A take on Reaction Rolls and the Charisma modifier anomaly

The Basic/Expert rules are the system that keeps on giving. At only 121 pages (of which 43 are monster and treasure descriptions), they would make a pretty thin rulebook and still I keep coming back to them to reread various sections over and over. I’ve seen people considering the ambiguities and unfinished nature of some rules to be a virtue many times, but I don’t consider it good design or even intentional. I’m quite certain that Moldvay and Cook mostly had specific rulings in mind but were not aware that they didn’t sufficiently communicate them in a clear way, and possibly in some cases simply copied things that Gygax had written before without really understanding how it’s supposed to work either. I’m usually not too hard on this, giving them some leeway considering that they had no real reference for what they were doing and making things up as they went. And with rules that into only 78 pages, filling in the gaps is not that much amount of work.

One section I was going over again recently are the mechanics for Reaction Rolls. The reaction roll is used to determine how randomly encountered creatures react to the party, if their behavior isn’t already obvious given their nature and circumstances of their encounter. Creatures like zombies always attack everything they encounter. Goblins always attack when they encounter dwarves. And if you have the party trying to sneak into a guarded enemy stronghold and they run into a guard patrol, the attitude of the guards is also obvious. The Reaction Roll is for situations in which the reaction of the creatures could be anything. But there’s still a lot of ambiguity left. What are you supposed to do with “Uncertain, monster confused”, which is the most likely of all reactions? How is it different from “No attack, monster leaves or considers offers”? The reaction roll is also modified by a character’s Charisma score. But whose charisma score? And if the Charisma score is 13 or higher, the result of “Immediate attack” is impossible to happen. So after pondering the issues over several days, I came up with the following procedure. I believe it mostly just fills in some blanks without really changing anything that is printed on the pages.

Beginning an Encounter

An encounter can start in two ways: The party enters an area in which monsters are already present, or the GM made a roll for Wandering Monsters for that turn. In the order of events for every turn (10 minutes of dungeon exploration) the first step is rolling for wandering monsters. The second step is “moving, entering rooms, listening at doors, and searching the environment”. Dealing with monsters comes as the third step. I think this order is significant because it can mean that wandering monsters can stumble into a room while the party is in the process of searching it. The random encounter is something that happens within the turn, not between turns.

Surprise

If the party and monsters encounter each other, the next steps are determining the distance at which they can become aware of each other, and rolling for surprise. These two steps happen basically at the same time and it doesn’t appear to matter which of the two rolls you make first. But I think it’s actually more convenient to roll surprise first and determine the distance after.

To roll for surprise, both the party and the monsters roll a d6. By default, a 1 or 2 means that they are surprised, while a 3 to 6 means that they are not. Two d6s allow for 36 possible results that cover four different outcomes.

Odds Outcome
4 in 36 Both sides are surprised.
8 in 36 Party is surprised, monsters are not.
8 in 36 Monsters are surprised, party is not.
16 in 36 Neither side is surprised.

Some monsters have a special ability that makes the party getting surprised by them on a roll of 1 to 3 or even 1 to 4, which significantly changes the odds to get the jump on the party in their favor. (A monster ability that modifies the party’s roll instead of their own roll isn’t very elegant, but it’s probably the least complicated way to get the desired result.)

The results of both sides being surprised and neither side being surprised are basically identical. However, I’ve seen a rule somewhere, and to my actual surprised it’s not in B/X, that in the case of both sides being surprised, the encounter distance should be half of what it would be in the other three outcomes. I really like it and so I’m mentioning it here anyway. This is also why I would make the roll for the encounter distance after the roll for surprise. Inside a dungeon, the distance is 2d6 x 10 feet, outdoors it’s 4d6 x 10 yards (or 4d6 x 30 feet, because we really don’t need two different units of measurement).

Something that surprised me coming from later editions is that the rules for surprise don’t really seem to take into account that one side or the other could by lying in ambush, or have time to quickly set one up. However, the Expert rules state that a group of three or more gains surprise outdoors they could be set up to have surrounded the other side. Maybe the idea is that even when you see a light at the next corner or hear footsteps approaching, there just isn’t enough time to set a proper ambush indoors. But I am a big fan of sneakiness myself, and I think it should absolutely be possible for players to avoid getting noticed by the wandering monsters, or quietly retreat from an area that has unaware monsters inside.

The rules as they are written only state that “those not surprised my move and attack the first round, and the surprised enemy may not”. I think the whole game becomes much more interesting if the side that has surprise can use its turn during that first round to back away without the surprised side becoming aware of them. Not only can it be a great opportunity for fun shenangians on the players’ side, it can also be interesting to have monsters stalking them in secret and wait for a good opportunity to strike.

Reaction

After surprise and distance have been determined, the sixth step is the Reaction Roll. As I mentioned earlier, the reaction roll is modified by Charisma. But whose Charisma actually? I long assumed that it would be the character who is walking at the head of the column or perhaps the party member with the highest Charisma, but that never really felt right since there is no indication either way.

The new idea I got recently, and which is the reason for this entire post, is that the reaction modifier for high or low Charisma only applies if a PC has the opportunity to talk to the monsters before a fight breaks out. If the monsters are surprised but the party is not, one of the PCs can hail the monsters and they make a reaction roll modified by the PC’s Charisma. If both or neither side are surprised and the party wins initiative for the first round of the encounter, the players also have an opportunity to hail the other group.

There is also the possibility that the monsters surprise the party or they win initiative, and their reaction is “Uncertain, monster confused”, which is the most likely result for an unmodified 2d6 roll. I’ve seen some retroclones rephrase this result as the monsters waiting to see what happens, which I think is a great interpretation. What you get is the monsters simply doing nothing for now. Then when it’s the party’s turn and the party is aware of the monsters, the players have another opportunity to hail them. At which point you could make a second reaction roll, but this time modified by the respective character’s Charisma.

