Why exploration works as a game

Numerous keyboards have been worn out on ENWorld over the last month with endless discussions about why exploration in D&D is so bad, why it doesn’t work, how it could be made to work, and that it would work if people just were to actually use the rules that are already there. Obviously, the vast majority of people are arguing from the perspective of 5th edition, which is why that discussion never seems to go anywhere. My conclusion after having run a 5th edition campaign for half a year was that this game doesn’t actually know what it wants to be, or to be more precise, the writers of the Dungeon Master’s Guide don’t understand how RPGs work in the first place. Lots of 5th edition players in the discussion keep repeating the point that exploration is one of the three main aspects of the game. Because the books say it is. But it’s not. It hasn’t been part of the rules since 3rd edition came out over 20 years ago, and it wasn’t included in the rules because D&D as a brand had lost interest in by the mid 80s. I believe what people want is something that resembles the vague stories they’ve heard about the games played by earlier generations that preceded them, but 5th edition just isn’t made for that. Contrary to the designers’ insistence.

One opinion I came across yesterday was something along the line that random encounters are not viable stakes for exploration challenges, because when you have a fight it’s switching to combat and is no longer exploration. And that exposes a fundamental flaw in the underlying assumptions that all these discussions build on. Exploration and combat are not two separate game modes, and neither are social interactions. Or at least, they must not be separate game modes for exploration to work. You can have a pure combat RPG. D&D has proven that for the last 20 years. You also can have a pure social RPG. There are plenty of those around. But exploration just by itself does not work as an RPG. Or at least, I’ve never hear of any such a thing existing.

Exploration, combat, and social interactions are not three game modes that come packaged in a bundle. In a good roleplaying game with an exploration focus, they are components in a unified system, and so entangled that you can’t look at them separately to understand how they work. I would say that the threat of combat is not just a viable component to have stakes in exploration, but a necessary requirement. At least when you’re envisioning a game with warriors and wizards descending into the lairs of monsters and get into lethal fights.

Now here’s the actual point I want to get to: Somewhere else in the several discussions someone talked about how characters exploring a dungeon can simply use some spells to check everything for possible traps before getting close to them and that the game (5th edition) gives players all the tools to do just just, and how that’s why exploration doesn’t have any meaningful threats like combat does. (Might actually have been the same person who said combat can’t be a threat of exploration because then it’s no longer exploration.)

This had me realize why exploration in D&D from the first 10 years is exciting and works as a primary gameplay loop that get people to come back forever. When exploring a dungeon, one option you have is to do everything extremely carefully. Always check everything for traps, never step on anything without poking it with a 10 foot pole, use magic to always scout ahead, always have everyone healed to full hit points, and rest as often as it takes to always have your spells ready. But if you try that, you’ll inevitably get killed by the 5,000 wandering monster checks you have to make. This is not a viable approach. The other option is to just be quick. Kick open every door and charge straight in and attack everything that moves. This approach simply gets you just as dead, only much faster. It’s not a viable approach either. And that’s the main tension that makes classic dungeon crawling work. You have to be both swift and careful, two needs that directly oppose each other. This is a problem with no optimal solution. And that means every single turn is a challenge and a gamble.

That’s how exploration works as an exciting game.

Ideas on using Notice in Worlds Without Number

One of the additions that Worlds Without Number adds to the common oldschool structure is skills. The system for skills is not bad. Basic skill checks are 2d6 plus the appropriate attribute modifier, plus the character’s level in the respective skill for the task. Skill level can be as high as 4 at 9th level, but with the way the cost for each skill level increases each time, I don’t think you’re going to see that often, except maybe for skills like Stab or Magic, which are not usually used as skill checks but rather as modifiers to attack rolls or how much magic a Mage can use per day. I think +2 and the the occasional +3 added to attribute checks is the most that will be commonly encountered in the wild.

However, one of the skills is Notice, which is something that is usually considered one of the big things that make newer D&D editions unsuitable for classic dungeon crawling, which in the defense of Worlds Without Number, it never claims to do. The GM tells the players the things in a room that are immediately obvious, and then it’s up to the players to ask the right questions to find the things that are not immediately obvious. “You can not roll dice to avoid playing the game.”

