31 August 2013

Hit Points: What the REALLY Are

I previously wrote that hit points don't actually represent anything.

That's true, but it ignores the role they play in the mechanics of the system.

See, it's absurd to think that as a fighter progress in martial arts that they improve only at attacking and not at defending.

The obvious solution is a straight-up Red Queen scenario where every level the Fighter gets +1 Attack and +1 Defense. For whatever reason, D&D didn't do that, and has forever confused people since.

What D&D does is increase your Hit Points as a proxy for your increasing defensive abilities.

To understand this, we have to recall that in Chainmail, one hit equals one kill. Heroes take four hits, and Super Heroes take 8. Notice that it's no harder to hit Heroes - simply harder to kill them (or so it seems).

But is a Hero really any harder to kill than a normal man? Of course not. Sever his spine and he'll die like the rest. What he has is exceptional defensive ability that allows him to turn aside three blows that would have killed a lesser man.

Remember that in 0e, every hit die is a d6, and every damage die is a d6. This means that one die of damage (on average) removes one Hit Die. So your Level 1 mook is dead in one hit, and your Level 4 Hero is dead in 4. Just like Chainmail (but a little more random).

So it's clear that increasing HP is a proxy for increasing Defense (or AC, as D&D calls it), and nothing else. Every Hit Die is really a mulligan representing your increased ability to defend yourself.

How to reconcile this with healing rates and whatnot? You can't. That's because this is a stupid way to do things that causes no end of confusion, and is a prime example of an overloaded mechanic (i.e. HP is both life force and defensive ability).

29 August 2013

The Absurdity of the 1-Minute Round

I was reminded in a discussion on G+ with Noisms that some people still use the 1-minute combat round from 0e and 1e, in favour of the significantly more reasonable 6-10 second round of other editions.

Let me start off by saying I have seen a lot of swordfights, something that can't be said of Gygax and Arneson. Further, I've read a fair bit about medieval combat (I am far from an expert, but again - much more so than Gygax or Arneson).

Let me state it plainly: 1-minute combat rounds are absurd.

I don't think I've ever seen a swordfight that took more than 1 minute to resolve. Allow that people may be more timid with sharp swords in a fight to the death (but then again, they may not - timidity is death in a fight), and let's say 3 minutes at the outside for a 1-on-1 fight with sharp weapons.

Examples of Combat

OD&D says that two 2nd-level fighters with plate and longswords (+1 Attack, ~7hp, AC 3, 2d6-TH using the usual houserule for 2-handed weapons) do an average of .9 damage per round, so the combat will take (on average) about 7-8 rounds to complete.

Nearly 10 minutes of straight combat in full armour just to take out ONE GUY? Nope, sorry. Not buying it.

But switch the exact same fight to 6-10 second combat rounds, and everything makes sense. Now those 7-8 rounds is more like 1 minute of combat in armour - totally doable, and in line with what I would expect in real life.

Examples of Movement

There's also movement to consider. With a 1-minute combat round, your top movement speed should be something on the order of 500-750 feet (jogging or running) or 250 feet for basic walking.

What we actually see in 0e is a standard move for an armoured man of 12'/round, or a max of 24'/round (as it says you can move at double speed during pursuit/flight situations, so presumably this is running).

Well, I'd say Gary didn't own a sliderule, as that running pace is the stately speed of .44 km/h - about one-tenth of normal walking speed (edit: originally said half, for no apparent reason). That's for running, remember. Normal walking speed for an armoured man is one-twentieth normal walking speed. (edit: corrected similar math mistake).

I've written elsewhere (here and here) about this, so this is really only a brief recap. Suffice to say that if you're using 1-minute combat rounds, the movement speeds are just absolutely laughable.


1-minute combat rounds don't match up with real combat durations, and make the math for movement speeds absolutely ridiculous.

Both of these problems are solved by moving to a ~6-10-second combat round.

