Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Holmes and AD&D Weapon vs Armor Class

There is an interesting comment on this post over at Grognardia that points out that the 1e PH has a relatively simple set of rules for combat on pages 104-5. Since the Holmes Basic Set suggests Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as the "more complete rules," I found it very interesting that there are some significant differences between the way combat is presented in these two editions: initiative and the length of a combat round. 

Holmes bases initiative on Dexterity, the 1e PH has each side in a combat roll a d6. In Holmes, a combat round is 10 seconds, in the 1e PH the combat round is 1 minute.

Also interesting is the following quote about Weapon Factors:

You have already seen information regarding the damage each type of weapon does, how heavy each is, how long and how much space each needs, and each weapon's relative speed factor. The same charts also give relative efficiency against armor types. Your referee will use these factors in the determination of melee combats by relating them to his Attack Matrices.

I love how the war gaming roots of D&D can be seen in those last two italicized words. More interstingly, however, is the fact that all of this information about weapons don't really belong in the abstract 1 minute rounds of the 1e PH. On the other hand, the 10 second round of Holmes invites the kind of realism these Weapon Factors seem to want to emulate. 

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have a deep fascination with both Holmes and Weapon vs. Armor Class tables. Given the fact that Holmes states:

The combat tables used by D&D gamers are often extremely complicated. Full tables are given in Advanced Gungeons & Dragons. The tables below are deliberately simplified...

I began to wonder if it were possible to reconcile the "extremely complicated" combat tables from the 1e PH and the Holmes Basic Edition by assuming the Holmes was more correct than the 1e PH. The result was the following table:

A couple of notes before I begin explaining some of the implications of this table:

  1. I interpreted Space Required as how many people could fit in a 10 foot square, with a maximum of 3 standing shoulder to shoulder.
  2. I used the variable damage dice from the 1e PH rather than a universal 1d6
  3. I only used those weapons listed in the equipment list of Holmes and their cost
  4. I averaged all of the various factors of all the pole arms not explicitly named in Holmes to come up with stats for the generic "pole arm" listed in Holmes
  5. I did the same for the generic "sword" listed in Holmes
  6. I stuck to Melee weapons for the present, because Missile Combat in Holmes is a completely different phase of combat
  7. I chose to use armor class ranges to represent Plate Mail, Chain-type Mail, Leather Armor, and Unarmored so as to make things easier when looking at Monster Stats
  8. I used AC 3, 5, 8, and 10 in the 1e PH to represent the armor classes from Holmes 
  9. Note: all of this is possible because Dexterity in Holmes does not affect Armor Class

Lets deal with Speed and Initiative first. Holmes has Dexterity = Initiative. Speed would subtract from a character's Dexterity Score to end up with a final Initiative. Thus, a Fighter with a Dex 11 using a Sword would have a 6 Initiative. 

The 1e PH describes surprise in terms of 6 second phases and states that a surprise attack can happen in that short amount of time. Given that a combat round in Holmes is 10 seconds, it suggests that a character with an Initiative of over 10 could attack twice in a round. Thus, anyone with a Dex 13+ could attack twice a round with a dagger and thus explain that most controversial statement by Holmes that daggers can be used twice per round. It also suggests that ending up with a negative Initiative means that a weapon is too unwieldy for the character to use.

This creates a problem when it comes to Pikes, which have a speed of 13; however, I would argue that with their extreme reach, they can engage targets while Missile Combat is still in effect. The huge speed indicates that a Pike in normal melee is too cumbersome for most characters to actually use.

Another implication of this table is that Plate Mail is better than advertised. Most weapons have a penalty to hit it. The real exception to this is the Two-Handed Sword; however, it has a 10 speed and only one person can wield it in a 10ft. corridor. I also find that the Morning Star is possibly the best weapon overall, rather than the ubiquitous Sword.