Worlds Without Number does not specify when Notice checks are supposed to be made, but after some pondering, I’ve decided that there’s still ways to both make the skill work and also make it worthwhile to put points into for players. One approach is to make the target number of a Notice check to “notice something unusual” very high. I would consider a character with a +2 Wisdom modifier and a +3 skill bonus to be highly specialized, and quite likely the highest total modifier that players might actually be able to field in play. Maybe a total of +6, but that’s probably really it. With a +5 bonus, a character would have a 28% chance to make a difficulty 14 check. A character with a more modest +3 would only have a chance of 8%. That doesn’t seem too bad.

But to still make players work for their progress, I’d add the following rules to making a Notice check to find hidden things: Since searching an area is a group activity, I’d only allow a single check for the whole group, with the highest modifier of any characters in the party. They don’t get four or five checks to maximize their chances of someone rolling a 12. Also, I am thinking that this method can only discover a single hidden thing. So the players better search the place as well as they can before they make that roll. You don’t want to waste it on something that you could have found yourself with two more minutes of thinking. Making a Notice check should be the the final gamble after the party has given up on finding anything else themselves.

Another way to use Notice checks is when it comes to surprise. Worlds Without Number only addresses surprise in regards to one character waiting in ambush to attack another character. In which case it’s a Notice check against a Sneak check. It doesn’t mention how you’d do that with groups of characters (if everyone rolls, it’s boils down to the defenders’ best Notice roll against the attackers’ lowest Sneak roll), and it also doesn’t go at all into the situation where wandering monsters just happen to stumble into the party entirely by accident.

The regular surprise system in B/X is rolling 1d6 for both sides, and on a 1 or 2, that side is surprised. (Both sides can be surprised, and neither side can be surprised.) This roll could instead by made by having both sides make a Notice check, rolled by the character with the highest modifier. Monsters and generic NPCs in Worlds Without Number usually have a +1 or +2 modifier in whatever skills they would likely to be good at. I think Notice checks to determine surprise should always fall under that. Players would easily have a +2 or possibly +3 advantage over the creatures they encounter, and since 2d6 give a normal distribution, that’s really quite big. But this can be addressed by tweaking the difficulty of the check.

In B/X, the chance to become surprised is 1/3rd, so the chance to detect the other group is 2/3rds. Since most monsters and guards in Worlds Without Number have a skill modifier of +1 or +2, setting the default difficulty to detect a group of adventurers exploring a room to 8 gets the closest to those 2/3rds odds. PCs will regularly have higher modifiers to that, since they also get to add their Wisdom modifiers to their check. But monsters prowling the dark tunnels of a dungeon are much less noisy, so to detect them, the difficulty should be a higher 10. And if you have really sneaky creatures prowling in the dark, that difficulty can increase to 12.

Now you might be wondering: “Why do this much more complicated approach to get basically the same result?” That is a good question, Timmy. If I’d design a game from scratch, I just wouldn’t bother with a Notice skill in the first place. And as GM, I totally have the option to just modify the rules and kick out Notice entirely. But each small change you make to the system comes with a cost when it comes to recruiting players when you’re not in the position to tell your existing group that this is what you’re going to play from now on. Getting players for a more obscure system (that is, everything that isn’t D&D 5th edition) is not quite trivial to begin with. Having a somewhat well known and highly regarded name like Worlds Without Number helps a lot in that regard, but when that’s your way to lure in players to your campaign, many of them will show up to play Worlds Without Number. And every change you make to the default rules slightly decreases the enthusiasm people will have to join your campaign. There’s already a good number of changes I am making to the system, like ditching a couple of foci, two of the magic traditions, and completely overhauling the High Magic spells. I’m ditching much of the weapons and armor lists and the whole equipment modification system. All of this adds up to make the game less of what people think of when you ask who wants to play in a new Worlds Without Number campaign. A change like this doesn’t really change anything on the player facing side of the game. They still can get their Notice skill and all the foci that give bonus skill levels to Notice, and they are still going to make plenty of Notice checks while they play the game. Even players who know  the rules might not even notice (huh huh) that anything has been changed at all.