24 August 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Longsword

In many ways, the longsword is very similar to the arming sword. It's a little longer, and a little heavier, but it actually performs rather differently.


Your basic longsword is about 4 feet long and about 3 lbs in weight. Longswords are built either for unarmoured or armoured combat, or built to make a compromise between the two.

Longswords built for armoured combat have a stiff blade, aggressively pointed. This is to facilitate the powerful thrusts required to defeat armour. The last few inches will be very sharp. Designs differ, but there will often be some provision for grasping the blade with your off-hand (this is known as "half-swording") - either the whole blade will be sharp save for a hand-sized portion in the middle of the last third, or only the tip will be sharp. Some longswords designed for armoured combat will have the quillons sharpened to points, to allow devastating quillon punches and mortschlags (more on that later).

An armoured man holding his sword in "half-sword".

Longswords built for unarmoured combat will have a more flexible blade, sharp all the way down. It may not be quite as aggressively pointed.

I'd like to clarify that the "unsharpened" portions are not totally dull, they're just not nearly as sharp as the rest of the sword.


The longsword, despite being a weapon of status, was not typically the primary battlefield weapon of armoured men, who typically preferred spears or poleaxes. The longsword was primarily a sidearm or a self-defence weapon.

Much like the arming sword, the cuts are delivered by pushing the balance point forward not with big swinging arm movements - . The big difference with a two-handed sword is that you do a "lever" action with your two hands, moving your right hand forward and your left hand back to snap the tip forward faster and more powerfully.


While half-swording (illustrated above) is possible with an arming sword, the extra 8" of blade (the other 4" of increased length over an arming sword is in the handle) really does make half-swording a longsword more viable.

Half-swording basically turns your sword into a small spear, and many of the spear plays are possible with the half-sword. It provides a powerful defence that can easily transition into a powerful thrust, and because it gets you in close, it puts you in a great position to enter and get into grappling.

Both Fiore and Vadi say, "the sword is an axe". While this statement is rather cryptic alone, by looking to the German tradition, we see a technique called the "mortschlag", or "murder-blow".

From historicalfencing.com - a mortschlag delivered to the vulnerable back of the shoulder.

The mortschlag involves grasping the blade with both hands, and swinging the sword exactly like an axe or mace. Ringeck advises that mortschlags be delivered to the foot, the hand or arm, or to the back of the hip or shoulder. Tallhoffer (I think - I know some of my readers are better versed in the German tradition than I am, and will surely correct me) describes used the crossguard to hook and disarm from  mortschlag.

The other side of the comment "the sword is an axe" is, in my opinion, that the sword and the axe share, amongst the knightly weapons, that is equally capable of thrusts and blows.

The other thing worth mentioning is that the sword can be used as an extra lever in holds, locks, or disarms. The point of the half-sword can be slipped between the arm and the sword and twisted for a disarm. If you can get behind your opponent, the sword can be held against their throat with a hand on the blade and one on the handle for a choke-out, severe neck wound, or a throw. When applying certain keys, the sword can be used to help lock up the arm and provide additional leverage for a break or throw.


In defence the longsword is used much like arming sword except at the half-sword, so that's what I'll discuss here.

Much like the spear, the half-sword can be used to knock a blow or thrust aside and immediately counter with a thrust of your own, or blow right through into a pommel/quillon strike.

From this block, you can turn your sword to the right, simultaneously displacing your opponents sword and directing your point at his face or neck, or come to a grapple as we see below.

Once you've blocked or parried at the half-sword, you're going to be very close to your opponent, and many defences in armour revolve around grappling. A man in armour is extremely well-protected, and throwing him to the ground is a great way to neutralize that advantage. Working at the half-sword facilitates this.

Coming to an arm lock - the opponent can be forced to the ground from here. If they strongly resist the throw, their arm will break.

From here, you can throw your opponent to the ground by pushing back on his head with the tip of your sword. Obviously, if he doesn't have good neck protection, he'll be severely injured even before he hits the ground.

