Posts tagged ‘game design’

October 9, 2010

Red Box to d20: Thief

Before we get too far into the Thief let’s talk about Skills, since he’s the only Red Box class that has what is a “modern” conception of skills. Whereas the other classes’ attempts to do things are governed by a variety of rules: the surprise rules covers hiding and sneaking, door opening is covered by the open doors rules, finding pit traps can be covered by the “trap goes off on a 1-2” rule, and of course there’s Moldvay’s offhand remark about rolling under a stat.

For our d20 conversion, I’m going to use stat checks in lieu of skills, modified by various situational bonuses (ie Elves get a bonus when searching for secret doors, but not when searching for treasure in a pile of garbage).  Thieves are going to work the same way, which means that stats are going to be even more important for Thieves than for any other class. And it also means, given the difficulty of rolling decent stats using Red Box’s 3d6 in order method, that Thieves get completely screwed by this system.

Both seem faithful to the original text. 🙂

So here are the Thief’s saves, with the Fighter in parentheses:

Death Ray or Poison (Fort) 13 (12)
Magic Wands (Will) 14 (13)
Paralysis or Turn to Stone (Fort) 13 (14)
Dragon Breath (Ref) 16 (15)
Rods, Staves or Spells (Will) 15 (16)

Virtually identical. Fort 13, Ref 16, Will 14.5.

BAB HD  Fort Ref Will
+1  1d8 +2   +0  +0
+1  2d8 +2   +0  +0
+1  3d8 +2   +0  +0

It’s weird to think of the Thief as bad at Ref saves. I’m actually starting to wonder if Dragon Breath maps well to a Reflex save, considering that the Fighter is better at it than a Thief. It makes you wonder: how did the designers imagine the Fighter surviving a blast of fire from a Dragon? Hunkering down behind a shield and gritting his teeth, or diving out of the way? Likely neither–it was a simple calculation of: Fighters are tougher than thieves.

Next let’s have a look at the Thief skills:

Level  Open Locks  F/R Traps  PP   MS   Climb  HS   Hear Noise
1      15%         10%        20%  20%  87%    10%  32%
2      20          15         25   25   88     15   32
3      25          20         30   30   89     20   50

Man, this is a weird class. Thieves are actually not the stealthy, skilled burglars they’re cracked up to be. If anything, they are amazingly nimble climbers and desperate pickpockets who likely live short, brutish lives. I wouldn’t hire these guys for anything except climbing impassable walls and other underground barriers in order to place ropes for the rest of the party.

I’ll give Thieves the following bonuses:

Level  Open Locks  F/R Traps  PP   MS   Climb  HS   Hear Noise
1      +3          +2         +4   +4   +16    +4   +1
2      +4          +3         +5   +5   +17    +5   +3
3      +5          +4         +6   +6   +18    +6   +5

It’s a little weird, I’ll admit it. I’ve made him a worse climber at 1st level, in order that he can get a small bump at 2nd & 3rd. I’m comfortable giving him the same percentages in d20 for Open Lock, because even the simplest lock is a DC 20 in the d20 system. Ditto for Finding and Disabling Traps, which although they are separate skills in d20, don’t need to be here.  Same with Pickpocket (Sleight of Hand in d20).

The Listen skill specifically says a 1st level Rogue using MS to sneak past you is DC 15. The +4 seems reasonable enough. Climbing a typical dungeon wall is DC20, so our +16 is actually a bit low to map to the Basic numbers, but the d20 system isn’t granular enough to do 1% bumps, so I’m going to keep it, if only so we can end up with a number near 89% at 3rd level.

Hide is tricky, so I’m going to use the same reasoning that I used for Move Silently and move on (silently). Hear Noise jumps from 32% to 50% at 3rd level, so I’m going to do what I did with Climb and back into the higher number, giving Thieves a nice +2 bump per level.

So not terribly faithful, but approximate.

This exercise in converting the Red Box classes to some sort of d20 approximation has been interesting. I never realized how underpowered they are compared to their d20 counterparts, never mind the stat bonuses.

I also never realized how concepts like niche protection and class balance were really just hand-waved until 3e D&D. Regardless of how you feel about 3e and later versions, you can’t make the argument that they didn’t at least consider how the classes stacked up with each other. Seeing these classes translated into the d20 “lingua franca”, I really understand why only a masochist would play a Thief. I also see that the Fighter, long held to be the workhorse of the Red Box, is actually really a tough row to hoe.

The other thing this has shown to me is that a d20 conversion would be a lot more faithful if, rather than trying to port Red Box classes over, I’d worked on some brand new, 3 level d20 classes.

I’m not going to continue with the experiment any further, but hopefully someone (other than me) found it interesting.

