I think it’s safe to say that OSR gamers aren’t big fans of 4th Edition D&D, and one of the (many) complaints about it seems to be that healing surges are a terrible idea. We can see this objection floating around in connection with D&D Next, which has retained them and therefore must be a terrible game.

I think they’re actually very consistent with a Gygaxian approach to hit points and combat. Here is Gygax on hit points (courtesy of Dragonsfoot):

It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage – as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the “sixth sense” which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection. Therefore, constitution affects both actual ability to withstand physical punishment hit points (physique) and the immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck (fitness).

I read this explanation when I was 15 or 16 and it’s always made perfect sense to me (though I prefer systems where physical frailty is built in, like Rolemaster or Warhammer, rather than this style of abstraction). In fact, this is the only way one can possibly explain away the basic multiplicative mechanics of hps in D&D:

  • A fighter can go from 1 hp at first level (killable from any dagger blow) to 11 at second level (killable with two good sword blows). How is that possible from a small improvement in skill level?
  • This reduction in killability applies to everyone and continues to 9th level, where a fighter can conceivably be hit 8 or 10 times with a longsword and just keep coming
  • Rounds are 1 minute long, and it’s ludicrous to think that each PC gets a single attack only in that round – so the damage they do can’t reflect a single simple physical hit

But if this is so, then healing surges of the kind used in 4th Edition D&D are perfectly consistent with this old school approach to hit points. After the battle, the PCs stop to take stock and through various means they recover some of their luck, divine blessing and poise – the fighter regains his courage and combat poise, so he’s better able to take advantage of small breaks when the next fight starts. The priest prays to her gods and gains a little favour, as well as a few blessings to take the worst sting off the bruises; the thief takes a piss and a small tupple of gin, and his sixth sense is restored. All of them adjust their codpieces (well, I suppose the priest doesn’t) and tighten shield straps – it’s the little things that count, after all – and put a fresh steak on an old bruise. All of that in total is a healing surge. Similarly, mid-combat, one can take a standard action to regain a bit of poise – stepping back to take a breather, reassess the situation, say a brief prayer, gird one’s loins, or recover one’s footing before reentering the fray.

The healing surge is entirely consistent with the old school abstraction of HPs. Jeff Rients, one of the OSRs luminaries, had the chance to recognize this the other day but his response was a simple “What I am against is another abstraction sitting on top of the original abstraction.” How does that work? The entire system is an abstraction – how can any objection to abstractions be anything but arbitrary? And in this case the abstraction fits very nicely with the original. In fact, it’s the original abstraction that jars – if you look at the history of the game’s development, there’s always been a tension between the Gygaxian vision of hit points and the way other parts of the rules operationalize it, as well as the way player’s implicitly understand hit points. Healing spells are universally presented as repairing physical damage, and they scale up according to the HPs of the fighter. Cure Serious Wounds is not called Regain Poise or Reassess Tactical Objectives, is it? And maximum damage for melee weapons is clearly constrained to represent seriousness of the physical damage such a weapon might be expected to deliver. If HPs were really an abstraction, a fighter would be able to do equal amounts of damage no matter what weapon he or she used.

If you look through OSR blogs and documents you’ll very quickly get a sense of a genre in which PC death is meant to be easy and there is no easy recovery from physical damage. Objections to healing surges, fate points and the like tend to be heavily biased towards this view. This is an approach to hit points that I favour, but it’s inconsistent with the practical mechanics of the HP system in D&D, demanding as it does an assumption of super-heroism for fighters and clerics that is inconsistent with the OSR vision of PCs as grotty realists; and it is also inconsistent with the original conception of HPs as stated in the rules. The practical result of properly implementing Gygax’s vision of one minute rounds and abstract HPs is that no one should ever receive more than one action per round, haste spells should confer no additional attacks, and healing surges should be routinely implemented in all early versions of D&D.

When I played AD&D I think one of the first aspects of its magic system I dropped was the material components. It’s a shame, but they just represented too much of a constraint on what was already a hideously underpowered class (especially at first level). Some of the material components even for first level spells are quite challenging to provide, and they’re consumed in the casting of the spell. Consider, for example, the following spells:

  • Alarm: A tiny bell and a very fine piece of silver wire
  • Armor: A piece of finely cured leather that has been blessed by a priest
  • Color Spray: A pinch each of powder or sand colored red, blue and yellow
  • Dancing Lights: A bit of phosphorus or wychwood, or a glowworm
  • Friends: Chalk, lampblack and vermillion
  • Identify: A pearl worth 100gp and an owl feather soaked in wine
  • Light: A firefly or a piece of phsophorescent moss
  • Protection from Evil: Powdered silver

and so on.  The spells Burning Hands, Detect Magic, Charm Person and Magic Missile require no material components of any kind. These material components are very cool and really add to the romance and style of wizards, but they’re an enormous burden, especially on low level wizards. A first level wizard starts with 20-50 gps, so will not be able to cast Identify and probably can’t afford the ingredients for Protection from Evil, Dancing Lights or Color Spray in most medieval settings. That’s without considering the difficulty of carrying phosphorus, glow-worms and phosphorescent moss. Some of these spells also can’t be cast in the casting time given in their description, because the ingredients need to be steeped, smeared or scattered in a circle. Find Familiar, much more powerful than its 3rd Edition version, requires 1000Gps of herbs and incense. Even Sleep is probably beyond the reach of a lot of wizards, requiring as it does a pinch of sand – sand would have been a rare sight in 12th Century Glastonbury, I’m willing to bet. So here you have a first level wizard with 40 GPs, and before he goes adventuring he needs to gather together a piece of silver wire, several portions of powdered silver, a collection of tiny bells, some phosphorescent moss, some sand and a drop of bitumen (!! for Spider Climb).