And there’s actually something in the order of events for each exploration turn that supports that. Step six is making a reaction roll, but step seven, the resolution of the reaction, says “If both sides are willing to talk , the DM rolls for monster reactions and initiative, as necessary.” Making two reaction rolls is already written into the rules as they were printed. And I think it makes perfect sense to have a character’s Charisma modify a reaction roll only in those cases where that character is talking to the other groups. In situations where the monsters spot the party but the party is not aware of them, I think the reaction roll should be done without any modifiers at all. It’s of course also possible that the players might think of something so convincing that no reaction roll is necessary at all. If for example they encounter a group of guards and know the password to identify themselves as people who have permission to be in the place, then making a reaction roll can become moot. In the same way, if the party has surprised and decides to attack immediately and ask questions later, no reaction roll is necessary either. (Though a morale check might be.)

The Charisma Modifier Anomaly

Unlike in AD&D, the modifiers to various things based on the various ability scores are quite consistent in Basic. An 18 in Strength gives you a +3 bonus to melee attack rolls and melee damage, an 18 in Dexterity gives you a +3 bonus to ranged attack rolls and Armor Class, and an 18 in Constitution gives you a +3 bonus when rolling your hit points for each level. But Charisma stands out. An 18 in Charisma gives you only a +2 bonus to Reaction rolls instead of +3, and a 16 or 17 only a +1 bonus instead of +2. Some retroclones fix this by applying the same modifiers to all six ability scores, and I actually did this myself in the past. But I now think that this inconsistency is not an oversight but actually a deliberate choice.

The modifier in question is not a generic modifier to Charisma rolls, but specifically an “Adjustment to Reactions”. Reaction rolls are its only intended application (though this includes retainer hiring reactions for which the following calculations apply equally). The Reaction roll is 2d6, and the Reaction table lists results from 2 to 12. The “Immediate attack” result can only happen on a 2 (or lower, one presumes), and the “Enthusiastic friendship” result happens on a 12 (or higher). If you get a +1 bonus to the roll, a result of 2 becomes already impossible. You can’t go lower than 3 and get “Hostile, possible attack”. Which is one more argument why some Reaction rolls should be done without applying Charisma modifiers. But not only that, the 2d6 also give us a bell curve and shifting a bell curve sideways results in often very significant changes in the odds for any given value. When you get a +3 bonus to the Reaction roll, even the hostile result only has a probability¬† of 3%. Pretty much anything would be somewhat friendly if you’d happen to have someone with 18 Charisma doing the talking for the group.

But I think the +3 bonus from an 18 is not even the main reason for why the modifiers are different for Charisma. The chance for any given Character to get a randomly rolled 18 on 3d6 is under 0.5%. In a group of four characters, that’s still below a 2% chance for any of the characters to have an 18, and that player might not even want to do all the talking with everything they run into. It’s an unlikely scenario. But the chance for any character to randomly roll a Charisma score of 16, 17, or 18 is almost 5%, and getting someone in a party of four with a 16 or better is 17%. And a bonus of +2 to Reaction rolls is still really big. At +2, you have a 17% chance for a friendly reaction and only an 8% for a hostile one. With a 42% chance for monsters to negotiate. That frankly doesn’t sound particularly fun to me. Having the odds for this scenario being only 2% for any given party of four instead of 17% seems a very sensible change to me, even if it breaks the beautiful symmetry of ability score modifiers.

You used to be an Adventurer like me?

This post somewhat continues on my thoughts from two months ago.

When Dungeons & Dragons appeared and became the last common ancestor of basically all RPGs today (I know, it didn’t appear ex nihilo in a complete vaccum), it wasn’t even called a Roleplaying Game. It was labeled on the box as a “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames” and later “Fantasy Adventure Game”. The PCs went to the dungeon because it was there. They looted all the treasures in the dungeon because the treasure exists to be looted. The adventurer’s life of dungeon crawling started as a game mechanic. Some kind of plausible fictional reasoning for why people would engage in an activity with such an outrageous fatality rate for the sake of collecting piles of gold they didn’t actually have any use for was tacked on later. It also followed the footsteps of Greek heros and Arthurian knight. The adventurer makes sense within the world of the dungeon, but its existence becomes much more far fetched and implausible when it is migrated into a semi-ordinary world of towns and farms, inhabited by lords and peasants who are going by their everyday lives.

Seas of ink have been spilled on how the world of the Forgotten Realms makes no sense, in which low-level adventurers have to risk their lives to save villages from deadly monsters if the local tavern owner or herbalist could wipe them all out in a matter of minutes with their legendary magic swords and awesome arcane powers. And when Fantasyland with its D&D conventions reached Japan and found its way into shonen anime aimed at 10 to 16 year old boys, we eventually ended up with stories that specifically acknowledge that the internal logic of the world runs on game mechanics. That American D&D cartoon, that I’ve never seen, probably played a big part as well. (Portal Fantasy is cancer!)

What we ended up with are fantasy world where adventurer is a common profession, with many larger settlements having a local branch of the adventurer’s guild where people come to list contracts for adventuring work like killing the rats in their basement. These worlds make no sense. And no, I’m not talking just about some juvenile anime or bad fan fiction. It’s all the way up in the most prestigious, big budget, and mass audience works of contemporary fantasy.

No, you are absolutely nothing like me.