September 29, 2010

Red Box to d20: Halfling

I haven’t got much enthusiasm for the last two classes, but it feels like we’re on the home stretch, so let’s just power through the Halfling and then take a bit longer with the Thief, because he’s the only class is Basic that has Skills.

The Halfling’s saves are identical to the Dwarf, something I never noticed before–that’s how popular the Halfling is at RBV. One thing I did notice is that the Dwarf/Halfling saves are different in Basic and Expert D&D, which is just strange. I’ve been referring to the expanded charts in Expert so I can see where the first improvement is for a class (ie 4th level for Fighters), and the Dwarf/Halfling saves are significantly better. Here they are side-by-side (Basic/Expert):

Death Ray or Poison 10/8
Magic Wands 11/9
Paralysis or Turn to Stone 12/10
Dragon Breath 13/13
Rods, Staves or Spells 12/14

I’d love to know what the story was here. Did they decide that Dwarves needed more advantages? Is one a misprint? It’s weird. Anyway, I’ve been using the Expert saves until now, so I’ll keep ’em. The Halfling:

BAB HD Fort Ref Will
+1  1d6 +6  +2  +4
+2  2d6 +6  +2  +4
+3  3d6 +6  +2  +4

This guy has the same xp as a Fighter: 2,000. He can’t use long bows or two-handed swords, so he’s no different than a Dwarf (although the wording is different, talking about weapons that are “cut down” to size). He can’t see in the dark, nor does he have d8 hit dice. But his saves are very good. Seems reasonable so far. What else?

He’s accurate with missile weapons, getting +1 to hit at all times. Call it Point Blank Shot, even though it’s quite a bit better than d20 with the lack of a range restriction. He gets +2 to AC against larger creatures, but I’m not going to mess around with size categories right now, so let’s call it a +2 Dodge bonus.

He gets a 16% bonus to initiative. Call it Improved Initiative, to make up for PBS. Their hiding ability is fearsome. Outdoors, it’s 90% and indoors it’s 33%.

Calculating a hide bonus is a little complicated, because the average adventurer has a 16% chance of hiding–never stated explicitly, but in general that’s the rule of thumb for Basic: when in doubt, roll a 1 on a d6. I’m going to keep DC 15 as the baseline, even though Goblins and Orcs have +2 and +1 to Spot, respectively. Why? I don’t know exactly. It seems like a reasonable compromise to handle the range of DCs the Halfling is likely to face from level 1-3. Adding to the trickiness is that the average d20 PC has a 30% chance of hiding with an unmodified d20 roll vs DC 15.

Probabilities are not my strong suit, so I asked some smarter nerds to weigh in. Here’s what one of them said:

A 15% chance of success corresponds to the smaller part of the area under the normal distribution curve about one standard deviation from mean. A 90% chance of success corresponds to the larger part of the area about 1.3 sd from mean. A 30% chance of success is about 0.5 sd, so I’d just up the halfling to 1.8, which yields a ~96% chance of success when hiding outdoors, and a 50% chance (0 sd) to hide in other conditions.
That’s assuming that skills follow some kind of normal distribution, and that returns on ‘investment’ in the skill tapers off, which is exactly how it doesn’t work in d20.

A 15% chance of success corresponds to the smaller part of the area under the normal distribution curve about one standard deviation from mean. A 90% chance of success corresponds to the larger part of the area about 1.3 sd from mean. A 30% chance of success is about 0.5 sd, so I’d just up the halfling to 1.8, which yields a ~96% chance of success when hiding outdoors, and a 50% chance (0 sd) to hide in other conditions.

That’s assuming that skills follow some kind of normal distribution, and that returns on ‘investment’ in the skill tapers off, which is exactly how it doesn’t work in d20.

The consensus was that +4 to hide indoors and +9 outdoors was a reasonable compromise, given the complexities in translating Basic’s percentile system to the d20 DC system.

So here’s how the abilities shake out:

Weapon Proficiencies: All (except long bows and two-handed swords)
Armor Proficiencies: All
Hide bonus: +4 (+9 outdoors)
Point Blank Shot, Improved Initiative, Dodge (+2 vs Larger than man-sized)

And that’s the Halfling. Next up is the weakest class in Basic, the poor, pitiful Thief.

September 28, 2010

Red Box to d20: Cleric

Next up is the Cleric, a class that I consider to be the best overall class in Basic D&D, despite what I said earlier about the Elf. The Cleric is nearly as good a fighter as the Fighter–he does slightly less damage and his ranged weapons suck–and he’s got the same hit points as an Elf. But instead of 4,000xp, he needs even less than the Fighter: only 1,500. And he can turn undead as well as cast cure light wounds once he makes 2nd level. Even though Elf is the most popular class at Red Box Vancouver, it’s no coincidence that of the three highest level PCs, two are Clerics.

