Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tolkien & D&D

Yeah yeah, another post about this...I'm pretty sure the first 20 issues of Dragon magazine had an article about Tolkien, like how Gandalf was just a 5th level magic-user or whatever. It's a common thread in the history of roleplaying games. I even wrote a post earlier on this blog about D&D being unable to model literary characters; I'm going to try, anyway.

Okay, so, I usually ready LotR every couple years, sometimes more than that. Recently I started watching the movies after finishing the book as it allows me to get really annoyed about some major character changes. That aside, I'm sticking with the books almost strictly and ignoring the films. First, which version of D&D do we use to model the characters? Going way back to OD&D, the halfling and dwarf classes are pretty much directly copied from LotR. Frodo wasn't a halfling thief, nor halfling fighter, nor a fighter/thief...he is in fact simply a halfling. Aragorn is most definitely a Ranger, and this isn't introduced until Strategic Review 1-2. D&D then completely ignores the class (along with race-class distinction) and AD&D re-implements it. Basically, we need a version that includes class-as-race as well as some of the more advanced classes. Seems pretty obvious we should just use OD&D, but the rules are nearly incomprehensible and inaccessible. Thankfully, we have Labyrinth Lord: Advanced Edition Characters. Coupled with Labyrinth Lord itself, we essentially have all the advanced classes from AD&D grafted onto D&D without all the stupid rules that make the game annoyingly unplayable. I'm not about to get into an edition war or whatever, but LL:AEC is, to me, pretty much an idealized D&D and the one that retains playability with added complexity. I can't say enough about it. I'm approaching this as if LotR was an actual D&D campaign. Okay, so here we go...

Let's start with the Fellowship itself. Since attributes aren't nearly as important in LL as they are in AD&D (they're almost completely unimportant in OD&D, which really isn't a bad thing), I won't even bother, unless there is something that really stands out. I sort of cheated and looked at the MERP book Treasures of Middle Earth for some of the weapons the characters use. Sue me.

All members: Elven Cloaks. Pretty much directly out of the books. These cloaks also keep the wearer warm/cool as necessary.

Aragorn - 16th Level Dunedain Ranger
WIS is probably 18, CON is possibly 18 as well. I picked 16th level because this is the first level that Rangers can cast 3rd level Druid spells, the primary which is Cure Disease. Aragorn never really seems to use any "spells" except neutralizing poison, curing wounds, etc. This also gives him 2nd level ability with magic-users spells, which makes sense considering he studied with Gandalf for a length of time. If you read MERP 2nd edition, there's a lengthy explanation as to how magic use attracts the Eye of Sauron and other dark powers. Essentially, every time you cast a spell you have a chance at drawing the notice of Something Bad. It's a good justification for the lack of flashy magic. So, yeah, Aragorn can cast spells but he's not an idiot and doesn't. Plus, he does +16 points of damage to nearly all the enemies he'll encounter, which pretty much means he's an orc killing machine. Anduril is somewhere in the +3 range and does +1D10 flame damage to orcs and +1D10 cold damage to undead. Assuming Aragorn has around a +1 bonus due to strength, he's doing a minimum of 22 points of damage to an orc, or 38 points max. Ouch. That's enough to kill an 8th level orc who rolled average hit points. Again, ouch...now we see why no one fucks with Aragorn. Technically Anduril is a Flame Tongue/Frost Brand, but the rules for those sword-types don't accurately represent what it can do so I'm ignoring that. It probably also qualifies as an artifact.

Legolas - 8th level Elf Fighter
No implied magic ability, so he's not of the Elf class. Elven Boots to simulate his ability to move nearly silently. DEX and CHA are 18. +2 Shortbow of Speed, which allows him to fire 3 times per round. For whatever reason, his bow does 1D8 base damage, not 1D6. I guess because it's an Elf bow. Whatever.

Gimli - 9th level Dwarf
CON 18, most likely maximum hit points. STR is high (17 or 18). +2 Axe of Orc Slaying, does +1D10 damage to orcs. Some form of Dwarf ringmail or chainmail which protects about as well as platemail and shield of better (AC2, perhaps as low as 0). 9th level so he can settle the Glittering Caves. Most likely leveled up once or twice during the books, so his level is debatable. Easily the most resilient and dependable toe-to-toe fighter in LotR.

