Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The End of Thought Eater

These two essays are not by me--they are the final two essays in the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Contest.  The winner of this round reigns supreme for all time!

Here's the first one--if you like it best send an email saying only MASS in the subject heading to zakzsmith at hawtmayle dawt calm .

Mass Combat Belongs in the Monster Manual

D&D started as a hack on a war game, which is why OD&D depends  on, but does not provide, mass combat rules. The original game  included kingdom management rules and prices for castles and  armies. The first adventure module, in the Blackmoor  supplement, had rooms that contained hundreds of soldiers. You  were expected to break out TSR's Chainmail war game to use  these things. In fact, as you got higher and higher level,  Gygax expected that more and more of your time playing D&D  would actually be spent playing Chainmail. That's sort of like  if you went to a Scrabble tournament and they said, "Good news!  You guys are such good Scrabble players that now you get to  play Monopoly."

D&D went mainstream because audiences liked the fast,  immersive, co-op game of the imagination, and they didn't latch  onto (or even understand the references to) the slow, rules- bound, head-to-head, miniature-requiring war game. So, in later  editions, the Chainmail references were cut. Essentially, D&D's  intended end game, conquest and rulership, was removed. The  middle of the game, grinding for money, was extended, even  though there were now no castles and armies to spend the money  on. 

And this is a big loss for D&D. In any edition, high level D&D  is not a solid product. High level fights are swingy, monster variety is  sparse.  And, worse, with epic battles and kingdom-building  mostly offscreen, characters can't leave their mark on the game  world, except by saving it from ever more powerful dungeon  monsters. Players and DMs alike generally try to keep away from  war epics, because running big battles isn't something D&D  does. 

To fill the hole left by the removal of Chainmail and epic-fantasy play, TSR and WOTC churned out stand-alone battle  supplements every few years:

-OD&D introduced Swords & Spells, which was an updated  Chainmail with special rules for each of the D&D spells and  monsters. It technically allowed battling lone heroes against  10:1 (10 soldiers to a mini) figures, although it recommended  avoiding cross-scale combat as much as possible.

-Basic D&D included War Machine: a sort of spreadsheet where  you came up with a rating of each army and then rolled a  percentile die to decide the battle.

-1e and 2e both published an edition of Battle System. This was  another entry in the Chainmail/Swords & Spells tradition, but  it came in a box with cut-out-and-assemble peasant houses,  which was cool.

-3e had the Miniatures Handbook. Again, its mass combat rules  were along the lines of Chainmail, featuring typical war game  rules for formations, facing, morale, etc, using d20 mechanics. 

-5e has playtest mass-combat rules, which will presumably see  official publication some day. They're traditional wargame- style rules.

All of these games perpetuate the flaw that kept Chainmail from  catching on in the first place: in order to play them, you have  to stop playing D&D.

D&D is not a war game. All the design decisions that make a  good war game lead to a bad D&D game, and vice versa. 

-Because war games are played competitively, they must be  fair. D&D campaigns can only achieve longevity when they are  unfair in favor of the players. 

-Because war games are fair: war games must have complete rules. You can't make stuff up halfway through without  favoring one of the players. So you can only make a pontoon bridge if there are rules for it. D&D rules are incomplete by  design. There are no rules in any edition for making a pontoon  bridge, but if you can scrounge up some boats and lumber, the  DM will let you do it. 

-Because war games are complete: war games must have  detailed rules. A good war game models the rock-paper- scissors of archery, cavalry, and spearmen, and provides big  bonuses and penalties based on terrain, flanking, morale, fog  of war, high ground, and anything else that might conceivably  come up. D&D, on the other hand, features abstract combat rules  that look nothing like reality. Core D&D combat is a barebones  transaction of combatants trading swipes. More important than  realism is simplicity, because most of D&D is not in the combat engine but in the DM and player improvisation that happens at the same time. 

running an epic battle in D&D

D&D is great at handling small fights - say, five characters  fighting a few trolls. Why can't the same rules handle five  characters, the town guard, and a dragon fighting against a  skeleton army, a lich, and a dozen trolls?

What if the first edition Monster Manual had contained stat  blocks for a skeleton horde, a town watch, and so on? Think of  the stories we could have been telling all these years.

My alternate-history army stat blocks are pretty simplistic, but that's what I like about them. A requirement for war-game standards of rules completeness and detail has been holding back high-level play for years. A  D&D  combat is great because of all the rules that Gary Gygax didn't include. Let me talk about the war game rules I  think D&D can live without. 

