy path the dragon had made, swishing and swooshing all the way to the bottom on their huge icy slide.

The characters realised then – this was like that moment in Street Fighter 2, when the evil genius points out to his captive that the day he destroyed her village and changed her life was for him just Tuesday. These Frost Giants were slowly destroying the village’s livelihood and screwing their hopes for the future – so they could build a giant slippery dip! The gods (and their 22′ tall white-skinned relatives) are truly capricious!

So the Frost Giant got a very good opportunity to view the footprints the party had laid with the intention of fooling a dragon from the air, and dismissed them as a cheap trick. Then they wandered back to the top of the mountain, and slid down again. Plan A, foiled. On to plan B…

In the morning the characters wandered up the hill with 8 doughty villagers, and found a suitable bend in the ice slide. Suitable in the sense that they expected the Giants to be sliding very fast, so that a well-disguised hole filled with spikes would do a good job of turning them into Giant sukiyaki. They set about digging a big hole. Unfortunately, they were halfway through when (surprise!) everything collapsed and one of the men found himself sliding into a 30′ deep pit! He caught himself on the edge and we dragged him out, then sent Kelp the Rogue in to investigate. The hole clearly opened into some kind of lair. Unfortunately, Kelp went a bit too far, and this happened:

Often, Rogues don't pay attention in Dungeoneering 101 classes

That’s right, Bugbears (“Bugbea”). Two of them, reducing Kelp to 1 hit point in very short order. Philip Blackstone was just preparing to hurl himself Thunderstone first into the pit but Kelp managed to flee up the rope into the hole, with the Bugbears following much more slowly. This was bad news for the bugbears, since hanging from a rope is not a good place to be. While Machiruba healed Kelp, Philip threw a throwing axe, and then when the Bugbears reached the top Kama cast Grease (“gurisu”), which was remarkably effective at putting both bugbears on their arses. Which is never a good place to be when there’s an irate Dwarf with a warhammer standing next to you. Chalk that up as 1 point closer to genocide for the Dwarven race (we kept one alive for interrogation).

Initially the characters thought they could leave the bugbear lair to complete the trap for our unwary Frost Giants, but upon interrogating their captive bugbear they discovered that actually the white dragon they saw the night before was being held prisoner in the bugbear lair; and that furthermore there was a large-sized dragon being kept there too. The Frost Giants were planning to use the large dragon to maintain their region of the mountains in the grip of ice and snow well into summer, so that they would not have to move. So, it was decided that the best way to solve the problem would be to set the trap, but prepare the dragons to help the group.

So, once more into the hole… after a little more exploring the characters found the medium dragon. A little negotiation with its bugbear guards and some suitable persuasion (violent and monetary) encouraged them to look the other way while the characters spoke to this dragon, which agreed to help the characters. It also agreed to provide information to the larger Dragon, when they briefly met while their cages were being swapped. In the evening, the medium white dragon would be removed from its cage and the larger one stuffed in. The characters’ plan was for the dragon to free itself when it heard the trap sprung, and come to help them[1].

So, the characters waited in the lair until the trap was sprung and with a massive sound (“doooon!”) the two sliding Frost Giants crashed down the hole into the trap. They were immediately beset with tanglefoot bags and alchemists’ fire, and battle was joined. The photo below shows the initiative sheet for this battle, on which the words “Frost Giant” are just visible, written in katakana. To the rear is a bottle of oolong tea, and the club mascot (“Kappa san”).

Frost Giant slower than Dwarf arrrgh!

The first Frost Giant went down pretty quickly under the combined burden of a lot of different fire sources, but the second was not so quick to die and, before the characters could finish him off the third one appeared at the top of the hole, having perhaps missed his friends. Simultaneously, the large dragon freed itself from its cage and burst into the room. The characters made way for it, slaying the second, injured Frost Giant as they did, and then the third Frost Giant came slamming in, though temporarily slowed by another grease spell. This Giant, completely untroubled by damage from the trap, was going to prove a little problematic. It first took a single strike at Philip, doing a fairly scary amount of damage; but Phillip is a bastard, and ignored it. The dragon lunged in then, but in response the Giant took a full round action and did 100 hps of damage. That’s bad news for a 4th level fighter, even if he is a bastard. At this point everyone was cheering for the 24-dice ability score pool.

Fortunately for everyone but the Frost Giant, Kama had a single scorching ray (“sukochingu rei”) remaining, and after it did a fairly solid amount of fiery pain, Philip lunged in with a critical and a whopping smack to the knee that finished the last giant. A couple of good rolls and the Frost Giant was toast. Victory, once again, for the forces of good (well, actually, Lawful Neutral, aka “chitsujo churitsu,” in Philip’s case). And so to the treasure, as the White Dragons flew away to higher ground, and the assembled players breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Thus ended my first adventure in Japanese Pathfinder.

fn1: Truth be told, there are some salient facts here I think I’m missing due to language difficulties. Or, there’s an implausible part of the adventure.  I don’t know which.