One can imagine what happens if the party kills a gnome, who has a small admantite file in his toolkit. The file is worth 50gps and everyone else just wants to sell it, but the Wizard recognizes here an opportunity to make himself self-sufficient in powdered minerals, and snaffles it up. A libertarian party would probably charge him 200gps premium for it[1]. And at higher levels it gets ridiculous, of course:

  • Invisibility: An eyelash encased in gum arabic[2]
  • Melf’s Minute Meteors: nitrite[3], sulphur, pine tar and a (reusable) fine tube of gold worth 1000gps
  • Evard’s Black Tentacles: a piece of tentacle from a giant octopus or squid
  • Feeblemind: a handful of clay, crystal, glass or mineral spheres
  • Chain Lightning: A piece of fur, an amber, glass, or crystal rod, and a small silver pin for each experience level of the wizard

Some of these material components are very very difficult to get hold of. I doubt I could get most of them easily, even living in Tokyo. If one were to rigorously adhere to the spell components rules, every wizard would need the regular services of an alchemist, silversmith, blacksmith, and a couple of other extremely talented craftspeople; the wizard would also need to be very assiduous about cutting up and preserving any roadkill or adventure-kill he or she came across. There’s no doubt that this sort of thing makes these PCs much more interesting, but it also makes them virtually unplayable, because it essentially restricts the number of spells the PC knows in any one day, as well as the number they can cast – effectively it puts a bunch of spells beyond the PC’s reach at any time, while maintaining daily limits on those that the player does have the ability to use. A good example is Identify: a wizard at first level can’t use it, but by second level may be able to afford a pearl of suitable value. They can then cast the spell; but they can only cast it once, on one object, and they can’t cast it in the dungeon because they only know two spells a day and they need Shield and Magic Missile in the dungeon. So the party stumbles upon a ring that may be of great use right there and then, but the wizard can’t cast the spell even though it was a week’s work to find the owl feather and the pearl. So then they have to wait till they leave the dungeon, at which point they have a second item to identify but they can’t do so because they don’t have enough ingredients. Alternatively suppose that the wizard has spent all their treasure on pearls and owl feathers; they can still only cast the spell once today, because they couldn’t memorize more than two spells; but the party is pressed, and has found a magic sword and armour that they really need to use now, in the dungeon. Even though the wizard has spent his last money on two pearls and two owl feathers, he can only identify one item today.

Suppose then, that instead of using the standard approach to magic of AD&D, one introduced a simpler system in which a wizard can cast any spell they know as often as they like, provided they have the material components. This would mean that the wizard would usually have some spells (such as Burning Hands) on rotation, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. A first level wizard with Burning Hands once per round at will can do 1d3+2 hps damage per round on anyone within combat range (save for 1/2). It’s not a game changer; free use of Magic Missile makes a high level wizard pretty scary, doing 5-25 damage per round with no saving throw, but a few tweaks on minor spells (e.g. fixing magic missile at a maximum of two missiles) would easily solve that problem. Alternatively, you could give these spells simple material components: magic missile could require an arrow per missile, for example. Burning hands could require the wizard be carrying a lit flame source, that is extinguished by the spell. This would reduce the spell to the potency of WFRP 3rd Edition, where wizards have basically unlimited spell use but mostly have to use one every other round.

Even for high level spells with simple components, like the Bigby’s Hand spells, this method wouldn’t lead to infinite amounts of spell casting. Bigby’s Hand requires a glove; no one can realistically carry more than, say, 10 gloves in their equipment if they also have to carry: a small bag full of crystal spheres; a collection of test tubes carrying the components for Melf’s Minute Meteors and Invisibility; 8 or 10 small pouches of different powders, nitrites and the like; a sheath or case with several different rods; some vials of acids, pure water, tears, etc; additional pouches carrying fur, bits of leather, feathers and wings; a jar with a pickled piece of a giant octopus tentacle; a small cage of fireflies; a pestle and mortar to crush gems with; a couple of miniature platinum swords; and a collection of iron, silver, and bronze mirrors. Sure, this would make the task of spell-casting a little like a complex system of inventorying, but you could handle it, I’m sure, and if it’s hard for the player imagine how complex it is for the PC! You could also argue that if a Wizard is carrying components for more than, say, 5 spells on their person, they can’t cast a spell every round (they need a round to find the item[4]).

Furthermore, one could introduce different effects for more imaginative components. E.g. Invisibility lasts a round longer if the eyelash is from a thief (handy if you have a thief in the party); the component is never destroyed if the eyelash is from an Invisible Stalker. Water from another plane makes a spell that uses it more powerful, and the effect of spells like Identify is enhanced with more expensive pearls or more esoteric feathers (e.g. from a Sphinx). Expending a magic arrow adds one to the damage of a Magic Missile spell, and so on. You could also rule that every time a wizard is struck in combat one of their more fragile components is damaged or destroyed (randomly determined). It would also make wizards very eager to kill or capture each other, since they can loot their rivals’ components as well as their spell book.