In other words, the next time someone complains about the CoDzilla in 3.5e, tell them it’s part of a long tradition of divine ass-kicking. 

So the Cleric. Here are the saves, with the Fighter and M-U for comparison:
Death Ray or Poison (Fort) 11 (12, 13)
Magic Wands (Will) 12 (13, 14)
Paralysis or Turn to Stone (Fort) 14 (14, 13)
Dragon Breath (Ref) 16 (15, 16)
Rods, Staves or Spells (Will) 15 (16, 15)

These are surprising. Looks like the Cleric has one of the better Fort-type saves in the game ~12.5. Ref is not great, but no worse than the M-U, at 16. And versus magic, the Cleric is decent, ~13.5. Using DC 15 as our baseline:

BAB HD Fort Ref Will Spells
+1 1d6 +2 -1 +1 none
+1 2d6 +2 -1 +1 1 1st
+1 3d6 +2 -1 +1 2 1st

Clerics don’t get spells until they’ve “proven themselves” to their god by leveling.  We can revisit that when we look at spells. They can use all armor and all non-edged weapons (swords and arrows are specifically called out in the text as examples). And they can turn undead.

Armor Proficiency: All
Weapon Proficiency: Simple, Martial (non-edged).
Eschew Materials: Basic has no material components or focuses.

I gave the Cleric Martial weapons because the warhammer, a highly iconic cleric weapon after the mace, is a Martial weapon. That’s something I might change when I give the equipment list the d20 treatment.

As far as turning undead goes, I don’t see any reason why we can’t use the d20 version. It’s close enough to the Basic one, although because Charisma isn’t a prerequisite for the Basic cleric, we’ll use Wisdom as the operative stat.

Saves are still a little weird to me. Being no good at Ref works with the whole “heavily armored priest” archetype, but being better at Will saves than an M-U is strange to me. I think it’s the M-U that is weird, though. There’s an analysis of the Basic classes that shows that they’re all about as powerful as their relative xp costs… except for the M-U which has a very high xp cost to the amount of powers it has. Maybe the M-U saves were nerfed at some point for the same reason?

Next I guess I’ll tackle my two least favorite classes, the barely used Halfling and the nearly useless Thief.

September 27, 2010

Red Box to d20: Elf

Elf. The best class in Basic D&D. You can fight. You can cast Sleep. You can wear Plate Mail and use a Sword. D&D sure did love Elves back in the day. Admittedly, they need twice as many xp as a Fighter to level, but given that they combine the Fighter class with the M-U class, plus the Elvish abilities, the price tag seems actually pretty cheap (Fighter + M-U == 4,500).

So here we go. Everyone fights like our poor Fighter, so let’s jump right to saves. Fighter’s and M-U’s saves are in parenthesis for comparison:
Death Ray or Poison (Fort) 12 (12, 13)
Magic Wands (Will) 13 (13, 14)
Paralysis or Turn to Stone (Fort) 13 (14, 13)
Dragon Breath (Ref) 15 (15, 16)
Rods, Staves or Spells (Will) 15 (16, 15)

It looks an awful lot like the designers just took the better of the two classes’ saves and gave them to the Elf. Boy they had a hard-on for Elves. So let’s do the same thing. And we’ll split the difference with HD, just like Basic:

BAB HD Fort Ref Will Spells
+1 1d6 +2 +0 +0 1 1st
+1 2d6 +2 +0 +0 2 1st
+1 3d6 +2 +0 +0 2 1st, 1 2nd

Weapon Proficiency: Simple, Martial
Armor Proficiency: All
Eschew Materials (as M-U)
Darkvision (as Dwarf)
Search bonus: +3
Immunity: Ghoul Paralysis.

Elves can see in the dark like Dwarves, have a bonus when searching for secret doors similar to the Dwarves searching for traps, etc. They’re also immune to the paralysis of ghouls, which doesn’t have a d20 equivalent that I’m aware, but we’ll just make it a special feature.

And that’s the Elf. This is getting easier now that we have our base classes to work from. Next I’ll do the Cleric, which is easily the best class in D&D (some things never change, huh?) and I guess I’ll do the Halfling and Thief, which have to be the two worst classes in Basic D&D.

September 24, 2010

Red Box to d20: Magic-User

On to the Magic User. I’m a little anxious about this one, because I never play M-Us, so let me know if I miss anything.

The amazing thing about M-Us in Basic is that they fight as well as a Fighter from levels 1-3. Fighters really get a raw deal in Basic.

