February 2009

PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4 - PART 5


Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 22nd, 2009 (2nd Update)


Earlier today I was shown some word clouds pulled from various D&D manuals. I found them very interesting, so I went out and created a few of my own -- one for each major iteration of the D&D rules.

For those of you unfamiliar with word clouds: They're a way of analyzing a body of data -- in this case, the text of the core rulebooks for D&D.

Dungeons & Dragons (1974)

Basic Dungeons & Dragons - Rules Cyclopedia
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition)

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition)

Dungeons & Dragons (3rd Edition)

The thing I find interesting about all of these word clouds is their fundamental similarity. From generation to generation of the game, the same major words pop out consistently: Spell, Level, Character, Damage, Magic, Creature.

Of course, these gross similarities gloss over countless differences. And I can understand that, for some people, those small differences can be huge and insurmountable obstacles. (There are, after all, still people who argue that the thief should never have been added as a class in the Greyhawk Supplement.) But I think the lineage of the game is clear and constant.

And then we come to 4th Edition:

Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition)

And suddenly everything is different.

I think one can end up hyper-analyzing the differences in ways that are not particularly illuminating or enlightening. (For example, does the prominent "GP" in 3rd Edition's word cloud indicate an obsession with treasure? Not really. The individual creation costs listed for every magic item in the DMG is most likely responsible. Similarly, one could probably put together a fascinating -- but ultimately pointless -- analysis of the relative size of the word "character" in each edition.)

But what strikes me about the 4th Edition word cloud -- compared to the others -- is the substantive and nearly complete shift in prominent terminology.

If, in previous editions, we're looking at the difference between five card draw, Texas Hold 'Em, and seven card stud, then I think with 4th Edition we're looking at the diference between poker and gin.

Of course, this isn't anything I haven't said before. But I thought these word clouds were an interesting and different way of looking at the difference between D&D and 4th Edition.

All word clouds created using Wordle (Jonathan Feinberg / CC BY 3.0)

February 23rd, 2009



Go to Part 1

The PCs spent the night in the jungle, eating acrid centipede meat and narrowly avoiding some curious stirges. Shortly before dawn, Cruhst the Cleric heard a large party of some sort moving about in the clearing near the ruins. He crept closer, but it was a moonless night and he couldn't make out more than vaguely humanoid shadows moving about.

The next morning, Nichol groggily regained consciousness and the party decided to return to the ruins.

When they reached the tree-breach in the building, Veera and Warrain pulled themselves up and peeked inside. They weren't pleased by what they saw: Eight hyena-faced humanoids, a minotaur, and a dog-faced humanoid (which they termed an "anubis") were lounging around the stairs, clearly keeping some sort of guard.

Warrain threw a sleep spell at them. The eight hyena-faced humanoids dropped like rocks, but the minotaur and the anubis were still on their feet. Warrain cursed. He and Veera both dropped to the ground and ran back towards the other.

From behind them, they could hear the minotaur shouting in Ancient Thracian (which, happily, Warrain could understand): "TREACHERY! KILL THEM! KILL THEM ALL!"

Warrain and Veera quickly explained the situation to the others and Warrain suggested that they run for it. But, instead, they stood there and debated.

The minotaur came running out of the building, loping up the side of the slanting tree and leaping down into the meadow. The injured Nichol and Warrain hung back, but Cruhst, Ghaleon, and Veera charged the minotaur.

The minotaur lowered his head, speared Cruhst through the chest, and threw him to one side like a ragdoll. The motion carried him between Ghaleon and Veera, who both swung wild and missed. The minotaur whirled toward them. Nichol took the opportunity to come up from behind and stab him.

Unfortunately, Cruhst's death was only the beginning. Although they inflicted some remarkably grievous wounds on the minotaur, Ghaleon was knocked unconscious and then Warrain failed a saving throw against a sleep spell hurled by the anubis magic-user (who had climbed out onto the tree himself). Veera and Nichol didn't last much longer.

Total Party Kill.



The dice did not like this group.

First you had the truly abominable rolling for hit points. In a group with a total of 5D + 3 hit points, they ended up with only 12 hit points. (The average result is 20.5 hit points.)

Then there was the random encounter: There was a 60% chance that there would be a random encounter in that particular building. The encounter was rolled on the Gnoll Patrol table. I rolled a 6 on 1d6, generating the worst possible result: 8 gnolls + a special.

So I rolled on the Specials table... and got a 6 on 1d6, generating a result of "reroll twice on this table". I then rolled the two hardest opponents on the table.

