About Me

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


I believe that in D&D a thinking player should be more successful than a roll-playing player just rolling dice. This also applies to combat in D&D. And here we have a quandary: A simplistic combat system, such as the one in Gygax' AD&D, cam be taken advantage of and lead to power playing - players taking advantage of the weaknesses in rules to beat the game, and on the other end, the system gets more complicated and starts involving additional die rolls and multiple tables, making for confusing game mechanics that slow down the game. Consider every fighter, who has sprung for a "Plate Mail Armor and Shield" and a "Sword". In reality, to wear and to fight either in chain mail or plate was a lifetime undertaking. You did not just switch between them. But that is an imposition that comes from the top, and does not really solve the problem. And the system does not really change.

One problem with Gygaxian D&D is that the weapons are primarily defined in terms of damage that they do. A "1d4" Dagger will be less effective than a "1d10" Two handed sword. In reality, a dagger can murder you as effectively as a sword thrust into an unarmed man. Historically, if you take any weapon from the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide weapons list or from other exquisite weapons lists from other games, such as Tunnels & Trolls or the AD&D Oriental Adventure, each of those weapons was brought into battle for a specific purpose to deal with a specific problem and in the hands of men working together, each weapon listed in these tables, is actually a medieval Weapons System. In Antiquity, Balearic Slingers, Ancient Greek Hoplites and Peltasts, Roman Legionnaires, were all me who mastered their muscle powered weapons and deployed as a team on the field of battle, became weapon systems. Each one of those weapons listed in those game tables, had battlefield tactics that evolved around their use, of which most D&D players are blissfully unaware!

Consider the Sword: While other weapons were mostly agricultural tools modified for the field of battle, Sword was the fist weapon in Man's arsenal to be invented, to be most effective when murdering human beings, and hence it became the primary weapon of noblemen maintaining social order. Then you have the Spear, which was invented to fend off large beasts in the wild, but also became useful for defending against the mounted attackers. Hooks mounted at the business end of the spear begat the Pole Arms, and the pole arms became the preferred weapon of the common man to disarm the misbehaving drunken swordsmen, who could not be hurt, being their noblemen, Pole Arms were also used to pull the heavily knights off their horses in melee. Barbarian battle axes are the stuff of fantasy. They were not widely used in the West. They were more widely used in Asia and in the Byzantine Empire, where heavy armor was not as implemented, incidentally. In England, axes were used by Anglo Saxons, very effective against the Chain Mail, it being the heaviest armor of the time, but axes were discontinued after the Norman invasions, then having introduced the sword and the mounted knight into the fray. But before axes were superseded, Saxons used aces in conjunction with the other weapons - swords and spears, to break the shield walls, the defense formations of their day. Protected by spears, axemen would close in to the shield wall and use their axes to hook the tops of the shields and pull them away from the defenders, so that the spearmen and the swordsmen can attack the defenders' exposed faces.

May I suggest that your Orcs and Goblins do the same to your players in the next dungeon adventure that you run. In the next post I will show you how to use your AD&D combat rules for a streamlined and   realistic game mechanics to run your combat in D&D.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


One of the biggest flaws of the Gygaxian combat system is that it is linear. An arrow does 1d6 points of damage. A Fifth level fighter has 50 hit points, give or take a few, how many arrows does it take to kill him in battle?

Answer is: ONE, if it hits. Anybody has any doubt that any medieval knight or a man at arms will not die, most likely, when an arrow tears his jugular, or hits him in the eye and goes in the brain? AD&D combat can be made non-linear and any arrow potentially deadly with an elegant critical hit system, that must deliver the fear of a SUDDEN DEATH! I combine the critical system mechanic from the second edition with the critical hit system from the Wizards of the Coast edition, for a very quick and elegant hope for every low lever adventurer. To put simply, ANY ATTACK HAS A CHANCE OF STRIKING A FIGHT-ENDING BLOW!!!!!!!! Note, that I didn't say, a killing blow. You can defeat any opponent in battle, ever the ones that can't be hit by non-magical weapons, but it does not mean that you kill them, only that they break off the fight. Why? DM can improvise and narrate: Vampire slips, falls down the stairs, turns into a wolf and runs away. The fire breathing demon sees something that it thinks will kill it, and flees to its primary plane of existence. To facilitate play, I do away with the traditional Hit location table. I have it, but it is optional.