Power limits could be obtained easily by dividing wizards into specialties, so that from first level they are limited only to conjuring or evocation, etc. Many RPGs do this, so that wizards have access to very few spells over their career. This would prevent a single wizard from being able to cast Burning Hands (alteration), Magic Missile (evocation), Charm Person (enchantment), and Chill Touch (Necromancy). I would make the conjuration, divination and abjuration specialties common to all wizards and then force them to choose one of the other four

fn1: libertarian parties probably last as long as the first Cure Light Wounds spell, and then decide socialism is the way to go.

fn2: According to Wikipedia, gum arabic was an extremely valuable export commodity and is an essential ingredient in soft drinks, and the Sudanese president recently implied he could bring down the western world through suspending its export

fn3: I find it hard to believe that nitrite was readily available in the medieval world but nitrates were as saltpeter, again not exactly your common or garden middle-ages corner store product

fn4: This could be a good rule for PCs with more than 5 magic items in general, I think.

I gave up playing AD&D sometime in the early 1990s, and switched to largely Rolemaster for a good period of time, only coming back to D&D with 3rd edition after a very system-agnostic friend recommended it. For all that time I never regretted leaving AD&D behind, though I have many fond memories of it. My problems with it were primarily that for all the crunchy system and complexity, you just didn’t get a particularly big benefit in terms of realism or diversity of gaming experience. Maybe also I got bored of playing the same system for 8 years or so (what can I say? I was young!)

So recently I was surprised to have my nostalgia for the system reawoken by a most unexpected agent: Mobbunited. I don’t know if this is well known around the traps, but this most new school and anti-OSR of bloggers has spent a long time now GMing AD&D first edition, in a campaign known as the “100 Million Days.” His explanation of why he likes playing AD&D and its good points made me think about my experiences of the game and its complexities, and I think I agree with Mobbunited’s experience: I never really played it properly as a child. So many of the rules that make AD&D so complex I just dropped, and reduced it to a kind of second-rate version of 3rd edition, all THAC0s and spells. But Mobbunited says of the game he plays:

Once you look closely, you come to understand that with all the bells and whistles intact, AD&D1e is a game of remarkable cohesion and subtlety. You can encounter some crazy things, but encounter reactions determine whether you’ll step right in to a fight. Charisma is an extraordinarily powerful ability score because it influences henchman and hireling numbers and loyalty. Weapon vs. AC adjustments justify the large weapon table. So do the special abilities of certain weapons. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s not just a bunch of crazy shit hacked together in the way even supporters claim. It sure seemed that way to me when I was a teenager, but I played it in an impatient, edited form.

The key points that he identifies here are all the rules I ignored as a child, and his revelation as an adult gamer was that the system is completely different without these special rules, and the hacked together version doesn’t work without them. He shows this in some of his play reports, where the interaction of random encounter tables, the module design, and the reaction charts really makes interesting things happen. The game he describes sounds like something I want to play and, perversely, something that the younger me, shifting from AD&D to RM, was definitely looking for. I could have tried re-reading those books and incorporating all that crunch, and no doubt the game would still have been easier to GM than Rolemaster, but perhaps with all the additional excitement and interest that comes with the well-designed Rolemaster crunch. Who can say, now, when I’ve lost the books and haven’t played anything like it for years?

Out of interest I downloaded the OSRIC pdf to investigate it and see how it matched Mobbunited’s description, but it doesn’t have anything like the same depth and complexity that I remember from the original rules. Cracking open the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook really was like opening a lost tome of secrets, and poring over the spell lists and equipment tables in those books really did feel like entering an arcane world (especially given the obscure references and complex layout of the book meant playing it was a bit like decoding ancient writings). But OSRIC is simple and streamlined and much of the depth and complexity has been taken out of it. Mobbunited himself says that “It looks to me that this half-game is the AD&D OSRIC emulates.” I think I agree with him and, if I were to consider an AD&D excursion again, I think I would try to do it in the original form, perhaps using some of Mobbunited’s altD&D rules. In fact, just for the sake of nostalgia, getting hold of the original AD&D rulebooks would be a pleasant idea. Perhaps I should do it, and see where all that crunch leads me … Who said this dog is too young to learn old tricks?

I recently received some new WFRP 3 products (Signs of Faith and the Creature vault), and was led to ponder whether I’m being massively ripped off. The proximate cause of this consideration was not, perhaps, very orthodox: both sourcebooks in the Signs of Faith boxed set contain largely flavour – that is, information on religion in the WFRP world – and even though I like this stuff a lot I always feel like I’m being rorted when I shell out money for a product and get “fluff.” This is a particularly stupid attitude when talking about WFRP because the entire joy and special pleasure of WFRP is its carefully designed and imagined world. Back in the day, we D&D-ers paid good money for a well-developed world. So why do I feel ripped off when that’s exactly what Fantasy Flight Games give me? Along, of course, with a whole bunch of nicely designed magic cards, some new rules, and a bunch of stand-up cardboard figures[1].