While this might all be fascinating, it does run up against a serious problem when trying to apply all of this to monsters. There are several of solutions here that I think would be fair:

  1. Make use of all those detailed weapon % tables that the MM1 has for most of the humanoid monster entries
  2. The average weapon speed of all the weapons above is 7. This can be universally applied to all monsters who use weapons. The 1e PH lists Fist, Unarmed with a Speed of 1. This can be applied to all monsters that don't use weapons.
  3. One could use an Initiative system based on size: Small Creatures get 3d6, Medium get 2d6, and Large get 1d6 with no additions or subtractions.
This, of course, would need to be play tested, but I think this is the closest I have ever come to making a Weapon vs. Armor Class Table that I would actually use at the table.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Towards a Holmesian Dungeon

What follows is not anything particularly new. Many of these ideas have been present within the hobby and explored throughout the years I have been maintaining this blog. My interest here is codifying what I consider to be the characteristics of a dungeon that can truly be called Holmesian — by which I mean a dungeon that puts into practice what the Holmes Basic Edition presents as Dungeon. It has been a quest of mine to find and/or create such a dungeon. This is intended to help both me and anyone else who shares this particular quixotic quest. 

My introduction to the hobby of RPGs was the Holmes Basic Edition. While it did excite my imagination and was the gateway for me to spend years of my life playing various RPGs, I never really played the game as Homes presented it until Gary Gygax’s death. In the wake of this great loss to the hobby, I returned to the pages of Holmes to revisit my youth. What I found inside that blue cover was eye opening. Not only was it as inspiring as I found it back in the late seventies, but it presented a kind of dungeon design philosophy that I have only seen put into practice in part over the many years I have played the game. 

In other words, what might be called a “Holmesian Dungeon” doesn’t introduce us to any really radical new ideas about what a dungeon is (it has been around since 1977, after all). Rather, it combines extant ideas about dungeon design in a distinct way. This uniqueness teases us with a dungeon adventure experience that, though filled familiar tropes, is, at its core, something that I really haven’t ever seen in all my years of playing. 

What I seek to do here is delineate what I believe are the explicit and implicit characteristics of what I call a Holmesian Dungeon with the aim of creating a template for such an adventure to be created.


Large Rooms 

The Example Dungeon in the Homes Basic Edition provides for several large rooms with at least one dimension of 80 to 100 feet or more. 

At first brush, one might not place much import on such a design feature, but a close reading of Holmes reveals that it is a deliberate choice. Melee movement in Holmes is slower than any other edition: an unencumbered character in Leather Armor moves 20 feet per round. Thus, larger rooms allow for encounter distances that make moving into melee a tactical choice. This is especially important for magic and missile weapons:

A magic-user must concentrate on his spell, so he cannot cast a spell and walk or run at the same time, and he certainly cannot cast a spell while engaged in combat.
Once the party is engaged in melee, arrows cannot be fired into the fight because of the probability of hitting friendly characters.

In other words, designing a dungeon with large rooms specifically allows party members to take advantage of both the magic and missile phases of the game and to choose how long these phases are in effect by determining when the party engages in the melee phase of combat. It also allows the Referee to create encounters where it is the PCs who must figure out a way to close the gap in order to avoid the magic and missile phases. 

Doors are Stuck or Locked 

Holmes states that doors are usually closed and often stuck or locked. Opening doors is an important part of the game. It affords an opportunity to surprise monsters beyond the door, but also involves a risk of ruining that surprise. Brute strength can always open a door; however, failure means alerting any monsters that are behind the door. Thieves afford the party a means of opening doors where failure is silent. Magic-users can use a valuable spell slot for a Knock spell which guarantees a silent open door. Additionally:

Doors opened will usually shut automatically unless spiked or wedged open. Doors open automatically far monsters, however, unless held or spiked shut.

Every door in a Holmesian Dungeon is a consequential tactical choice. 

I should note, that in practice, I have found that failing to open a door with brute force shouldn’t result in the door remaining shut, it simply means that the door has been opened in such a way that surprise is impossible. Having players roll again and again just to open a door is tedious and ruins the flow of exploring the dungeon. 