Re-associating exploration speed

Many rules in OD&D and B/X look very weird on paper, when you approach them as “new rules” that are added to what you consider a typical Dungeons & Dragons system. Giving XP for picking up treasure instead of fighting enemies is perhaps the most famous of them, but there are plenty others, like encumbrance, random encounters, or reaction rolls. But I think the purpose of all of these in a greater exploration system has become fairly well reestablished, and I believe I’ve written quite a bit about all of that already.

But one of the things that to me still stands out among these is the unexpected way in which movement outside of combat is handled. In Basic/Expert, the default movement rate for characters exploring a dungeon is 120 feet per 10 minutes. That’s 12 feet per minute, or about one step every 8 seconds. The rules explain that this doesn’t actually mean characters are moving that slowly. What happens is that the characters are carefully searching their environment and drawing reasonably precise maps. Dungeon has become a fairly generic term for any complex of passages, but I think the original idea of what a dungeon is like was less strolling through a castle and more exploring a cave. While very few dungeons are actually natural caves and most have long been used as regular passages by humanoid inhabitants, cave explorers often only manage to progress 300 to 500 meters per day, or say 1,200 feet. If they are at it for 10 hours per day, that’s 120 feet per hour. Even if the PCs are heavily encumbered and have their speed reduced to a quarter, that’s still faster than cave explorers. So maybe not actually a ridiculously low speed.

But where things start feeling strange is when encumbrance comes into the picture. In B/X, encumbrance reduces your encounter speed from 40 feet per round to 30, 20, and eventually 10 feet. And the same modification is also applied to exploration speed. When you take, on average, one step forward every 8 second, you spend almost the entire time of exploration not actually moving forward at all. Heavy loads slowing your movement to half or even a quarter is somewhat believable (maybe the characters are literally dragging heavy bags of loot behind them). But that also reducing the speed at which you can look and poke at things the same way is a cognitive disconnect. It’s a dissociated mechanic. A party with more heavy gear making slower progress makes sense, but representing this through reduced movement speed doesn’t feel very plausible.

However, B/X already has a small, seemingly mostly forgotten rule, that can be adapted for the purpose. Part of the rules for exploration movement is that after every 5 turns of exploration, the party must rest for 1 turn or the characters suffer a -1 penalty to hit and damage from exhaustion. Of the eight retroclones I have, only one carried over this rule. It just seems pretty pointless when you can assume characters are already getting sufficient rest for their legs during the regular exploration turn. And maybe people are right to throw this one out, but I think it’s a great place to apply penalties for encumbrance during exploration instead of reducing speed.

Instead of reducing the movement rate during an exploration turn  to 90 or 60 feet, you can instead increase the rate for required rest to resting for one turn after every 3 turns or every 1 turn of exploration. This seems like a huge decrease of time actually spend on making progress, but because of how the math works out, this system actually makes parties progress somewhat faster than under the default rules. Which is fine with me. Numbers in D&D have never been an exact science anyway and are always simplified approximation. Being 10% faster than by the book isn’t going to break anything. But I feel that this change makes it much easier for players to intuitively grasp why their characters are making slower progress with heavy loads and don’t have to accept it as something that just is because the rules say so.

A proposal for a river navigation mechanic

Most RPGs I’ve seen mention about navigation that when you’re following a road or river, you automatically get to your destination eventually, and you only need to make rolls for navigation if you’re going cross country or across the ocean.

Yeah. Kind of. But not really.

If you’re on a river and your destination is to just go downstream to the coast or a city you know to be further down the river, then there’s really no way you can get lost. But things look completely different when you’re trying to go up a river and you come across forks where you have to pick going left or right.