I feel that to have a world in which people go into ancient ruins to face terrifying beasts and deadly traps, adventuring does not make sense as a career choice for regular people. To be in any way plausible, a setting for adventures of dungeon crawling, monster killing, and treasure looting needs two main elements (and a third lesser one):

First, ordinary people must not be able to fight back against “Real Monsters”. And this also includes professional soldiers. A king can not just send 30 of his best trained and armed men to deal with monsters threatening the realm. If that were the case, there would be no need for adventurers other than cutting costs by outsourcing the work to contractors. That hardly sounds heroic. When I am talking about real monsters, I mean stuff like a basilisk or a manticore. To my knowledge there are no famous tales of Sir Lancelot and the Wolves, or how young Perseus fought eight goblins. Those stories would not be worth telling either. Sure, a fantasy world can have fictional critters. I’ve made plenty of them myself. But those are mostly background flavor, not the stuff of heroic tales.

The second thing is that PCs can’t just be adventurers who thought fighting monsters would be an interesting career choice. This goes completely against the first point that I just established. PCs need to be Heroes, with a capital H. Extraordinary people who have been gifted with exceptional powers and abilities. The heroes of ancient myths are very often descendants of gods. And even in Athurian tales, you could argue that noble knights are a unique kind of people, different by birth from the ordinary folk and granted special status by god. This is something I’ve never seen mentioned in D&D outside of Birthright. Which I guess might very well be an American thing. But then, Superheroes are also one of the most American things ever, and they all have unique superhuman powers from birth, or incredible funds from a highly privileged upbringing. Now I am a very outspoken critic of Tolkien and seeing The Lord of Rings as a big apologetic manifesto for the racial superiority of the English aristocracy, so I can fully understand if people don’t like the idea of PCs being destined to be Heroes instead of earning their merit through hard work and dedication. But a special trait that makes rare individuals capable of becoming Heroes in ways that are completely out of reach of most people does not have to be tied to specific ancestral bloodlines. You can also have something like Star Wars, where being strong in the Force is a rare inborn trait that apparently can appear in everyone completely at random. But I think it’s important that player characters are not random people, and not everyone can become a Hero. If that were the case, nothing would stop the king’s 30 best trained men from becoming 8th level fighters and deal with all the monster problems in the realm themselves.

I believe that for a good background setting designed for campaigns that center around dungeon crawling and monster slaying, having a distinction between Heroes and normal people is important. And it can even be valuable to have that distinction be consciously understood by the people who inhabit the world, and make it part of their culture. I feel that the whole life of adventurers makes so much more sense and feels so much more believable in such a cultural context. It provides a reason for why the PCs gain access to the highest ranks of society that are usually barred to common folk, and why people put all their hopes into them. It’s a relatively easy way to make the setting shape itself to the game, rather than awkwardly trying to make the game fit a setting.

Earlier I mentioned a third worldbuilding element that helps making a world of treasure filled ruins much more plausible, which is one possible most people here would already have heard about long ago. It is the idea that the implied environments of early D&D were all post-apocalyptic settings. And it certainly helps. Why are there so many dungeons everywhere, often within a relatively short walk from the nearest settlements? Why are they loaded with huge hoards of treasures and magical items? And most importantly, if they are that easy to access, why haven’t they been plundered centuries ago? It all makes a lot of sense when you assume that there was a civilization much wealthier and with much more magic than there is today. And it also used to be that way until relatively recently.

There are so many magic items in abandoned ruins and old tombs because at the time, these were not nearly as rare as they are now. The minor king who was buried with his legendary sword and ring of incredible power did not take the greatest treasure of the realm into his grave. Those were only baubles with sentimental value to him, but sacrifices his successors could afford to make to honor his memory. And why do adventurers keep breaking into these tombs to loot all these magic treasures today? Because these tombs and forgotten stashes are the only places where you can find such items now. It’s less treasure hunting than salvaging. Not to say that all the magic items used to be minor junk in the days of Atlantis, but their presence in tombs and old castles makes a lot more sense if you assume that these items were not nearly as valuable as they are today. One reason for it being people being able to make more of them. The creation of new magic items being nearly impossible is a big factor in making the looting of old ruins worthwhile and the pillaging of grave goods more justified. If your average town alchemist or blacksmith can make minor magic items, this aspect starts coming apart at the seams. Wizards being required to be 9th level to start creating magic items might seem excessively high and seem a bit implausible. But when the goal is to make the creation of new magic items exceptionally rare and difficult, it does make a lot of sense.

It all also becomes more plausible the more recent you place the fall of the previous civilization, or at least the rise of the new one. Even low-level PCs can still find great treasure in relatively easily accessible dungeons because they are among the first people who have come to raid them since treasure hunting became the primary way to gain access to such riches and items. The people in the village may know about the old ruin up on the hill, but since the founding of the village the PCs are some of the first people who have shown up and might have a shot of surviving crossing the first threshold.

So yeah, my points. Insert witty conclusion here.

Prime Requisites are pointless

The original D&D edition, AD&D, and Basic all had the Prime Requisite mechanic, in which all classes have one main ability score that affects the amount of XP they get. It’s a modifier that gets applied to all XP a character gets before they are added to the character’s XP total. In B/X (where I will be taking all further numbers from) the modifier ranges from -20% for a score of 5 or lower, to +10% for a 16 or higher. Which sounds quite significant when you put it like that, but actually makes a much smaller difference than you might expect, because of the way XP requirements to reaching the next level increase.

The way it’s supposed to be done is that the GM announces the amount of XP every player gets, and the players have to remember to apply their relevant modifier to that number before adding it to their total. (I don’t exactly have high trust in this.) Since the players might encounter various magical effects that increase or decrease their ability scores, and potentially change their XP modifier, I can see why this approach was chosen, instead of having five different columns for XP needed by each class based on the prime requisite score. But to make the comparison easier, I did just that with the XP requirements for fighters. Because adding and subtracting percentages changes the outcome based on the order of operations, a -20% to all XP gained translates to the character requiring 125% the amount of XP to reach any given level. And a +10% bonus to all gained XP means a requirement of 91% the XP to reach the same level.