Here is how the Midlands CritHit system works: Roll 1d20, 20 always hits, 1 always misses and you have a fumble (roll on critical fumble table - weapon breaks, you slip and fall, you drop weapon, etc.)
If you hit 5 higher than your To Hit number, you automatically inflict maximum damage!

If you roll 20 (for spears and axes), 19-20 (for swords), 18-20 (for curved swords), then your damage is multiplied (x3 for spears, x2 for swords, and x4 for scythes and military picks). Your regular To Hit Roll will tell you if you scored a critical hit and how much damage the opponent is in for. When you score a Crit Hit, you roll a second time to see if the opponent is out of the fight. If you score a second Crit Hit, then the opponent, no matter how big or invulnerable, is out of the fight!

If it is a +5 Crit Hit, the opponent is more scared than hurt, and breaks off the fight and runs or tries to surrender. If it is of the 19-20 Multiplier variety, then the opponent is more hurt and is actually incapacitated by the injury, and if the second roll is 20, the opponent is killed!!!!!!

Initially, I did not use a hit location table, and just improvised along, but then, to encourage the building of suits of composite armor by players and to aid in narration. Basically, if a player character wears a metal plate over a location that is hit, there is a good chance that a critical hit, and more importantly, the hit that knocks you out of the fight, will be averted. There are head, face, and neck locations, to account for metal skull caps, partial and fully enclosed great helms that the player characters might opt to wear. This also encourages the use of heavier shields.

I also have a detailed game mechanic (largely for the players benefits), to see of the crit hit knocks the player character off his feet, renders him incapacitated, knocks the  PC unconscious, or puts them into traumatic shock. That one has great (and realistic) narrative results, but it needs me reviewing it, before I DM a game session.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


I run a paper and pencil game. The game, and the tactical play that goes with it, should be taking place in the mind, not on a table with the miniature play with the facing rules and base size and square count. You do not need miniatures, or the WoTC version of D&D to show the players caught out in the open field and forcing to form a shield wall to receive a charge of the goblin wolf-riders bearing lances (a shorter goblin version doing 1d6+2 damage). The impact scores two critical hits for goblins and one character is dead, and the other takes massive damage, with the point of the goblin lance bypassing the shield, penetrating the chain mail, and breaking off inside the fighter's shoulder, just below the collar bone, ripping the neck and chest area. That player character is unconscious, seconds away from bleeding out and death. Two remaining characters are engaged in melee with the two riders, while the third one, a cleric swinging his mace at one of them, he fumbles and slips in the pool of blood at his feet and falls down on his hands and knees. His hands slick with blood, he fumbles for his mace, then sees the two of his friends. He tries to help one, but he is dead... tries to help the other, life is still pulsing in her... then just as he starts casting the healing spell, he sees another rider galloping towards him, lance extended towards him...

