Monday, June 26, 2017

Socrates on the Elements

Regarding Plato's Timaeus, the translator Benjamin Jowett could write, "Of all the writings of Plato the Timaeus is the most obscure and repulsive to the modern reader, and has nevertheless had the greatest influence over the ancient and mediaeval world." Here Socrates explains the composition of the classical elements.

I was wrong in imagining that all the four elements could be generated into and out of one another. For as they are formed, three of them from the triangle which has the sides unequal, the fourth from the triangle which has equal sides, three can be resolved into one another, but the fourth cannot be resolved into them nor they into it. So much for their passage into one another: I must now speak of their construction. From the triangle of which the hypotenuse is twice the lesser side the three first regular solids are formed—first, the equilateral pyramid or tetrahedron; secondly, the octahedron; thirdly, the icosahedron; and from the isosceles triangle is formed the cube. And there is a fifth figure (which is made out of twelve pentagons), the dodecahedron—this God used as a model for the twelvefold division of the Zodiac.

Let us now assign the geometrical forms to their respective elements. The cube is the most stable of them because resting on a quadrangular plane surface, and composed of isosceles triangles. To the earth then, which is the most stable of bodies and the most easily modelled of them, may be assigned the form of a cube; and the remaining forms to the other elements,—to fire the pyramid, to air the octahedron, and to water the icosahedron,—according to their degrees of lightness or heaviness or power, or want of power, of penetration. The single particles of any of the elements are not seen by reason of their smallness; they only become visible when collected. The ratios of their motions, numbers, and other properties, are ordered by the God, who harmonized them as far as necessity permitted...

What makes fire burn? The fineness of the sides, the sharpness of the angles, the smallness of the particles, the quickness of the motion. Moreover, the pyramid, which is the figure of fire, is more cutting than any other. The feeling of cold is produced by the larger particles of moisture outside the body trying to eject the smaller ones in the body which they compress. The struggle which arises between elements thus unnaturally brought together causes shivering. That is hard to which the flesh yields, and soft which yields to the flesh, and these two terms are also relative to one another. The yielding matter is that which has the slenderest base, whereas that which has a rectangular base is compact and repellent...

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mutant Bastards!

My good and highly talented friend B.J. Johnson (a.k.a. BigFella Games) has just released his own game product: Mutant Bastards, a lovingly detailed mashup of Gamma World and Wild West ideas some 20 years in the making. I played some of this a few years back, and I must say that B.J.'s capacity for world- and character-building is simply top-notch. And he's also an A+-grade fantasy and science fiction artist. (My top experience in video games is probably getting his art back from unit descriptions I'd designed and having my socks blown off with wondrous delight every time.)

Downloadable version is up on DriveThruRPG now. Print version mere days away as I write this. Check it out!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The FBI's TSR Files

A week or two back, the FBI released a half-dozen file reports on TSR in response to a FOIA request filed last year. These were posted on (see 6/8/2017 post there), one of which prompted a short article at The partly-redacted files seem to cover two different cases:

1983-4: Cocaine Trafficking

Parts 1 & 2 (respectively dated 12/27/83 and 3/12/84) apparently related to a cocaine trafficking investigation in the Lake Geneva area. A local bartender is the primary target of investigation, and secondarily Gary Gygax seems to be. This is from a "reliable Milwaukee informant" (p. 2). Someone is considered "ARMED AND DANGEROUS" (p. 3).

1995: Unabomber Investigation

Parts 3-5 seem to be about the very extensive Unabomber investigation that was being carried out at that time (see Part 3, p. 1, "Title: UNABOM"). These files are presented in reverse order of date (Part 5 from 3/22/95, Part 4 4/28/95, and Part 3 9/27/95). It bears noting that the Unabomber Manifesto was published in the New York Times and Washington Post on September 19 of that year, partly in the hopes of identifying that person (link).

Part 5 is heavily redacted, but involves an interview with some male employee at TSR regarding former acquaintances, with whom they are apparently no longer in contact. The last page has a paragraph suggesting that a possibly-paranoid former gaming group all started fingering each other as being a bomber.

Part 4 is the longest file, with a one-paragraph section on Gygax highlighted in the Reason article. Here a certain female employee is being interviewed ("She", p. 3). Much of the conversation is about the business of TSR and fantasy and war-gaming in general. Hard feelings by some over the SPI buyout are mentioned (p. 2-3); the staff of TSR itself are confused about the exact details of the purchase. The majority of the file is concerned with an individual with the Fresno Gaming Association and Company (p. 1), with whom TSR was engaged in lengthy, ongoing litigation regarding copyright violations over the reissue of certain SPI titles. The staff member "further advised that the typical war gaming enthusiast is overweight and not neat in appearance" (p. 2).

Page 3-4 of Part 4 has the paragraphs concerning Gygax. Choice passages from the perspective of the interviewee TSR staff member:
  •  "found the interaction with GYGAX at TSR to be very difficult".
  • "involved in an unpleasant divorce and [redacted] further advised that GYGAX was a drug abuser". 
  • "considers GYGAX to be eccentric and frightening. He is known to carry a weapon and was proud of his record of personally answering any letter coming from a prison."
  • "He is known to be a member of the Libertarian party". 
  • "GYGAX would be extremely uncoopoerative if the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) attempted to interview him".
(Note: is a Libertarian-oriented site, which is probably why their attention was drawn to this particular paragraph.)

After the profile of Gygax, the TSR interviewee is apparently shown photos of an IED that was mailed aboard an American Airlines flight in 1979 (inscribed with the initials "F.C."), and also a composite of the suspect, of which the TSR staffer had no familiarity (I'd guess that the cited photo is the famous Unabomber composite sketch). Apparently TSR received bomb threats on two occasions, one in 1986 and again in 1992-3, likely pranks.

Finally, the Part 3 file mostly recaps the TSR business profile in Part 4, and also indicates that a list was generated of "players and peripheral players involved in a loosely knit group of individuals commonly referred to as 'The Dungeons and Dragons Group'" (p. 1), by way of reviewing certain computer files (p. 3).


Well, that's interesting and provocative, isn't it? It's kind of hard to read the comments by the unnamed TSR staffer (apparently a high-ranking woman at the company in 1995) without thinking that they seem intended to cast Gygax in the worst possible light -- and recalling the extremely bad blood between the post-Gygax management and Gygax himself and his family (which continues to this day, even).