Casualties. When half your archers are dead, you can  fire half as many arrows, right? Nah. Just as a D&D hero at 1  hp fights at full strength, A 100-soldier army, even at 1 hp,  is still a 100-soldier army. After the battle, hit point damage  can be translated into some ratio of dead, wounded, and fled,  at the DM's discretion.

Facing, frontage, formation. These rules appear in  nearly every war game. We need that level of detail like we  need the First Edition grapple rules. 

Figure scale. War games are not designed for varying  figure scales: every miniature on the battlefield needs to  represent, for instance, 20 soldiers. A war-game fight between a lone  hero and a 20:1 army unit is usually wonky or impossible. On the other  hand, if every army is treated as an individual D&D monster, a  tenth-level fighter can battle on fairly even terms with a  troop representing 10 first level fighters, which can in turn  battle a troll or a unit of 36 goblins. 

Time scale. Most war games have realistic but D&D- incompatible turns of ten minutes or more. I'm sticking with D&D combat rounds. If a massive war is over within a few six- second rounds, that's fine with me. 

If anything, D&D-style fights can be too fast. To make it more likely that everyone gets a turn, I've added a special  rule in my army stat blocks, capping attack damage so that no  army can score a one-hit KO. This favors the underdog (and the  underdog is usually the PCs). Still, this is a special  exception and I wouldn't be surprised if it were unnecessary.

Leadership bonuses. Many war games assign static bonuses to  troops based on the abilities of their commanders. In a war game, which doesn't allow for referee discretion, this is the best  you can do. But in D&D, if a player delivers a speech and leads a charge, or  comes up with a clever scheme, the DM can assign appropriate  bonuses. The more the players act creatively, the more vivid  the scene will be - just as in a standard D&D fight. 

Spell rules. We do NOT want a Swords and Spells-style gloss on every spell describing its  interaction with armies. Here are my abstractions: 
1) Damage  spells ignore area of effect. An 8d6 fireball does 8d6 damage. 
2) "Condition" spells are all-or-nothing. If a Bless spell can  target all the members of an army, it operates normally.  Otherwise, it fails. 

Morale, flanking, setting ambushes, charging, fighting withdrawal, high ground, and every special case I haven't already mentioned. First and and Second Edition have explicit morale rules. In other editions, morale failure is by DM fiat.  If the local morale rules (or lack thereof) are good enough for  10 goblins at level 1, they're good enough for 100 goblins at  level 10. The same principle, "use existing combat rules", applies for flanking (present in 3e and 4e), charging (present in every edition but 5e) and so on.

Here are the stat-block templates I've used for turning any  creature into an army of any size. I've done first and fifth  editions (my current favorites).

Here's the first one--if you like it best send an email saying only FOOL in the subject heading to zakzsmith at hawtmayle dawt calm 

A Fool in Lovecraft Country

There is no single story as important to roleplaying games as H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” and there is no single paragraph as important as the opening paragraph of the tale: 

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

This statement of theme is at the heart of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game (which reprints this story) and other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian horror. You see this statement in rules that drive PCs insane for learning about the Mythos and in countless published scenarios and campaigns that make it clear that any victory won over a cult or a monster is but a brief respite. Clearly that passage has captured the imagination not just of readers but of game designers as well with its depiction of toxic knowledge and comforting ignorance, and those inspired designers have created many excellent works of roleplaying horror, and yet, though I love and play many of those games, Lovecraft’s horror is not my horror.

To understand his horror requires understanding a little about him. Lovecraft, although not religious, was, in his words (in a letter to Maurice Woe in 1918), “Very much interested in the relation I bear to the things about me — the time relation, the space relation, and the causative relation.” Lovecraft thought highly of man’s curiosity, of “the acute, persistent, unquenchable craving TO KNOW [capitalization his].” Lovecraft lays out the case for the modernist view that man can, eventually, know everything. Although I think this point of view is naive, I also find it admirable, and like Lovecraft, I too am “interested in the relation I bear to the things about me.”

However, a few years later in 1923, Lovecraft had soured. He had this to say about Einstein’s counter-intuitive advances in physics: “My cynicism and skepticism are increasing, and from an entirely new cause — the Einstein theory […] There are no values in all infinity — the least idea that there are is the supreme mockery of all.” Reason and science, the tools he used to make sense of the world, had destroyed his sense of the universe. Better to retreat to the “safety of a new dark age.”

That betrayal of faith in modernity was felt by many of Lovecraft’s era. In addition to the chaos of science, they could point to the futile brutality of war, to the inability of medicine to combat a pandemic, to the helplessness of the elite who failed to maintain world order, and to the clergy whose explanations sounded more and more hollow.