I’ve been on a couple of canoe tours throughout my life, and I’ve been doing the navigation on most of them. Though I have to say that was on very easy rivers in Germany, on waters that have regular traffic and existing infrastructure and very good maps. And we were going to destinations that had been selected by people who knew that those routes would be very easy to follow even to amateurs. And even then, I’ve had many cases where I really had no clue if that big branch to the right is the already the third big branch to the right we need to take, or if one of the branches we already passed looked much bigger in person than it does on the map. The map has an accurate scale on it, but with no means to monitor your exact speed, that’s still only of limited help. Now imagine that deep in the wilderness, following a map drawn by someone with no access to aerial photography or surveying tools.

In my rivercrawl campaign, going to a site will almost always consist of going upstream all the way to your destination. And since all wilderness travel will be along rivers, going with the “you can’t get lost when you follow a river” approach isn’t going to cut it. (Though conveniently, getting back to base at the end of an adventure will be very easy, and going with the current also a lot faster.) Something else is going to be needed.

Making a complete map of an entire river system spanning hundreds of miles with all its little side arms really isn’t practical. You could theoretically let players give it a shot on a blank hex map with very small hexes, but I think that would be very tedious and not feel like it reflects the kind of maps actual river explorers would be using for their notes.

Instead, I want to go with an entirely skill check based system to navigate through the networks of small side branches that fork of from the main waterways that are depicted on the main overview map. My own GM map only shows branches up to the third order, and I intend to let players find their ways on those without navigation checks. It’s only for the rivers even smaller than that that this system comes into play.

Maps are items that characters can find or sell that have instructions on how to reach certain hidden places from an easily recognizable and unmistakable landmark. Every map has a dificulty based on it’s quality. Using a very good map is an easy task, while using a poor quality is a very hard task. The difficulty is further modified by how far the destination is from the clearly identified reference point on the main rivers. Since I have all my travel times in increments of 10 miles, (1 mile per hour times 10 hours per day), I increase the difficulty of the navigation check by +1 for every 10 miles that you try to follow the map.

If the navigation check is a success, the party reaches the destination in the shortest time possible given the distance and their travel speed. If the check is a failure, they still get to their destination, but for each number that the check fell short of the difficulty, the travel duration is increased to require one additional random encounter check. I do three random encounter checks for each day of travel, plus one check per night. So missing the difficulty by three adds a whole day on the water searching and backpaddling, and you also get another night to rest and potentially have another encounter before you arrive at your destination. Since I usually have random encounters at a chance of 1 in 6 for every check, getting two or three checks added to the journey generally shouldn’t be much of a problem. But for journeys deeper into the smaller rivers, having someone with a good navigation skill and paying for high quality maps can become really appreciated.

The fun part comes with the additional use for navigation checks to make your own maps of the unknown rivers you explore. These maps can be very important if you want to find a place again after having left it, and can be sold to other characters. To make such a map, a character makes a navigation check. The quality of the map and the difficulty to use it depends on the result of the navigation checks. For Worlds Without Number, I’ve decided to make it 20 minus the navigation check result, with the minimum difficulty being 6.

WWN makes skill checks with 2d6, so I think it’s a great idea to let the player roll one of the d6 either open or in secret, and the other d6 gets rolled by the GM. That way the player has a clue for the final quality of the map, but can not be certain how accurate it really is. The ultimate difficulty for using the map remains secret for the GM, at least until the players trying to navigate with the map have reached the destination and will have found out for themselves.

For players going to discover unknown sites by going into these small rivers blindly, one simple approach would be to simply roll a d20, and the result is the number of random encounter checks until the party finds either a small randomly generated site or a larger site whose exact location on the river has remained undefined until a party randomly discovers it. Since you might always need a monster lair or pirate camp if players try to track randomly encountered enemies back to their hideouts, it’s a general good idea to have a couple of those ready at hand anyway. And players can be required to tell the GM that they plan to go on a random exploration a few days before the game.

Hit point rolls in Worlds Without Number

Worlds Without Number introduces a number of modifications to the basic B/X system. Many of which are really great, while others are rather puzzling.