Thanks to C.J. Ciaramella at Muckrock and Reason for making these files available via the FOIA request. Thanks to D.G. for pointing out the article to me last week.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Thief Weapons Through the Ages

Looking at the OED house rules recently, my friend Paul S. and I realized that we had a stark difference of opinion in what weapons are customarily allotted to thief characters. This was a result of him coming from the direction of the Moldvay B/X set, and me coming more from the Gygax AD&D game. I didn't realize previously how much thief weapons vary by edition of the game. Here's a look:

Some notes:
  • * The first appearance of the thief class in Original D&D Supplement I mentions only that "Thieves can employ magic daggers and magic swords but none of the other magical weaponry." Thus proficiency with any non-magical types is technically undefined, and can be interpreted in different ways. Compare to OD&D Vol-1 which likewise only refers to magical weapons in any of the class descriptions, which everyone agrees is identical to the nonmagical weapons they can use (e.g., for clerics, "all non-edged magical weapons (no arrows!)"). Thus the AD&D branch (Gygax) tends to interpret this restrictively, while the Basic D&D line (Holmes) assumes no restriction to thieves on any nonmagical weapons.
  • ** The weapons in 1E are all one-handed only (e.g., bastard and two-handed swords are explicitly prohibited in a footnote). 
  • *** Note the addition of the shortbow to 1E. The 1E Unearthed Arcana also presents a thief-acrobat "split-class", with all the weapons of a thief, plus lasso and staff.
  • **** The 2E weapons list is effectively identical to the 1E UA thief-acrobat class.
  • ***** The 3.5 list is expressed as "all simple weapons, plus the hand crossbow, rapier, sap, shortbow, and short sword". 

In particular, the thing that's really jamming me up in OED is the question of what missile weapons to permit to thief characters. To my eye it seems like a very big switch that Gygax made from 1E to UA in allowing them use of the shortbow. Thieves with slings very much appear like the urban thieves' guild members in the stories of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (and of course Gygaxian thieves are very explicitly restricted to bases in cities only). Interestingly in Gygax's first novel, "Saga of Old City" starring Gord the Rogue, that figure picks up the thief-acrobat split-class and use of the crossbow while venturing with the Roma-like Rhennee people, among other rule-breaking advantages noted in the Afterword (p. 350). These are specifically noted as heavy crossbows in the text (Ch. 10, p. 92, 95). I've gone back-and-forth about the strategic and thematic pros and cons of giving thieves access to bows and/or crossbows many times.

Here's a matrix of missile weapons allowed to thieves by edition (note that advancing columns are synonymous with historical weapons that are easier to learn, as seen earlier):

In short: Thief weapons in Original D&D Sup-I is really undefined. Every other edition gives them the sling (with the anomalous exception of 3.0). The Basic line always gave all bows & crossbows to thieves (by virtue of Holmes "use all weapons" interpretation, although later versions gave only one-handed melee weapons). The AD&D line starting with Gygax's 1E Unearthed Arcana always gave them shortbows (never long) and at least the exotic Drowish hand crossbows. Note that the AD&D rule seems reverse to the real-life observation that slings, bows, and crossbows are progressively easier to use (whereas Gygax gives them sequentially stricter prohibitions; note also that most groups of D&D men like bandits and buccaneers are using crossbows even if they lack self bows).

I went so far as to ask this question on the Facebook 1E AD&D group and got a large number of responses (N = 166, not including joke responses). Of course we would expect the responses to be biased in the direction of 1E AD&D. That said, there was more variation than I expected; a significant number of people prefer the Basic or 3E approaches (about 30 people for each of those). If we tally options for missile weapons, mostly following the 1E UA tradition, it seems like a majority of people like their thieves to have access to slings and shortbows, but apparently not crossbows (again, something that seems historically backward). Zero people selected the strict interpretation of the OD&D Sup-I rule.

Thinking specifically about the thief missile weapons, let me ruminate on the possible advantages to their permissive use. In each case it is of course valuable for thieves to use missile weapons, which leverages their high Dexterity, and offsets their weakness in melee combat:
  • Slings Only: Looks most like the earliest Gygaxian take on the subject. Conjures images of Lankhmar's Thieves' Guild minions. Emphasizes the role of thieves as being almost uniquely city-oriented (as per Gygaxian works), with weapons that are easy to carry and hide. If given stats equivalent to bows, emphasizes the exotically-skilled status of thieves. 
  • Slings & Crossbows: Realistically observes that crossbows are easy to learn. Allows thieves to hide among groups of bandits or buccaneers using crossbows. Encourages some in-game usage of otherwise slow-firing crossbows, since thieves would not have access to bows (although if the sling dominates the crossbow, then perhaps this would not be seen anyway). 
  • Slings, Bows, and Crossbows: Matches every version of D&D except Gygax's 1E and (arguably) 0E. Makes it even easier for thieves to disguise themselves as archers. Opens up more possibilities for thieves in wilderness adventures (for example, participating in archery tournaments). Encourages use of the thief class for outdoorsy-outlaw types like Robin Hood, William Tell, Adam Bell, Palnatoki, etc. (link); even though official D&D write-ups of such figures in Dragon magazine always made them high-level fighters.
So at first glance that looks like 3 advantages for the slings & crossbow idea; and 4 advantages each to either "slings only" or "all missile weapons". What are your thoughts on that?

P.S.: Paul S. is running several games next weekend at the Origins Game Fair, using the OED house rules, and he's arguably the best DM I've ever experienced in running any RPG. If you're at Origins and you have an open slot, I'd recommend that you look for his games!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Everything in Moderation

Oh, will you look at that... I just realized that there's a setting in Blogger to direct all comments on posts over 30 days old into a "needs moderation" queue. Which doesn't give any notifications that stuff is sitting in there. Which I think has been happening for most of the last calendar year.

So if at any point in the last year you made comments on old posts which apparently didn't show up, they probably are visible now. And I went through and answered a bunch of outstanding questions regarding those this week. Usually people commenting on old posts were highly motivated and had great observations/questions!

Except for those of you suggesting 5E advantage/disadvantage as the solution to every problem. Get that crap outta here. I kid because I love.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Advantage and Disadvantage

D&D 5th Edition has this featured new mechanic called "Advantage and Disadvantage" and I don't like it. In fact, this alone is pretty much capable of making me look not much further into 5E. In case you're living in a cave: "Advantage" lets you roll twice and take the better d20 in a variety of circumstances; "Disadvantage" makes you roll twice and take the worse d20. (To me this brings to mind the mechanic for the "Luck" superpower in FASERIP Marvel Super Heroes).

But I did wonder as to the exact probability distribution. There a couple of sites that have done this in the past, but for some reason they made it look like some big complicated analysis was involved. Hint: It's close to the most basic thing you can do with probability; if this was surprising for you, spend an afternoon reading the start of a chapter on probability. For disadvantage it's P^2 and for advantage it's 1-(1-P)^2, where P is the base probability of success (because of the complement rule for "not", and the multiplying rule for "and"). The results:

The obvious thing is that the mechanic is nonlinear. It gives a near-negligible change at the far ends, equivalent to a +1 bonus on a d20; or up to a +5 bonus in the middle for targets of 10-12 (symmetric penalties for disadvantage). This essential nonlinearity makes it hard for a DM to gauge its effect in a particular situation, because it scales up and then down depending on the original success target. Probability analyses are made more complicated in the design stage. In the middle, +5 is a rather huge level of bonus (arguably too large) by D&D standards.