A possible follow-on from the first half-sword defense I showed - push forward and slip the sword behind the neck, then use that powerful grip to hurl the opponent face-first into the ground.

21 August 2013

Spells and Steel: Goal Updates

Comments by Jhandar reminded me to revisit my design document and look at how my thoughts have changed. This is largely for my reference, and to clarify my thoughts, but Jhandar has indicated that he (and presumably others of my readers) are interested in the process by which my design is growing and developing.

 My original design document for Spells and Steel can be found here:

Text in italics below is quoted from the original design document.

Goals of the Combat System:

  • Simple and Fast
  • Verisimilitude:
    • Weapon Functions
    • Realities of Combat and Damage
  • Stats and Attributes with Clear Meanings
  • Battlemat Optional
  • Bonus: Easy to Drop Into B/X D&D as a Replacement System
 Keeping combat simple and fast is a constant struggle. It's always so tempting to introduce just one more die roll, or one more die type. This is probably the most important design goal, though, so it bears keeping it first in the list.

My existing combat system has - for me at least - the air of verisimilitude. It currently models weapon functions rather well (in my opinion), and the reality of damage is currently undergoing a rather serious overhaul in light of my recent reading in SPADA II.

Stats and attributes with clear meanings have been achieved. By this I mean - combat stat represents one part of the fight. Attack represents your ability to land a blow. Defense is your ability to avoid being hit. Armour is your ability to be hit but not hurt. Etc, etc.

Contrast this with D&D, where Armour Class is a blend of hard-to-hit and hard-to-hurt, and hit points are a blend of luck, stamina, skill, defensive ability... It makes it hard to make quick judgements based on attributes that are so muddled.
 Combat does not require a battlemat, so that has been achieved. I don't think I've ever had less fun than running 3e battles on a battlemat. I avoid them like the plague. Diagrams? Even minis? Sure, sometimes. But the rigidity and bizarreness that comes with the 5' grid is anathema to me.

Since combat relies on Attack (analogous to improving to-hit tables), Defense (analogous to armour class), and Armour (simply reducing damage rolls), and since all of those depend on class, level, and equipment (all concepts in B/X) it can be pretty easily dropped in as a replacement system.
Goals of the Leveling System:
  • Balanced Feats
  • Meaningful Choices
  • Customizable Characters
  • Minimize Min-Maxing, Maximize Flavour
  • Believable Power Curve
I've chosen to abandon most of these goals. I'm no longer interested in characters that can be customized through mechanics - down that path lies the bugaboos of "balance" and "spotlight" and all that tired crap.

Most of this has to do with my desire for a system that can get character creation done fast and get the game going very quickly. It's far easier to say, "You can pick between Fighter, Burglar, and Magician. Fighters are trained soldiers or men-at-arms. Burglars are sort of like a cross between Oliver Twist and a Ninja. Magicians use real magic to create illusions and warp reality."

I don't have to list feats. Character creation is, "Roll stats. Pick class. Buy equipment." It takes all of about 5 minutes, and most of that is buying equipment.

I'm also moving away from feats and customization because of my desire to eliminate min-maxing, power gaming, and agonizing over efficient feat selections.

Lastly, I've realized that feats do the exact opposite of what they're supposed to do, and rest on a dangerous supposition. The short version is that feats limit what you can do by implicity proscribing that isn't in a feat or class power you can have - essentially, a feat system rests on a foundation of impotence. You can't do anything unless you have a feat for it. I want a permissive system where the default assumption is that you can do something unless there's some specific reason why you can't.

Goals of the Magic system:
  • Simple or Non-existant Resource Management (no memorization, no mana)
  • Make it Weird (no fireball or magic missile - more illusions, compulsions, trickery)
  • Balanced with Combat-focused Characters
  • Bonus: Easy to Drop Into B/X D&D as a Replacement System
I'm tolerably happy with the magic system I have as it stands. There's still some tweaking to do, mostly with the casting check difficulties for spells. I can't pretend this is anything novel, but it's working for me.