This got me wondering whether, in fact, WFRP 3 is a rip-off, which I think is a common complaint because the basic set is $100 and the add-ons aren’t cheap either. Obviously it’s expensive, but compared to other games, is it hideously over-priced? So I investigated…

What You Get

The introductory set at $100 is essentially enough to play the game – it’s kind of equivalent to the Basic/Expert sets in D&D in terms of the scope it gives you. But to play the game properly – up to what in D&D might be considered the equivalent of the Master set – you need the Signs of Faith, Winds of Magic and Creature Vault add-ons – although arguably you could swap Signs of Faith for the Adventurer’s Toolkit. Ignoring this issue for now, once you have the basic set plus these expansions, you’ve paid a total of $240 and got:

  • The introductory rules for players and GMs
  • Expansion spells
  • A set of dice
  • A monster manual
  • Three modules for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels
  • A complete and very interesting world described in great detail, though sadly lacking a good map

So how much would this set you back if you were investing in another game system? Obviously if it were MERP, you would get the lot for about $20, but putting that aside … let’s consider a modern and an old classic, and compare WFRP with a) Pathfinder and b) the BXM D&D system

Comparison 1: Pathfinder

To play Pathfinder you need only two books: the basic rulebook ($50) and the bestiary ($40). Obviously possessing just these two books doesn’t give you the same amount of sheer stuff as my WFRP collection, so to bolster it up you need 3 modules, and a world. For the world, add in the Inner Sea Guide at $50 (I bet it’s not as good as the world of Warhammer). Then for 3 modules, they seem to cost roughly $14, so you’re looking at $42 for a set of 3. So in total you’ve had to shell out… $182.

On the bright side, Pathfinder has excellent production values – you get nice quality, well illustrated material. It’s extensible, so you can shift to a new setting or genre easily, and the system license means you can easily get access to new ideas – they also have some good ideas about subscriptions, updates, etc. You can also be fairly confident that the core system will be stable (unlike certain products) so over time you can rely on your books not becoming incompatible with new source material – and a lot of of people are developing stuff for Pathfinder. You can also strip out the extraneous fluff easily and go back to a nice core system that, for all its (many) flaws essentially works well.

But for $60 less than the total cost of the WFRP package, let’s not kid ourselves – you aren’t getting a new system when you buy Pathfinder. You’re shelling out $180 for something that was, essentially, built by someone else and will probably break if it is ever redesigned. It’s entirely derivative. It’s reasonable to expect that if Paizo had spent the time developing a system from scratch (as Fantasy Flight did for WFRP3) they might put a premium on the price. So really, we should compare WFRP 3 with a system built from scratch. So let’s try that.

Comparison 2: Basic/Expert/Master D&D

This system was built from the ground up. Without aiming to compare WFRP 3 and D&D on quality of imaginative vision (an impossible task, given that D&D started the whole thing) we can safely say that if a premium for creative effort were going to be charged, D&D would be the system that had the right to charge it. So what do we pay for a set of D&D products equivalent to the WFRP kit? I’m considering my WFRP collection to be roughly equivalent to the first 4 books of the BXCMI(?) series – excluding the really extreme level stuff because I think WFRP will chuck that in later. So how much does a BXCM set plus world plus modules cost?

It’s actually really hard to find this information but this site gives (some) prices of the various D&D products and their dates of release. The first release in 1974 cost $10 for a boxed set, and a release in about 1986 cost $15 so I’m going to assume that the original BXCM in 1983 or so also cost $10 (this is a conservative assumption). So we have:

  • Basic, Expert, Companion, Master sets: probably $10 each in 1983
  • Creature Catalog, $12 in 1986
  • The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, $10 in 1987, which was a big favorite back in the day
  • Three modules at about $6 in 1990

Converting these prices into 2010 prices using this site[2], we get:

  • BXCM: $22 each
  • Creature Catalog: $24
  • Grand Duchy: $19
  • Three Modules: $10 each

For a total of $141. For this you’re getting genuinely original, impressive stuff, but the production values are often quite poor (depending on the version of the game you get) and the game itself is not the best thing ever to grace the face of the planet. But it’s original, and the amount of creative effort involved in early D&D leaves any of the subsequent generations of game in the dust – just look at the diversity and depth of the products displayed on the linked website, and you can see that D&D was rigged to handle anything.

Of course, comparisons with prices from 30 years ago miss the fact that our purchasing power has changed a lot in that time – $80 in 1985 wouldn’t have bought you a computer game console of any kind (even second hand), but $140 in the modern era will. In fact I bet in 1985 you couldn’t have bought a typewriter with $80, but now you can buy an iPod for $240 and typewriters are a thing of the past. So it’s questionable whether the prices are comparable if you apply only inflation, since technological change has made a dollar go much further today (at least when we’re talking about entertainment). So maybe $240 worth of WFRP 3 is more affordable now than $80 of D&D was in 1983.

In conclusion, I think it’s safe to say that WFRP 3 is, for an RPG, a bit pricey, but it’s not a massive rip off. In straight inflation-adjusted terms, it appears that gaming has become much more expensive in the last 30 years, and the more relevant issue is probably that original D&D was – despite its enormous creativity – very cheap. Maybe the creative industry in general needs to look at why that is, and people working in that industry need to ask themselves if their industries have developed in the right direction in the past 30 years.

A Final Note: I’m no Chump!