Yesterday I played my first ever role-playing game in Japanese, at the Oita Evil Spirit club Konkon convention. This convention is held every month in a public hall in Oita, which is near my town, and runs from 10am to 6:30pm. As far as I know not many English-speaking Westerners get to experience Japanese role-playing, so I’m posting a report of how the convention ran and what happened.

First I should mention that my Japanese is not that great, so this was a big challenge for me – maintaining conversation in Japanese for 8 hours on any conversational topic is difficult for me, and something as bizarre and abstract as role-playing is another level of challenge entirely. However, the kind chap at Oita Evil Spirt club (Mr. Shiga) who I contacted was good enough to alert me to the possibility of a Pathfinder game being played. Not only does Pathfinder have a Japanese translation on a wiki (which I previously mentioned I was going to start reading), the translation is in many respects a transliteration, so for example all the character names, races and spells are straight transliterations – Protection From Evil is called Purotekshon furomu ewiru, rather than aku no mamori, for example, so it’s a lot easier to come to terms with the language. Also, the online wiki enabled me to prepare some of the language, which was marginally useful. It’s really helpful in Japanese to know the words before you enter a conversation, because it’s not like French or German where you can guess the meaning of words you don’t know. You just can’t do that, in general, in Japanese.

So I came armed with some information of use, and got the organiser’s permission to bail early if my Japanese proved inadequate. So how did it run?

Firstly, there were 14 people, 2 of them women, all of them nerds, and we played in two Japanese style rooms – which have tatami mat floors, no furnishings of any kind, a closet full of cushions, an enclosed verandah with windows looking out on a courtyard, and an alcove for decorations. One enters the room through an antechamber where one takes off one’s shoes, so everyone sits on the floor. There were floor-tables to sit around, and we all started sprawled on the floor. People knew each other, but no-one knew me so we went through the usual range of questions (“Where are you from?” “What are you doing in Beppu?” “Have you played in Japanese before?”) The staff had been warned I was coming, and everyone was (as ever in Japan) very welcoming. The first thing I noticed is that everyone’s Japanese is really really weird, being a combination of the worst possible set of problems an amateur Japanese speaker can face: a) men’s speech; b) regional weirdness; c) nerdy complexity. For example, when one chap asked me how I came to Oita from Beppu, his question was (literally) “by what movement method did you honour us with your presence?” (For those unfamiliar with the strangenesses of Japanese honourable speech, the weird part here is “movement method.”)

There was a half-hour long opening speech, in which the games being run were written on a whiteboard, and the GMs did a brief presentation of the key points of the game, and players got to ask questions (which strangely consisted mostly of “what sort of dice do you use?”) The games being run were:

  • A Japanese-made superhero game whose name I forget (but don’t understand anyway)
  • Warhammer, the older versions of which have a Japanese translation, and which really seems to appeal to Japanese gamers – they introduce it as “a dark fantasy made in England and set in a European world” and everyone seems to like this.
  • Shadowrun! The old version I played as a kid has a Japanese translation!
  • Pathfinder, being run by the staff member who I originally contacted, the honourable Mr. Shiga

Are you satisfied yet?!

The photo to the left shows the next amusing stage of the process – the prepared “anket,”or questionnaire, which comes in 3 pieces. The right-hand side was where you wrote your name and your first and second preference for gaming group (I chose pathfinder, then shadowrun). The middle part is the name of the convention, a QR code so you can access the website on your mobile phone, and the timetable for the day; the left-hand part (pictured, on top of an English version of the pathfinder rules[1]) is a client satisfaction survey for afterwards, which we kept till the end of the day.

These opening speeches, by the way, were conducted in the formal way that one expects of a Japanese circle (a group with a shared interest). So the leader-figures (the “staff”) open the speech with a brief thank you and “please be good to me,” everyone bows and repeats this formula, and then the speech proceeds. It also finishes with a standard phrase like “let’s all enjoy a wonderful time together,” and the language in the middle is very formal, even though the people in the circle know each other well – so stock respect language like “honourable and exalted players,” and “those of you who have seen fit to notice this humble fact,” and other convoluted Japanese honorifics. This manner is not peculiar to nerds or role-playing, so you’ll also see it at soccer circles, kickboxing groups, etc.