Their saves are:
DR/Poison (Fort) 13
M Wands (Will) 14
Para/Stone (Fort) 13
Dragon (Ref) 16
R, S, Spells (Will) 15

So Fort is 13, Ref 16 and Will 14.5. This surprised me. Magic Users are a little worse than fighters at dealing with Death Rays or Poison, but significantly better at resisting Paralysis and being Turned to Stone. That is just plain odd. They’re not as good at getting out of the way of Dragon Breath, which makes sense, and they’re good at resisting Spells… but no where near as good as a Dwarf. And only a little better (10%) than a Fighter. All in all, a real dog’s breakfast for Saves, and they don’t map very well to what you’d expect: sucks at Fort/Ref, good at Will.

Then again, M-Us have some serious disadvantages in Basic, so I won’t mess with saves just yet, but make a mental note to revisit this class again. So here’s the M-U:

BAB HD Fort Ref Will Spells
+1 1d4 +2 -1 +0 1 1st
+1 2d4 +2 -1 +0 2 1st
+1 2d4 +2 -1 +0 2 1st, 1 2nd

This class doesn’t feel right. +0 for Will saves just looks weird. And it has the same Fort save as our Fighter? Something ain’t right here. I’m wondering if I need to look more closely at my Magic == Will and Dragon Breath == Ref approximation. Come to think of it, I have no idea if a DC 15 Ref save is even remotely approximate to dragon breath in 3.5e. So before we go any further, let’s examine that.

A Basic Red Dragon is a 10 HD monster with average hit points of 45, which is also how much its breath weapon does. That puts it roughly equivalent to a Wyrmling or Very Young 3.5e Red Dragon. The DC for those categories: 15 and 18.

The DC 15 Ref save seems okay to me, as does the Dragon Breath to Ref save conversion. The Fort and Will values we ended up with are strange, but I’ll have to come back to that, when I do the Spell and Poison conversions.

M-Us can’t wear any armor or shields, and they can only fight with daggers. A lot of DMs allow them to use quarterstaffs or other small weapons, but by-the-book, they’re guys in a robe with a knife and a book.

Armor Proficiency: none.
Weapon proficiency: dagger.
Eschew Materials.

Basic (and I believe Expert) have no material components for spells. Basic has no rules for writing scrolls, copying spells into spellbooks, or making magic items. Expert D&D notes that M-Us can make scrolls and magic items when they hit “name” level, but that’s out of our scope. I’ll keep the Basic spell progression until I convert spells. I think we’re done.

A couple things I’ve noticed while doing this: the first is that the mere act of going through the Basic game makes me want to house rule it to make it more like the D&D I want to play. For example, I’d give the M-U proficiency with swords. Why? Because Gandalf, Elric and probably a bunch of other cool wizards had magic swords they liked to swing around. And it doesn’t really matter, because if you’re a Basic M-U in melee, you’re not going to be proficient with that sword for very long. 😛

The other thing I notice is how much 3.5e captures D&D for me, at it’s core. The classes, the class features, the race features, the strengths and weaknesses: they feel right to me. All the supplemental material, feats, etc didn’t always feel like D&D, but the core game hits the sweet spot for me. A great example are those M-U saves up there. They look bizarre! M-Us should be good at dealing with spells (ie Will saves) and crap at everything else!

Booyah. Next up, the Elf. I’m feeling pretty good about him.

September 23, 2010

Red Box to d20: Dwarf

Next I’m going to tackle the Dwarf class. In Basic D&D, the Dwarf is pretty much a Fighter who doesn’t need torches and can find traps. In fact, in lots of ways you never want to be a Fighter if you can qualify for Dwarf (just like you never want to be a M-U if you can qualify for Elf).

By the book, Dwarves can use any armor and any weapon except for long bows and two-handed swords. They have infravision and are expert miners who can find slanting passages, traps, etc. They also have much better saves than the Fighter, whose values are in parentheses:

Death Ray or Poison (Fort) 8 (12)
Magic Wands (Will) 9 (13)
Paralysis or Turn to Stone (Fort) 10 (14)
Dragon Breath (Ref) 13 (15)
Rods, Staves or Spells (Will) 12 (16)

So Fort saves are his best at ~9, Ref saves are his worst at 13, Will saves are a decent ~10.5. We’re using DC 15 as our benchmark, so that would be a staggering +6/+2/+4. That’s about the same as a 9th level Paladin in 3.5e! Basic Dwarves are limited to 12th level, but holy criznut that’s bad ass. On the other hand, saves don’t come up quite as much in Basic as they do in 3.5e, because if it’s not on the chart PCs don’t save against it (or use a stat check, unlike 3.5e where Reflex is used more often for environmental hazards, etc. We’re probably going to have to adjust these saves later, but for now let ’em stand.