In fact, this unpredictable up-and-down scaling is exactly why early RPG designers wanted to get away from rolling two dice (e.g., 2d6) and start using d20's, with their linear probability distribution, in the first place. To quote Jon Peterson in Playing at the World (section
Gygax surely knew, as we can ascertain from the previous section, that the probability distribution for pairs of dice favors sums in the middle disproportionately; thus, the accuracy dice for Chainmail are far more likely to roll a 7 than a 12. The resulting bell curve creates all sorts of anomalies when you aim to roll over a given number; for example, a modifier that adds or subtracts 1 from the sum of throws can skew the results by different percentages depending on what the dice yield. Designers can scale the requirements to hit a target accordingly, but the subtle differences in likelihood may not be apparent to the players themselves. Unfortunately, with only six-sided dice as implements of chance, the options available to designers are limited... Modifiers to the roll of a d20, as opposed to the bell curve of 2d6, have a much more predictable result on the probabilities associated with event resolution.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Slings and Arrows and Outrageous Formulae

The word "sling" appears nowhere in the entirety of Chainmail or any of the core books of Original D&D. (Well, one exception: a reference to a "sling-ended catapult" used in aerial combat in Vol-3). It does appear in Supplement I in the damage table (1d4 points vs. man-size, p. 15) and corrections list ("All hobbits add  +3  to hit probabilities when using the sling", p. 68). But without anywhere the rules giving them a range, rate of fire, or cost, it's a bit of a murky issue. In AD&D Gygax gave them a range in between that of a short- or longbow, and a rate of fire half that of bows. I wanted to do some research to make sure that was dialed in correctly for my games.

The amazing thing is that numerous sources state that slings had a rate of fire at least as fast as bows, and a range that likely exceeded them, with a heavier and faster projectile, that was possibly more accurate and more damaging. How can this be? Of course, you also have the case of the crossbow with clearly deficient rate of fire, and thus borderline useless in standard D&D play. And yet at a late point it was favored over the bow. Why?

Among other resources, I came across a very nice article by Chris Harrison (Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Institute), originally published in The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (2006). Near the conclusion he writes:
When looking at the evolution of ranged weapons, there is a trend towards increasingly simple operation. The sling requires enormous skill, one that can generally only be obtained with training from childhood (Hawkins, 1847; Korfmann, 1973; Wise, 1976; Ferrill, 1985). Without this mastery, a person armed with the weapon would be practically useless. The sling is exceptionally difficult to aim because it is being rotated when fired. It is common for people to fire projectiles backwards when they are first learning, meaning a high degree of proficiency is needed before they can be safely placed in a battlefield situation. On the other hand, the bow could be taught at any point in life, and be deadly with minimal experience. The bow does not suffer from the sling’s accuracy problems because of its ability to be drawn and then aimed. However, archers did have to be strong, which increased the required training time (Wise, 1976). The development of the crossbow with a mechanical device to cock the weapon enabled anyone to use it and have the ability to kill even an armored soldier at distance. The crossbow was the first true ‘point-and-shoot’ weapon, as it could be cocked and then easily aimed using the large stock. Although much slower to reload than bows, it was seen as an acceptable tradeoff for the ease-of-use gained. The shift to firearms was similar. They were even slower than the already sluggish crossbow, at least at first. However, the operation was simple and there was no physical strength needed to load the weapon. Also, its ‘point-and-shoot’ nature made someone with almost no experience immediately useful on the battlefield, and very deadly. This evolution occurred primarily because of changes in military and governmental organization. In feudal times, lords could recruit their serf population as soldiers (Wise, 1976). Many of these men were already proficient with the bow or sling, which were used for hunting game. However, by the High Middle Ages, nations and cities had developed large standing armies, which were recruited, sustained, and equipped by the government (Martin, 1968). An increasing number of these recruits were from urban populations which had far less exposure to ranged weapons. These units had to be trained from scratch and there was a high turnover. This led to the increased use of weapons that were deadlier with less training. The sling was perhaps the least effective choice of ranged weapon in this role. 

See the full article here. We might phrase that observation in economic terms; the advance of missile weapons was to get cheaper and faster -- lower quality, but able to be fielded in larger numbers and in that way more powerful. We might well look to many things in our own era that became dominant by virtue of being crappier but cheaper: MP3 audio encoding, travel agencies, car ride services, etc.

This is not something that D&D models very well. By default Fighters simply have proficiency in all weapon types. If the sling were the best missile weapon in an expert's hands, then every Fighter would be carrying slings and nothing else. If we want our game to look like the medieval era that would be a bit jarring. In any heroic story, the protagonist uses the weapon common to his people; e.g., David with his sling, Robin Hood with his longbow, William Tell with his crossbow, etc.

So in lieu of modelling more ancient/personalized weapons as taking greater amounts of training time and commitment, AD&D reverses the statistics to make sure that slings are a deficient choice for adventurers. What could we do to give slings their real-life fire rate and range (and advantages in small size, low weight, conceal-ability, etc.) without their completely eliminating the use of bows by PC adventurers? Or would that actually be acceptable?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Guest Post: Medieval Magic

I think this is the first-ever guest post on this blog. In an online discussion a few weeks back, Landon Schurtz made what I thought was a fascinating comment about the spell list he uses in his low-magic D&D campaign. A problem might arise in determining spells appropriate for that milieu. Solution: Why not use his copious literary skills to find and read up on actual medieval grimoires and see what writers of the time thought was really possible? Notice again how this links to our project of using real-life research to actually simplify the game (three weeks ago); and also to craft a set of wilderness rules to fix the blindspots from original D&D (last two weeks).

Landon Schurtz is a professor of philosophy and a roleplayer for the last thirty-plus years, not in that order. He is currently working on a never-to-be-completed project to build the "perfect" fantasy roleplaying system by cannibalizing pieces and parts from various "old-school" games.