So with the formalisms out of the way, the staff took the right-hand portion of our anket and put us into game groups according to our first and second preferences, and we then divided into two rooms, with one group (playing the Japanese-made game) in a different tatami room, and my group and the Shadowrun group in one room. There weren’t enough players with an interest in warhammer, so that was dropped. Poor warhammer!

We then prepared the room for playing, which meant unloading some low tables from the storage space, scattering mats, setting up maps and miniatures and snacks, etc. My group then spent several hours preparing characters for play. It was the first time Shiga had run a pathfinder game, and he wanted to go through character creation with us, which involved discussing character choices. I said I wanted to play something with limited skills, so I didn’t have to learn lots of complex words and language and didn’t have to interact too much with monsters, so everyone agreed I should be the fighter. Unfortunately, this was a bigger challenge than if I had played a skill-focused character like a rogue, because in Pathfinder the fighter basically gets a feat every level, and the feats are not straight transliterations of English, so I had to suddenly understand a whole bunch of new Japanese words and characters. Intimidation, for example, is called iatsu, not a transliteration, and the feat “dazzling display” is called “intimidating performance” (iatsu enbu). Weapon focus, weapon specialisation, cleave, etc. are all given Japanese names, and – just to piss me off more – the rules for cleave are different in pathfinder so I found myself having a rules discussion with the GM within minutes of starting the game. meep. Fortunately we had the English-language text, so if I could check anything I didn’t understand (in fact I did understand this).

So this meant I had to learn a bunch of new words and characters on the spot and write them on my character sheet. This also extended to equipment but not to armour and weapons – a throwing axe is called “suroingu akusu,” a transliteration, and a shortsword is not translated to whatever the Japanese equivalent would be (wakazashi?) Weird, the decisions people make when importing words.

Anyway, so I made a Dwarf fighter, and the photos below show my character sheet and the miniatures for our party – Kerupu the rogue and machiruba the cleric, with kama the sorcerer.

Familiar, yet so different...

gwaaaaaagh! desu.

I finished my character before the others, having no spells to choose, and having chosen very simple equipment, and then I did the next classically Japanese thing – I went out with two other players to buy a bento (lunchbox) and some coffee from starbucks, and came back to eat grilled salmon and rice with my coffee. Bento, coffee, and role-playing – shiawase! (Perfect happiness).

By the time I’d eaten we were ready to start. Below is a picture of my group, from left to right: The honourable and exalted Mr. Shiga, our Gamesmaster; the Honourable and exalted Ms. Furudera, our Cleric; and the Honourable and Exalted Mr. Ichinose, our Rogue; your own ignoble and humble correspondent is behind the camera, which, incidentally, I humbly abase myself for using so poorly – these photos were all taken from my phone.

Three Honourable Nerds

Exactly the same, except for the snacks...

The next photo shows our game table during play, and as can be seen it’s exactly like a western table, but for the snacks, which are, going counter-clockwise: Prawn rice crackers; a packet of wet tissues (these were to the wipe the mat, not to eat, obviously, they’re in the small green packet); semi-spicy potato rings; a convenience-store salad, with chopsticks; and an onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed). At the rear is a milk tea.

So, the game began, and went just exactly like a western game. Some scene-setting, then straight into the adventure (which I’ll report separately). I understood maybe 50% of the language, which was sufficient to get the essential facts and to miss some faint nuance. Sometimes I needed to check things and get my facts straight, because some of the things you hear at a gaming table are really out of left field – for example, the bit about the Frost Giants making a giant icy slippery dip kind of took me by surprise, and I had to get that repeated from a few different angles before I figured it out. I quickly learnt the words I needed to know for skills and the like – intimidation, diplomacy, stealth, attack, etc. The thing about language use is that if it’s not concretely about what is in front of you, it’s really difficult to understand sentences that aren’t really familiar (this is why phone conversations are harder than the equivalent conversation when someone is in front of you). Most of role-playing is in the abstract, not about what you’re pointing at, so new words have to be judged in context, not by the physical object they refer to, so if you don’t understand a certain amount of the language, you don’t get the whole. A lot of this session revolved around the verb “to slide,” which fortunately I knew[2], and as a consequence I was able to pick up other things. Also somehow without ever reading it I had absorbed the word for Giant, so “giant slippery dip” was guessable and I could fill in other blanks. I now know several more useless words than I did before (like “intimidation” and “opportunity attack.”) Given that I understood the context for many of the words (being familiar with the skill system), I wasn’t all at sea with strange new words, and was able to understand the flow of the action and even make suggestions (the fake hill giant footprints were my idea). There was some nuance with freeing the baby white dragon that I didn’t get, but I didn’t lose so much in translation that I couldn’t enjoy it. Also, I killed a giant.