Boromir - 12th level Dunedain Fighter
STR 18, CON 18, WIS is 11 or so...well within the average range but just low enough to make him a bit brash and more susceptible to the ring. Definitely not stupid by any means, though, and absolutely fearless. Horn of Gondor summons allied forces if within range. Sword is probably +1 or something; just because of lineage, not due to being "magical". High-quality Gondorian armor, AC 1 or 0.

Pippin - 4th level Halfling
WIS is average, but he's young and stupid and failed his Save against the Palantir. STR 18, the biggest, strongest Hobbit in history. +1 dagger/shortsword. Gondorian armor is around AC 1.

Merry - 4th level Halfling
Smartest of the bunch, INT might be as high as 15 or 16. +1 dagger/shortsword. Rohanian armor AC 4.

Frodo - 5th level Halfling
WIS 18, mithril chainmail grants AC 0. Sting is a +2 shortsword of Orc Slaying, +1D10 damage to orcs.

Sam - 4th level Halfling
WIS 16 or 17, CON 17. Oddly enough, Sam is probably the best overall Hobbit fighter in the books when he's pushed into it. He's essentially incorruptible, seems like he automatically makes all saves versus any sort of mind-altering effects. Either that or his player has a loaded D20.

Gandalf - 20th/14th/20th level Maiar Magic-User/Druid/Cleric
All stats 18+, knows and can cast every spell. Gandalf is actually an Immortal, and thus cannot cast any spells without pissing off a bunch of other Immortals. Has a bunch of artifacts, including a staff, ring and sword. Essentially a high powered NPC who aids the PCs in the beginning then fights an unbeatable DM meta-plot monster as a way of being removed from the party. Until the end of the books, when he shows up again and saves the day. Good job, Mr. DM.

What's interesting is that D&D can actually recreate a pretty good LotR game fairly easily, as long as the players don't want to cast any spells or be anything other than fighters. Quite honestly, though, I think those sorts of games are a lot of fun. I played a fighter in my first D&D game, and the other characters were another fighter and a chaotic dwarf. None of us thought the game was lacking at all due to the inability to cast spells or heal or any of that crap.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ritual Magic

I was reading Philotomy's OD&D Musings, specifically the part dealing with Vancian magic, and was wondering how to rectify it with the type of magic we see in the Conan stories by REH. We never really see anyone "cast a spell" in those tales, although magic is frequently used. It's almost always a lengthy ritual of sorts, or through a magic item. So...does anything actually need to be changed?

Well, I started typing up this post in some effort to outline a new set of rules or whatever, but what's the point? D&D already assumes spell-casters must spend a certain length of time to memorize a spell, even if they can then cast that spell "instantly" at a later time. Spells like Identify specifically outline a ritual of sorts; you can't just cast ID whenever you wish, even if it is memorized. The mechanism already exists for duplicating ritual magic, but no one ever plays that way. Who's to say a wizard cannot simply choose to not fill all his spell slots and memorize them when necessary? Essentially that's all the sorcerers in Conan do...all the DM needs is a house rule that stipulates spells must be cast immediately after memorization. That's it. Ritual magic is done.

Now, this makes the magic-user even more vulnerable, and almost helpless at 1st level. So what? If you're striving to duplicate a true Swords-and-Sorcery feel, a sorcerer is going to fall to a sword swing rather quickly, he won't be throwing fireballs or lightning bolts. This actually brings up a rather interesting issue: if a magic-user cannot memorize a bunch of flashbang spells, what does he do for defense? Plans even more carefully, of course. There will probably be MUCH more emphasis on summoning spells, illusions, invisibility, etc. Indirect ways of dealing with problems, on the wizard's own terms. When he does need to directly confront an unruly barbarian, break out the wand or staff and start the fireworks. It's interesting that this is pretty much what Thoth-Amon does. Nearly helpless without his magic ring, he is nigh invulnerable with it. When he wants to dispatch Ascalante in The Phoenix on the Sword he certainly doesn't show up with a wand of magic missiles and start firing like a maniac. Instead he sends a summoned demon to do the dirty work. And why not? High chance of success, extremely low chance of getting hurt himself.

Even though stylizing D&D magic to more closely resemble the type we see in S&S is fairly simple, I don't think I'd be convinced as a player to accept playing this way unless I got something in return. Perhaps Sleep and Magic Missile and Feather Fall and a few other spells could be instantaneous. Or the DM could give a magic item with limited charges (1 or 2) that are reusable every day. I suppose allowing summoning spells to last much longer (perhaps upwards of days or weeks) would get even closer to the source and give a legit reason for playing a wizard. At any rate, the Vancian magic system works JUST FINE in the sense it is intended. With some minor variation I think it can adequately model a wide variety of literary sources.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

15 games in 15 minutes

Well, I saw a bunch of posts people made with this title, seems I missed the boat. Ahhh, the internet. Oh well, I'll throw mine out there. I couldn't find a consensus as to what sorts of games I was limited to listing, so I literally typed the first 15 I thought of.