This really happened in my game. It used a critical hit system, but no hit location table. I run a narrative-based game. Narrativism in role-playing is not railroading by the DM, or running the players along the storyline or a pre-determined script, even s script with decision points along the way. Narrativism means that we use storytelling and the game takes place in the mind of the players, not on a table top cluttered with miniatures and a 3D representation of the dungeon. Narrativism does not mean improvisational play by the DM. It is not Narrativism, when the DM assumes the role of a powerful NPC, who has just captured the players, and starts an unscripted segment of the game, negotiating with players, who try to bluff their way out, and eventually releasing them with another quest to fulfill. I might add, that the army of the undead that captured the players in that instant was unscripted, and unannounced as well. What makes D&D a game, as opposed to mere storytelling with the audience participation, is that is a system of game mechanics, for realistically resolving and adjudicating situations that come up in the course of the game, and that there is a discoverable background of the world, on which the DM bases his story-telling. In order for the game to be fair, or winnable by the players, everything that happens to them as a result of their actions, should already have been considered and touched on by the DM. This doesn't mean that everything has to be written down in detail, but the all of the major aspects of the game world touching the players should have been at least outlined by the DM. An army of the undead does not come from nowhere, and once these undead are destroyed, there will not me another army to take their place. This is nor Diablo video game and there is no monster generators. There may be replacements, but if the players disrupt that, there will be no more undead and no more army of the undead.

Players, on the other hand, are free to improvise. They can't fly away on a pair of Icarus' Wings, if they don't have them, but they can try to get those wings. A good DM in a good sandbox campaign will turn those attempts by the players into roe-playing encounters, travel and exploration by the players, as they research to see of these wings exist, and then to find and secure these wings. It is this kind of play that creates adventuring possibilities without signposting or trails of crumbs, generating a genuine sandbox game.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Once upon a time, D&D had a workable system for keeping track of NPC and Monster Stats, you had you AC, HD, HP, Armor, weapon, Save, and Damage. That's it! Character was defined by its class and  level. Along the way there came about game systems that defined the character in terms of skills. There was Traveler, for space opera, and there was Rune Quest, for fantasy. I fell in love with the Rune Quest System. It was elegant, and it did away with the artifice of character levels, however, one drawback was that it was a lot longer and more tedious than AD&D to create an NPC, and to list a single NPC's stats was a chore! Nowadays this makes no difference, as the current version of the WHATSIE (WTC) D&D is like an old Rune Quest system on steroids! To stage manage it, you describe some NPC's in greater deal than others, you get your BOSSES (to borrow from the video game terminology) and you get your cannon fodder, The whole game turns into a stage set, a sort of pencil and paper Diablo game, into which you can introduce the miniatures for a combat oriented game, in which story is a mere window-dressing.

Back then, Gygax developed a system of Non-Weapon Proficiencies for AD&D to keep up with the market. As it turned out, Gygax' system was inelegant, but the most in-depth.

To fully appreciate Gary Gygax's genius and contribution, you have to realize that the original Dungeon Master's Guide was not meant to be read from cover to cover. Instead, it is a reference, out of which the DM plucks an article on the aspect of the DMing that he needs help with, and he gets a useful game mechanic or two, to adjudicate the play. In keeping with this style, each skill, or a NWP or the Non-Weapon Proficiency was a mini-game to cover that particular skill, say, make a suit of armor. You ran through the mini-game, made a few rolls, and whoala!!!

The key difference between the Gygax' Non-Weapon Proficiencies and the Current WHATSIE skill system, as well as the use of skills in Traveler and Rune Quest, is that with Gygax, the Non-Weapon Proficiencies are Cardinal Trait, while in the skills systems that dominated the other games and which WTC adopted, the skills were an Ordinal Trait. What is the difference? Cardinal traits are those few, which define an individual and make him unique. Ordinal traits, are the traits which we all have, but which are developed to a different degree in each person. In game terms this means, that with an ordinal skill, say Horsemanship, you roll for success every time the player character gets on a horse. That's when you start categorizing common tasks and assigning difficulty factors to everything, further complicating the game process. With Cardinal Traits, you only roll, when your character's skill will make a difference. You only roll when a horse tries to throw you, where those unskilled in horsemanship will get thrown, and only the successful use of the skill will keep you in the saddle.

In my campaign, I married the elegance of the Rune Quest skill game mechanic with the narrative power of Gygax's Non-Weapon Proficiencies. Here is how it works:

Let’s say Brent is a WWII Commando being parachuted into Burma. For our purposes he has a Parachute Jump skill of 43%. Brent must roll 43 or less on percentile dice to use the skill successfully.