Incidentally, while this was going on the group behind us was playing shadowrun, which involved lots of transliterated phrases as well, like “Former Company Man” and “Street Samurai.” I grew all nostalgic!

At 18:00 our adventure finished successfully, with no-one dead (though Kerupu the rogue came dangerously close). At a fixed time the group regathered, and there was a closing speech. This was more casual than the opening, and involved each DM reporting on their game, how they found it, problems with the system, etc. Players also gave their opinions. Finally, I was asked to report on how role-playing in Japan compared to role-playing in the west, and I was forced to tell them the same thing I tell you, dear reader: It’s exactly the same, but the snacks are different, and you sit on the floor. They also asked me if I would be interested in trying a Japanese-made rather than foreign-made game, to which I said a tentative yes. This made them all very happy, but first I have to get more used to their language and manners, because I looked at the Japanese games and they are radically different. Every single character class is unreadable for me – even the ninja has a weird name – and games seem based entirely on powers, like D&D4e[3] or Exalted, and I have to learn the names of these powers, which are all mystical or weird. Also, one game involves a complex resource-management rule which I couldn’t easily understand. I might try buying one of the books for a read (and more on these later too, I think), but first I need to diversify my vocabulary and get used to the complexities of nerd conversation.

A few final observations about the social milieu. The players seem to be from a lower salary or social class than western gamers, with less IT professionals, and they have quite strict working schedules – mostly 1 day off a week, and only 1 weekend a month where they get 2 days off on the weekend. This means a lot of them only meet or game once a month[4], so on the day that they meet they really go into it with passion. Usually after gaming they go for dinner and then to a games arcade or karaoke, and they were making jokes about how intense and nerdy they must seem to outsiders. They’re also all pretty close, I think, and have a comfortable little friendship group going on. Finally, there seemed to be a higher ratio of women gamers than in the West, and they were very well accepted (there are more, too, who couldn’t come). Also, everyone was thin (of course), and there were no beards, no weird t-shirts with gaudy prints of dragons and big-breasted chicks, no self-important know-it-alls[5], and the usual level of system-discussion and out-of-game movie/cultural discussion as one would expect to see in the West.

So, all in all, the day was a success for the gaming group and for me personally. I have managed to enter a Japanese gaming group and survive a day of gaming, and I may have made some new friends. I’ve also widened my experience of Japanese snacks. If my Japanese continues to improve and I stick at it, I could also have a regular and enjoyable gaming group. Next step, world domination!

fn1: The pathfinder rules are massive! But very pretty, and I think aside from a few power ups, better than D&D

fn2: I knew this verb from statistics, because I studied semi-parametric smoothing, which uses the same character as “to slide” or “to be slippery.”

fn3: One player, Furudera san, told me that she has tried 4e but she thinks that for people who are used to 3.5e, it’s impossible to like. Even the edition wars are universal…

fn4: which had Shige-san, another player, making some hilarious jokes comparing himself to Porco Rosso – a pig’s gotta fly, a guy’s gotta DM.

fn5: there are many forms of social dickhead in Japan, of course, but for some reason the arrogant know-it-all is really rare in any setting.

I’m pretty confident that demi-human level limits, at least in AD&D 1st edition and onwards, never worked effectively to balance demi-human powers because the experience point system was rigged to ensure that multi-classing as a demi-human was massively unbalanced. I am writing this theory out by memory, and I’m aware that it has been done over a bit in other blogs recently, but I can’t find any discussion of the effect of the early incarnations of the xp system on multi-class PCs. I recall when I was playing AD&D back in the day that I became acutely aware of the imbalance in the system pretty quickly, but it hadn’t occurred to me for years since I played it, and I’m going on my memory of the advancement tables in writing this post so I may be completely wrong, but here goes…

Level advancement in AD&D was basically geometric, so for example you needed 2500xp to get to 2nd level, 5000 xp for 3rd, 10000 for 4th, etc. The amounts required doubled each level until about 12th, though there were a few levels in the middle where some classes went up in an arithmetic fashion, the most striking being (from memory) wizards, who between 6th and 9th level didn’t double in required xp. Multi-class characters required twice as many xps to gain a level. The big upshot of this is that a single-class character will, for the majority of the game, be only 1 level higher than the two classes in a multi-class character. For example, you could be a 4th level human fighter for the same amount of experience points as you could be a 3rd/3rd level Dwarven Fighter/cleric. In general, though, the benefits of these levels are essentially additive[1], and the natural assumption most people make is that a a 3rd/3rd level multi-class character is closer to a 6th level single-class than a 4th level single-class.