I should add that a large proportion of the cost of my WFRP (actually, about $150 of it!) has come to me free as presents for favours rendered, so I’ve got the lot for less than the cost of the original D&D set.  So any complaints about price from this quarter are purely academic!

fn1: That I never use, because from the very first day I played any RPG, I never managed to successfully incorporate miniatures into the experience

fn2: Which we can trust, because this is the internet

Remember those crazy monk powers in AD&D First Edition? Especially the one where the monk could fall his level x 10 in feet without suffering damage, provided he or she was within arms reach of a wall? The Guardian has a story about a mountain climber who did exactly that, down a 1000 foot drop in Scotland.

And I scoffed, back in the day…

Everyone knows the political compass, and many people think it’s a good idea but I’ve been thinking ever since I found it (well, since someone showed it to me) that it’s a cheap knock-off of the AD&D alignment system. We’ve all been through the process, haven’t we, of trying to work out what our own alignment is? Well, Sir Grognard (James) over at Grognardia has posted up an ancient picture of the original AD&D alignment system, which basically confirms my suspicions: the political compass folks are simply systematizing what D&D did first.

I think that says a lot about just how sophisticated modern political theory is. Chaps, if what you’re doing – if all of Marx, Hitler, the Tea Party, Paul Keating and Stalin – can be summed up in a page of a quite second-rate role-playing game … you fucked up. Go back to the drawing board and try again. Gary Gygax is pissing on your grave. (In this I’m referring to the polticians, not to the political compass people, whose attempt to map the AD&D alignment system to real life is an excellent idea).

But the iconochasms thing is really good.

Over at “Discourse” and Dragons there is a “rant” about the new edition of D&D, which being inside the OSR echo-chamber is largely agreed to by its respondents, until a chap called Shazbot (from Points of Light) turns up and delivers, in comments, his own handy little rant about old school logic. I believe a good rant deserves credit (where I agree with it) so I’ve reproduced some parts of it here. I think Shazbot ought to turn this into a blog post, because some of its content really reminds me of the way the game was played back in the day.

Why is it that old-schoolers are prone to filibustering and hyperbolic arguments?

“Ohhhh…4th Edition ruined the game forever…all of my previous gaming experiences have been retroactively sodomized. I now know exactly what it means to be a victim of genetic cleansing in Darfur. By proxy. Because of 4th Edition.”

That’s number 1 on my list of stupid old school arguments that I hate.

Number 2:

“It’s not roll-playing…it’s ROLE-playing.”

All because latter editions of the game have included things like fleshed out mechanics for social interactions and skill checks, like say, disabling a suspension bridge. Well hold on there, Crusty Withercock…neither term is actually correct. The term is “roleplaying GAME”. See, the “game” part implies a chance of success or failure which is impartially adjudicated through things like rules. So the first question this leads me to, is what exactly, is the practical…and I stress PRACTICAL…difference between a player rolling his/her diplomacy skill and the DM rolling on a reaction table behind the screen and adding reaction adjustments? Since both use game rules to determine outcome, both would be considered “roll-playing” by the aforementioned standards.

“Oh but Shazbot…our group eschews such rules and the DM simply decides how each interaction plays out.”

Super. Fantastic. But well, that’s not really a GAME then, is it? That’s a magical tea party wherein the DM arbitrarily decides if your efforts succeed or not…based on how his/her day went, or whatever. Hell, this was how just about everything worked in OD&D, because there were absolutely no rules for anything that wasn’t swinging a sword or casting a spell, so everything was either hand-waived or the DM pulled houserules out of his/her ass that inevitably changed week-by-week. OD&D, and you can’t get anymore old school than the old 1974 white box, you started at the entrance of the dungeon, and your character probably didn’t even have a NAME before 5th level…let alone a detailed and compelling backstory. Yeah…that’s role-playing right there. From there, things devolved into a battle of wits with an adversarial DM, laden with semantic booby-traps. “You said you were checking the floor and the chest for traps…not the chandelier…so now you’re crushed. Now get me another Blue Nehi.”

Which brings me to number 3 on my list of stupid old-school arguments that I hate:

“Dwuh? Healing surges? Action points? Daily attacks for fighters??? Bu-bu-but…verisimilitude!”

Okay…tell me how much verisimilitude is in this regular old school occurrence:

“So your unnamed Halfling thief companion has just been crushed by a falling chandelier. Luckily another Halfling just happens to wander through the door.”

Bob: “What-Ho, fellow adventures! Having lost your companion a scant few moments ago…it seems that you are in need of another hand, similarly skilled in the larcenous arts as luck would have it!”

Party: “My! What a fortuitous bit of random happenstance! Why yes stranger, we would be privileged to include you into our merry band! Forsooth!”

A revolving door of interchangeable characters in what amounts to a dungeon fantasy vietnam who, by the end of the adventure, would have absolutely no personal stake in the quest?  Uh yeah…verisimilitude.

Fine…let’s use another example. XP derived primarily through collecting treasure and not, in fact, overcoming challenging foes or completing quests. Please explain to me how picking up coins translates to casting more powerful spells.  In any case, one wonders why adventurers would go adventuring at all, when the safest and most efficient road to god-like power is running a successful business. Also, wouldn’t wealthy merchants ALL be high level characters? Oh, I forgot…PC’s don’t follow the same rules as anyone else…because they’re “heroes”. We know they’re heroes, because PC’s do heroic things, like robbing tombs of their wealth and hiring commoners to run down corridors and set off traps for them.