I also quite like the spell list I've been developing. One of my main inspirations for making my own game system was Paolo Greco's Adventure Fantasy Game and its long list of interesting and novel spells. I've also tried to create spells that feel like they have some history, and some life before and outside the game.

The system I have can be fairly easily dropped into a B/X game - casters simply get as many casting dice as they have levels.

Goals Overall:
  • Believability / Verisimilitude
  • Harsh, Gritty Flavour
  • Easy to Learn and Play
  • Fun!
  • Able to Take Players from Adventurers to Lords
  • Historically Reasonable Pricing and Economy
Believability and verisimilitude is an ongoing quest as I learn more and turn up more info on my research. My recent reading (that prompted me to write Mortal Wounds and the Double-Kill) in SPADA II about the incredible resilience of the human body has lead me to reconsider many of my assumptions surrounding believability, verisimilitude, and the harsh, gritty flavour I want.

As the system is still in flux, it's hard to say if it's easy to learn, but ongoing playtests show things running pretty smoothly, and people are having fun.

In order to truly claim to be able to take players from mooks to moguls, a mass battle system and a domain holding system are required. Work has begun on those, but it is still in a very preliminary stage. I'm optimistic that I'll be able to create the elusive mass battle system that's as simple and fun as B/X combat.

Research into historical pricing is ongoing. I'm taking a rather different tack than Alexis did on that. Whereas he has created a truly remarkable system that models trade in a pretty complex and interesting way, I'm attempting to find historical references for commodities c. 1400, adjust prices I can find that are for near that era, and estimate prices based on costs of their materials and the price of labour at the time.

Make no mistake - I am truly in awe of the work Alexis has done on his trade system. If you haven't read his posts on Tao of D&D about his trade system, do so now (link for the lazy to the tag "trade" on his blog: http://tao-dnd.blogspot.ca/search/label/Trade). It's just that for my purpose, and for the purposes of anyone picking up a roleplaying book, I think getting a good foundation in the form of a basic price list will be more useful "out of the box", so to speak.

I like knowing that there's some historical grounding to my prices, and then, from that solid foundation, I can adjust prices accordingly for regions with dearths or surpluses of certain commodities.

20 August 2013

Latest Burgs & Bailiffs now out, including my article "The Cost of Castles"

The latest issue of Burgs & Bailiffs just came out - a lot of great stuff in there, including an article by yours truly!

Based on my historical research, I generalized the cost of building a castle into a generic format usable in any RPG system.

You can find the latest Burgs & Bailiffs HERE.

I also wrote a handy-dandy spreadsheet calculator to figure the costs out for you - you can find that HERE.

Stay tuned for some follow-up posts on castles in the coming weeks, including some case studies.

19 August 2013

The Long Road to Better DMing

Noisms recently wrote a post, the gist of which was to extol the virtues of practical experience as a GM over mere technical knowledge. It can be found here.

I would tend to agree with that, but I think an even more important consideration is being overlooked.

Noisms asks the question, "who is the better DM - the person who has only been trained in the rules or the person who knows the rules but has 10 years' experience at the table?" He and I agree that it will likely be the person with more experience.

But an even more important question is this, "who is the better DM - the person whose total knowledge of the world and humanity comes from daytime television and trashy novels, or the person with a rich social life who is well-read in both great literature and non-fiction?" I think the answer is obvious.

But so often gamers seem to think that the game begins with prep and ends when the last hit point is expended (Alexis at Tao of D&D is a notable exception - he has often written on the importance of being a well-rounded, well-educated human to gaming, and that is one of the reasons why I have so much respect for him). So often the importance of being a good human being is ignored.

Without an understanding of politics, economics, geography, physics, meteorology, sociology, military science, etc. etc., it is very difficult to run a convincing game world. Without extensive experience of varied social interaction and without exposure to the depths of humanity present in literature, it is very difficult to run convincing NPCs (or PCs, for that matter).