This means that until about 9th level (roughly when the geometric advancement stops) a multi-class character will be approximately twice as powerful as a single-class character. A triple-class character will be even better – a 5th level single-class fighter would be roughly equivalent to a 4th/4th/3rd level fighter/cleric/thief by dint of this geometric progression. Once the characters reach (about) 9th level this distinction stops, and the multi-class characters go up in levels at the same rate as the single-class characters, so a 15th level fighter would be (roughly) the same as a 12th/12th level fighter/cleric.

Demi-human level limits serve to “balance” the extra powers of demi-humans by stopping them from achieving epic levels. But consider even harsh limits like those on a halfling fighter/cleric (roughly 7th level and 6th level, I recall). The halfling fighter/cleric will reach this limit when a human roughly reaches 8th level. In order for the human to gain a numerically equivalent set of levels they will have to adventure for another 5 levels, i.e. the human remains weaker than the halfling until 13th level. For an elf magic-user/thief with good stats, the elf can probably reach 11th/10th level, so from 12th level until 22nd level a single-class human will be underpowered relative to this elf. Given most campaigns never reach 20th level, but the power imbalance starts at 3rd level and just gets worse until 9th level, this is a pretty blunt and ineffective tool.

I think D&D 3.5 fixed this by making the level progression arithmetic and making multi-classing possible for everyone. This is a much more effective balance on the power of demi-humans than giving them level limits which occur too late to practically affect the most significant problems, and probably never become practically applicable for the majority of parties.

I’d like to add the disclaimer that this post is based on my memory of a game I haven’t looked at in maybe 15 years, so any mistakes in the content should be seen as speculative revision. I recall being really vexed by the simultaneous problem of demi-human level limits on the one hand, and overpowered multi-class characters on the other, and I may be wrong in all the particulars. A lot of beer has flowed under the bridge since my last chaotic neutral magic-user thief freed the prisoners and killed the ogre…

fn1: in terms of THAC0 and hit points it wasn’t, but in exchange you got to start the campaign with spells and combat powers. So a 1st/1st level fighter cleric was basically a cleric with better THAC0 and hit points than a cleric; or a fighter with 1 less hp (on average) and cure light wounds. A 2nd/2nd level fighter cleric has the THAC0 of a 2nd level fighter and but has the spells of a 2nd level cleric. This fighter’s single-class comrade will be a 3rd level fighter, so his/her THAC0 will be one better and he/she will have 1d10+2 more hps on average. At 7th level, this fighter has 7d10 hps (mean 38.5 hps) and a THAC0 of 14, with no spells. The 6th/6th level Dwarf has 6d9 hps (mean 30hps), a THAC0 of 15, and the spells of a 6th level cleric. I’d rather play a character with 8 less hps (on average), 1 higher THAC0, and about 7 spells, as well as undead turning abilities,  personally. There is almost 0 mechanical advantage to any other choice. And I think it’s even worse if you play 3 classes, because the reduction in hps and THAC0 is negligible but you gain all the 3rd classes abilities. The classic would be a cleric/magic-user/thief, so you get double the spells of a mage, and better THAC0 and hps than a single-classed thief with the same xps.

When I first returned to D&D through the 3.5 edition rules, I was quite impressed by the idea of attacks of opportunity, though as a game mechanic they add a lot of work and could perhaps be simplified without difficulty. I particularly liked their use to discourage spell-casting and missile weapon use in melee combat, encouraging the eminently sensible tactic of keeping archers and wizards behind a wall of warriors, and reducing the use of healing magic in the thick of battle. I think they can be used as well to address that old canard of D&D, the uselessness of pole-arms, quarterstaves and great axes. No-one in D&D would ever actually bother specialising in pole-arms as a weapon because they’re heavy, they do less damage than comparable two handed weapons, and yet you still have to forego the use of a shield. Even worse is the quarterstaff, which is weak and requires you forego the shield bonus. Sure, you can set a pole-arm against a charge, but how often do you have to do that?

Over at Middenmurk I found a suggestion for improving the pole-arm based on initiative order, which is nice but I don’t think is sufficient to overcome their deficiencies. This post reminded me of an idea I have toyed with for a while, which can be implemented in pretty much any system (I think), and uses attacks of opportunity to make pole-arms and spears a fearsome weapon, to improve the value of daggers for dexterous fighters, and to make the quarterstaff a useful weapon, particularly for mages. Here is how it works:

  • In any combat where the combatants start at greater than melee range, L-sized puncturing weapons (i.e. pole-arms and spears but not two-handed swords or battle-axes) win initiative, so always strike first, against any other weapon class
  • Any M or S-sized weapon user fighting against an L-sized weapon of any sort[1] incurs an attack of opportunity when they attempt to strike
  • In order to prevent this attack of opportunity from occurring, the user of the smaller weapon has to exchange their attack for a combat manoeuvre roll, which if successful indicates they have closed range sufficiently to be able to attack subsequently without incurring the attack of opportunity. Failure, of course, means that they incur the attack of opportunity as well as losing their own strike
  • Once the user has closed successfully in this way, the pole-arm wielder can reverse the procedure, dropping their own strike and making a combat manoeuvre roll to widen the range again without incurring an attack of opportunity
  • If a person using an S-sized weapon closes successfully against a user of an L-sized weapon using this method, they’re considered to be inside the range of the big weapon, and then the big weapon user incurs an attack of opportunity every round that they attempt to strike the lighter fighter, until they widen the range again[2]
  • A quarterstaff can be used as a pole-arm at range (the Chinese kung-fu-y style of staff fighting) but can also be treated as an M-sized weapon (the Robin-Hood style of fighting) so quarterstaff users get the benefit of the pole-arm without its deficiencies against light weapons
  • Users of S-sized weapons do not gain the attack of opportunity advantage when fighting against Great Axes, but do suffer the attack of opportunity disadvantage when fighting at range against Great Axes
  • All combatants have to make their decision about what they’ll do at the beginning of the round, before initiative is rolled for

The last rule is explicitly to benefit wizards. If you’re a fighter up against a wizard with a staff, you have a choice – you can opt to drop your attack and close range to dispense with subsequent attacks of opportunity from the wizard, but this means that the wizard gets to cast a spell without incurring an attack of opportunity from the fighter; but if you worry about this possibility and choose instead to strike from range, the wizard will get an attack of opportunity. Not particularly threatening, unless the staff has a paralysis effect built in…

Also, this rule is intended to explicitly encourage the use of tumbling and daggers by rangers and thieves, and to make this dexterous style of fighting more interesting. It also means that a thief with a weak weapon can still be dangerous if they have a good tumble skill, since they can close on a fighter with a big weapon and gain attacks of opportunity until the fighter is out of range again. Ultimately they’ll still lose the fight but by pressing the fighter in this way they stay alive longer, enabling another party member to use a wider array of spells and/or missile weapons. You could even allow for the use of feats to extend the sneak attack to this situation, making the in-close thief a really nasty combatant[3].

Also, I would rule that widening the range from a light-weapon fighter involves moving backwards, and can’t be done if there is no backward distance to move. So if fighter engages thief, thief closes in, fighter widens range but backs up to a wall, and then thief closes in again, it’s slice-and-dice time for the fighter[4].

Just as Middenmurk draws on his experience of mediaeval reenactment fighting to construct the initiative rule he proposes, I am drawing here on my experience of knife-fighting and staff martial arts. Once a knife-fighter is inside a longer weapon’s range, the longer weapon becomes a significant hindrance to the user; but closing on a staff with a shorter weapon is all but impossible unless you are very agile.

Attacks of opportunity don’t have to be a significant hindrance to game flow either if, instead of making them an extra roll, you represent them as a bonus on a single combat roll. So everyone declares their actions at the beginning of the round, and anyone who gained an attack of opportunity from someone else gets a +2 on their roll against that person (or grants a +2 on the roll of anyone who is attacking that person). I don’t think this rule is necessary but it can help to reduce the number of rolls in combat, always a good thing. Also, feats can be expended to increase the bonus, which would again benefit thieves and monks.

fn1: you could restrict this to “pole-arms”

fn2: you could extend this to S-sized versus M-sized weapons

fn3: this could be a useful way of making the monk’s unarmed combat nasty

fn4: or, for an unarmed person against this fighter, the unarmed person has grabbed the fighter’s head and is bashing it against the wall

I posted this initially as a comment over at Zak’s blog, but thought I’d put it here too.

There is a common view, I think, amongst role-players of all stripes, that later and newer editions of role-playing games encourage more “story-based” gaming than older ones, or that people who prefer to play later edition games are more likely to be “story-based” gamers. I don’t think that this is a result of system changes encouraging the development of story-based gaming, but a lot of people believe it is due to a kind of gamers’ version of the anthropic principle. When the game started it drew from wargaming, and story wasn’t a big part of it. As it developed over the following 10 years, particularly with the magazine-based theorising (in Dungeon, etc.) story-based gaming became more common. At the same time the systems developed, new ones were released, and obviously products were also released to cater to the wider range of gaming styles available. I think that this diversification, and particularly the interest in story-based gaming and character development, came with the increased maturity of the systems, and the development of the teenage audience into young adults looking for more meaningful social interactions than could be provided by gaming in which each player had 5 or 6 characters that died rapidly (again, I recommend this book as an insight into how the early games were played).