How does this translate to characters advancing through levels faster or slower? Of course, a character with a very high prime requisite score will reach Nth level before a character with a very low score. But how big is that advantage in the long run?

  • At 10,000 XP, a Fighter with a -20% penalty will have reached 4th level, and a Fighter with a +10% bonus will still be 4th level.
  • At 50,000 XP, a Fighter with a -20% penalty will have reached 5th level, and a Fighter with a +10% bonus will still be 5th level.
  • At 100,000 XP, a Fighter with a -20% penalty will have reached 7th level, and a Fighter with a +10% bonus will still be 7th level.
  • At 500,000 XP, a Fighter with a -20% penalty will have reached 10th level, and a Fighter with a +10% bonus will be ahead at 11th level.

It is only at the point where the GM has awarded all characters 72,000 XP and a Fighter with no modifier has reached 13th level that there’s an actual gap to Fighters with a -20% penalty, who are still at 11th level. And that’s for the extreme cases where a player with a Strength of 5 or lower decides to play a Fighter anyway for shits and giggles. Such characters being played up to 11th level probably isn’t going to happen in a terribly high number of campaigns. If we narrow the scope to only penalties of -10% and bonuses of +10%, the effect becomes even significantly smaller.

It’s even more marginal in AD&D, where characters can’t have any penalties and it’s only the default XP or +10%.

This does not seem like something that is worth accounting for. Having players with high or low prime requisites remember to apply the modifier every time they get XP does not seem worth the near undetectable difference in results to me. If you have two characters with the same class start at the same point, then yes, sometimes one player might announce that he reached a new level before the other player. But if either of those two characters misses out on a single session, or gets disabled and gains no XP in one session,, that pattern will already be completely out of whack anyway.

In my opinion, prime requisites make too little impact to be worth bothering with. I’ve come around on my earlier opinion that all classes should just use the Fighter XP requirements because the level difference between a Thief and a Wizard with the same XP really is quite substantial. (A wizard needs +100% the amount of XP that a Thief needs!) But prime requisites is something I threw out right when I started running B/X games, and that¬† under closer statistical observation, I still see no reason to bring back.

A simple system for supplies and hunting

Way too dramatic fantasy hunting scene, but this is what I got.

Kaendor is a continent that is very large and very sparsely populated, with almost all land covered in trees or steep mountains. For campaigns in a setting like this, especially when it ‘s intended for parties with numerous followers and animals, tracking food and water supplies and dealing with the consequences of hunger and thirst is something that really should be part of the game and the everyday travel procedures. While B/X provides a neat simple system for hunger and thirst, the rules for hunting are very vague and appear implausibly inefficient.

So here’s my take on it. The foraging system is taken straight from the Expert set, and expanded with the hunting mechanic. With how often players will likely go hunting throughout a full campaign, I really don’t want to bother with having combat encounters with rabbits and deer that might just run away. The mechanic for hunger and thirds is straight from Basic Fantasy, though I added the time limit to die from dehydration regardless of remaining hit points.

Hunger and Thirst

Humanoid characters need one ration worth of food and one waterskin of drink every day. Characters who do not get sufficient amounts of food lose 1 hit point per day. If they don’t get sufficient amounts of water, they lose 1d4 hit points per day. In either case, the characters are unable to naturally heal any damage without magic until they receive enough food and water again. In addition, characters who go without water die after 3 days. Characters with a Constitution score of 13 or higher can survive for an additional number of days equal to their Constitution bonus to hit points.

Foraging and Hunting

In most circumstances, parties come across enough sources of drinkable water in the wilderness to refill all their waterskins to full. So unless the GM specifically states that no water source was encountered during the day, water consumption does not need to be tracked. If the party stays in areas without natural water sources for an entire day or more, one waterskin has to be subtracted every day, but finding any source of drinkable water is usually enough to refill all waterskins to full.

Rations of food have to be tracked every day the party spends outside of settlements. While traveling through the wilderness, characters can gather edible plants they find along the way, and the party has a 1 in 6 chance to collect 1d6 rations worth of food on any given day. In practice, this number is simply subtracted from the number of rations that are consumed on that day. (Assume the characters eat food that is close to perishing first and keep any food that keeps well for later, so there’s no mechanical difference between preserve rations and fresh plants or meat.)

Alternatively, the party can decide to not travel on a given day and instead spread out around the campsite to hunt for food. Each group of hunters has a 1 in 6 chance to collect 1d6 rations worth of food, but also makes separate checks for random encounters at noon. (Random encounters in the morning and evening are assumed to happen at the camp.)

The Essentials Version

Hunger: Characters who do not eat one ration worth of food in a day, suffer 1 hit point of damage and can not heal damage naturally without magic.

Thirst: Characters who do not have one waterskin worth of drink in a day, suffer 1d4 hit point of damage and can not heal damage naturally without magic. After 3 days + 1 day per CON bonus, the characters die.

Foraging: A traveling party has a 1 in 6 chance to find 1d6 rations worth of food per day.

Hunting: A party resting at camp for a day can send out hunting parties that each have a 1 in 6 chance to find 1d6 rations worth of food per day.

Yora’s Law of getting 1s in a dice pool

While I was checking the odds on an old system for rolling for random encounters in the wilderness, that I’ve come up with some years back, I discovered an amazingly simple equation (with help from gunnervi and A1vin) to calculate the expected amounts of 1s that come up in a roll of multiple dice of the same type.

If you roll N number of P-sided dice (NdP), then the expected amounts of 1s to be rolled is N/P.

When you roll 4d6, the the expected amount of 1s to be rolled is 4/6 (or 0.67).

When you roll 3d8, the the expected amount of 1s to be rolled is 3/8 (or 0.375).

My random encounter system rolls a single die four times per day, with a result of 1 indicating an encounter. To get different odds for areas with high or low population densities, you switch to different types of dice, with d4s being used for very busy areas and d10s for very desolate wastelands. I wanted to know how many encounters you would get per day on average, and the numbers I got for the four dice types are 0.4, 0.4998, 0.666, and 1. With the d8 looking like a rounding error of 0.5, I realized that these are all fractions. Specifically 2/5, 1/2, 2/3, and 1/1. That doesn’t look much like a pattern, but I felt like poking at it just a bit more, and you can write the same numbers of 4/10, 4/8, 4/6, and 4/4. Which matches the sizes of the dice, and as I figured out a bit later, the number of rolls!

I only checked this for rolls of one to four dice and only for the d4, d6, d8, and d10, but the results are so exact that I am very confident that it works for any number of dice of any type.

I had decided to go with random encounters happening on a 1 instead of the max number of each type of dice because it just seemed neater to say “encounter always on a 1!” But the math works out the same either way. If you have a player roll Xd6 and want to know how many 6s you can expect to come up on average, it’s the same as counting the average amounts of 1s. Or any number actually. As long as it’s just a single number you are looking for, and not a range of numbers (like “3 or higher”), this equation works.

You can even use this to get the expected average result for mixed dice pools. To get the expected amounts of 1s that you get from 3d8+4d6, you just add them together as 3/8+4/6. Not as neat, but still really simple.

This might be of some use for people tinkering around with dice pool mechanics.

Sometimes I think nobody at TSR knew what they were doing

When you pay a little bit of attention to discussions about rules interpretations in old D&D systems from the 70s and 80s, you run into people all the time who say things like “this is the way to do it, because that’s how Gary did it”. And Gygax created the game, he must know what’s best.

When you look at OD&D and the AD&D rulebooks, I find that very hard to believe. And if you pay a bit more attention, you also very often come across people saying “Oh, you should just ignore those pages from the DMG. Gary never used those rules himself.” I believe Gygax didn’t really have any clue what he was doing. Which isn’t to say that anyone else did either. For one thing, this new Fantasy Adventure Game was a new concept with pretty much no pre-existing foundations to build on and compare to. There was very little data to work with, and also no real established procedures for designing such games. And those early designers literally worked out of their living rooms.

But sometimes I see things that just make me grasp my head in disbelieve. Why did anyone think that was a good idea? The completely backwards math to roll against Armor Class is the obvious black sheep. But sometimes there is also stuff that makes me feel absolutely certain that nobody ever playtested it before it went into print. And possibly the writer didn’t even check how the math works out.

What I am looking at in particular right now are the wilderness movement speeds in the 1981 Expert rules. I am generally a huge fan of Cook’s work, he’s probably my favorite of the TSR designers. But this overland travel system? What the hell was he thinking?

To determine the speed of a character, you first need to look out the base movement speed based on Encumbrance in the Basic rules on page 20. Then you go to the Expert rules on page 20, which has a list that tells you the miles traveled per day based on the base movement speed. Then you have to go to another table that tells you the speed is 2/3 the normal rate in forests, 1/2 the normal speed in mountains, and 3/2 the normal rate on roads.

Why not simply give us a table like this?

It’s so easy. With this table we could easily travel along our 6-mile hex map (as implied on page 56).

But what do I spot there? 27 miles per day? 9 miles per day? 16 miles? 4 miles? Those aren’t divisible by 6! Did nobody notice this when the Expert rules were written? Did they notice it and not thought about maybe changing the system so it works with 6-mile hexes?

At least the movement rates for ships are all in 6-mile increments. But I think for sea travel, I’d rather use 30 mile hexes instead.

Balancing of Treasures in B/X

Since I first discovered the actual Basic/Expert game almost exactly six years ago, I’ve taken out the Basic rules a couple of times for relatively short games, but never really got into any of the Expert material. I also did not make much use of the wandering monsters and morale mechanics and mostly ran it pretty “modern conventional”. And I certainly did not use the random treasure tables. When I started work on my next campaign, I made the choice to try to really understand all the rules as they are written and follow the procedures as they are presented by Moldvay and Cook, to see how that plays out before I start making significant changes. It’s a game that is meant to be highly flexible and customizable, but it’s generally a bad idea to start making modifications to something before you understand what the default setup does.

A line of thinking that I encountered in the wild over the years of listening to the words of the elders, is that the tables for wandering monsters and generating randomized treasures are the main reference for how you set up dungeons with appropriate challenges and corresponding amounts of rewards. I’ve seen discussions about how some magic items are more valuable in Basic or AD&D because of the greatly different chances of them appearing in treasure hoards, and how this is indicative of the original assumptions how the games would be played and why some classes have different advantages with the rarity of those items in mind. I’ve long had my doubts about that and suspecting that that very little actual thought went into the creation of these tables and the resulting chances for certain encounters and rewards. And when you look at how the tables are constructed, this really seems very likely. On the wandering monsters tables, there are 20 entries, each with the same 1 in 20 chance. On the same table, you have 1 HD creatures appearing in numbers of 1-8, and 2 HD creatures in numbers of 2-12. This is not adjusted to be roughly equal in challenge on average. The magic item tables in Basic are just alphabetical lists numbered from 1 up, all with the same chances. The Expert tables are a bit more elaborate using a d100, but in the end all potions have either a 3% or 4% chance. I think these were all just eyeballed without any thought to intended play or adjustments for balance.