It started with Leomund’s tiny hut.
In AD&D, Leomund’s tiny hut is a very useful spell for adventuring magic-users to learn, as it allows creation of effective shelter when traveling. I’ve played many magic-users in my day, and they all acquired the spell as soon as possible – it just made good sense for a traveling spellcaster to have it. And therein lay the problem.
Even without dealing with the longer-lasting (and thus more effective) versions available in later editions of the game, I quickly became annoyed that Leomund’s tiny hut was too effective – its existence allowed parties to sidestep certain challenges that seemed to me to be integral to the kind of game I was trying to run, which, in this case, was the kind of game where player characters, no matter how high and mighty, could never fully insulate themselves from the basic threats of a pseudo-medieval setting. I wanted travel to be arduous and chancy, food and water to be precious, and so on. In short, I wanted my games to feel more “medieval,” something closer to low fantasy than high.
So it was that several campaigns ago I began going through the spell lists and eliminating certain spells. Those that made travel a non-issue or something very close, like Leomund’s tiny hut and teleport, were the first to go; next followed spells that eliminated the need to think about rations and foraging, such as create food and water; and so on. Eventually, I even eliminated all cure...wounds spells from my game, though I “replaced” them with a different hit point mechanic that rewarded tactical retreat by allowing characters who were not below half hit points to recover fully in just a few minutes.
Though this method was getting good results in general, I still felt I could do a better job of getting a “real medieval feel” for my world, so I took a different approach: I went back to the sources. I conducted a fair bit of research on beliefs about magic in the Middle Ages, starting with scholarly works like Richard Kieckhefer’s indispensible Magic in the Middle Ages and eventually moving on to what proved to be my definitive resources, actual medieval grimoires.
Books like Liber Juratus and Sword of Moses, which date to the 13th and 10th centuries, respectively, can be found in digital format at, a useful resource for anyone looking to inject a little authenticity into their games. I began perusing these and other grimoires in an effort to see what a “real” medieval wizard would have been (thought) capable of, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that many spells in AD&D had “genuine” parallels – the Sword of Moses purports to hold the secrets of how to cast spells that would equate to protection from fire, silence, and blindness, and Liber Juratus describes incantations that could credibly be translated in game terms as telekinesis, phantom steed, and even Drawmij’s instant summons!
Using these, I was able to construct spells lists that I feel have a real “medieval” flavor. Magic-users still have considerable power, though they have much-reduced capacity to deal direct damage. Gone are high-fantasy staples like magic missile and fireball, but in their place, wizards gain many abilities previously restricted to illusionists, clerics, and even druids. I have divided the spells into four categories: thaumaturgy, which I take to be the “default” sort of magic employed by magic-users; elven magic, which, as the name implies, is the kind of magic employed by elven spell-casters and rarely taught to outsiders (I haven’t decided whether elves can also use thaumaturgy or are restricted to elven magic alone); black magic, which encompasses most “evil” magic; and white magic, wherein one finds the spells of binding and banishing extraplanar creatures. Except for the division between elven magic and everything else, this choice was made more for organizational purposes – I originally included white and black magic on the main thaumaturgy list, though perhaps a DM might allow for certain villains to have access to black magic only, thanks to, say, a demonic pact.
A few notes:
  • I do not use clerics or druids in my games, nor illusionists, now that I have this new spell list. The thaumaturgy list has many spells that were once the province of one of those three classes.
  • The vast majority of spells are taken from the PHB and UA, while a few (mostly in the elven magic section) come from Oriental Adventures, which has a wide selection of “elemental” spells. The various “undead production” spells come from the description of the Death Master class, in Dragon magazine; for DMs who would prefer to just use animate dead, the switch could easily be made.
  • All spells function as described in the books except cure disease – in this system, a different cure [disease] spell is needed for each ailment.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

How to Include Justifications in a Rules Document?

As a final thought to the wilderness rules ideas the last two weeks: You'll notice that each of the separate sections had an appendix of notes and references for different rules at the bottom of each page.

This is something I struggle with a lot in the context of paper rules documents. You want the rules to be terse, be immediately interpretable in play, and be easy to memorize. But on the other hand I think it's useful to include specific justifications, motivations, and references; I have the feeling that without those, I (and maybe many others) wind up repeating the same research projects over and over again, often recreating the same conclusions as other game designers. Now, those justifications may actually be longer than the rules themselves. My OED House Rules document has copious sidebar annotations (invisible in the distributed PDF form), likely longer than the rules themselves.

So I ask: What's the best way to include reference/citation/justifications in a rules document? Sidebar notes on each page? Footnotes? A block of references in each section? A consolidated appendix of commentary at the back of the book? A separate supplemental document entirely? Hyperlinks to multiple outside articles?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

OED Wilderness Rules Draft: Weather Events

The fourth and final part of a draft of modified wilderness adventuring rules for OED-style games. Something like this was playtested at Helgacon this year. The principal feature it that it exchanges the daily Lost die for a simple Weather mechanic. Whereas in the past I've struggled in Sisyphean style with super-complicated weather rules (e.g.: Dragon #68 "Weather in the World of Greyhawk", AD&D Wilderness Survival Guide), this simple d6 roll is making me perfectly happy in play now. Thoughts?

Weather Events

In wilderness adventures we replace the daily Lost die roll (see Vol-3, p. 18) for a Weather roll. Thus two dice a rolled each day: a red die (for Encounters) and a blue die (for Weather). On a roll of 5-6 some weather Event occurs; consult the table to the right. The default situation assumes a temperate environment in the summer, with a base daily temperature of Warm (clo 0).

Heat Wave: Daily temperature is Hot (clo –1). No travel or work can occur without magical protection.

Light Rain: Travel may be attempted normally, but there is a 2-in-6 chance of becoming lost (mostly travel in circles, end move 1 hex in random direction).

Heavy Rain: Travel is impossible (except possibly for large creatures like giants, ents, balrogs, etc.)

Thunderstorm: Travel is impossible, and parties not in shelter have a 1% chance of a random character being struck for 6d6 lightning damage (save for half).

Travel prohibitions generally mean that no encounters can occur (except as indicated). We assume that no long-range movement occurs in the winter season (due to snow, cold weather, muddy roads, blocked mountain passes, etc.), including sea travel. The DM is encouraged to create Event tables for other climactic zone as desired.

Notes and References

  • The specific frequencies of events above were modeled on northern Europe; specifically the Paris Le Bourget airport in June to August. We downloaded daily historical weather data for these months 2001-2009 and computed statistics as above. Paris was chosen as central to battles in the Hundred Years War. Technically, a d8 Event die would be more realistic (1-in-8 heat wave, 2-in-8 thunderstorm), but the d6 was used above for simplicity in play.
  • Frequency of rainy days may be 25-50% in Atlantic region, northern Europe. Heavy rain (> 10mm per day) occurs in eastern United States about 15% of days (1 in 6), Europe somewhat less. Rainy days evidence clustering (suggests roll for multi-day duration, or increased chance next day?).
  • This short table of middle ages battles shows battles occurring from March to October, with the largest cluster from June to August, which we used as the assumed “adventuring season”:
  • People walk in circles when lost (contrast this with the rule in Outdoor Survival/OD&D in which being lost causes travel in a maximal straight-line path, being unable to turn or stop):,
  • No winter sea travel as given in Unger, Richard W., The Ship in the Medieval Economy 600-1600. (p. 128, 131; but compare to later era on p. 175). If winter sea travel permitted, then weather should also be modified in that season.
  • For a translation of a year-long medieval weather record, possibly by Roger Bacon, see the link below (cites C. Long, “The Oldest European Weather Diary?”, Weather, Vol.29:6 (1974) pages 233-237):
  • For more exotic weather options reported in medieval times (such as cooked wheat, barley, beans, fruit, fish, snakes, stones, ash, rocks, people, slabs of ice, and blood), see Paul Edward Dutton, “Observations on Early Medieval Weather in General, Bloody Rain in Particular”, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: New Directions in Early Medieval Studies (Chapter 9) (currently available on Google Books search).

Monday, May 15, 2017

OED Wilderness Rules Draft: Clothing and Temperature

The fourth and final part of a draft to wilderness rules for OED (add-on house rules for OD&D). In this part we connect levels of clothing, and hence comfortable ranges for temperature, to real-world "clo" thermal insulation measurements. While a very rough approximation of real-world research, having completed it, I find that this pretty accurately maps to my mental process for getting dressed on my way to the college where I work (which entails walking & waiting for city bus, usually outdoors for at least 30 minutes each way). Is it adequately useful for a game?