Initial skill percentage is usually calculated by taking one of the character’s attributes and modifying it by +/- 5,10, or 15 percent based on second requisite. Every time the skill was used successfully to influence the outcome of the game, there is a chance of improvement in that skill. This means that

i)      You only roll when a layman will fail and only a skilled person can succeed.

ii)   You only have a chance of growth (improvement in that skill) if you make a positive difference in the game – i.e. your First Aid skill saves someone from choking or bleeding to death, if you shoot someone, you shoot and kill a mass murderer shooting up the office, etc.

Only THEN your skill has a chance of improving. i) comes from the initial conceptualization of Non-Weapon Proficiencies by Gary Gygax. ii) is the game mechanic from Runequest.

Every time you roll a skill, you have five possible outcomes: Critical Failure, Fumble, Failure, Special Success, and Critical success. 00(100) on percentile dice is always a fumble or critical failure. 01 on percentile dice is always a special or critical success.

Whenever a skill is rolled, it can be modified up o down in five percent increments based on if you have tools, help, materials and conditions.

Let’s now look at Brent the OSS operative in 1942 Burma. He is jumping on a stormy night onto a clearing on the edge of the jungle.

Success or failure for the skill percentile base 43 is as follows:  

               01-02    Critical Success

               03-09    Special Success

               10-43    Success

               44-97    Failure

               98-99    Fumble

               100      Critical failure.


Referee decides that because parachute jumping is inherently a hazardous activity, player must roll his skill to see if there are any problems during the jump. Critical success means that character does not get wet feet and all in order. Special success means that character gets wet but all is okay. Success means character rolls in mud, as can be expected, needs a change of clothing before he can sit at the dinner table, but is otherwise all okay. Failure would mean that character lands okay, but equipment gets wet, maybe some water damage. Failure would mean a messy landing, maybe a sprained ankle, maybe the character got dragged by the parachute through the mud and got messed up and will have to spend time getting his stuff together. Fumble would mean that character has drifted over the jungle. Character must roll his skill again, and if he fails, he gets a broken leg. Critical failure means that the parachute did not get open or it was torn up by the gale force winds inside the storm clouds. Character must roll successfully on his skill or die.

In our case, Referee decides that because of the night and the rain, and the wind the skill roll must be rolled at a -10% penalty. Brent has Parachute Jumping at 43%, he must roll 33 or less to succeed, but the chances for special success or failure remain the same as for the 43% skill!

In our case: Roll 1 = 13!

Brent jumps and lands okay!

After the raid on the Japanese radar outpost, Brent gets a chance to improve in his parachute jumping skill: He must roll 44 or above to have a chance of improvement.

In our case: Roll 2 = 77!

Brent learned from his experience and got better!

When characters get to improve, they get to add 1d6 percentage points to the skill.

In our case: 1d6 Roll 3 = 6!

After the adventure, Brent’s Parachute Jumping skill is 43+6=49%!!!

Importance  of  Teachers

What are your odds of improving if you skill climbs up to 80 or 90%? Very little. 10% chance per adventure. That’s when you find a good teacher. Based on his teaching skill, his expertise, how well you hit it off, a teacher can add from +5% to over +20% to you “see if you learn from experience” roll.

Great instructors can be hard to find and expensive. That’s part of the game world.

Skill  as a  d20 Roll

Any skill can be represented as a D&D “Ability Roll” simply by dividing it by 5. Usually this gets done, when a skill is used in place of a common action. Thieves have a hide in shadow ability, so can anybody with common sense. Where does thief benefit from his skill? You say.