Among the later ones is rolling the hit points for mages and warriors. Mages rolls their hit points not on a d4, but on a d6-1. Similarly, warriors roll a d6+2 instead of a d10. The total averages are completely the same, but this changes the odds for extreme values.

Mages have a chance to roll a 0. To that you add the Constitution modifier, and if the total is still 0 or lower, you still get 1 hp for that level, as you see in basically all versions. They also have a chance to roll a 5, which isn’t possible when rolling 1d4.

For warriors, it works the opposite way. For them, the range of 1 to 10 is reduced to a spread of 3 to 8. They have a reduced chance to get very low hp or very high hp.

Now one could say that for both mages and warriors, these changes to the spread cancel each other out. And the average does indeed stay the same. But what we get is that extreme results become more common for mages, and less common for warriors. The important thing here is that warriors can much more afford very low hit points than mages do. A warrior with low hit points still has a somewhat decent cushion to survive a blow or two. A mage with low hit points can’t survive anything. Having very low hit points is more bad than having very high hit points is good. So as I see it, this change makes things harder on mages than on warriors. Who also get bumped up to d10 equivalents instead of getting a d8 equivalent. (Experts got also bumped up from a d4 for thieves to a d6.) Do we really want to give warriors increased survivability over mages?

The other thing is a very simple statistical phenomenon called the Law of Large Numbers. The larger your sample of numbers you have, the more likely is it to be close to average.  If you get large amounts of random numbers, it becomes more and more likely that the high numbers will cancel out the low numbers. If you have only two or three random numbers, the chance that you get all very high or all very low becomes much more probable. Once you get to 10th level, all characters of a class (with the same Constitution modifier) are going to have pretty similar hit points with only few characters being notable outliers. This means that the risk of getting very low hit points is much greater for low level characters than high level characters. Do we really want to have increased risk for low level characters?

As I see it, the move to have all classes roll a d6 with a modifier for hit points really only hurts low level mages the most by increasing their risk of being extremely fragile while increasing survivability for everyone else. What’s the point of that? This really seems like an awful change. That’s definitely something I’ll be changing back for my games.

At first I thought the change to only using d6 for hit point was because of the dual-classing mechanic, and it could be possible that this is where the whole idea came from. But the way dual-classing works now, you can absolutely replace those with d4s and d10s.

Doing Drugs, for Fun and Profit

After having started with metaphysics, philosophy, and the undead, I’m continuing the introduction to Planet Kaendor with drugs. Perhaps a somewhat unconventional way to open with, but perhaps this might be indicative of the kind of setting this world is morphing into.


Skok is a thick black liquid that looks and smells like burned plum jam and has a faint but burning taste of bitter roots. It’s often mixed with water to make it possible to drink without sticking to your mouth for the next half hour.

Skok keeps people marching when they would otherwise collapse from exhaustion and there are many stories of people crawling half-dead from the wilderness who would never have made it nearly as far without their bottle of skok. The extra boost that it gives the body has to be paid back later though, and the lingering exhaustion can last for weeks.

Drinking skok immediately recovers two points of System Strain, but at the cost of one point of Constitution, which reduces the character’s maximum System Strain by one. Characters who have lost Constitution this way can recover one point of Constitution when resting instead of one point of System Strain (player’s choice).

Characters about to die from suffering System Stain beyond their maximum can save their lives with skok, but their recovery back to full health will take longer.

Blue Juice

Blue juice is really more like a very dark red, though when mixed with goat milk or staining cotton or hemp cloth, it turns into a slightly bluish purple color giving it its name. Blue juice comes from the tiny fruit of a swamp plant and tastes like unripe berries which is quite revolting to drink, which is why it’s often mixed with goat milk and a bit of kesk honey. It’s quite a potent painkiller and in larger amounts causes severe drowsiness to the point of making people nod off while having severe injuries getting treated.

Characters drinking a good amount of blue juice roll twice for all Mental saving throws to resist manipulation for the next hour (6 turns), but also treat any skill checks as untrained, suffering the usual -1 penalty to the roll instead of their skill level. At the end of the duration, the characters have to succeed on a Physical saving throw or fall asleep, though they can be woken up by others as usual.