Clothing and Temperature

Clothing levels are matched to different levels of extreme temperature, as given in the table below:

Effects of Heavy Clothing: Encumbrance is given in stone units. The number shown under “Dex” is a penalty to all Dexterity-based rolls (including missile attacks and AC); the raw Dexterity score is effectively reduced by 3 times the number shown in the table. Clothing gives comfort in the temperature bands shown. Chain cannot be worn with clo 4, plate neither clo 3-4. The given clothing types are the best possible without magical construction
Modifiers to Temperature: Ranges for comfortable temperatures assume a moderate work load (e.g., marching). Sedentary persons will require +1 clo, while heavy labor needs –1 clo (e.g., running or fighting). If persons are not adequately clothed, then they must seek shelter to resolve the condition. Assume that garments are removed for comfort when needed. Standard mounts can work acceptably in temperature ranges clo 0-2. 

Lack of Proper Clothing: Living creatures suffer 1d6 damage at the end of each hour that they are outside their comfort range by one step. Additional steps accrue damage more quickly: Every 10 minutes for 2 steps, minute for 3 steps, and round for 4 steps. This damage cannot be healed until shelter is reached, at which point they regain 1 hp/level for each like time period. If under half hit points for this reason, then assume the creature’s movement is halved.

High Temperatures: Hot weather categories are not shown on the table, but they may be continued in like fashion: Hot (90-120° F), Very Hot (120-150°), and Extremely Hot (150-180°). These are not suitable for working or travel, and even at clo 0 creatures take damage as per the rule above unless sedentary or in shelter.

Notes and References

Thursday, May 11, 2017

OED Wilderness Rules Draft: Carrying Capacity

More suggested refinements to OD&D wilderness adventuring mechanics. Notice how in this installment we use modern research to establish a mathematical formula between real-world creature weight and carrying capacity (in line with our observations last week). So: It's simultaneously more realistic, and also (perhaps more importantly) simpler to judge and to generalize. Comments?

Carrying Capacity

Animal carrying capacity is shown in the table to the right, as well as average weights for such mounts. All weights are given in stone. Light load (full move) is considered to be up to 20% of the animal’s weight; heavy load (half move) is set at 40% of animal weight.

Vehicle and ship capacity is given in the next table; units here are in tons (160 stone). Note that as a convenient rule-of-thumb, the capacity of the vehicle is its cost (from Vol-1), divided by 100, in tons. Galley types are the exception, with a capacity half normal by this rule (or in other words, about 1 ton per crewman; see Unger p. 176). Do not count normal crew against the cargo capacity given here (although any added soldiers, pilgrims, horses, etc., will be counted). Treat longships as small galleys, and warships as small merchant ships for this purpose.

Of course, in reality both animals and ships vary continuously in their size, weight, strength, carrying capacity, etc. As DM you may wish to permit a range of sizes for each (and load capacity can be fairly easily found by the rules-of-thumb above). This is easier to do with ships (likely only one owned by a given party), and harder to do with beasts (where many may be owned per party). Maximum constructable size for a merchant ship (cog) may be up to around 400 tons capacity in this time period.

For simplicity, assume that an unarmored man weighs about 10 stone, and medium or heavy horse with one week of hay and water weighs 1 ton.

Note and References

Monday, May 8, 2017

OED Wilderness Rules Draft: Food and Water

In the last year, I've spent some tweaking wilderness adventuring rules to make myself happy. Although OD&D's rules were based partly on Outdoor Survival it has numerous blind spots; like having no mechanics for running out of food or water, reduced movement rates, weather, etc. (things that were at the very core of Outdoor Survival play). Partly what I'm doing here is bringing in some more parts of O.S., looking in places to real-world research on certain effects (re: last week's post), and shaving off the hard edges to make it more streamlined and easier to run in play. For your consideration and comment:

Food and Water

In standard terrain, only food for men needs to be tracked. Cost is 5 and weight is 1 stone per man/week. Otherwise assume that water is generally available in small ponds and streams (each man with a waterskin; half-gallon, 1/3 stone), and horses may graze daily.

Severe terrain requires that food and water be tracked for both men and horses. Such areas include: desert, open ocean, deep caves, mountain peaks, arctic locations, and winter season. Total cost and encumbrance per week of supplies is shown in the table to the right. Note that weight will be prohibitive in some cases.

If a PC party in the wilderness runs out of food, then they can supply themselves by taking down sufficiently large random encounters (e.g., giant animals, dragons; say 1 HD will feed 6 men for a week, but won’t last beyond that time).

Lack of Food or Water: Living creatures suffer 1d6 damage at the end of each week without food or each day without water. This damage cannot be healed until proper food and/or water is procured, at which point they regain 1 hp/level for each like time period. If under half hit points for this reason, then assume the creature’s movement is halved.

Standard Rations Only: Only standard rations are generally available. Iron rations may be available in exceptional circumstances (dwarven or magical construction, etc.; one-third weight).

Notes and References

Monday, May 1, 2017

Traditions of Real-World Statistics in Naval Games

So, I'm a naval-game junky. The first wargame I ever picked up as a kid was Avalon Hill's Bismark. Among the first video games I got hooked on was Sid Meiers' Pirates!. I'm always looking for the perfect D&D naval experience but haven't found it yet. The naval combat rules in OD&D Vol-3 (p. 28-35) are as close as I've found to date, but they have issues -- like (a) the move rates being scaled to around 2 or 3 feet per turn (so that ships zip across the board space in just a single turn), (b) the reference that melee be done by "Man-to-Man rules as found in CHAINMAIL" (so every individual man needs to be moved and rolled for attacks separately), etc.

As part of my continuing search, I recently, at long last, acquired a copy of the rules to Gygax & Arneson's first-ever game collaboration, Don't Give Up the Ship (DGUTS below). This is the 2nd Edition (1975), with added optional rules from Mike Carr (designer of Fight in the Skies, referenced in OD&D as inspiration for its detailed aerial combat rules). It's a great read, obviously made with a ton of love and affection to the milieu of fighting ships of the American Revolutionary period; and in very much the same style as a book like Chainmail. In some sense it has about what you'd expect: a Basic Game, optional Advanced Rules, super-detailed Single-Ship Action Rules, more abstracted Fleet Action Rules, rosters of possible ship-to-ship engagements (all historically based), a Bibliography of over a dozen historical texts, etc. The play involves tracking gun weights, wind direction & force (reminiscent of many tables in D&D), sailing points and gunnery with a protractor, and so forth. Boarding is entirely abstracted, with the mechanic based purely on opposed morale checks (and without any men being lost from such actions in the standard rule). Some of the DNA can even be detected in Swords & Spells; like, the overall format of the record sheet, and the percentage-based damage adjustments that likely require a calculator (e.g., the last ship-to-ship optional rule notes that "Various tests made have proved beyond reasonable doubt that U.S. shot was lighter than it should be", and so should do a proportional 7% less damage; whereas French shot was 10% heavier and therefore will do 10% more damage).