BAB HD Fort Ref Will
+1 1d8 +6 +2 +4
+1 2d8 +6 +2 +4
+1 3d8 +6 +2 +4

For now, give the Dwarf proficiency with all armor and both simple and martial weapons minus the two weapons noted above, but I’m guessing that later we’ll nerf that a bit when we do the full Basic weapon and armor list. As for his racial abilities, d20 is interesting. I’d give him darkvision as is (I prefer darkvision to infravision for mechanical reasons anyway), and also give him a bonus when he’s searching for traps, sliding walls and all that Dwarven jazz. Since we don’t have skills, just stat checks, I think that works just fine, but in Basic his bonus is 16% better than normal, so I’ll give him a +3 when he searches.

In Basic D&D everyone has the same movement rate for simplicity (modified by encumbrance… we’ll tackle that later), so I’ll ignore the d20 movement rate for Dwarves (and Halflings, when we get there).

Armor Proficiency: All
Weapon Proficiency: Simple, Martial (except long bows and two-handed-swords)
Search bonus: +3
Darkvision 60′

I think it’s time to say BOOYAH! Damn, Dwarves rock. I never noticed how much better their saves were than… everyone.

One thing to start thinking about is xp. In Basic each class has it’s own xp chart, and the better classes (like Dwarves) need more to level. If we don’t do that for this conversion, then this class needs to have a few more limitations on it. Even if we do that, these saves are so good, and so much more useful in d20, that I’d be tempted to slap some limits on them. But right now we’re just trying to model Basic, and in Basic D&D the Dwarf is always, always a better choice than Fighter, even with needing an extra 200 to get to 2nd level. So far so good.

Next up: M-U, the base spellcasting class.

September 21, 2010

Red Box to d20: Fighter vs Goblin

Before going much further, I decided to compare our converted Fighter to the 3.5e Goblin as a sanity check, plus this means we have to dig into some armor and weapons as well, so it’ll pay off later.

The Basic D&D Goblin:
AC 6, HD 1-1, Move 20’/round, Saves: Normal Man, Atk: as HD, Damage 1d6.

Comparing him to the Goblin from the 3.5e SRD:
AC 15, HD 1d8+1, Speed 30, Saves: Fort/Ref/Will +3/+1/-1, Atk +2 (+3 Ranged), Damage 1d6.

So this sucks! On paper the d20 Goblin is better than our Fighter at fighting and saves. And he’s much, much better than the Goblin from Basic.

The AC is +2 better: Basic AC 6 is Leather Armor & Shield, which is +3 points of protection (Basic AC starts at 9), or a d20 AC 13.

Basic hit points average 4. d20 hit points average 5.

Movement is a wash: 20′ round is normal for a Fighter wearing metal armor in Basic D&D.

Saves are better than our Fighter by +1 net. But compared to the Normal Man in Basic, they’re leagues better. The Normal Man has the same saves as a Basic D&D Fighter (see my previous post) except at -2! The d20 equivalent is probably Fort/Ref/Will of +0/-2/-2. Even if we give our d20 Normal Man +0 across the board (like the NPC Commoner class), the d20 Goblin still comes out way ahead of his Basic counterpart.

The combat ability of a HD 1-1 monster in Basic is the same as a 1st level fighter. But the d20 Goblin has the fighting ability of the 4th level version of our Fighter: +2. And he’s even better at ranged attacks. His damage is the same, thankfully, but it’s looking like the 3.5e Goblin will mop the floor with our Fighter, even if the Fighter is wearing Platemail & Shield, standard load out for a low level Basic D&D guy.

Let’s find out.

Our Fighter needs a 12 to hit the Goblin’s AC 13. That means he’ll hit 45% of the time and do 1d8 points of damage with a longsword. The sword is the best weapon in Basic for a guy with a shield (and therefore the best weapon in Basic), and the damage is the same as the d20 longsword, so we’ll use it verbatim. Anyway, the longsword does an average of 4.5 hit points per strike. 45% of 4.5 = 2.025. Gob has an average of 5.5 hp, so 5.5/2.025 = 2.72 rounds.

Going the other way. Plate mail & Shield in Basic is +7 to AC. I’m a bit torn here. Obviously AC 17 isn’t right, because the scale is different when AC starts at 10. I’m tempted to just go with armor type and call it Half-Plate & Shield. But then is it a heavy shield or a light shield (AC 18 or 19, respectively)? I’m going with AC 18, though I can’t exactly explain why–other than there is only one kind of shield in Basic, and it gives a +1 bonus to AC. It’s not a perfect conversion. 🙂

So the Gob needs a 16 to hit the Fighter’s AC 18. That means he’ll hit 25% of the time and do 3.5 hp per strike, a measly 0.875. Our fighter has an average of 5.5 hit points at 1st level (Basic rules let you re-roll 1-2s for HD at 1st level). So 5.5/0.875 = 6.3 rounds.