Mapping a River for pointcrawling

While tinkering further on my Rivercrawl idea, I cam up with this notation to map a huge river network.

First I made a Melan diagram of the main river branches for my river and marked the branches in different colors, which then looks like this.

I then turned the same information into a big table. Below you have a heavily cropped down version to show the principle of how it works. The real thing I made actually has 180 rows over five pages, but most are still completely empty at this point. The principle is basically the same as in Ultraviolet Grasslands, but without the illustrations. I find this easier for river that curves and fans out, compared to the more or less straight trade routes in UVG, and it also allows to make more notes without making a huge unreadable mess. As a tool for GMs to use at the table, I think this plain look isn’t a bad thing.

Getting the whole thing set up was a bit tricky, so here’s how I did it: Since I have only three main branches at any given point of the river, I made a table with seven columns. I think you could also do it with four branches and fit nine columns on one page, but more than that probably makes the thing more a nuisance to read than a help. I found that my river has seven different combinations of parallel running branches, so I made the table with seven rows as well. At this point you first set the column widths that you want, because this will be a total bitch if you try adjusting those later. After that you merge cells together as the river branches fork and meet, which in my case looked like this.

At this point, you can simple select and row and use “add rows below” or whatever your program calls it, and you should get an identical row to the one that you had selected. Then add mile markers to the leftmost row, and you’re done.

Now to the new neat feature that I actually came up with myself. The River Ratings. Each river section row has a little field on the left side that quickly shows the GM the water conditions the players are moving into. It’s fairly self-explaining when you look at the legend above. The letter says what size categories of ships can enter that section of the river. In case of my emerging setting, it’s galley size, junk size, dhow size, and canoe size. Ships larger than that will get stuck on the bottom of the river. (The width of the river or any obstacles in the water are not considered as a separate factor for the sake of convenience. Either your ship can continue on, or it gets stuck on something.) The number indicates the speed of the current. This number is added to your ship’s speed when you travel downriver, and subtracted when you travel upriver. If the speed of the current reduces your speed below 1 mile per hour, you can’t continue by water. I had been thinking to mark the type of terrain on the riverbanks as well to calculate overland speed, but that would mess the readability of this format with too much clutter. For the setting I want to make, it’s going to be “dense forest” pretty much everywhere anyway. I did a bit of looking around for average speeds of the boat types I listed, and the numbers I went with seem to be quite realistic. They are actually leaning to the lower end, as I suspect the original numbers were based on strong ocean breezes, so it would be slower further inland.

My plan for the campaign is that there is an adventuring season of 8 month, which is then interrupted by a flood season of 4 month, where the water speed is simply too much along the whole river to get upstream. I think it would be cool to make a roll at the start of each new adventuring season to see if water levels are exceptionally high or low this year. A high river increases the size rating for the whole river by one, while a year of low water levels reduces it by one. The players might find that the expedition they had planned either needs to be canceled or attempted with a much smaller boat as the river conditions make reaching the destination in a junk or dhow impossible. You could also have a randomly determined special event that changes the water level or speed halfway through the season, which can lead to very inconvenient complications hundreds of miles away from civilization.

Recovering arrows after a fight

Thanks, Dewwy, for this suggestion.

Someone pointed out to me that when parties go on very long adventures far away from civilization, it’s not just food and light sources they can run out of, but arrows are also a limiting factor for how long they can go before having to return to resupply. But there’s always plenty of arrows around after a fight, many of which are still perfectly usable.

In D&D 3rd edition, there was a rule that all arrows are destroyed if they hit, and have a 50% chance to be recoverable on a miss. To that you’d have to add all the arrows still in the quivers of fallen enemies. I’ve never heard of anyone actually doing that because  it’s just too fiddly to count the number of misses arrows that were fired, on the minor chance that a player actually cares to go looking for them. There’s a lot of such rules that are too fiddly for actual use that D&D has collected over the years. But here’s a very simple and easy alternative solution.

