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.

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.

Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert – 40 years and still going strong

It’s already two months late, but everyone else seems to have missed it too. The first printings of the Basic and Expert rules by Tom Moldvay and David Cook were done all the way back in January 1981.

And what a game they made!

After I started playing D&D when 3rd edition came out, I went for many years before I ever even heard of something that was occasionally mumbled about in the background called B/X or BECMI. And it completely stayed under my radar until six years ago when I took my first actual look at it, having it filed away as “that D&D light version where elf is a class”.

From the way that I remember it, the oldschool revival seemed to have started very much as an AD&D thing (though Basic Fantasy was actually the first retroclone) and that was a game I had tried getting into but bounced off very hard. But in the later years, when the return to older games morphed more into a forward evolution of those old concepts, B/X really seems to have established itself as the primary focus and reference point for oldschool roleplaying. Hard to say how things will be in another 40 years, but I am quite confident that this game will be staying with us for a long time to come.

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.