But I still was quite surprised when I scoured the texts again, and discovered what exactly Moldvay wrote on these topics.

Treasures are determined randomly or chosen by the DM. The DM should always determine the contents of a large treasure hoard before play in order to determine how best to hide and protect the treasure from theft, and if magic items are present.

 

The DM may choose treasures instead of rolling for them randomly, or may choose a result if rolls give too much or too little treasure. The choices should be made carefully, since most of the experience the characters will get will be from treasure (usually 3/4 or more). It will often be easier for the DM to decide how much experience to give out (considering the size and levels of experience in the party) and place the treasures to give this result.

The method advocated here is to start with the total amount of XP that characters will be able to make in the dungeon or dungeon level as a choice by the GM and work backwards from there. One quarter of that amount should be in the form of enemy encounters, and the remaining three quarters in the form of treasures. Or to get the same effect, just populate the dungeon with whatever monsters you want to use, then calculate the XP for defeating all of them, and multiply that result by 3 to get the appropriate value of the treasures you should distribute among the creature lairs. The treasure tables seem more to be intended to be used when you don’t really have an idea for what treasure you might want to put in the dungeon and to give you some suggestions. But since the tables don’t know how many of the creature lairs will be of creatures that have treasure hoards or not, this can’t get you that rough 3 to 1 ratio for XP except by pure accident.

For my setting, I have a lot of custom creatures (though most of them are plain reskins), and I had been thinking about how I would assign treasure types to all of them. But I don’t think I really should bother with that. I don’t believe the treasure tables and treasure types have much logic behind them I could figure out and apply to my own creatures. It’s always only been eyeballed to look good enough.

Another small detail that I noticed is that something that I considered a new house rule of mine is actually tucked away in the text already.

Treasure is normally found in the lairs of monsters, but may be paid to a character by a high level NPC for performing a mission or job.

The basic formula of “you’re treasure hunters, so go hunt treasure for the sake of hunting treasure” never really worked for me as a basis for compelling adventures. I thought that carrying a rescued prisoner back to town for a 500 gp reward is mechanically the same as carrying a big gem from the dungeon that is worth 500 gp, so players could get the same amount of XP for this. Turns out this was already suggested 40 years ago.

Group Initiative and Spell Declaration

While I am a very big fan of Basic Fantasy, one of the things in which I believe it needlessly departs too much from B/X is the move away from the original group initiative. Which perhaps might have been a decision based on uncertainty about what you could get away with with the OGL and old TSR content back in the day when the first retroclones made their appearance.

Group initiative is a system that I really love. One of the main reasons is that I have always struggled with asking and recording every player’s initiative count and sorting them into the correct descending order, while at the same time everyone was chattering excitedly about the combat that has just brought out. On paper, this step seems like a trivial mental task, but it’s one of the situations where my ADD overwhelms my brain and I mentally freeze up. It’s stressful and it takes long, which only makes the players chatter more among each other, creating more distraction and more stress, which makes everything even worse. Group initiative neatly avoids this entire problem by reducing it all to me and one player rolling a d6 and the higher number goes first.

The other nice thing, which is even more significant, is how group initiative speeds up play. If you used the common “each player takes a turn in order” system, you’ll have seen countless times how this plays out: One player takes five minutes to decide what he wants to do with his turn. The other players get bored and find other distractions to keep themselves occupied while they wait. When the player finally makes his turn, the next player is totally surprised that it is his turn now. He has no idea what happened during the last three players turns and now has to spend five minutes taking up the completely new situation of the fight and then start pondering his options. Repeat for the next hour until the four goblins are dead. That does not happen with group initiative.

The Basic Combat Sequence
  • 1: The party and the enemies roll 1d6 for initiative.
  • 2: The side with the higher initiative takes their turns.
    • 2a: Morale checks are made if needed.
    • 2b: All characters do their movements.
    • 2c: Characters who want to make a ranged attack do it now.
    • 2d: Characters who want to cast a spell do it now.
    • 2e: Characters who want to make a melee attack do it now.
  • 3: The side with the lower initiative takes their turns.
    • 3a: Morale checks are made if needed.
    • 3b: All characters do their movements.
    • 3c: Characters who want to make a ranged attack do it now.
    • 3d: Characters who want to cast a spell do it now.
    • 3e: Characters who want to make a melee attack do it now.

In this system, all players have “their turn” at the same time. The moment when the most significant decision for the round has to be made is 2b/3b All characters do their movement. If and how you want to move really depends mostly on what you plan to do after that. But unlike with sequential initiative, all players have to think about their choice at the same time. Whichever player comes to a decision first performs the movement first. While this happens, the other players still have a bit of time to think about their own choice. The whole thing only takes as long as the slowest player needs to think. Not as long as the thinking time of all players combined. The actual execution of ranged attacks, spells, and melee attacks is really quite fast and uncomplicated in comparison.

There is however, one major hitch with this whole setup, on which Moldvay Basic, Cook Expert, BECMI, and Rules Cyclopedia are all in disagreement. Which is the handling of casting spells:

In Moldvay Basic, things are simple and just as I described them above.

However, Cook Expert, which is an addendum to Moldvay Basic and expands and adds to it. “The caster must inform the DM that a spell is being cast and which spell will be cast before the initiative dice are rolled. If the caster loses the initiative and takes damage or fails a saving throw, the spell is interrupted and lost.” Thankfully, the explanation here is very clear on how it is supposed to work. But I do not like it. It negates the neat feature that all players think about their actions at the same time, and instead you have everyone at the table wait on that one wizard player to decide if he wants to cast a spell before initiative is being rolled for that round. It also makes our poor vulnerable d4 HD wizard a target for all enemy combatants and introduces a considerable chance that the spell will be lost with no effect. Given how few spells the poor guy has to begin with, that is just sad.