When an unskilled character tries to hide in shadows, an ability check versus AGILITY is done (Agility is Dexterity modified by Strength score). Whereas an unskilled character does an ability check and then succeed or fails, a Thief gets to do an ability check, and if THAT fails, then rolls against his Thief’s Ability to Hide in Shadows. Also, while everyone can hide behind some bushes near a campfire and strain to overhear SOME of the conversation, a Thief can use his skill to hide right near the flames and hear ALL of the conversation.

If Brent the paratrooper tried to teach parachute jumping to another soldier, his 43% skill would translate to 43/5= 8 3/5ths=8, with an ability score of 8, Brent would contribute a -5% penalty if he tried teaching anyone the parachute jump!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Greetings, Heroes, Would-be Heroes, and Villains, and wannabe Bad Guys!!!!!!!!

In the Palace of Ice an obscure DM awakens from a spell of Writers Block that lasted from the Fall into the Summer. Why encompasses major life changes, such as promotions, new relationships, and other insignificancies. The Writers Block also coincided with the completion of a Mega-Dungeon by my players. Mega Dungeon was intentional, and yet it wasn't supposed to take a life of its own and eat up so much time - The campaign lasted three years in this incarnation and a year and a half in its previous incarnation, never got to the Part - 2. THAT was a mistake. There was a well-paced adventure, that covered a lot of ground and ended up with players staying in a small town that was raided. Raid was a breath-taking military adventure that spanned the four sessions and brought out the best in players and the party had a real impact on the unfolding events. Then there was an immediate pursuit, a wilderness adventure that covered maybe 8 miles of boggy, twisted and overgrown terrain that the raiders used to hide their movement. What was a three day pursuit across difficult terrain with combat and recovery, assault and counterattack, and incidental rescue, spanned, actually, the four game sessions. Then came the Quagmire. It was AD&D equivalent of Afghanistan, Vietnam and Iraq. It was 16 interlinked dungeons, about 30 rooms each, and it wasn't the product of random dungeon design tables. It was designed with an original purpose in mind, abandoned about 75 years previously, saddled with a realistic dungeon ecology, became a shelter to a number of communities of monstrous creatures, and was taken over as an underground base by the afore-mentioned raiders. Unfortunately they were led by a Goblin King, who was competent warlord and whose defensive tactics were on par with Ho Chi Minh. There was a logistical link with the main body of Goblins, which the players and the men at arms besieging the dungeon could not sever completely. That supply line turned the key areas of the dungeon into a fluid battlefield that changed hands between the players and the Goblin raiders several times. In a previous run of this adventure, the players spent three game sessions trying to retake the same choke point, then they displayed extreme disgruntlement, we are talking three session each lasting a weekend. I didn't give in, they met with the Captain at arms and with the Sergeant at arms of the Baronial encampment that was besieging the tower, but who would not enter as the Baron did not want to lose any of his men to the hazards of infested dungeons (that's why players are there!). It was a role-playing session where they hammered a plan to capture the choke point and to hold it permanently. That was the paradigm shift that worked so well in my campaign, I was able to break away from the loot-based gaming of kill the owner, take the treasure, to a different system, where rewards were more sophisticated, players can requisition equipment from a large body of men supporting them (not to mention the Priests of the Barony keeping the group in healing potions, scrolls and resurrections).

Before I started running this original world of mine, it was a very long time in the making. I started playing with the Moldvay Red Box basic set I bought in 1980 or 1981. I spent 90 minutes rolling my first character, a basic set Magic User rolled from 3dt6 in order. It took me almost a year to figure out how to use percentile dice and how weapon damage works. The playing sessions were few and far in between, players entirely incidental. By H.S., I moved on to Advanced D&D, then to Traveler, the Gamma World, then Boot Hill, then Chill, then Espionage! then Twilight 2000, then Aftermath, Tunnels and Trolls, Rune Quest, Call of Cthulu. It seems that between 1985 and 1990 I read and bought every pencil and paper RPG that came out. It seems that the only role playing games I did not read at the time were Top Secret (I liked Espionage rules), Star Frontiers (had traveler) and Paranoia. I collected a lot of obscure (and awesome) rules supplements for the Traveler. I graduated college in 1990 and gave away (what an idiot!) all my gaming stuff, which included a collection of the original Squad Leader and its supplements. What a shame that nobody adapted it as a PC game, that would have been awesome!