It's not immediately clear how this can benefit your D&D game, however. One thing I noticed is that the scale is wisely chosen: 1" = 100 yards, 1 turn = 5 minutes. It recommends ship models close 1: 1200 scale (note this varies from the surface equivalent to scale of 1: 3600, but by less than an order of magnitude). This is quite different from the D&D scale officially 1" = 10 yards, or arguably what should have been 1" = 5 feet to match the size of miniatures in Man-to-Man action. Yet despite this, OD&D recommends the same 1: 1200 scale for ships as DGUTS (Vol-3, p. 30), which is either 3 or 20 times too small depending on how you count that. (As an aside, we can reflect here how much earlier wargaming relied on the player to acquire or build their own materials from other products, as the rules were designed expecting toys like that to be commercially available; this is long before consolidated brands in which wargame rules are part of a company selling their own boxed products.)

The really startling thing (to modern eyes) is none of that, however. First let me observe that DGUTS seems to owe a rather large inspiration and debt to a halfway famous older game, Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game (published in 1943, but developed and played for more than a decade before that). Pratt's game simulates fighting ships contemporaneous to its play in the era between the World Wars. The intriguing thing that Pratt did with it is to rely on the real-world publication of Jane's Fighting Ships for its ship statistics. I wouldn't know much about Pratt's game it weren't for Jon Peterson's sublime Playing at the World. Peterson writes (p. 280):

Pratt borrowed Jane's method of classifying ships, especially his notation for measuring arms and armor. The thickness of armor and the size of guns are quantified and compounded in an elaborate mathematical formula, to which additional figures are added for amenities like torpedoes or the ability to carry aircraft. This sum is multiplied by the speed of the vessel in knots, and finally the tonnage is added to determine a "value" for the ship. Ship values tend to be large; one example boat given in the rules has a value of 23,034. Guns, when they score a hit with a shell, inflict a certain number of points of damage depending on their size; the weakest 37mm guns might inflict 23 points of damage, the standard 4.7" cannon hits for 244 damage, while the implausibly large 16" cannon deals a whopping 10,550 points of damage. As a ship suffers points of damage, it begins to lose capabilities, including movement speed and the use of its guns. For the convenience of players, a "ship card" typically lists all of these attributes and details exactly which capacities are sacrificed at the various levels of disrepair. When it has taken damage greater than or equal to its value, a ship is sunk. 

Gygax & Arneson's (and Carr's) Don't Give Up the Ship uses the same basic idiom, somewhat simplified, for its ship statistics. Two types of damage are tracked: high (sails & masts) and low (deck and hull). The high damage score is simply half the real-world ship's actual tonnage, with these points split proportionally among each individual sail and mast on the actual vessel -- lose a sufficient number of points, and sails/masts are lost, reducing speed appropriately. The low damage is equal to the real-world ship's tonnage -- when damage scored is over 70%, the vessel may possibly sink slowly, while at 100% the vessel sinks automatically; in addition, crewmen are lost proportionally following any low damage scored. Specifically: "crew factors" (CF) are tracked where a ship has one CF for every 21 men on the real-world ship (a seemingly odd conversion rate, but this comes from an estimated 7 men to operate a gun, times 3 guns per fire unit; see p. 17 and below).

Likewise, guns are based on whatever guns the real-world ship was known to have. For example: Ship A in the simple "Training Game" scenario has 12 24-pound guns, 15 12-pound guns, and 3 9-pound guns (denoted 12-24#, 15-12#, 3-9#). Every 3 guns of a given type allows one "fire factor", that is, one d6 roll on the very simple combat table per turn (which can result in either a high or low hit or a miss, depending on range). Damage is simply equal to the poundage of the gun type firing -- for example, one hit from a trio of of 12-pound guns does 12 points of damage. In its way, a breathtakingly elegant mechanic!

The thing that I like about these systems is that by making an explicit connection/formula between real-world entities and game entities, the designers have immediately populated their game world with everything (of the appropriate category) in one fell swoop. Pratt doesn't need to include rosters of ships; he can just direct the reader to Jane's Fighting Ships, or other reference works. The ship rosters in Gygax & Arneson's DGUTS aren't really game statistics, they're just real-life profiles of historical ships (in terms of real tonnage, guns, crew, etc.). The designer doesn't have to spend time laboring over individual game-piece statistics. One's game is enriched by, and stands on the shoulders of, the amount of attention and detail given by military scientists tracking and documenting the things in the real world. If any balancing or revisions are needed, they are only in the game rules themselves (perhaps tweaking the mathematical formulae that simulate ships in the game).

Note how briskly this tacks against the fantasy gaming headwind that attention to simulating concrete, real-world elements cannot have any benefit (link). And how synchronized it is with our long-running observation that real-world solutions almost always give the most elegant in-game mechanics (link). In fact, by making the link explicit and mathematically precise, we instantly profit by the whole universe of whatever real-world thing we have simulated.

Of course, this assumes that there is a pre-existing compendium of measurable information compiled about our topic of inquiry, which we have in abundance for fighting ships -- and much less so for individual people, arms, creatures, or of course fantasy creatures. But I am tempted to think about what other quantitative fields of study exist that we can port semi-immediately, and connect explicitly, into our D&D games to their benefit. Let's be on the lookout for that in the next few weeks.

Can you think of any such field of study that we can mathematically connect to our D&D games in order to enrich them?

Monday, April 24, 2017

OD&D Experience Levels

Question: Do Wizards need more XP to level up than Fighters?

This is one of those questions that has an answer which, for OD&D, is "clear, simple, and wrong" (with apologies to H.L. Mencken). Granted that Wizards start with a bigger XP step to 2nd level than Fighters have. But while Fighters consistently double the XP required to reach each level up to 9th, Wizards -- and also Thieves from Sup-I -- do not. Rather, in the range of levels 6-10 or so these latter classes add less than a doubling's increment, closer to 50% or so (specifically: between 33% and 75%). And therefore by the 7th level Wizards actually need less XP for each level than Fighters do; this is highlighted in the summary table below.

A few other observations: In the original D&D rules, while it was explicated that "There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress" (Vol-1, p. 18) -- and also indicated patterns for hit dice, attacks, and spells at levels off the chart -- no guidance was given for XP steps above those shown here. Sup-I does state for the new Thief class that it requires "+125,000 additional points for each level above Master Thief" (p. 9), and from this we might infer a similar increment to the last step in the table for others (also: in synch with later rulesets) -- which would be 120,000 for Fighters but only 100,000 for Wizards, so the flipped relation would hold true for all higher levels. Also note that the "Name" level at which hit dice stop accruing is different for each class (Fighters at 9, Thieves at 10, Wizards at 11, per Sup-I); the table above matches everything given in the OD&D book tables.