Things get only messier with later editions, though. In BECMI, the combat sequence is printed in both the Players Manual (twice) and the Dungeon Masters Rulebook, but they are numbered differently. The Players Manual begins with Step A: Roll for initiative. The Dungeon Masters Rulebook begins with Step 1: Intentions: The DM asks each player what the character intends to do in the coming round, followed by Step 2: Roll for initiative. Bad, bad editor! As far as I am able to tell, the topic of the players declaring their intentions is never brought up anywhere in the actual text of either book, so there is no explanation of how it affects anything. My guess would be that the idea of declaring stuff before rolling initiative was thrown out during development, but that one line in the combat sequence in the DM’s book was not properly deleted before printing.

The Rules Cyclopedia doesn’t mention declaring any intentions anywhere. But it does still mention how spellcasting can be interrupted if the caster is being injured.

The only version that actually does what it seems to want to do it Cook Expert. But as I said, I really don’t like that procedure. So here, finally, is what I consider the best way to do it:

  • If a character has moved during the movement phase, he can not cast spells during the spellcasting phase. (“spells cannot be cast while performing any other action such as walking or fighting.” Moldvay Basic.)
  • If a character got hit or failed a saving throw during the enemy phase of the round, he can not cast spells during the party phase of that same round. (Assuming the enemies rolled higher initiative than the party.)
  • If the party and the enemies roll the same initiative number and the movement, ranged, spell, and melee phases of both sides happen simultaneously, and the character gets hit by a ranged attack, he can not cast spells during the spellcasting phase. Both PC and enemy spells all go off at the same time.

In this take on the rules, spellcasters can never be interrupted and lose a spell that they already started to cast. Which is fine with me. Not being able to cast a spell when there’s a perfect opportunity is already annoying enough, given how few spells wizards have and how it makes waiting for exactly the right moment a big part of its efficiency.

Planet Kaendor House Rules for Basic Fantasy

You know what the world really does not need? Another B/X retroclone. Well, I think it kid of does, but I know that nobody wants to see it. So instead, I am simply going to present my own adjustment to Basic Fantasy. BF has always ranked among my favorite retroclones of choice because it’s very close to the original B/X by Moldvay and Cook while at the same time using the sane rational system to attack rolls and armor class. I know the later is trivial to slap on any iteration of D&D, but I am petty about my hate for a resolution mechanic that is objectively bad and done wrong, so that’s counting a lot to me. BF is also very cleanly laid out and easy to read, and the whole thing is free so you can just hand out pdf copies to anyone you like.

Below is a list of all my modifications to Basic Fantasy that reflects my own impressions of actually having read Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, Moor, and Smith, rather than going by the grimdark Heavy Metal Album cover interpretation of what Sword & Sorcery is really about.

Characters
  • Roll 3d6 six times to generate six ability scores, but assign the six numbers to whichever attributes you like.
  • There are no racial modifiers and adjustments. PCs from all peoples just use the character classes as the are.
  • Characters get the maximum possible hit points at 1st level.
  • The character classes are warrior (fighter), thief, scholar (magic-user), and wilder (see below). Characters can be warrior/scholar or thief/scholar as by the Basic Fantasy rules for elves. (The XP to gain a level are the same as the XP for both classes combined, and the character gets whatever hit dice, attack bonus, and saving throws are better, as well as all spells and thief skills for the level.)
  • Maximum level for all PCs and NPCs is 10th level.
  • The thief skills all use a d20 instead of a d100 (since it’s almost always 5% steps anyway). They also start with considerably higher success chances at 1st level, but increase slower to be again identical to the odds in Basic Fantasy at 10th level.
  • The wilder class has the XP requirements and attack bonus as a warrior, d6 hit points, the thief skills move silently, climb sheer surfaces, hide in shadows, and hear noise, as well as track, and exceptionally good saving throws. (Based on the B/X halfling class.)
  • All characters can use any weapons and armor. Scholars can cast spells in light armor, thief/scholars can cast spells in medium armor, and warrior/scholars can cast spells in all armor.
  • Characters can establish a stronghold at any level. Money is the only limiting factor.
Equipment and Encumbrance
  • Encumbrance is counted in the number of items a character carries instead of pounds. If the number of items is greater than the character’s Strength score, the character is lightly loaded. If the number is greater than three times the character’s Strength, the character is heavily loaded. (Light armor counts as 2 items, medium armor as 4 items, and heavy armor as 5 items.)
  • Up to 100 coins count as one item.
  • Shields provide a +2 bonus to AC instead of +1.
  • The default metal for weapons is bronze. Special blades made from iron function as silver weapons for the purpose of harming creatures resistant or immune to normal weapons.
Experience
  • There are no adjustments to XP based on prime requisite ability scores. (Neither 5% nor 10% makes any noticeable dent in the advancement speed and are just a cause of confusion and errors.)
  • XP for defeating enemies are based on the original numbers from B/X. Characters also get one XP for every gp worth of treasure they bring back from a ruin. (One of the few thing that Basic Fantasy really got wrong.)
  • Reward money for completing tasks in ruins also counts as treasure for calculating XP. Turns out this is not a house rule but a default mechanic of the game.
  • Magic items also count as treasure for calculating XP.
Combat
  • Combat is done using the B/X initiative system for group initiative. (The other thing Basic Fantasy really got wrong.)
  • Poison attacks do not kill instantly. Instead, a poisoned character makes a saving throw against poison every round or takes the indicated amount of damage. Once one of these saving throws succeeds, no damage is taken and the poison ends.
  • Energy drain works just as it does in B/X. You get hit, you lose one level.
Magic
  • Spellcasters do not have to announce the spells they cast before initiative is rolled for the round. (A rule that only exist in Cook Expert, but not Moldvay Basic, BECMI, or the Rules Cyclopedia, and really complicates things.) Spellcasters who were hit in the first phase of the round can not cast spells in the second phase, but otherwise act normally.
  • Spellcasters have separate “preparation slots” and “casting slots” in equal numbers. Spending a casting slot to cast a spell does not remove it from the preparation slot. The same number of spells can be prepared and cast as by default, but spells are not forgotten after casting.
  • The Scholar spell list combines magic-user and cleric spells, but does not include a range of different spells, such as cure light wounds, continual flame, raise dead, magic missile, fireball, fly, ice storm, and wall of fire, to make magic a more elusive and mystical force.