This is fascinating to me! We’ve observed over the course of nearly 18 months of Basic D&D (see my sig) that superior armor and weapons is one of the main advantages that Basic PCs have over monsters that are invariably better fighters.

Let’s compare the Basic version of the Fighter vs Basic Gob. Gob hits the Fighter 20% for 3.5 hp = 0.7. 5.5/0.7 = 7.85 rounds. Fighter hits Gob .40*4.5 = 1.8. 5.5/1.8 = 3.06 rounds.

I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s the same ballpark, provided we use the d20 Armor values. Speaking of which, let’s do that for the other Basic armors: Leather and Chain.

Basic Leather and Chain give +2 and +4 to AC. The d20 versions give +2 and +5. Close enough for me, but if someone wants to run some numbers that’d be interesting.

Basic: d20
Leather: Leather +2
Chain: Chainmail +5
Plate Mail: Half-Plate +7
Shield: Light Shield +1

Right now I’m feeling pretty good about our conversion. For thoroughness sake, I should probably run some numbers for other iconic Basic monsters… but I’ve got work to do. 

Next post I’ll tackle the Dwarf. In the meantime, if someone could take a look at my calculations and make sure that I’m not doing it wrong, I’d appreciate it.

September 20, 2010

Red Box to d20 Conversion

I know, you’re wondering “How can cr0m, that paragon of Old School virtue and banner-waving Red Box champion speak SUCH HERESY! BURN THE WITCH!”

What can I say? A project like this is very near and dear to my heart. 3e D&D gave me hours and hours of fun, and the d20/OGL movement completely revitalized roleplaying games (not to mention allowing all my favorite retro-clones to exist). And then I ran across a thread on rpg.net about the same subject, that almost immediately veered off topic, but still got me interested to see if it could be done. So put down your pitchforks. Lower the torches. Let’s give this a shot.

It’s really easy to get bogged down in all the fiddly bits of the d20 system, so I’m going to work on something very limited in scope: porting Basic D&D to d20. I want to make something that could be used with monsters and treasures from the d20 SRD without any modifications (other than some omissions). Then, if I want to, I’ll add more levels, spells, tweaks, alignment systems, and all the other things that make it fun to hack any version of D&D.

Let’s start with the building block of the Basic D&D classes: the Fighter. And keep it simple by restricting our port to Basic D&D. In other words, levels 1-3.

So here’s the fighter for levels 1-3:

BAB HD
+1  1d8
+1  2d8
+1  3d8

Seriously, the Fighter doesn’t increase his fighting ability until level 4 in Basic D&D! 

On to saving throws. In Basic, the saves (and their d20 equivalents) are:
Death Ray or Poison (Fort) 12
Magic Wands (Varies) 13
Paralysis or Turn to Stone (Fort) 14
Dragon Breath (Ref) 15
Rods, Staves or Spells (Varies) 16

So basically Fighters are decent at Fort saves (~13), worse at Ref saves (15) and about the same at Magic saves (~14.5). If we decide that Magic == Will, no surprises here.


BAB HD  Fort Ref Will
+1  1d8 +2   +0  +0
+1  2d8 +2   +0  +0
+1  3d8 +2   +0  +0

So for a difficult save (DC 15), our fighter is going to fail a Ref/Will save about 25% of the time–which matches up pretty well with Basic’s chart. Ditto for Fort saves, where he needs a 13 or better. (It’s almost like 3rd Edition’s designers were working from an older edition…)

Do you need Feats to model Basic D&D? Not really, but might as well use the various Weapon/Armor Proficiency Feats.

Fighter gets Simple and Martial Weapons and all Armor/Shield Proficiencies. Since Basic D&D doesn’t have any skills, we just use Attribute checks. BOOYAH, we’re done.

I don’t know what I’d do next. I’m tempted to do the Dwarf, since he’s pretty similar to a Fighter but with some interesting special abilities, but it might be a better idea to port over a goblin and make sure that our Fighter operates pretty similarly to the Basic D&D version against a typical 1st level foe.

Stay tuned…

September 8, 2010

The Game that Builds Character

There’s this thing that role-playing games have done, over the past three-and-a-half decades, that I think players want, but games haven’t been particularly good at supplying. As I explained in the last post, the original role-playing game places little or no importance on a character’s unique identity, and greatly privileges the fictional world created by the DM/GM/Referee/et al (I’m ‘a use all these terms and more, throughout).

Problem is, people like their characters! From the elaborate lifepath systems of Traveller and Cyberpunk 2020 to the point-buy character creation systems of Champions and GURPS, games that provide players with a way to carefully sculpt a more complete (more complete than Basic D&D) character have proved highly popular.