Clerics in OD&D, it turns out, don't have any spells at 1st level. Which means there's no magical healing. You would think this would be significant, but since everyone pretty much died the first time they were hit, it wouldn't have made much difference.

Tactically, they knew the minotaur was bad news. The shouldn't have tried to engage it in the first place. Having engaged it, they should have followed Warrain's advice to run or tried to lay some sort of ambush (instead of standing out in the open and talking about it).

The entire foray (exploring the building, going down and fighting the lizardmen, coming back up, and fighting the minotaur-led gnolls) took about 20-30 minutes of playing time.

A few of my players were ready to toss in the towel at this point, but the rest of us talked them into rolling up a new set of characters and trying it again.

To be continued...

February 24th, 2009



Go to Part 1

When Nichol didn't return to civilization, his explorer's journal was sent to his son and heir, Karl. Karl hired a group of mercenaries and treasure hunters to accompany him into the jungle, hoping to discover the fate of his father. (This was my way of avoiding the need to generate fresh rumours on the Rumour Table.)

Karl was accompanied by the witches Reeva and Trust, a halfling fighter named Thalmain, and Fientar the Cleric. (The witches were just magic-users. Reeva, as you may already suspect, was run by the same player as Veera. It should be noted that, with this second group, a huge premium was placed on getting the best armor possible. Getting hit was directly equated to being dead, so heavy emphasis was immediately placed on not getting hit.)

This time the random 1d8 roll determined that they would be approaching the ruins from the southwest. As a result, they ended up practically stumbling over a short, squat building of gray-black stone that was hidden within a small copse of trees. A rusty gate on one side of the building led to a narrow flight of stairs that plunged down into darkness.

(I kinda regretted that they stumbled over this second entrance to the dungeons. It would have been nice for them to return to the first building they had explored, since (a) I'm sadistic and (b) the minotaur had ordered that the heads of the previous PCs be placed on spikes in the clearing in front of the building as a warning to others.)

Thalmain made some efforts to get the rusty door to open quietly. When that didn't work he started trying to remove the hinges, but at that point Karl (like his father before him) got impatient and yanked the gate open with a hideous screeching noise.

They lit a lantern and headed down. The stairs bottomed out at a deep chasm. A rope bridge extended across the chasm. Karl inspected the bridge closely -- ascertaining that it was of recent construction and in good repair -- before starting to walk across.

Half-way across the bridge, a spear came flying out of the darkness. It impaled Karl through the chest. He collapsed.

(Nichol had a Constitution of 9 and survived his first brush with mortality. His son Karl, on the other hand, only had a Constitution of 6 and died instantly.)

Thalmain and Trust fired blindly (and ineffectively) into the darkness. Thalmain then got the idea to light one of his arrows on fire so that they could see what was on the other side of the bridge. The arrow soared over the head of a broadsword-wielding guard dressed in plate armor who was charging towards the bridge. Eerily, the guard's eyes were solid black.

(The black eyes were my reaction to this passage from the rules ("Monsters & Treasure", pg. 5):

...it is generally true that any monster or man can see in total darkness as far as the dungeons are concerned except player characters.

I thought this was rather silly. I felt there needed to be some explanation of this discrepancy. And thus the followers of Thanatos were given their ebon-eyed visage.)

Reeva tried to use her dagger to hack through the ropes holding up the bridge, but she was too slow. The ebon-eyed guard sliced open her back as he ran past her off the bridge. She collapsed in a pool of her own blood.

The others rallied, however, and quickly killed the guard without suffering any additional injuries. Worried about possible reinforcements, they grabbed all of the bodies (the guard, Reeva, and Karl) and dragged them back up the stairs and into the jungle. There they stripped the plate armor off the guard, discovered that Karl was dead, and dressed Reeva's wound.



They heard someone approaching through the thick foliage of the jungle. Drawing their weapons they waited anxiously.

A dwarf walked out of the trees.

This was Jorgen, son of Karl, son of Nichol. He had been sent by his grandmother to find his father.

"Okay, we have some bad news for you..."



Jorgen, of course, was the the third PC of the night for the player of Nichol and Karl. His ability scores were absolutely abominable: 9 Strength, 8 Intelligence, 4 Wisdom, 14 Dexterity, 5 Constitution, and 7 Charisma.

While she was waiting for Jorgen to be introduced, the player asked for another character sheet so that she could roll up her next character and "speed things up a bit". She was clearly embracing the lethality of old school play.