So, when the OSR decided to turn their backs on the later editions, they associated them with this “story” problem. But really the two developed side-by-side. I was doing story-based games with AD&D 1st edition in the 80s, and my reasons for switching to Rolemaster had nothing to do with story – neither did my reasons for switching back to D&D3.5 in the early noughties. I’m pretty confident I’m not unusual in this development process, I’m pretty confident as well that most people who switched away from AD&D 2nd edition did so because it was pretty complex, and more interesting (but often less playable) systems were coming out at that time. We grew up with the game and we diversified with the game.

Similarly this idea that OD&D is associated with regular PC death is also representative of the style of play at the time, not the system. Back when it was a wargaming spinoff, death was all the rage (e.g. the 5 or 6 PCs at a time phenomenon). As the gameplay styles diversified, DMs learnt to balance adventures to match the frequency of death they thought players would bear. It’s perfectly easy to play a D&D3.5 adventure and kill your PCs by the minute. But again, when the OSR decided to return to their 80s roots, they also returned (partially) to that wargaming style, and they associate (probably in some cases blame) the other styles with later game editions – not with, as is probably more likely, the maturation and diversification of a gaming crowd that was largely teenage when the hobby first developed.

Also I think when modern DMs dip into OD&D gaming, they often do so to experience that wargaming style of play, so when people sample OD&D, they often sample it with a particular historically fixed style of play. This doesn’t mean OD&D has to be played that way, or has to be representative of that punishing style of gaming. Compared to pure Rolemaster, OD&D is quite soft, for example. It is exactly the uncompromising harshness of RM which taught me to fudge dice rolls, something the OD&D crowd are very down on. Playing OD&D or AD&D, you can afford to be down on DM fudging (although the AD&D rulebooks are very supportive of this). Playing Rolemaster, not so much…

Anyway the point is that these two phenomena – story based play and the TPK – are not system-specific so much as era-specific. But, because the systems developed with the eras, they two are easily confused.

I am a regular reader of and occasional commenter at the left-wing political/academic blog Crooked Timber, though I don’t usually link my blog to them (the American political blogsophere is a bit scary). Recently, however, I discovered this post on the new Dante’s Inferno computer game, where anonymous commenter noen makes this great claim:

The repetition [in porn and in WoW][1], the dross, is important. It is through the repetition that one realizes the value of the object of one’s desire by failing to achieve it. There is a great deal of the obsessional repetition of “dross” in religious observance also. That’s the whole point.

The goal of religion, porn and gaming is the grinding. It is the core that is the real distraction.

This is surely meant to be an amusing aside, right? But it got me thinking about sandbox gaming, story-gaming, and the oft-repeated claims that D&D 4e has been designed to be like an MMO. Particularly, I notice in the role-playing blogosphere a really serious dislike of story-based gaming. Old-school gamers (who seem to dominate the blogosphere outside of 4e bloggers) are really anti-story. They seem to have a strong preference for individual modules, and for sandbox gaming without a plot. Stand alone modules are often (especially in the early days which the grognards valorize) just a vague story and plot-hook to get the PCs on a treasure hunt – i.e. a kind of pen-and-paper based version of World of Warcraft’s grinding. Story is often associated with the “faggy” elements of the newer games like the “storyteller” systems by White Wolf, not with the “pure” older systems (and yes, I have heard them contrasted in this way). So what’s going on here?

Fragmentary social relations and the Grind

I don’t think this type of play is that popular with role-players. I have played and DMd in earnest since 1986, and I can safely say that I have played in very few sandbox games. The vast majority of gaming I have run or played in has been story-based. Not necessarily of the “kill the bad guy and save the world” kind – indeed some was quite nihilistic – but always with a plot. People like story, and our models for role-playing are mainly novels, which are pretty heavy on the story. In later years I have often played with friends who aren’t hardcore players, and I’ve noticed that the further I drift from the hardcore gaming community the less they care about randomness, system, and sandboxing, and the more they want story, description, description and story.

But my experience was in Australia, where role-playing is not that popular or common and one often has to take what one can get, player-wise and system wise. My best players have (with a few shining exceptions) been almost invariably those who were completely ignorant of system, or the RPG scene. Now, something these people have in common is that they aren’t dysfunctional nerds, and they value coherent, wholesome social interactions.