Long time went by, and around 2003 I felt the urge to play D&D again! Not the Gygax D&D though! I hated Vancian magic as unrealistic, the abstract combat with the linear hit points. The hoops most DMs jumped through to extend the lives of their characters by giving them extra hit points, all without any thought of realism or logic. I left D&D because I wanted to have a more realistic character development and a more tactical combat system, but D&D was archetypal, and I wanted to run a D&D game. I loved the weapons lists of the Tunnels and Trolls, with its Grand Shamsheer two handed scimitars, Bhujes (a cross between an hand axe and a bowie knife), Assegai and Jambiya African spears, ALL historic weapons used by mankind, and all calling for a more sophisticated combat system than D&D, and Tunnels and Trolls was even simpler and sillier. RuneQuest had a great skill system with built in experiential improvement, but the combat system was cumbersome and it was a time consuming pain to represent NPC's in the game much like it now with the Wizards if the Coast version of D&D. So, D&D it was, but which D&D? White Box D&D (and I got all of the books off e-bay for pennies on the dollar)? Advanced Dungeons and Dragons? Again, I got every volume for the AD&D first edition though the 2nd Edition, where I got every printed soft cover Complete Book Of. I also got the exemplars of the DM's Guide from subsequent editions to see if there are any gems of DMing advice, and what I found instead, was a brand new game, that was trying to be a pencil and paper version of Diablo.

Back in 2004 I was sitting near Ghost Town, Elizabeth, NJ, much like that girl Alice of the Wonderland fame just before she saw the White Rabbit. I was watching the container ships being unloaded across the water on Staten Island, just north of Goethals Bridge and I held in my hand Gygax's Players Handbook. And as I read through it, it dawned on me that these were not just game rules, Gygax was a thinker, a philosopher, and in his writing of D&D there was his take on the world, his version of history. I may disagree with some of the game mechanics, but there was an underlying current of thought in his writing, and at that moment I decided to read his core books from cover to cover and play essentially, Advanced D&D in the 1st edition. It took another three years, to gobble up more books and modules, and to actually start playing in 2006. In 2007 I started the Midlands campaign in its first incarnation. It lasted one year and 8 months, and then people lot jobs, got divorced, moved away, and the game fizzled. The second incarnation of the same campaign started in January 2010 and ran for about two years and a half. Then it halted and went on a hiatus. The block happened for an unexpected reason. After the battle, there was the Baron's Victory Celebration. I scripted the event for the first group - politics, intrigue, romance etc., but the second group had different characters, different personalities, different chemistry. In order for the Victory Celebration to do its magic for the second time, I had to rewrite the whole event for the second group, and I was too busy. Also I needed to re-arrange how I displayed the party stats, so as to have a smoother narration, and I decided to make the truly dynamic character sheets.

I have already designed a computerized character sheet that changed its configuration based on character class selected. It listed critical game information at your fingertips and you did not have to do any arithmetic figuring out how much you need to roll. I also wanted to create a Unified D&D system of tables for easy access when needed. I had already made a Master Non-Weapon Proficiency list of all the skills, useful and ridiculous, that were introduced in every second edition supplement. It was a huge list, and combined with the skills that I introduced, that were not previously published, and when all was said and done, the list was just under 350 skills. And so, having previously worked with the Excel and InfoPath, I turned my attention to Microsoft Access, and as the very first step in the data consolidation and the dynamic AD&D forms, I started entering D&D tables into Access, from the very first, the STR ability table in Players Handbook, until the very last one. I will eventually get it done, and resume playing long before then.

I do one table a day...