She was less than happy, however, to discover that her next character (Herbert the Elf) would have had the best ability scores of the night: 13 Strength, 15 Intelligence, 17 Wisdom, 9 Dexterity, 12 Constitution, and 10 Charisma. He also ended up with 7 hit points (the maximum possible).

And thus the joking began: Dwarves, it was theorized, were cursed. That explained all the bad ability score rolls for Nichol, Karl, and Jorgen.

More importantly, how had Jorgen even found them with an Intelligence of 8 and Wisdom of 4?

"You hear noises approaching through the wood."

"Okay, quick. Kill him now before you see him, then I can just switch over to Herbert."

But no, Jorgen would live and Herbert would (for the nonce, anyway) be shelved.

Jorgen, however, quickly earned the nickname of "Wheezy" -- his low Constitution leaving him with a horrible case of asthma and a slightly arhythmic heart. It turned out that Jorgen, son of Karl, son of Nichol was -- like all dwarves -- the result of horrible inbreeding. Dwarves, it turned out, bred in their underground warrens like rabbits. The tunnels were packed full of them. Which is probably why Jorgen was pushed out the front door and sent on his way. ("Go find your father!" "Didn't he just leave like an hour ago? For god's sake woman!" Cough. Cough. Wheeze.)


Okay, you probably had to be there. But by the end of it, we were all nearly dead from laughter. I could scarcely breathe.

To be continued...

February 25th, 2009



Go to Part 1

Reeva woke up before dawn with a stiff and scabrous back. The rest of the night passed quietly and, in the morning, they headed back down the stairs.

Two more guards had been placed at the far end of the rope bridge. But Thalmain and Trust kept them harried with missile fire while the rest of the party rushed across the bridge and engaged them. In short order they were dead.

It turned out that the guards had been standing duty outside of two large wooden doors.  Jorgen grabbed his 10-foot pole and jammed it through the handles of the doors, barring them shut... And just in time, too, as someone tried to open them from within. 

"Dmitri! What is it? Are you all right?"

Jorgen tried to bluff them: "Everything's fine!"

It didn't work. Everything within fell quiet... too quiet.

Jorgen grabbed one of the broadswords the guards had carried and jammed it through the handles, taking back his 10-foot pole. Then they kicked the guards' bodies over the edge of the chasm (they head a splash and a sickening crunch from below). 

They headed off in a different direction, crossing over another rope bridge through a chasm where they were harried by giant bats. They eventually reached a chapel guarded by more of the ebon-eyed guards.

These guards they killed, but not before Jorgen, son of Karl, son of Nichol was brutally cut down. (And with a Constitution of 5, he wasn't getting back up.)

Proceeding into the chapel they found a sacrificial altar hidden behind some black drapes. Bound to the altar and gagged was a prisoner: Herbert the Elf!



And that's where we ended the session. It was a weeknight and people were beginning to wear out. We'd gamed for about 4 hours (including the 45 minutes or so spent on going over the rules and creating characters at the beginning of the night).

Opinions of the evening were split.

The final PC death tally stood at 7. (It would have been 9 without the Constitution-based survival checks I was making.) After the TPK one of the players very visibly checked out of the game -- it seemed like they just couldn't be bothered to care any more. The player of Nichol/Karl/Jorgen/Herbert -- while providing some of the best entertainment of the evening with her spontaneous explanation of dwarven mating habits -- was becoming visibly pissed off by the end of it.

(As she later put it, "An entire dwarven family was destroyed tonight.")

Another player later summed up their impression by saying, "OD&D = Death + Math."

Everyone else seemed to enjoy themselves. At least one of the players seemed eager to continue playing through the scenario. (Given the mixed reactions from the others, I doubt that will happen. But we'll see.)

From my perspective, I would have liked to see the Caverns of Thracia get a little more thoroughly explored. But on the flip-side, there was something extremely rewarding about watching the dungeon slowly assume that old school aura of terror/respect.

The players were also slowly learning (or re-learning) classic dungeoncrawling skills. They went from more-or-less barging straight ahead to taking a gradually more cautious and clever approach.

I'd also like to take the opportunity to say that the spontaneous coining of the name "anubis" for the dog-faced humanoid they confronted was probably the highlight of the evening for me. It just felt like the perfect Old School moment -- like the first time someone referred to an illithid as a "mind flayer" and the name stuck or something -- and I could easily see myself statting up a race of dog-faced anubians for a Monster Manual.

Rules mastery also plays a role in the success of a session. I was certainly struggling in several places trying to figure out how to handle certain things. (And the poor organization, layout, and wording of the rulebooks certainly didn't help matters.) I was beginning to find my groove towards the end and I wouldn't mind running a few more sessions in the Caverns just to get a feel for what it's like to run OD&D from a position of having really internalized the system (however kooky it may be).