If PCs go collecting arrows after a fight, they recover 1d10 arrows for every archer involved in the fight.

It’s a complete abstraction, of course. But for something this minor, abstracting it is exactly the way to go. Those arrows might still be in the quiver of dead or captured archers. Some might stick in corpses or somewhere in the ground or trees. And a lot got broken on impact or disappeared into the undergrowth. 5.5. arrows on average per archer might be a bit low, but for the purpose of adventurers deep in the  wilderness, we actually want arrows to seem like a limited resource. If there’s more around than the players would ever need, then there’d be no point in tracking them in the first place.

I also found out that someone who’s skilled at it can make a stone arrowhead in 15 minutes. It takes a bit more to make a complete arrow, so let’s say 2 arrow per hour. In a whole day of working, a character with the required skill could make 20 arrows, which just happens to be the default quiver size in most games I’ve seen. For my campaign, I’m thinking of treating stone arrows just like regular arrows, except that they use a die one size smaller to roll for damage.

Rolling hit points for monsters

As I was delving into the ancient ruins to seek the wisdom of the sages of past ages, I came upon this nice little gem on Planet Algol: Non-randomized Monster Hit Points is the F’ing Devil. The unknown author (seriously, there’s no name anywhere on the site) makes a point that you really should roll the hit dice for monsters and NPCs the players might fight an not just assume the average, as it has a real impact on customizing individual opponents. Would players ever notice the difference between a 2d8 creature with 8 hp and an otherwise identical one with 11 hp? Probably not. But they very much would notice the difference between a 3 hp and a 15 hp one.

A note  is being made about perhaps rolling only one die and multiplying the result by the number of die, to make more extreme results more common than under the normal distribution you get from rolling and adding up multiple dice. But I was also curious about the results you would be getting from rolling hit points normally for every opponent and so I pulled up AnyDice to check.

The added up results of multiple die rolls are a classical of a normal distribution. The classic bell curve. A typical way to compare and interpret the distributions of these curves is by using the Standard Deviations as reference points. I once learned how to calculate standard deviations and also understood the reason why they are typically used instead of any other arbitrary reference lines. I’ve forgotten all of that years ago, but I am going to use them anway. (And it turns out AnyDice can just tell you that number, spring me the need to manually crunch numbers for other reference values.) The only thing that’s really important to know is that 68% of all results will lie within 1 SD of the median value (the line between the lower 50% and the upper 50% of all cases), and 96% of all results within 2 SD.


Since almost all creatures use d8 for hit points, I’m going to do the whole thing only for d8s. Obviously the spread will be somewhat smaller for smaller Hit Dice, and larger for larger ones, but the pattern remains the same.

HD -2 SD -1 SD +0 SD
+1 SD +2 SD
2d8 3 6 9 12 15
3d8 6 10 14 17 21
4d8 9 13 18 23 27
5d8 12 17 23 28 33
6d8 16 21 27 33 38
7d8 19 25 32 38 44
8d8 23 30 36 42 49
9d8 27 34 41 47 54

Now how to read this table for the not statistically trained? What this means is that 68% of all results you get will be between the -1 SD and the +1 SD columns. 96% of all results you get will be between the -2 SD and the +2 SD columns. Or in other words, only 2% of results will be smaller than the left column and only 2% larger than the right column.

Here’s the same data a bit more condensed, showing the range of hit points for 68% of the creatures if you roll their hp.

HD +/-1 SD +/-2 SD
2d8 6 to 12 3 to 15
3d8 10 to 17 6 to 21
4d8 13 to 23 9 to 27
5d8 17 to 28 12 to 33
6d8 21 to 33 16 to 38
7d8 25 to 38 19 to 44
8d8 30 to 42 23 to 49
9d8 34 to 47 27 to 54

Here the left column is the range you will see for 68% of your creatures, and the right column what you’ll see for 96% of your creatures. Results outside the range of the right column will occasionally happen, but will really be quite rare. As the number of dice goes up, the spread of the result will be come relatively narrower. The difference between 34 and 47 really is not that big and players might not notice. But the vast majority of enemies that will be fought in groups will have much lower number of Hit Dice, especially those in larger groups. Going from 6 to 12 means double the amount of hit points for 2d8 HD opponents, and when you deal 3 or 4 damage, that makes a real difference. And that’s only for the 68% group. A 2d8 creature with 2-3 or 15-16 hp will be rare, but still account for about 5% of individuals each. In a group of 10, you’d expect to see one of these outliers.