  1. Astrosmash (Intellivision)
  2. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge (Intellivision)
  3. Mentzer Red box D&D
  4. TMNT RPG
  5. Basketball
  6. Football
  7. Street Fighter II (Arcade)
  8. Gauntlet (Arcade)
  9. NCAA '98 (PSX)
  10. Food Fight (Arcade)
  11. Wizard's Crown (Apple ][)
  12. Wizardry (Apple ][)
  13. Chivalry & Sorcery
  14. Starfleet Battles
  15. Crossbows and Catapults
As my childhood was mostly late 70s/early 80s, I suppose most of this list makes sense. I hung out in arcades A LOT and played Intellivision every day. When we finally got a computer, my brother and I played Wizard's Crown for literally months. It was the first computer game I ever bought and taught me about tactics and logistics. I'm wondering why Food Fight sticks out in my mind so much; as a kid, I thought it was the best game ever devised. I can remember offering to go to the mall with my mom specifically on the off-chance she might let me swing by the arcade for a quick game. Basketball and football should be obvious enough; as I grew up, I participated and watched both of these sports, basketball religiously throughout high school, football when I went to college. The Mentzer Red Box...well, it was the first pen-and-paper RPG I ever owned and quite frankly (hah!), my favorite edition. What's funny is I remember the older Red Box set at Toys-R-Us, but my brother and I spent every penny we had on videogame cartridges, much like everyone else we knew. Alas, what could have been. D&D passed up for Horse Racing and Bump-n-Jump.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Religion and gamers

So I wrote up a post then caught up on reading other blogs. Basically, I'll keep this short and sweet: being an atheist doesn't make you cool. Further, hating on organized religion just makes you sound like a fucking moron. You're certainly allowed to subscribe to your own views on the nature of reality, but generic statements comparing belief in God to thinking unicorns exist points out not only extremely weighted bias but also a fundamental misunderstanding of legitimate theological discussion. As a philosopher (I use that term EXTREMELY loosely, although I am paid for doing philosophy) it pisses me off when people make blanket statements without any sort of evidence and then put the onus of proof on others to "prove them wrong", even though their initial argument is nothing more than smoke-and-mirrors nonsense. Look, I get it, you hated your childhood and felt stupid singing in choir as a kid. You rejected your Episcopalian upbringing and are now living with your common law Wiccan wife and think it's cool to tell your children that polyamory is a fun activity. Whatever, I don't care, do whatever you want. Just don't pretend you're morally superior and surely don't go on relentlessly with your stupid views that are based entirely on fundamental misunderstanding. There is this notion that gamers are anti-religious, but my own experience tells me that most of us just have enough class and manners not to bring up personal things at the drop of a hat. Not one of the people I have gamed with in the past few years have given off any sort of inkling that they were atheist, and I know for certain most went to church/templed at least somewhat regularly.

I honestly don't care either way about what people believe, but it is nearly impossible to read something about gaming when halfway through it turns into a rant about the evils of religion blah blah blah. Talk about what you know (new character classes, maps, etc.) not shit you have no clue about. Especially when the blog says it's gaming related...

Modeling Attributes

After effectively overdosing on a pre-workout aid (methylhexanamine in case you're curious), I was contemplating D&D-style stats using the 3-18 scale we're all accustom with. I really have no idea why this came into my head as I laid in bed, hyperventilating after lifting, but it was better than dying. In this specific instance, Strength came to mind for obvious reasons, but my thoughts also extended to all the stats in general.