See here’s the thing…roleplaying games aren’t meant to simulate reality…grandpa Gygax said that himself in the 1st edition DMG…no roleplaying games are meant to emulate fiction.  Now tell me, in which Conan story did the Cimmerian get incinerated by haplessly stepping on the wrong floor-tile only to be immediately replaced by Conan the II. Regale me again with the story of Sir Percival resorting to cowardice and skullduggery to overcome an otherwise worthy foe. Tell me again about the time Merlin the Magician ran out his daily allotment of spells at a critical juncture. Sorry…but the only fantasy that old-school D&D emulates is old-school D&D. It’s become a genre in and of itself…and in my experience this sort of thing makes for terrible reading.

And finally…number 4 on my list of stupid old school arguments that I hate:

“WotC D&D is too videogamey/anime/superheroic/durple”

Because apparently any fighter not wearing a buckskin mini-skirt and a horned helmet is obviously ported straight from a Final Fantasy game.  Someone here has said that D&D should have remained a classic game that has never seen a revision…like Monopoly.  Bull. Shit. Even if Gygax should have been the final authority on all things D&D, he himself revised OD&D into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The original White Box wasn’t a game as much as it was a proof of concept. An experiment.. D&D has gone through a series of revisions over the years because D&D has NEEDED to go through a series of revisions over the years. Anyone who can honestly say that the mechanics haven’t improved over the years, is probably going to write a silly rebuttal, log out, smear poop on their face, put on a bicycle helmet, and promptly ride the short bus to school.

Over the years, game mechanics have evolved to become more efficient, intuitive and user-friendly…like technology, Even though you may not like the aesthetic direction that newer versions of D&D has taken, as in actually becoming a game centered around adventuring and telling heroic stories, instead of a random menagerie of cheap death traps…you cannot reasonably argue that the actual game portion doesn’t function better with each iteration. And you know what? D&D still has a long way to go before it reaches a sublime state of mechanical nirvana. But it’s slowly crawling there.

Stupid old-schooler argument number 5: And now we come around full circle…back to hyperbolic filibustering…

“WotC has destroyed the SOUL of D&D”

Yeah…no it didn’t. The soul of D&D isn’t in anyone edition. It isn’t in the rules…it isn’t in the art. The soul of D&D is still where it belongs…in the players. Maybe you don’t like what the players are doing these days…whatever. You’ve got your own game…now it’s their turn. Because if you honestly believe that a GAME like D&D is more about some bullshit, imagined ideology that you’ve applied only in retrospect, than it is about actually having fun…then your head is stuck so far up you’re own ass, you’ll be eating your lunch a second time.

One of the particular rules from D&D 3rd edition that I really like is the attack of opportunity, which solves a lot of concerns about how to solve the issue of people drinking potions, casting spells, or using missile weapons in combat; and also enables the GM to penalize people who try to run away. Of course, in its direst incarnation it really slows the game down, since multiple people get multiple attempts at anyone who does anything not combative, but in essence I think it’s an excellent idea. I’ve adapted it for use in enhancing the effect of weapons with long reach, and I think it’s generally an excellent idea. I’ve noticed in reading the Warhammer 3 rulebook that there are hints that attempts to disengage from combat should incur some kind of penalty and risk provoking an attack, but there don’t appear to be any rules for it. So, in the interests of furthering the influence of D&D in the universe, I’ve come up with an action card for attacks of opportunity. The card is presented here, but here’s the outline idea:

  • unlike in D&D, one person can only ever suffer one attack of opportunity, so the party chooses which person will do it, and then adds a fortune die if they outnumber their opponents
  • you can’t do multiple attacks of opportunity in a round, which is handled by giving the card a recharge value
  • it’s harder to hit with an attack of opportunity than an normal strike (+1 challenge die)
  • if you get a bit lucky you should be able to escape the engagement without provoking an attack of opportunity, in order to pursue/reengage your opponent
  • if you get really lucky, you prevent your opponent disengaging, but only if you’re in a reckless stance

So here are the card’s two faces, conservative:

Note that the damage is lower than for a normal melee strike, and there is a risk of fatigue, but no other serious effects. The reckless face:

My thinking here is that, if you really get lucky you can stop the enemy escaping. So if the person escaping is your target in the adventure, you choose your most reckless and skilled fighter, he or she loads up with fortune points, and you go all out to either stop the enemy getting out of the engagement, or at the very least the chosen attacker is likely to get out of the engagement as well.