Gygax made some edits to XP tables in AD&D but this artifact largely persists there (AD&D Fighters need 70,001 XP to reach level 7, Wizards merely 60,001; by 10th level the Fighter needs precisely double what the Wizard does). Cook in the Expert D&D rules made the tables completely uniform; everyone doubles XP requirements up to Name level, which is universally 9th. Even in OD&D, Clerics had a regular doubling of XP, like Fighters, starting from a low 1,500 XP needed for 2nd level (omitted from table above; a suspiciously low basis for a class that gets all of fighting, armor, and spell capability).

An open question would be: Why? The fact that Gygax maintained this asynchronicity in both OD&D and AD&D seems to suggest that it was intentional -- that Magic-Users were intended to get accelerated advancement compared to Fighters at higher levels. Perhaps this was an amplification of the idea that Magic-Users will be weak at low levels and need assistance, but increasingly more powerful at high levels.

Edit: User elphilm in the comments helpfully links to a recollection by original player Mike Mornard on how Gygax ruled on higher-level experience, different from my extrapolation above, namely: each class increments as per the total XP needed to get to name level (regardless of the increment before that). So higher-level increments are: Fighters +240K, Wizards + 300K. Some pros to this interpretation: (1) it's consistent with the method for Thieves in Sup-I, (2) it's consistent with the method for those classes in AD&D, (3) it solves the problem above where by at least level 20+ Wizards do need more XP than Fighters. Two cons might be: (1) It sure looks weird that Wizard levels that go 100K, 200K, 300K, 600K... (at levels 9-12), (2) it is different than the extrapolation given in B/X Expert D&D from Cook, et. al. Thanks, elphilm (and M. Mornard; link)!

(Also consider: Do Wizards get better saves vs. spells than Fighters?)

Monday, April 17, 2017

OED Deck of Spells

For about 8 years now I've been using my custom Book of Spells in my own OD&D games. It's an Open Gaming Licensed version of magic-user spells that are in OD&D -- based on text from the d20 SRD, but massively cut-down and refined so they're short (usually just a few lines of text each) and more like the original game (subject to some small changes based on my own play experience). Now in its 2nd Edition, I really like being able to hand every wizard player at the table their own slim volume for looking up their spell effects (see sidebar; available at

But now my good friend Paul S. has done one better and turned it into a custom deck of cards! This way you can pull out your memorized spells at the start of the day, have all their effects directly in front of you, and simply discard the spells when you use them. We're finding that many players actually prefer it in this form, because once chosen it entirely skips any book look-ups during the game. All the spells in the OED Book of Spells are included, and the text is identical to the 2nd Edition of the book.

I myself played a wizard in a game of Paul's (who's started running OED-style games himself -- which was a little Being John Malkovich-y for me) and I really liked being able to slap down a card on the table during my turn as a representation of what I was doing. Also: If it's an effect that boosts or protects another PC, I could simply hand the card over to them and they could use that as a reminder of what the effect was on their character. It's ridiculously nifty! Only $14.99 at (which is pretty close to the manufacturing price, so we'll see how long we can keep it at that level). Thanks to Paul for creating that resource!

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Fallible Fiend

I recently had the opportunity to acquire and read L. Sprague de Camp's The Fallible Fiend (1972), and it's completely delightful; a real treasure and highly recommended. Of course, in Gygax's Appendix N, it's one of two works by de Camp called out by name (the other being Lest Darkness Fall).

In terms of D&D, The Fallible Fiend falls into a category of possibly lesser-known works that are (a) great literature, and (b) loaned a few very critical ideas to the D&D game. Other examples would be: Bellairs' The Face in the Frost (on the profession of wizardry and spellcasting); Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (alignment, paladins, trolls); and so forth.

In the case of The Fallible Fiend, the primary ideas that it gives us are those around the D&D concepts of planes, extradimensional creatures, how they are summoned and controlled, and their overall demeanor in response to such summons. The opening paragraph of the book reads as follows:
On the first day of the Month of the Crow, in the fifth year of King Tonio of Xylar (according to the Novarian calendar) I learnt that I had been drafted for a year's service on the Prime Plane, as those who dwell there vaingloriously call it. They refer to our plane as the Twelfth, whereas from our point of view, ours is the Prime Plane and theirs, the Twelfth. But, since this is the tale of my servitude on the plane wherof Novaria forms a part, I will employ their terms.
This alone give us several central concepts to D&D: The idea of calling other dimensional spaces "Planes" (is it the first in pulp literature? Possibly so). The idea of the place of your origin being called the "Prime Plane". The fact that at least 12 such planes exist -- explaining my earlier mystification as to why, in Original D&D, the spell contact higher plane went up to exactly 12 planes (Vol-1, p. 29).

Other now-familiar tropes to us also seem to come from the first chapter of this book, such as -- The powerful "demon" being something of a mundane citizen in his own realm. The need to give very precise, literal commands to avoid ironic downfalls by the creature (or a wish). The extradimensional creature returning to their own plane when they seem to be slain. And so forth.

Moreover, I have to say that this slim little work of fantasy also provides an almost uncannily sharp cultural commentary for this exact time that we find ourselves in. The titular character is in all regards well-meaning, but subject to constant unwarranted abuse due to his strange appearance, language, and place of origin. We manage to follow him through a travelogue of various fantasy kingdoms, each of which has deeply insane customs -- but whose citizens are generally entirely convinced and willing to argue as to their rightness, in ways that are unsettling echoes of our own world. At a key point the Fiend meets with a crude and addlepated former entertainer (wrestler), who by a random electoral process has been named Archon of his nation, and has since let the country fall into complete ruin and anarchy.

Within this latter chapter the first-person Fiend finds temporary shelter at an otherwise abandoned inn, and engages the innkeeper, named Rhuys, who at one point finds himself needing to muster a defense of humankind:
"We're not all thieves and murderers at heart," quotha. "In fact, most of us do be peaceable and orderly, asking only to be let alone to earn our livings."

"But enough of you are of the other kind, if I may say so," I said.

Rhuys sighed. "I fear me you are right. Do no demons ever misbehave?"

"Oh, certes; but the fraction is small enough to be easily mastered. Besides, our wizards have puissant spells, which compel one accused of crime to speak the exact truth. This greatly simplifies the task of ascertaining the culprit's guilt."

Rhuys looked sharply at me. "Does the Twelfth Plane permit immigration?"

"I misdoubt the question has hitherto come up. When I return thither, I will try to learn and let you know."
Prescient commentary indeed, for a work of pulp fiction. The book is not without its flaws: most notably, it has a rather obvious sexist blindspot. But the ending is as pitch-perfect as any I've seen in a fantasy novel. You should read The Fallible Fiend

Monday, April 3, 2017

HelgaCon X

We held HelgaCon X in Plymouth, MA this past weekend -- and it was probably my favorite one yet. Saw some stuff happen in games that I'd seriously never seen in my life before; amazing. Also: I finally broke my decades-long streak of train-wrecks and finally crafted one actually successful puzzle/riddle in a D&D game. So I'm psyched! Here's a few quick snaps of the activities:

Google photo archive here.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bismarck Tactical Values

Avalon Hill's Bismarck (1979) has always been one of my favorite games. However, it's a bit long, and my close friends aren't intense wargamers, so it's hard to find fellow players for a game. So recently Isabelle and I started playing some tactical pick-up games -- cut out the whole strategic search aspect, and just run a straight-up firefight on the battleboard. Not how the game was designed, but it's palatable for both of us, and provides a bit of entertainment.