First of all, if we are to assume that an 18 is the highest possible human strength, forgetting entirely about percentiles, who has such a strength? I'm going with this attribute to start because why the hell not...simple math demonstrates that there is a 1/216 chance of getting an 18 on three dice. Fine. No one ever rolls three dice for stats anymore, but whatever, I gotta start this post somewhere. That's a little less than 1/2% chance of having the maximum strength possible. So, 1 out of 216 people will have an 18, right? Does that make any sense whatsoever? Not really. Check out this webpage of weightlifting performance standards. I fall somewhere between Advanced and Elite in all the lifts, which means I obviously do not have an 18 Strength. Further, I know people who exceed the Elite value by quite a bit. Sure, they might be on steroids or whatever, but they're still stronger than me, and stronger than average people by at least a factor of two. If an 18 is supposed to be the best of the best, we're talking a lot fewer than 1-in-216 people. Probably closer to 1-in-a-million. If we take the categories and divide them up into stat ranges, we might get something like:

Untrained: 3-5
Novice: 6-8
Intermediate: 9-12
Advanced: 13-17
Elite: 18

There's a lot of lumping together toward the higher end of the scale for good reason: to most people, there's no discernible difference between someone 1.8X as strong as you and someone 2.2X as strong as you. If you're the average desk jockey benching 150 pounds max, someone who can bench 300 will look like a monster. The 400 pound bencher might not look any different, and really, there isn't a whole lot to separate them in reality, even though there's a 25% difference between their scores.

Want more granularity? I figure if we do a 6-36 scale (6D6), the highest score, 36, has a 1-in-1679616 chance of coming up. Definitely much more reasonable given what I know about strength competitions. The super elite lifters, Olympic-types for instance, are very rare. Even most professional athletes will never have this level of strength, and quite honestly don't need it. Olympic lifts are extremely technical and as much about technique as they are overall strength; thus the score of 36 not only indicates actual musculature but the ability to use that musculature to its utmost capability. Deadlifts are not an Olympic lift, but I'll use it as an example. I can max Deadlift about 565 right now. This is fairly good, nearly Elite by the chart. However, if I'm not completely focused during the lift, I manage perhaps 505 or even less. I've had bad days where I physically felt great but mentally just was not into it, had trouble with 485 or even less. There have been times where my mental state was completely focused, although my body was fatigued; set a Personal Record. Does this mean I had a 16 Strength on the 3-18 scale one day and an 18 the next? Not even close. It probably does mean something more like my Strength is 16 or so and I'm capable of outperforming someone with a 17 sometimes who has an off-day, but the guy with the 18 will generally ALWAYS beat me because his mental focus is better than mine. It also means that the scores themselves are ranges, hence the whole "greater granularity" crap at the beginning of this paragraph. I'm not going to roll 6 dice for a 6-36 range stat, that's just stupid. All that does it make it less likely to get the 18 because people in Real Life don't have 18s. Who cares? It's a game, right? It does mean, though, that Halflings with 18 strength are reasonable in-game. Sure, the guy is 3 feet tall, but he uses his muscles at 100% capacity. In Real Life, there are some very small people who are insanely strong so I don't have a fundamental problem with fantasy races being exceptionally adept at using their muscles. People don't say shit about elves being smarter than humans, do they? Are their brains bigger? Not really...

Using the pseudo-logic outlined above, basically either an 18 is extremely rare and PCs are just so awesome they get a really really good bonus to being exceptionally badass OR everyone in the D&D world is a lot closer in capability than our own reality. Who has an 18 Intelligence in Real Life, for instance? There are probably a few people you could think of, maybe Newton or Leonardo. In D&D, most magic-users have close to an 18, which means not only are they smarter than the vast majority of people, they are as smart as the greatest minds in history. I'm fine with that, I really am. BUT: what about some farmer the DM rolled up with an 18 Intelligence. You could say he's not "living up to his potential", but given what I said earlier about an 18 not only having great ability but also utilizing it properly, that farmer really doesn't have an 18. It also means, perhaps, that a 16 Int wizard might be able to train himself to an 18. Maybe?

I don't think the 3-18 scale can be rectified for what it is supposed to model if we roll everyone's stats on 3D6. Now, supposing we roll 2D6 for the average rube. That works a little better, but it also eliminates the burly farm hand and the wise old woman from the mix. Given that, it seems like rolling stats is entirely the province of Player Characters, and the DM should assign stats to everyone else as necessary. Even then, does it really matter? Who cares if the shopkeeper has a Con of 9 or 12, he still only has 3 hitpoints. No need to roll.

The real reason I even brought this up is because I like reading about how people model their Real Life stats. Everyone who plays D&D has an 18 Int even though I've never heard of them. 18 Cha? Well, why aren't you a movie star? All those 18 Str guys are doing strongman competitions and competing in the Olympics, they're certainly not typing up stupid blog posts while watching Monday Night Football...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Samurai for Labyrinth Lord

This is a followup to my previous post. Actually, I wrote this up about 6 months ago, just never linked to it: Samurai Class for Labyrinth Lord.