I have to, once again, beat down the temptation of trying to rewrite, codify, and re-organize the rules into something more useful. It would certainly make the game (much) easier to run, but it would also kill something vital. Decoding the rulebook is part of the experience here.

If I want to play a cleaned up version of this game, I've got 3rd Edition. (4th Edition, of course, is a completely different roleplaying game with no clear lineage to OD&D except its trademark.) 

On the other hand, it might be interesting at some point to take the OD&D rulebooks and deliberately explore the path that wasn't taken: Whenever a rule leaves itself open to interpretation or whenever Arneson and Gygax explicitly give us more than one option, take the path that subsequent editions of D&D didn't take. See what sort of game you end up with and then refine it from there. Call it the D&D Apocrypha if you like.

Well, maybe some day. I've already got one game burning a hole in my pocket.

February 26th, 2009


I've talked before about the peculiar penchant for 4th Edition's designers to "fix" a "problem" by either (a) making it worse or (b) not fixing it at all. Mike Mearls is talking about a similar "solution" that didn't actually get implemented for 4th Edition, but demonstrates the same inability to solve a problem even when you're explicitly trying to solve it: I Hate Resistances.

You can click through and read his entire blog entry, but allow me to sum up. Mearls has two problems with resistances, both of which stem from the fact that you'r better off NOT dealing cold damage to a creature with resistance to cold damage:

(1) It creates a value disparity between energy types if the DM predominantly uses creatures with one particular resistance type. (For example, if there are lots of creatures with resistance to cold damage, then cold-based spells are devalued compared to other energy types.)

(2) It means that if you're a in a cold-dominated setting (with lots of cold-based creatures with resistance to cold damage), then you're better off NOT playing an ice mage (since you'll have a bunch of cold-based spells). Mearls finds this thematically inconsistent because he wants his Frozen North populated with ice mages and his Sultry South populated with fire mages.

These are both absolutely true. (Although I'll delve into the aesthetic sense of the latter a little later.)

Mearls then proposes two "solutions":

(1) Instead of resistances, creatures would get abilities that would allow them to negate damage from energy attacks of a particular type. Basically these are still resistances, but you can only use them against X number of attacks per encounter or per day.

(2) Instead of resistant damage, creatures would get bonus abilities when hit with sympathetic energy types. For example, a cold-based creature hit with cold damage might get an extra breath weapon attack or a bonus to AC.

The problem? Neither of these does anything to solve the problems Mearls claims to be solving.



Here's the root of the issue: The problems Mearls cites are emergent behaviors based on the fact that a cold-based creature benefits from being targeted by cold-based damage (even if that benefit is nothing more than "I take less damage than if you'd hit me with something else"). Because the cold-based creature benefits from cold-based damage, you're making it advantageous to use non-cold-based damage on them.

Mearls' "solutions", of course, still benefit cold-based creatures targeted by cold-based attacks. And, as a result, the exact same emergent behavior results: You're better off using non-cold-based damage against cold-based creatures.

However, with that being said, I will point out that both of the mechanics Mearls proposes are, in fact, interesting mechanics. I can imagine a lot of interesting uses for them: A membraneous horror that reflects sonic attacks. A fire-infused demon that absorbs ambient flame, concentrates it in their translucent-skinned stomach, and belches it forth. A frost-born behemoth that armors itself with living ice.

They just don't do what Mearls claims they do.



I can also understand the thematic interest Mearls has in having ice mages rearing crystalline towers in the Frozen North and fire mages dancing on volcano rims in the Sultry South.

But if that's your goal, then you need to explain why wizards in the Frozen North would tend to prefer ice-based magic. I would suggest creating a system where extreme environmental conditions encourage the use of sympathetic magic types. (In other words, if you're on a glacier it's either easier to use your ice magic or your ice magic is more powerful or both. Similarly, volcanoes are great places for fire magic. And you can strengthen this association if you impose penalties at the opposite extreme -- casting ice-based magic is more difficult near volcanoes; casting fire-based magic is more difficult on a glacier.)

Without that kind of sympathetic encouragement, it will never make much sense for wizards in the Frozen North to specialize in ice magic -- for much the same reason that it doesn't make much sense to turn your air conditioner on in the middle of winter.

February 26th, 2009 (2nd Update)


I had someone drop me an e-mail requesting a quick overview of the various editions of D&D. In the context of the Reactions to OD&D essays, I thought it might be a useful reference for people who are a little less familiar with the history of the game.