Of course, the problem is that since the game wasn't designed for this, there aren't any guidelines for setting up or balancing such games. We could use the "victory points" for sinking each ship, or some calculation on each ship's statistics, but I found that none of those seemed terribly consistent. You may be able to guess what the solution was: My customary response of simulating a version of the game in code, running it a few tens of million times in a Monte Carlo simulation, and seeing what balance of objects give a 50% chance of winning against each other. (Prior examples of this were done for: D&D Arena, Monster Metrics, Book of War, Star Frontiers.) Results in this case are shown in the table below (plus PDF, ODS versions):

Points-balanced by Monte Carlo simulation


  • We used the Bismarck itself as the "basis" ship worth 30 points (the same as its victory point value in the game as written). Every other ship in the game was run through a loop of creating N = 1, 2, 3... sister clones and battling each group in 10,000 repeated firefights against the Bismarck. Once we found a number N that beat the Bismarck over 50% of the time, we did a linear interpolation for that type of ship's real value (shown under "Points" above).
  • For simplicity, the simplified simulation was always run assuming: Basic combat rules only, a fight at long range, firing at broadsides, with no movement, and port sides facing. The fact that it was at long "B" range implied that only main guns could fire, at half salvoes; and also no torpedoes could be used (which are not in use for Basic game combat anyway).
  • Aircraft carriers (CV's) were skipped -- Their power is not in ship-to-ship combat; they are usually allowed to avoid such combat; and they have no main guns usable at long range, so their effectiveness here would be automatically zero. 
  • I batched up ships into real-world classes to make the table a bit shorter. "Game #" shows the number of ships of that class included in the game; "Real #" shows the number of real-world ships so constructed. Bismarck and Tirpitz (really sister ships) are separated because the game gives the Tirpitz reduced-fire penalties for not finishing sea trials in its alternative scenario.
  • The AI of either side is set to shoot all its guns at the one target on the other side with the biggest guns. When that target is sunk or degraded to zero firepower, the AI switches to the next highest-gunned target, and so forth. This was my attempt to split the difference between real-world action and optimal in-game tactics.
  • Code & data archive is made available, as usual (Java ZIP).


  • Compared to the table above, the official game victory points seem to greatly undervalue British battleships (BB, BC). The rules-as-written only award 12, 14, or 16 points for those types (versus 20 or 21 points above).
  • Likewise, cruisers of all types seem undervalued in the game. The official rules assign only 6 points for any heavy cruiser (CA; usually 8 points above), and 4 points for any light cruiser (CL; again usually 7 or 8 points above with some exceptions). In particular, the game assigns almost indistinguishable stats for most CA's and CL's, so the difference in victory points is rather hard to justify. The assessed valued of most CL's is exactly double that given for them in the game.
  • The French battlecruisers (BC) seem probably the most undervalued. The game only gives them 8 victory points value (assessed above at 19 points; note that victory points as shown assume British control, i.e., the special rule for possible surrender is not in effect).
  • The US BB North Carolina is also undervalued at 20 points in the rules (versus 29 above). Note that the rules don't give it special combat advantages like resistance to special damage, reduced evasion damage, etc., that the Bismarck does, so at least a 1-point disadvantage seems reasonable. 
  • Ships suffering from the "reduced fire" rule (new ships with a history of gunnery problems, 50% to reduce bow or stern main guns by half in any turn; i.e., King George V, Prince of Wales, Tirpitz) really take a big hit in their value in the simulator. Prime example: The Bismarck is identical to the Tirpitz except for reduced-fire, and the assessed point values come out to 30 versus 24 (i.e., a 6-point difference just for the reduced fire effect). The Intermediate game rules assign 28 victory points to the Tirpitz, which probably should have been lower.
  • The Prinz Eugen and her sister ships are best assessed here at 9 points. Note that the game rules vacillate on this datum -- she is assigned 10 victory points in the Basic game, and 8 points in the Intermediate game. The best value is apparently the midpoint of those numbers. 
  • We might interpret the fact that all non-German ships are apparently undervalued in terms of game victory points as this: The German player is very much incited to avoid ship-to-ship combat, and truly must focus (as was the goal of the real operation) on evading British combat ships and catching convoys instead. Even if the German player were to exchange exact-same-stats warship for warship, they would then lose on victory points.
  • The point-values in the table above can be used to set up reasonably-balanced firefights. For example, a 40-point game would simulate the classic Bismarck & Prinz Eugen vs. Hood & Prince of Wales face-off. A 100-point game would make for an epic fleet battle.

Open Questions

  • Considering the critique of undervalued game victory point values above, a number of factors not simulated in the program might conceivably make a difference, such as -- Speed, search values, fuel consumption, torpedoes, overall prestige, etc. While I think that most of these would be fairly minimal (depending on ruleset in use), note that most of these factors would if anything further advantage the cruisers -- which are already seen as worthy of improved point valuations above (i.e., if anything, perhaps they should be even higher).
  • The battleship-vs-battleship valuations should be the most dependable; they generally have similar values for any factors not handled in the simulation. Speed (evasion) is usually in the range of 28-32 knots, effectively equal for game purposes. A notable exception would be for the older, slow British battleships -- the Revenge & Nelson classes at only 20 and 21 knots. Possibly the high valuations for those classes above should be adjusted downward because of speed.
  • I didn't code special handling for the ships with all-front main guns (Nelson, Dunkerque classes). It wouldn't make any effective difference in this all-broadsides scenario, anyway. 
  • Point of rules debate: The game Hit Record Pad gives all cruisers a 0-point box for secondary guns on each side. Obviously that provides no fire value (no secondaries are usable at "B" range here anyway). But there is a bit of a dilemma on whether that box should be crossed out for damage purposes or not. If so, it would provide an additional 1-point defensive buffer before cruisers start taking midships damage (which ultimately culminates in sinking). The simulator here assumes we do not spend a damage point marking those zero-boxes. If we adjudicated that the other way, then that would increase the assessed value of cruisers even more.
  • The game rules officially allow ships to split their salvoes among multiple targets (whereas my simulator directs all fire from a task force at one target). Perhaps if we had a more sophisticated AI that could split up targets, the big ships with many gains would claw back some advantage when fighting many smaller ships (i.e., lowering the value of cruisers down a bit). One could debate philosophy of whether we should pursue pure in-game advantage, or instead try to simulate real-world fire control tactics of the WWII era.
  • In the table above, the "Real #" column is intended if anyone wants to expand the ships in use beyond those included in the boxed game. In addition, many of these classes had even more such ships planned for construction, many of which were scrapped at the outbreak of WWII; players should of course feel free to further expand the fleets in any "What If?" scenarios. Wikipedia is has very well-organized overviews of each class of ships referenced above.

 Thoughts? Anyone still play tabletop Bismarck?