I’m not sure if this card is relevant in one-on-one engagements, or even one-vs.-many. A few notes on the conditions:

  • I have required weapon skill be trained for this action, in order to a) restrict the number of times it happens (since the downside of attacks of opportunity is that they really slow the game down, and prevent people being creative in combat or trying to escape) and b) reflect the fact that, actually, when you’re in the middle of a battle, taking time out to just whack a passer-by is not as easy as it looks
  • The conditions also only allow the card to be used when someone is attempting to disengage from combat, so the card can’t be used against someone casting a spell or using a potion
  • The conditions don’t state this, but if the target is taking advantage of a “disengage freely” outcome from another action, this card can’t be used

I’m going to translate this to Japanese and try using it in combat in my session this week. Comments would be appreciated…

I predict this swan will never fly

I have noticed recently a tiny debate going on between two blogs concerning whether or not it is sensible to assign the class of people called peasants a different distribution of ability scores to the class of people called lords. The distinction in question – 2d6 for peasants, 3d6 for lords – seems roughly fine to me in the renaissance setting in which it’s proposed, though I prefer 2d6 for peasants with a further roll of 2d4-2 if the first roll is a 12, since this gives a small probability of numbers greater than 12. I agree with this method because being a peasant is the single biggest determinant of every aspect of your life, malnutrition and lack of even basic education being a significant impediment to the development of even normal stature and mental function, let alone decent wisdom or strength scores. My Eternal Antagonist over at Monsters and Manuals disagrees, because (it would appear) he objects to the epistemic arrogance of claiming one can model class effects, and it’s an inductive fallacy to propose that just because most peasants have 2d6 stats, the next peasant one meets will have 2d6 stats.

I’m not going to address either of these arguments directly, because it’s impolite – I’m arguing with Noisms at his own blog and I’ve got nothing to say at Alexis’s. What I thought I’d do instead is briefly give my opinion of the Black Swan thesis, which Noisms references in his objection to the model. Taleb, you see, who wrote The Black Swan, is opposed to modelling.

I haven’t read this book, but I’m vaguely interested in the philosophy of science and I had heard that Taleb was not overly respectful of global warming theory, so I picked it up at a friend’s house and read the first chapter, and I was struck by the complete failure of the fundamental analogy, that of the black swan. Taleb argues that black swans, when they were discovered in Australia in the 18th century, were a freak unexpected event that biological theories of that time had not predicted, and which were worked into the theory in hindsight. These have come to represent in his theory the unpredictability of nature, and the inherent dangers of modelling anything.

Except, the problem with this is that in 1790 the biologists were working from the wrong theory. They didn’t have anything like a theory of evolution, which came later after Darwin visited Australia. Evolution, I have read, gives biologists the power to predict new animals, and in fact even to predict where they might be found or how they might behave, and had the theory been developed at that time the black swan wouldn’t have constituted much of a surprise at all, let alone a “significant random event.” While it’s trivially true that the black swan might have appeared like a significant random event at the time, what is more important is the fact that the scientists of that time were working with an imperfect theory, that had no predictive power. Taleb’s whole book about random events screwing predictive models is based on an analogy to a situation in which a (possibly) predictable event was not predicted by a theory that lacked any predictive power. It’s essentially a book whose thesis could be rewritten “Don’t make predictions from the wrong model.” Also, I would add, it’s disingenuous to claim that the swans were worked into the theory with the benefit of hindsight – Australian flora and fauna were essential data in the construction of a revolutionary new theory, evolution, which had greater predictive power. This is not the same as justifying their existence in hindsight.

There is also something a bit strange in a book which purports to claim that financial models are doomed to fail to predict significant random events (black swans) by an author who claims to have predicted the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), which he simultaneously claims is the key black swan of our time. Figure that out. He isn’t the only one to have predicted this black swan, either – I did in 2004, and lots of economists and financial people did, starting around 2004. Of course, the claim that modelling can’t handle unpredictable events is prima facie true, but vacuously so. For example, global warming theory can’t predict rapid global cooling if in 2020 a ginormous meteor hits the earth, because random events like that can’t be factored into anyone’s theory. But a meteor strike in 2020 doesn’t invalidate global warming models or the theory, and to say so is to deliberately ignore the underlying assumptions of the modelling process.

It’s actually quite hard to find on the internet criticism of Taleb’s theories, though I found one article here, also by someone who has not read The Black Swan, but who is primarily riffing off of a very shoddy-sounding Financial Times opinion piece by Taleb. This blog appears to be by a quantitative analyst, so is undoubtedly biased about Taleb’s criticisms of quantitative analysts, but makes some interesting points, particularly about the business consequences of Taleb’s theories, and the silliness of some of Taleb’s claims about the actual models that are used in finance.

I would also add that the finance world isn’t the best place to look for examples of sound modelling. It isn’t subject to any of the checks and balances of science, doesn’t have the historical lessons of science, and a lot of its methodology and results (beyond “making money”) are not made publicly available for us to check. Also, the “making money” part appears to be driven by human interpretation of the models the analysts provide, and not necessarily by the models directly. But Locklin makes the point here, I think nicely, that Taleb has made a big claim that normally distributed data is insufficient for finance modelling; but modern finance modelling doesn’t use the assumption of normality very much. Locklin claims that for this very reason he, like me, had to become a “small-time expert in kernel regression.” Kernel regression modelling has many flaws, but an assumption of normality ain’t one of them. Locklin’s rather malicious claim is that Taleb makes money and fame by telling people who know nothing about finance about something very obvious to the modellers (non-normality), while simultaneously making them think the modellers don’t realise this.

You see the same tactics in global warming denialism all the time, and hordes of armchair scientists eager to claim that they’ve seen the obvious thing (“climate isn’t weather!”) that a generation of climatologists have missed. It may make for entertaining reading, but it’s neither enlightening nor correct.