This disillusionment, this betrayal, as profound as it was for Lovecraft and others, is not something I shared with Lovecraft. I first read him as a middle school gamer in the early 1980s, and what I read was not existential horror, not to me. Of course some situations were frightening and he created a dark, moody, atmosphere with his writing. But I never wanted the “safety of a new dark age.”I had already grappled with faith, belief, and atheism, and I came around to atheism, and I was the happier for it. 

I had considered Pascal’s wager: If believing in God costs nothing, and if belief in God is a prerequisite for a good afterlife and disbelief automatically sends you to Hell, then why not simply believe? What Pascal hadn’t counted on is that there many variants of “belief in God” but there is only one Hell, and so I saw his wager as a con: Someone is sending you to Hell, so I refused his wager, and was content with at least philosophical peace of mind. Unlike Lovecraft, I found comfort in the absurd universe that could kill me at any moment: At least I wouldn’t suffer forever. 

I envy those people who can feel in a Lovecraftian game or story the fear that the author tried to inspire in his readers, but I do not play those games because I feel a delightful frisson of fear when I play. Although I love Call of Cthulhu (and Delta Green), I play those games because the characters are the most heroic characters I know. They are saving the world, opposing an impossible evil, and the players, at least, “know” that it is a fool’s errand: “Well, Nyarlathotep will just get the world next time and your characters will die or go insane, so why bother?” Of course Nyarlathotep or some other dark god will walk the Earth one day, but the Earth will be swallowed by the sun one day too, and, in the meantime, the heroes who saved the world have bought its inhabitants another few years. And if according to the Talmud, “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” how can you count the good (imaginary, I know, but also a good to aspire to) done by the heroic investigators in Call of Cthulhu?


John said...

I'm not sure your description of wargaming is fair. It's my entirely anecdotal understanding that the mindset of 1950s-70s hardcore wargamers was obsessive simulationism, that such-and-such a class of field gun couldn't be efficiently moved uphill because everyone knows it had a weakness in its axle that lead to slippage, and no it's not in the rules but it's damn well common sense and we'll appeal to the referee for a decision. A pontoon bridge, to these sorts of people, would be justified entirely on whether or not it fit the conditions of the battle they were trying to simulate, not on anything as trifling as the rules of the game.

Zak Sabbath said...

1. I didn't write this, somebody else did

2. My understanding is that there were different schools of wargaming, some more simulatory, some more even-odds oriented. Miniatures rules like Warhammer nowadays certainly lean toward the latter and the description in the essay certainly describes a genuine imperative many ppl feel in tournament play, whether or not it was dominant in the 70s.

3. I think there's other dumb stuff in that essay (and the other one), but I don't want to prejudice the vote by saying now

John said...

I know you didn't write it, sorry, I was addressing the author. I'm not familiar with your Thought Eater contest and I now realise I might have broken protocol by criticising it before the vote; if so I apologise.

Zak Sabbath said...

nah you can go ahead and talk about it

Johann said...

How does the math of this mass combat system work out? I.e. if you do a combat in the old-fashioned, complicated way (say 30 trolls vs. 500 men and 2 heroes on an open plain), are we in the same ballpark?

Unknown said...

I just plain disagree with the wargames and D&D one. I've been running games (originally of Pathfinder, more recently of D&D 5e) that have included PC vs Army combat in multiple ways, it's not hard so long as you make sure not to think of the only way a war can go is ten thousand dudes standing in a field wearing uniforms and hacking at each other. At low levels, it tends to be more about personal infiltration and odds-altering by the PCs. At high levels, it's more about what stuff they own, how many people they can conscript/feed/whatever, and if anything else owes them any favours (it's amazing just how much damage an adult gold dragon can do when it lands on an army). The actual combat, I still largely resolve seperate from the PCs, because screw fighting a thousand dudes one at a time. If they participate in a war directly, it tends to be in a manner that suits PCs: as an irregular unit filled with psychopaths of varying morality, hitting a list of High Importance Targets. Thinking they'd do anything else is like thinking Conan would start off his quest for revenge on Thulsa Doom by trying to punch down Doom's front door.

Unknown said...

Yeah being a wargamer as well as a role player i have never had any trouble intergrating the two. Usually i do a kriegspeil take on the whole battle system for d&d. and really that where d&d came from just look at the braunstein campaign that was ran up in the twin cities back in the 70's whcih Dave arneson directly quotes as a big influence of d&d. It was nothing but a role playing game war style and thats all you really need to do. Even in modern wargaming (mostly historicals) a referee is very common place to set up the cenario and make judgement calls. Later renditions of Warhammer ended this trend in all but the most grognard of wargames but it just goes to show (finally to my point i guess) that wargames and rpgs are one in the same.