The Scholar class for Planet Kaendor

As I am falling again deeply into the B/X hole, I have once again found myself having to deal with the question what I want to do about the issue of Clerics. Planet Kaendor is ultimately my own take on Sword & Sorcery, and with the passing of (many) years, I am seeing more and more the meaning and relevance of the typical conventions of this particular style of fantasy. Early on, I was all in for various (A)D&D-isms, like having elves and gnomes, goblins and gnolls, dragons, powerful elemental magic, other planes to visit, and a classical pantheon of gods. That’s all long in the past by now and I’ve fully accepted our Lord and Savior Robert Howard into my heart. And I really find myself enjoying the abstract magic of Moorcock and Smith much more than magic missiles and fireballs.

Finally getting a good picture of what I want gods and spirits to be in my setting (I never had really made a decision on this aspect in all the years), it’s really become clear that clerics don’t have a place on Planet Kaendor. Temples and priests are cool, as are barbarian shamans, but a clear separation of arcane and divine magic just doesn’t make any sense in the context of the supernatural forces that shape the setting. (Which will be the topic of a different post.) My main concern had been how the game would change if you no longer have clerics in the party who can cast healing spells and the players will only rely on healing potions. But when you look at how much healing spells they can actually provide in B/X, it’s really not that much. No spells at all at 1st level, and even well along into a campaign at 7th level, it’s still only two first level spells and one fourth level spell. And you might want to sometime cast other spells than just cure wounds as well. So I think when you’re not too stingy with healing potions as the GM, there should be no real disruption from the lack of clerics.

The most interesting alternative approach to priests that I’ve seen is from the Conan d20 game, which is build on top of a D&D framework. It only has a single full spellcaster class called the scholar. What spells they learn and how they present themselves in public is entirely up to them. Sorcerers and witches are obviously scholars, but so are priests and shamans. They don’t get their magic powers from their gods, but through the same arcane study as everyone else. Priests may claim that they get their magic powers from their gods, and might even believe it, but except for rare cases of divine intervention, it’s all their own doing. That’s an approach I feel is right for Planet Kaendor as well.

The Scholar class is really just the default magic-user with a different spell list. In any other regard, it’s really identical, including hit points, attack chances, saving throws, and number of spell slots. I’ve never been a fan of spell slots as it’s too obviously a game mechanic and not an abstraction to represent a plausible magic system in game terms. But I really don’t want to work out a completely new magic system myself. The most convenient solution for me is the one that was introduced in the 5th edition of D&D. Casters really have two separate sets of “preparation slots” and “casting slots”. You prepare spells as you would always do, but when you cast them they don’t disappear for the rest of the day. You’re still limited in the number of spells you can cast by your casting slots, but you’re not limited to cast a spell only once per day, or forced to prepare it in two slots if you want to be able to cast it more than once. It solves the weirdness of spells being forgotten without actually requiring any modifications to the classes themselves.

Since I want to cap character levels at 10th, the list only goes up to 5th level spells, but of course you could always expand it to 6th level spells as well. It’s mostly spells from Basic Fantasy, which are almost identical to B/X, but I also included a few from OSRIC as well.

1st level spells
  • Cause Fear
  • Change Self
  • Charm Person
  • Command
  • Darkness
  • Detect Magic
  • Entangle
  • Hold Portal
  • Light
  • Protection from Demons
  • Read Languages
  • Remove Fear
  • Resist Cold
  • Sleep
  • Spider Climb
  • Ventriloquism
2nd level spells
  • Blindness
  • Charm Animal
  • Detect Demons
  • Detect Invisible
  • Detect Thoughts
  • Invisibility
  • Knock
  • Locate Object
  • Mirror Image
  • Fog cloud
  • Phantasmal Force
  • Resist Fire
  • Silence
  • Sorcerer Lock
  • Speak with Animals
  • Slow Poison
  • Stinking Cloud
  • Web
3rd level spells
  • Clairvoyance
  • Darkvision
  • Dispel Magic
  • Growth of Animals
  • Haste
  • Hold Person
  • Invisibility, 10′ radius
  • Protection from Demons, 10′ radius
  • Protection from Normal Missiles
  • Slow
  • Speak with Dead
  • Striking
  • Suggestion
  • Water Breathing
4th level spells
  • Bestow Curse
  • Charm Monster
  • Confusion
  • Growth of Plants
  • Hallucinatory Terrain
  • Polymorph Other
  • Polymorph Self
  • Remove Curse
  • Shrink Plants
  • Sorcerer Eye
  • Speak with Plants
5th level spells
  • Animate Dead
  • Cloudkill
  • Conjure Elemental
  • Contact Higher Plane
  • Dispel Demons
  • Feeblemind
  • Hold Monster
  • Insect Plague
  • Slay Living
  • True Seeing