Traps as Non-lethal Time Wasters 

Unlike Moldvay, whose trap examples include poison gas with a Save vs. Poison or die, a ceiling block that does 1d10 damage if a Save vs. Turn to Stone is failed, and a pendulum blade that does 1d8 damage, Holmes understands that traps normally do not serve the purpose of causing damage to members of an adventuring party:

Traps should not be of the "Zap! You're dead!" variety but those which a character might avoid or overcome with some quick thinking and a little luck. Falling into a relatively shallow pit would do damage only on a roll of 5 or 6 (1-6 hit points at most) but will delay the party while they get the trapped character out. Hidden rooms, movable walls, teleportation devices, illusion rooms, dead ends, etc., make interesting variations.

Traps play the role of time waters. While some might pose an actual physical threat to player characters, they can be worked around given enough time. Along with trying to open doors, players must make the choice as to whether or not the time wasted on a trap is worth it. This choice becomes meaningful when one considers the real danger of a Holmesian Dungeon. 

Wandering Monsters are the Real Danger 

Holmes states that a Wandering Monster check should be made every three turns. Thus, everything that takes time in a dungeon brings with it the threat that monsters will come and investigate what the characters are doing. Given that Holmes specifies that a Wandering Monster on the First Level of a Dungeon might come from the Second or Third Level indicates that these Wandering Monster Encounters are not meant to be balanced or even winnable situations for the players. Dropping treasure in order to have the movement rate fast enough to run away can become a necessity. Larger rooms also allow for tactical retreat to be a realistic possibility. Implicit in this Holmesian reality is that a Dungeon Level can never truly be cleared…but more on that below. 

Empty Rooms 

Of the twenty-two rooms keyed in the Sample Dungeon of the Holmes Basic Edition, eight are labelled as Empty. Like the locked doors and time-wasting traps, these serve the specific function of forcing characters to make tactical choices as to whether or not spending time in a room that may or may not have a secret door or hidden treasure is worth it. Of course, there is a danger that game-play with become monotonous and boring as players encounter empty room after empty room. This is where the Implicit characteristics of a Holmesian Dungeon become important. 


The Three Eras 

(Empty Rooms are Not Really Empty) 

One of the curiosities of the Holmes Basic Edition can be found in its presentation of Magical Scrolls. Besides those that have a Protection Spell, scrolls are only usable by Magic-users. Additionally, there are scrolls that have spells that mimic the special effects of Magical Rings, Potions, and Wands. Implicit in this presentation of Scrolls are at least two different eras: 

  • The Present Era, in which Divine Magic is something new enough that scrolls cannot be found within the Dungeon. 
  • The Ancient Era, which knew powerful spells which now only exist on scrolls buried within the Dungeon. 
  • Since the difference between these two is so stark, there probably is also a Quondam Era between the two in which the ancient arcane magics are lost. 

Thus, an empty room need not simply be empty, but can tell a story about a bygone era through the materials used to construct it, the mundane items left behind, and the art and architecture of those who once lived there. This information adds to the weight of the players’ tactical choice of whether a room is worth exploring. 

Powerful Magics Lie Within 

Spells once existed where creatures like dragons and giants could be controlled. Thus, the magics available to those who came before are far beyond what player characters might ever be able to accomplish. Thus, a Holmesian Dungeon itself would reflect this reality — magic was once far more powerful than it is in the present. 

The Dungeon is Malleable 

The primary way this reality manifests itself is through malleability.In its most basic form, this malleability is demonstrated by the ever-present threat of Wandering Monsters. There is, however, an implication that this malleability affects the physical nature of the Dungeon itself. Over time, the dungeon changes to adapt to the new realities of the adventurers that explore it. 

The Dungeon itself is an NPC 

In other words, the Dungeon itself acts as a semi-intelligent, malevolent creature that continually offers up the lure of powerful magic and treasure in order to entice adventurers of all stripes, hoping to lead the to their potential deaths. It is never too challenging, else why would just anyone venture into its depths? No, it offers just enough to make things interesting; however, those ever present Wandering Monsters are there to devour the unsuspecting.