So yeah, I agree with the anonymous author. Rolling the hit points for every opponent individually seems very much worthwhile when you have a game with few fixed bonuses to the dice roll and PCs commonly dealing single digit damage.

“I strangled him on his throne the night I took the royal city”

“Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man —like this!”
– Shadows in Zamboula

While thinking about a discussion about how you make adventures feel like Sword & Sorcery, it came to me that the Howard and Frazetta style in particularly is extremely physical and and greatly in love with the body and muscles. Fighting is not all about hacking and impaling, but often at its most intense and memorable when it comes down to a pure contest of Strength. I think that’s why large apes and giant snakes are so popular in Sword & Sorcery. They are the most spectacular incarnations of pure muscle.

Sword & Sorcery often has strong elements of swashbuckling and bravado, and when you think of pure all-out badassery, things that should come to mind are wrestling with snakes or breaking the neck of a lion with bare hands. So when it comes to picking a system for your Sword & Sorcery campaign, one thing it’s really going to need is a solid mechanic for wrestling and unarmed combat.

My current darling among the many B/X variants is Worlds Without Number, and that game has my favorite system for wrestling in any iteration of D&D and its retroclones. 3rd edition was particularly infamous for having a grappling mechanic that nobody could ever remember, but when you look at say 5th edition or the Rules Cylcopedia, I still find it difficult to truly get a full grasp of it just by reading, and remembering any of it once I turned to the next page. The WWN system is both simple and easy to remember and also has a neat little tweak to make it actually look attractive.

To start a grapple, the attacker has to first make a successful attack roll, and then both attacker and defender make opposing Strength checks. This means starting a grapple is more difficult than making a normal attack and dealing damage, since you have to make two successful rolls instead of one. But if you succeed to get a hold of the defender, the results are pretty nice.

The defender can use a Main Action on his turn to make another opposed Strength check, and if he succeeds, he gets free and may use his Move Action to get a few steps away. Otherwise, the only thing that both attacking and defending characters in a grapple can do is making unarmed attacks. If the attacks hit, they deal unarmed damage to their opponent. But now here comes the really cool tweak that I’ve never seen in any other grappling system. If the round ends with the defender still being grappled, the attacker automatically deals unarmed damage to the defender without an attack roll. Assuming the chance to land an unarmed attack is 50% for both fighters, the attacker will deal 1.5 times unarmed damage per round on average. However, the defender will deal only 0.5 times unarmed damage per round if he tries unarmed attacks, or 0 damage if he tries to break free of the grapple. The attacker is clearly at a major advantage if succeeds on the risky initial attack that requires two successful rolls to do anything.

Alternatively, the attacker can also choose to end the grapple and attempt another opposed Strength check to drag the defender 10 feet, or throw him for 5 feet.

You know what this is.

It may not be the best way to attempt fighting an ogre, but if you’re a big beefy barbarian with a few ranks in the Punch skill and the Unarmed Combatant focus, you probably can obliterate sorcerers very easily, unless you you’re dealing with another bronze god with muscles like steel. Even if making regular attacks with weapons might cause more damage, a grappled sorcerer can’t cast any spells or use magic items.

We’ll steal down through the top of the tower and strangle old Yara before he can cast any of his accursed spells on us.
– The Tower of the Elephant

An Expert starting with a Strength of 13 can learn the Developed Attribute and Unarmed Combatant foci, increase his Strength to 14, and gain a Punch skill of 2 by 3rd level, giving him an unarmed damage of 1d10+2. That’s an average of 7 damage, at a point where the average Expert has only 3d6 hit points, which is an average of 9. Unarmed combat has the potential to really fuck you up.