This game of character-building can take many forms. It can be completely free-form, in the case of page after page of intricate back-story. It can be completely random, Paul Jaquays’ system-agnostic Central Casting books, for example. And it can be a series of choices provided by the game for the player to make, as any point-buy or resource-allocation system is, be it Shadowrun, Hero system, D&D 3.x, or even Call of Cthulhu. Whatever form it takes, this game rejects the faceless ciphers that are beginning characters in Basic D&D, and allows the player to express his or her creativity, system mastery, or simple desire to discover more about the fiction.

Even in an old-school D&D game, you’re going to get some kind of character building. By the time characters gain a few levels, they will have created a pretty elaborate history of dungeons looted, magical items recovered, and quests completed. Even if they started as faceless nobodies looting the nearest dungeon at hand, at some point players will find their own drives and motivations, and begin to direct the story based on the motivations and desires of their characters, instead of simply accepting whatever dungeon the DM has prepared. It’s just that later games began to include this as part of character generation, not just as part of play.

I think this game is great. I like finding the optimal way to make a certain type of character with a given system—the combination that gives me the most bad-ass fighter, or the most gear and stuff, or the craziest background. I like taking my character through a complete dramatic arc, and seeing how he is changed by his adventures. I like deciding how he makes sense of everything, session after session.

What I don’t like is how DMing/GMing/Refereeing styles evolved (or didn’t evolve) to fit this desire. If the traditional approach is used, the DM prepares a dungeon beforehand, without reference to the player characters. This means there’s no guarantee that any of a given character’s abilities will be useful, and almost no chance that a character will be able to pursue his own personal goals, or explore his own relationships. And yet, it’s inevitable that when people are building their own elaborate characters, they’re going to build characters that aren’t interested in raiding dungeons or exploring the DM’s fantastic setting. They make characters that are all about their own goals, their own specific problems, and their relationships with other people. And not with the dungeon.

Instead of running a loose collection of situations (and when I say “situations” I mean “rooms with traps, monsters, or treasures in them”), the GM is instructed to run a linked series of encounters, which are more pre-planned than semi-random. And then this leads to the dreaded railroading. Outside the constraints of the dungeon, where players have unlimited choice, the GM has to anticipate their choices so he can prepare—which means limiting their choices! The GM may even be using a module, which has a whole series of scenes planned out, which have nothing to do with the characters. And so, players are told that their characters matter, and that the game will address their drives, goals, and relationships (because why would you spend time deciding on them or crating them?) and yet the GM is told to keep a strict reign on the plot, and not let the players deviate too much from it.

Even in a game like Call of Cthulhu, which is pretty close to old-school D&D, I’m still annoyed by the skill selection. I have a limited amount of points, and no idea which skills will actually be useful in the adventure or not. If only I’d put those fifty points in shotgun instead of photography, I wouldn’t have been killed twenty minutes into the game! Expand that out into more elaborate point-buy systems, where I’ve got all sorts of characteristics and relationships, how pissed off am I going to be when none of that comes up in play? Even in White Wolf games, which are pretty explicitly about relationships and conflicts, the Storyteller is still told how to create “your story,” and “the story you want to tell.”

Dirty little secret here, people: The story isn’t produced by the DM, the GM, or the Storyteller. Everybody produces the story. The GM’s job is to introduce situation, and to adjudicate the rules as that situation turns into story. When players describe what their characters do, they are either trying to enter a situation, deal with a situation, or get out of a situation. And when they do that, you say what the situation they enter is like, how the situation evolves when they deal with it, what happens to the situation when they don’t, and what new situation they enter when they leave the old one.

Basic D&D does a good job of telling the DM how to create situation. It just tells you how to make a dungeon. But most games where the characters are important don’t do a good job of telling the DM how to create situation, because the dungeon creation rules in Basic D&D don’t work for that kind of game. When you get past Basic and into Expert, your D&D game is probably going to turn into that kind of game, and you deserve the best of tools for running it when it does.

So I’ve done a lot of complaining here, just setting up this thing that annoys me. I should probably start proposing solutions, yeah? Okay. Here are some games that do a good job of making that game of building a character actually meaningful in play:

Apocalypse World:

This game concentrates on cool, competent people in a post-apocalyptic setting. The game stays focused on the player characters first and foremost by directing the MC (the GM) to build the setting and the situations around the player characters. When you’re the MC, you ask questions, present situations, and react to what the player characters do. Instead of pre-planning locations or storylines, you prepare fronts, which are essentially countdowns. This is an old trick (and one used fairly well in Call of Cthulhu), but the game gives you solid rules to help you. Create a problem, and if it’s not addressed by the players, just make it worse when you re-introduce it later. Every situation is a question. Either the players will answer it, or you will, but you’ll answer it during play, not when you write the question.