Further, Taleb is an inheritor of Popper, although Locklin claims he is an inheritor of Feyerabend and therefore an “intellectual nihilist,” an accusation I think is valid regardless of his intellectual inheritance. It’s very easy to claim that all models don’t work because of unexpected events; but a lot harder to square this “philosophy” against the continuing excellent success of, for example, life tables in the insurance industry, or models of global warming. And, a claim that all models will be destroyed by a black swan event is, contra Popper, unfalsifiable. If the event comes and doesn’t destroy the model, you claim it wasn’t really a black swan; if no black swan ever comes in our lifetime due its low probability, you never get to test the model against a black swan. I don’t think Popper would like this. Also, Taleb’s explanation for the causes of the GFC – interconnected markets sharing bad models that didn’t expect the housing meltdown – conveniently deflects blame from the agencies and institutions that were actually responsible for the crash[1], while simultaneously failing to explain the fact that the black swan event (the housing meltdown) was being predicted in very many models for years beforehand. Not only is his model built on a false analogy, but its fundamental test doesn’t have all the characteristics of a black swan anyway.

I suppose the consequence of this intellectual nihilism is what bothers me, the idea that people who don’t do science will reject perfectly good models of important stuff on the basis that you can’t ascribe theories to observed facts. It’s for this reason that we have the unedifying spectacle of Sir Noisms, who hails from the most class-stratified society in the developed world, trying to argue that it’s impossible to model differences between peasants and lords because life is just too complex. The sad finding of 100 years of research on poverty in the UK is that no, life really is that simple[2].

fn1: To be fair, Taleb does provide a reasonable set of rules to avoid a subsequent GFC, but they’re so clearly common-sense based that his “theory” is hardly necessary to justify them.

fn2: Yes, I’m aware I’m being facetious here, ecological fallacy etc. etc. blah blah

Note: the picture is from this site about the 303rd bomber group in world war 2, and the fate of the Black Swan. Models of aircrew survival in world war 2 very much allow us to expect the kind of events described on this page…

Friday night last week was the culmination of my brief Pathfinder game, in which the PCs venture further down the valley, beat up some gnomes, and discover that yes, even in the idyllic Steam Mountains treachery abounds. This week’s session was played not at the ringtail store, as it was last time, but at the family business of one of the players, Era san, who has an 8 month old baby called Mizuho. This family business is on the main road in our steamy town, and is a tax business sprawled across 3 floors of a large building facing the sea. The ground floor (first, as they say rather sensibly over here) was all car park; the second floor the business; and the third floor was a small apartment and bbq area, which seems to double as Era san’s home but is used for entertaining. It has a spare room with an automated mah jong machine in it (complete with little ash-tray holders sticking out from each corner), a draught beer machine, a kitchen, a huge cooler, and a fine view of Beppu Tower and the sea. In summer, it was suggested, we should play some games on the balcony. Era san cooked food for us all, depicted below.

Somewhere in this are two dita-milk cocktails

The food consisted of hot dogs, fried chicken, fruit salad, stir fried noodles, fried chicken wings, and some sausage salad (!). There is also the ubiquitous 2 litre bottle of oolong tea, and a couple of other fancy drinks. I was plied with beer all night, which is much more like my western role-playing experiences. Era san drank non-alcoholic beer (she is still breast feeding) and kept saying “It’s beer! Really it is!” Furudera san seemed to have left her endless supply of food at home but did drink two dita-milk cocktails; apparently she’s a strong drinker. No-one else could drink due to driving or poor drinking skills, and Era san’s husband drifted in and out with the baby, who was very well-behaved and very shy. My contribution to the food was a bag of crisps and a packet of Koala March biscuits[1] (it seemed fitting), pictured in action here:

Drop-bear does 3d6 damage, then drops as a free action...

It took us a while to get started due to dithering, delays, food and chatter, but eventually we started, and we didn’t finish until nearly 1am. This was because the only battle just kept going on and on and on. Pathfinder battles take a long time! I’ve done some comparisons and been thinking about this, and I’ll be getting back to this in more detail later, but I think some of the game mechanics we commonly use are designed to get boring in battle. I think Kuma-san certainly thought so – he started playing with the baby while he waited for the battle to finish. I wanted to join him, actually, and the same thing happened on Sunday at my warhammer game actually – battle stopped early by DM fiat due to lack of interest in continuation by all involved. This is not a stunning recommendation for a rule system.

Everything else went along much the same lines as before. Players now used to being expected to give descriptions and make decisions about how things played out, they were much quicker to do this. One doozy was Myuta the ranger shooting a gnome through the neck, and pinning him to the music box so that he stopped it playing. This session involved some planning for a big assault, and here, folks, is my conclusion about that:


I’m a little stunned by this. Players who don’t dither?! Who would have thought. Decisions were made, a cunning plan tried, and then another plan come up with in short order and enacted. Sadly, Myuta cocked the plan up by fumbling his stealth check (and setting off the music box). Also, although the players don’t dither in planning, some of them dithered in execution, spending a lot of time wondering what spell to cast while the battle raged. I move this stuff on pretty quickly though, with the time-honoured GM five-count. Dithering in action is vastly superior to dithering in anticipation.

All-in-all a successful game, with demands to continue; but we may be moving on to Warhammer 3rd edition first. We shall see…

fn1: This website has a blog by the Koalas from the box. I strongly recommend this site.


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