Question: Is there a published Adventure Module out there that ticks all of these boxes? I do not know of one.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Saintly Saturday: The Miracle of Archangel Michael at Colossae

…on Sunday 

It has been quite awhile since I did a Saintly Saturday, where I look to the Feasts of various Saints as an inspiration for RPG world-building and adventure. In my last post, I noted how James Maliszewski of Grognardia fame published a post about a map I drew for him about a decade ago. The map is of a ruined monastery that once guarded the world from foul aberrations of Chaos that bubble forth from the crags of Urheim. 

It occurred to me that the The Feast of the Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Colossae, celebrated on September 6th, tells a tale that could have been an inspiration for someone running a campaign around the concept of The Monastery of St. Gaxyg-at-Urheim. 

In what is now southwestern Turkey, there was a region called Phrygia and a city called Hierapolis. 

Roman Amphitheater at Hierapolis

Not far from the city was a church dedicated to the Archangel Michael. It was built by a pagan who had a vision of the Archangel directing him to have his mute daughter drink from a spring. After partaking, she gained her speech. He converted and had the church built over the spring.

The region had once been dominated by a pagan cult dedicated to some kind of serpent god. According to a 5th-7th century account of the Miracle at Colossae, Sts. John the Evangelist, Philip the Apostle, and Mariamne, Philip’s sister:

Slew the viper with prayer, as with a spear, putting it to death through the power of Christ.

The Tomb of St. Philip at Hierapolis

It should also be noted that there was a pagan underwater spring called the Plutonium. It emitted poisonous gas and was thought to be an entrance into Hades. 

Plutonium: Enter at Your Own Risk

About ninety years after the church was built, a boy called Archippos traveled to the Plutonium. Repelled by the gas, he went to the spring at the church and decided to dedicate his entire life to Christ. This was a pattern that repeated itself enough that the local pagans decided to destroy the church. For ten days, they worked to divert two rivers in order to wash away the church and the spring that was attracting so many to Christ. Archippos remained in the church praying fervently for the protection of God. Just as the pagans released their dam to unleash the rivers, the Archangel appeared and drove a staff into the ground, causing an earthquake that opened a chasm down which the waters flowed. 

Waterfalls at Honaz

The pagans ran and the locals changed the name of the place from Colossae to Chonae, which means “plunging.” Today the city is called Honaz. In subsequent years, the area was ravaged by Persian invasion, multiple earthquakes, and civil war. The ruins of Hieropolis are a tourist spot where people bathe in baths and springs to this day. 

Thermal Springs near Hierapolis
This story has everything for the beginnings of a megadungeon-centered campaign:

  • A snake cult 
  • The tomb of a saint that fought the snake cult
  • A ruined church/monastery
  • A chasm with a waterfall
  • Magical pools
  • An entrance into the underworld
  • An earthquake revealing parts unknown underground
  • A miracle describing the local geography
  • Invasions and civil wars of civilizations past
I think the lovely part of all this is that implied in this story are multiple entrances into the dungeon where the snake cult  still harbors hatred for the civilizations of humanity that rejected it. How cool is this?

The Monastery of St. Gaxyg-at-Urheim

About ten years ago (has it really been that long?) I drew a map for James Maliszewski over at Grognardia. At the time, there was a bit of an effort to create a "crowd sourced" megadungeon that used contributions from a variety of volunteers. Being a bit of a map geek, I drew several that James was pleased enough with that he shared them with the world at large. 

If you hadn't noticed, after a long hiatus, James has started posting again over at Grognardia. He also let me know that he wanted to do something with one of those maps I drew all those years ago. You can find his musings here

As a thank you, I thought I'd share another map that I drew for my own version of St. Gaxyg-at-Urheim. It briefly showed up in my Lost Colonies campaign very early on when Hamlen lost his beloved spiked club down an underground river. That river led to an underground waterfall which is at the bottom of the map. The club was found, some orcs were felled and then the party went off on one of their many tangents. Enjoy!