One of my favourite quotes - it was said regarding musicianship, but can be applied equally well to playing D&D - is "Remember that sitting under a tree is also good for your playing." It was a reminder that beyond the technical and the practical is the human, and D&D is nothing if not a game that is deeply human.

So, get out there - read Dostoyevsky. Watch Kubrick. Experience Rodin, Mondrian, Matisse. Fall in love, argue passionately, make and lose friends.

If you want to play great games, live great lives.

16 August 2013

On Realism - Realistic vs. Detailed

A recent comment by reader LS brought this to the forefront of my mind. The relevant bit is:

"I'm very strongly of the opinion that designing towards realism is generally a bad idea."

I disagree, but I think that might be because we disagree about what we mean by realism. In my experience, most attempts at "realism" are really attempts at detail. And detail is not really necessary for realism - in fact, it tends to create less realistic results, and tends to bog the game down.

LS - please don't think I'm taking you to task with this! I think this is a common thought in RPG design, and I think I'll show here that we're actually not far from the same page. If not, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I think that elegance and simplicity is more or less a given in game design (although the popularity of 3e through 5e kinda disprove that... sigh...). Given an elegant, simple, fast-playing system, why wouldn't you want it to be realistic?

3e is a perfect example of a detailed, unrealistic system. With its millions of rules for everything from basket weaving to whether you can take a single step in a combat situation (yes, if you haven't played 3e, combat is managed down to the individual step - the mind boggles), 3e is so far from being realistic it is, in my opinion, unplayable. Detailed? Absolutely, incredibly detailed. Realistic? Not so much.
In fact, despite being way more complicated than the 0e or BECMI combat system, and significantly slower, the 3e system is actually LESS realistic.

For example, in BECMI or 0e, there's no formal system for combat maneuvers.

Because of that, the DM is free to adjudicate combat maneuvers realistically, using their life experience and understanding of the intricacies of the current situation. 3e says, "Well, you don't have the Shield Bash feat, so - despite being a skilled warrior, who, realistically, would be totally capable of punching someone while holding a shield - you can't do that."

Neither realistic, nor fun, but the feat system does add a lot of meaningless details.

I like reductio ad absurdum, so let's analyze the notion of realism in games through that tool.

Let's imagine a game system that is totally unrealistic. Hitting people with swords makes flowers grow. Shouting makes your arms longer. Standing still makes the moon get closer to the Earth. Jumping increases monetary inflation in China, and causes a collapse in housing prices in Chartres.

In short, it's totally impossible, as a player, to predict what effect your actions will have on the world. You can't make any informed choices, and therefore the game is no fun. You're just flailing about.

Now let's look at the contrary scenario - the DM is some kind of hyper-computer that has an atom-perfect simulation of the game world. Everything action has perfectly realistic results (realistic as defined by the game world - there can still be magic and dragons and stuff). All outcomes are computed instantly and relayed back to the player.

In this scenario, all of the character's life experience will be useful. They can make informed choices without worrying about the "rules", because their actions will have the same effect they would have in the real world. They simply need to role-play - the ruleset, despite being totally realistic, just gets out of the way and lets them play.

And this is the crux of why I think realism in RPGs is worth pursuing. A perfectly realistic RPG requires no system mastery, as everything simply functions in-game as it would in the real world. The players need know nothing of the game mechanics in order to make informed choices about character actions.

Now, obviously, we're not hyper-computers with worlds inside us, but that doesn't mean we can't strive for the ideal of a fast-playing game system with realistic results.

Also, keep in mind that what's "realistic" changes with the assumptions of the world. If your world has fireballs, that's fine - that's not "unrealistic". But if everything else is the same, and you can't use a fireball to start a forest fire in a tinder dry stand of trees, that's unrealistic.