Burning Wheel:

This game is almost the exact opposite of Basic D&D. Instead of focusing on the dungeon, BW privileges the characters completely. The GM introduces setting, situation, and secondary characters in order to challenge a character’s Beliefs, which are written from the character’s point of view, but function as cues from the players to the GM. It’s the Beliefs of all the characters put together that determine what happens in the game, with the GM reacting to what the players want, and exploring the characters through their deeds, instead of the players exploring the GM’s fictional setting.

D&D 4E:

The main criticism of 4E I hear is that it’s too focused on tactical minis combat, but this is what makes the character building game work, in my opinion. Because all your character building is expressed through tactical combat effects, every choice you make when you’re creating your character has a concrete and observable impact on game play. Unlike Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel, you can play the game without worrying too much about the fiction, although you still can’t create a character without creating fiction.

Yeah, I know, that’s pretty short. Will I explain how to use techniques from all three of these games in higher-level old-school D&D games in greater detail in later posts? Of course I will!

August 31, 2010

A Game About Tourists.

Old school D&D is a game about tourists.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: three guys walk into a dungeon…

The basic premise of the first few editions of Dungeons & Dragons is fairly simple. Some dudes wander into some foreign, alien environment in order to explore it, for whatever reason. Who these dudes are, or if they’re even dudes, doesn’t matter. It’s the dungeon that really matters.

I’ll be referring specifically to Basic D&D (Moldvay/Mentzer) throughout this article, and I’ll just assume all of this applies to the original and Holmes editions as well.

What the DM does.

Before every game of Basic D&D, including the very first one, the DM must prepare a dungeon, either by creating one or by reading one created by someone else. This is usually done without reference to the players’ characters. The DM may not even know who will be playing, much less what characters they will play. Players may be creating their characters at the beginning of the game, and they may end up playing more than one character in the same dungeon, because of casualties.

This dungeon is a static situation for the players to discover. During play, the DM sets parts of this static situation into motion based on what the players decide their characters do. The DM also uses random charts to introduce new situations during the game. The DM is expected to adjudicate fairly and be faithful to the dungeon as it is written.

So the focus is on the dungeon from the very beginning. Without a dungeon, there’s no game. Without players, the dungeon is still waiting for characters to enter it.

What the players do (and don’t do).

Characters are assumed to want treasure. This is a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff, right? No. If you don’t want to do that, you can still play the game, as it’s written. You can run away from monsters, or avoid them altogether, and sometimes that’s actually the wisest course of action. You don’t have to pick up any of the treasure, either. You could just leave it and check out the wall paintings instead.

One of the most popular rules variants for D&D is how experience points are awarded. In Basic D&D, characters receive most of their xp from treasure. In other editions, monsters are a major source, and in various house-rules, completing quests and role-playing get you xp. Thing is, the DM doesn’t even have to write any new rules or make any difficult rulings if the players don’t want to kill monsters or take stuff, or even collect xp at all. It’s not the reason characters exist, it’s just how they get better.

And so they don’t have to get better, either. The endless circles of efficiently overcoming obstacles so you can get more stuff that will help you overcome obstacles more efficiently is certainly there, but it’s not necessary. The characters do have to go into the dungeon, but they don’t have to level up.

Who gets to say what.

Because the characters are venturing into a foreign setting, dividing narrative responsibilities is fairly easy. Players say what their characters do, the DM handles the whole setting. Characters are experiencing the dungeon for the first time, so of course players do not describe any part of the setting. Character background is pretty much irrelevant—only their actions while they explore the dungeon matter—so players are not expected to invent new narrative elements, by which I mean proper nouns: people, places, or things. After they name their character and decide what he or she looks like, they are only ever interacting with narrative elements, not introducing new ones.

The DM does all the creation and introduction of elements. The players manipulate them.

Why this is good.

The main advantage to this system is that it’s easy for players to get into. Because players are only tasked to make decisions and interact with the DM’s fictional creations, there’s much less trepidation to participate. This is only enhanced by the disposable nature of characters. They are easy to create and players have little or no immediate attachment to them. Which means it’s still a fun time when your character is killed in a gruesome, heroic, or even hilariously pointless manner. Your character is simply your gateway into someone else’s fantastical imagination. If you lose one, you just make another and dive back in.

And while this puts most of the weight on the DM, there are plenty of tools to make that job easier. Not only whole modules and instructions for how to make them, but hundreds of other types of information are available through the wealth of the internet and the history of published games.

Why this is bad.

Of course, the game has constraints and when you step beyond them, play runs less smoothly. Some of the problems and complaints that arise out of old school D&D include the game of character building, a lack of familiar settings, a lack of player input, a lack of focus on characters and their narrative arcs, and railroading. All of these will be the subject of future blog posts.

-Johnstone.