If you want more details on the history of D&D, the "Editions of Dungeons & Dragons" article at Wikipedia is a pretty solid resource. If you want an exhaustive detailing of every single change made between each printing of the early rulebooks, then the Acaeum is an excellent resource.

The only important thing you need to remember here is that D&D split into two separate games in 1977: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons (with the latter often being referred to as Basic D&D or BD&D).

The terms used below are not official, but they are the most commonly used nomenclature in the fan community.



With the exception of the Rules Cyclopedia, all of these games were sold as boxed sets.

OD&D (Original Dungeons & Dragons, White Box): The original edition of the game designed by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, first published in 1974 as a boxed set comprising three volumes -- Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. These books would receive various errata in subsequent printings (with the most notable change being the purging of references to Tolkien's works following a lawsuit from the Tolkien Estate), but remained substantially unaltered.


Holmes Edition (1977): Published as the Basic Set in 1977. Eric Holmes is credited as having "edited" the book, but it's actually a complete re-design and re-edit of the original game.

Moldvay Edition (1981): A completely revised Basic Rulebook and a brand new Expert Rulebook published in 1981. Tom Moldvay is credited for "editing" the Basic Set. David Cook and Steven Marsh are credited for "editing" the Expert Set. (I'm not clear on why Tom Moldvay is usually the only guy who gets credit for this version of the game. But he is.)


BECMI (1983 - 1985): Comprising the Basic Rules, Expert Rules Companion Rules, Master Rules, and Immortal Rules. (With the exception of the Expert Rules, these boxed sets each contained two volumes -- one for players and one for the DM. The first two sets are, once again, completely revised.) These sets are variously credited as being "edited", "compiled", or simply "by" Frank Mentzer. 


Rules Cyclopedia (1991): A single-volume hardback which collected the BECMI rules with minimal alteration (basically just applying errata). However, the Rules Cyclopedia lacked the rules for Immortals (which were published separately as the Wrath of the Immortals ruleset).

In addition to these rules, a total of five different Basic Sets were produced between 1991 and 1999 under the names The Dungeons & Dragons Game or The Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game. These all differed from each other in various ways, but all of them were designed to serve as "teasers" or "primers" for the Rules Cyclopedia edition of the game. So if you're considering distinct iterations of the rules, they can be ignored.



All of these editions were published as three separate core rulebooks: A Player's Handbook, a Dungeon Master's Guide, and a Monster Manual (the last of these under various titles, as described below).

AD&D 1st Edition (1977 - 1979): Designed by Gary Gygax. The original Monster Manual was published in 1977, followed by the Player's Handbook in 1978 and the Dungeon Master's Guide in 1979. These books were re-issued with new covers in 1983 (which are easily recognizable due to their orange spines), but were not revised. Also referred to as AD&D1.



Unearthed Arcana (1985): TSR officially identified Unearthed Arcana as a core rulebook. Since it included not only expansions but also alterations in the game, it is sometimes referred to as the Edition 1.5.

AD&D 2nd Edition (1989): The 2nd Edition was published in 1989 as the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monstrous Compendium. The re-design is primarily credited to David "Zeb" Cook. In 1993 the Monstrous Compendium was replaced with the Monstrous Manual. In 1995, these books were re-issued with new covers and a new layout (but no meaningful change to the rules). Also referred to as AD&D2.



Player's Options (1995): Also referred to as Edition 2.5. Three optional core rulebooks known as the Player's Options released in 1995: Combat & Tactics, Skills & Powers, and Spells & Magic. There was also the DM's Option: High Level Campaigns.


D&D 3rd Edition (2000): Released as the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual. This edition was designed by Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams. Also referred to as D&D3 or 3rd Edition.


D&D 3.5 (2003): Revised versions of the 3rd Edition core rulebooks. The revision team was Rich Baker, Andy Collins, David Noonan, Rich Redman, and Skip Williams.




So, if you count the Unearthed Arcana and Player's Options as distinct edition, then there have been 10 editions of D&D:

OD&D (1974)
Holmes D&D (1977)
Moldvay D&D (1981)
BECMI / Rules Cyclopedia (1983)
AD&D 1st Edition (1977)
AD&D 1st Edition + Unearthed Arcana (1985)
AD&D 2nd Edition (1989)
AD&D 2nd Edition + Player's Options (1995)
D&D 3rd Edition (2000)
D&D 3.5 (2003)

And then, of course, 4th Edition in 2008.


PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4 - PART 5