Then I moved to England, and had within 1 year three really bad role-playing experiences – shitty DMing and shitty playing. Two of these experiences occurred in a story-free, sandbox type gaming environment being run by hardcore old-schoolers (one shitty player was just a classic example of a violent British idiot, so doesn’t really fit due to culturally-specific retardation). It occurs to me that this style of play is very compatible with the fragmentary, meaningless style of interaction which characterizes the social relations of early teen boys – the exact environment in which a lot of players of my age grew up, and which is very nicely described in this book. These are also the style of fragmentary social relations which one sees in WoW a lot – join a group for 2 hours, fuck around, disappear. I think there’s a relationship between these things, and the grognard school of role-playing thought, which is all about trying to hang on to your old school roots, is also all about hanging onto a social milieu which we remember from our early teens, when this sort of fragmentary interaction made sense to us. I think the grognards are valorizing a style of play which is at best out of whack with what most people I have ever played or DMd with want to do, and which is tied to a socially disruptive and transient stage of human development which, let’s face it, a lot of nerd boys have never grown out of[2]. Those fat bearded know-it-alls at the pub who have an opinion on everything (and God, did I meet a lot of these pricks in the role-playing clubs in London) love this kind of teenage boy interaction – they’re still doing it at 40. Those of us who have moved on from that have also, I suspect, moved on from the stand-alone module plot-hook-for-a-dungeon-crawl random-monster style of play, to something a bit more socially and intellectually fulfilling. Grognardia essentially admitted this today with his little rant against change.

Story-free gaming as religious observance

The other noticeable trait of these grognard blogs, of course, is their worship of gary gygax. According to a commenter in the “I Hate Change” thread of grognardia, “D&D divorced itself from Appendix N entirely” when in 4e “Ioun has become the goddess of magic”. You certainly hate change if this is a problem for you. You also have elevated a single edition of a single game to the status of a bible, complete with appendices. This is religion at its heart, and what do all religions have in common? Hatred of change, unwillingness to tolerate dissent, they’re a haven for people who seek shelter from the consequences of their own social problems, they are full of bullies and disciplinarians, and they tolerate no narrative that conflicts with their own. This is why they suit the “grind” noen refers to in the comments at CT; and why their adherents are so fond of story-free games and suspicious of any later innovations which dilute a game-style that was developed for a feckless audience of socially isolated and emotionally stunted early-teenage boys.

4th edition gamers and the story

A common complaint I’ve read about 4e is that it has reduced the rules to a style of computer game, like WoW, with tanks, DPS characters, etc, and this represents the lack of commitment to real gaming of modern youth, their attention spans are short, blah blah blah. The irony for me is that the blogs which are most resistant to story-free play are the ones by 4e players. In the socially isolating and confrontational context of the British pub gaming scene, the most fun I had in a game I played in was a 4e game. Why? Because the person who chose to DM it had been lured away from previous editions by the promise of simplicity and freedom for the GM, and the character traits which drew him to 4e make a good DM.  It’s the focus on the story, the primacy of social interaction and the shared nature of the game which makes 4e alluring to these people. Ironically, this is what the grognards claim that OD&D encourages, even while they are eschewing the story and engaging in a complex grind, similar in fashion to the MMO they hate 4e for having “become”.

I don’t intend to turn my gaming into a repetitive litany to Gary Gygax. Nor do I intend to reduce my DMing to a kind of sophisticated dice-rolling facilitator, or a disciplinarian high-priest of the Old School[3]. I will continue to DM for what my players want – an interesting story, in cool places, with high risks and high rewards, played in a way that is mutually satisfying for everyone involved, and not self-consciously situating itself at the heart of a geekish metaculture no-one outside of a few beardy opinionated fat guys gives two hoots about.

fn1: I think this is why you also see, in the threads of those blogs, a lot of comments about how players need to be “taught to be careful”, “disciplined”, “warned”, etc. For christ sakes, this is a game, something we do for enjoyment. This 80s British public-school model of “play” in which the bigger, stronger kids keep the smaller ones in line is not applicable anywhere in my life, and it makes me feel dirty when I see it being still enacted in my hobby.

fn2: I am a strong proponent of the claim that porn has important validity as a measure of social interaction and political currents. Porn has changed a lot over the years, and its current gonzo incarnation in the west is as much a product of industrial decisions and consumer powerlessness as is the current plot-free dross that we’re seeing in the computer game world. I inserted (pardon the pun) porn into this comment thread for that reason…

fn3: not that I’m suggesting anyone wants me to or is trying to make me do so. This is rhetoric by way of conclusion, ok?

This post at Grognardia reminds me of why I am uncomfortable with the “old-school movement” and its pronouncements on all things nerdy. Putting aside the strange fascination with naff artwork and Dr. Who style special effects, the weird, almost religious obsession with pronouncements by one strange, pedantic, over-opinionated game writer (i.e. Gary Gygax) is almost religious in its intensity, and disturbingly forgiving of his mortal traits. The thread in question, where people variously try to understand a completely pointless and meaningless quote by a man famous for his indecipherable prose, makes my point. But Wax Banks makes it better, with a few digs at Gygax’s noble character on the way.