We don't need reams of skills, rules for movement in combat, attacks of opportunity, etc. etc. etc. for a system to be realistic. Those are mechanics, those are details.

What we need to focus on is results. Calibrating the system for speed and accuracy.

What we need is a system where a peasant with a sword will be slaughtered by a trained swordsman. Where falling 40 feet puts you in serious danger. Where getting stabbed in the kidney is a serious problem, whether you're level 1 or 20. Where the player can drive a team of horses because they grew up on a farm, not because they have "Animal Handling +4". Where the players can leverage their decades of life experience.

Realism is plausibility, it's verisimilitude, it's internal consistency.

Realism is good.

15 August 2013

The Irrelevance of Initiative

Since combat is an ongoing cycle with everyone acting, the idea that people are acting in order in combat rounds is kind of arbitrary. After a full cycle, the beginning and end of the cycle cannot be determined, and therefore being "higher" or "lower" in initiative order is meaningless.

An example. Consider this initiative order:

Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1

Now, look at how the initiative for a 5-round combat looks:

Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1
Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1
Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1
Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1
Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1

For the bulk of the combat, there's literally no way to know if Bill is going first, or Ogre #1, or Wilma, or Phil. Each person just goes after the previous one. If you allow actions to change your initiative order (i.e. "held" actions), then the whole concept becomes even more meaningless.

On top of that, going first is not necessarily an advantage, due to the artifacts of a turn-based system.

Consider Wilma and Bill, both Level 1 Fighters with 3HP and d6 damage weapons. Their movement is 30' (for the purposes of the example).

If they start 35' apart, the person who goes "first" is actually at a serious disadvantage - if they move up at all, the other will be able to then move up on their turn and strike them. If the blow connects, the odds are even that it will kill them, and the fight will be over.

This is why I prefer to do things this way:

I describe the beginning of the action of each opponent (i.e. Orc #1 is moving towards Bill, Orc #2 is moving towards Jane, and the Ogre is preparing to throw a rock).

Then the players say what they intend to do:

Bill: I'm going to draw my sword and fight Orc #1.
Wilma: I'm going to help Bill.
Steve: I'll cast Figface on the Ogre.
Jane: I'm going to flip the table to block Orc #2's advance, and look for my Horn of Fury in my pack.
Phil: I'll defend Jane while she looks for the Horn.

Then we just go around in whatever order is convenient (typically clockwise) and adjudicate the results, with the idea in mind that this is all happening simultaneously.

I don't find that it's any harder to do things that way than it is with an initiative system, it's a lot more satisfying, as the players get to make informed choices based on a hint of what the enemies are going to do, and it avoids all the weird artifacts of a turn-based system.

This system is similar to some strategy games on the market, such as TacOps 4 - there are "order phases" where the game is paused and players issue orders, and then "battle phases" where the game runs in real-time for, say, 1 minute of game time (during which time orders can't be changed or given).

14 August 2013


The very talented Paolo Greco (of Adventure Fantasy Game fame - if you haven't checked it out, you owe it to yourself to get a copy - it's worth it for the reams of original spells alone, but it also features a wonderfully simple and effective combat-slash-skill system) is putting together a new issue of Burgs and Bailiffs, and I'm going to have an article in it!

It's going to be about calculating the costs of building your dream castle based on historical records. You'll be able to find out how much stone, wood, nails, sand, etc. it's going to take, how long it's going to take to build it, and how many guys you're going to need toiling a way (spoiler alert - it's a LOT).

Probably one of my favourite parts of D&D from when I was a kid was fantasizing about building castles - I must have spent hours poring over the castle cost charts in the old Basic/Expert/Companion books. I've been meaning for some time to do some research into what kind of resources it would really take to make the castles I've dreamed of, and I have to thank Paolo for getting my butt in gear and checking over my facts and figures.

So, look for the next installment of Burgs and Bailiffs soon, and if you haven't, check out the first Burgs and Bailiffs, and Adventure Fantasy Game: