Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Larger than Life

I wonder how much of the shift in the expected power level of D&D characters over the years is a result of the game's not having an integral mass combat system with which to provide additional context. Consider: OD&D arose out of the fantasy supplement for Chainmail. The default combat system for OD&D is the Chainmail combat system. If you're using that system, you can see directly how effective a Fighting Man is supposed to be against masses of armed and armored troops.

The problem is that, by all accounts, most players of OD&D didn't use Chainmail, but instead chose the "Alternative Combat System" that we all now associate with D&D. That system provides a few hints about the level of "realism" it's supposed to model -- such as the Fighting Man's multiple attacks against creature of 1 Hit Die or lower -- but it's much more "abstract," since it wasn't intended to work in conjunction with larger numbers of massed troops. Gygax attempted to rectify this with Swords & Spells in 1976, but it comes across as more of a "pure" miniatures wargame that's compatible with OD&D than as an adjunct to the game itself. AD&D had no mass combat rules at all, till 1985's Battle System, but I suspect it was too little, too late. Like Swords & Spells before it, Battle System was an adjunct to the rules and most players saw no need for it. 3e had no mass combat rules for its entire run and I've seen no evidence that 4e will have one either, but the game is still new enough that anything is possible.

I've long argued that an important part of understanding how OD&D was supposed to feel lies in understanding its endgame -- stronghold construction and domain management -- but my argument is difficult, because D&D, with the exception of the Mentzer boxed sets, has never adequately discussed these topics. Likewise, as I noted earlier, the lack of such rules has also contributed to power creep by not providing context for the rise in level of characters and their relationship to the wider game world. What this suggests to me is that OD&D desperately needs to rectify this situation in some way, although exactly how I'm not certain.

36 comments:

  1. Well...there's two parts to a mass combat in an RPG as I see it:

    PCs vs Mob of NPCs/ Monsters [say 5 PCs vs 10-20 NPCs/ Monsters] which is effectively a skirmish-level encounter which can be handled a variety of ways (I'll elaborate more).

    and...

    Whole Army Battle: anything beyond a skirmish as listed above. Ranging from PC's VS multiple mobs over time to strategic-level battles.

    The latter really IMO should be handled in the typical old school manner of RPing it out and seeing what actions the PCs take to influence the battle: taking command of smaller groups of NPCs (refer back to skirmish-level resolution) and making strategic-level command decisions (wholly in the realm of GM Fiat)

    4E handles combat nicely in the skirmish-level because it is effectively a miniatures game with elements of RP on it: mooks w/ 1 HP and Bosses with more.

    OD&D doesn't have anything like that but an ad hoc solution would be to home-brew something similar (A very Old School response really).

    As a minis and old time strategic game player, it would be cool to develop a mass-combat system simpler than Battlesystem.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's an excellent insight. 3.5 did have a mass combat supplement, HEROES OF BATTLE, but it was more about how the PCs would influence an army and wasn't much like a wargame. If something like that appears for 4e it will likely be similar.

    I think it's a tough act to balance the power of the character with the world around him when it's expected by many that the players will eventually take on dragons & such. And a mundane army is nothing compared to a late-model dragon (of course this begs the question of power creep for dragons as well).

    ReplyDelete
  3. I hadn't even considered the power creep of Big Monsters (Dragons specifically). Depending on your version they (dragons that is) are a viable target or nigh godlike.

    PC group vs Dragon is one thing. PC group plus 25 retainers/ cohort/ hirelings and a ballista versus a Dragon...wow, how does THAT work out?

    Nice insight Vinylsaurus.

    ReplyDelete
  4. As a minis and old time strategic game player, it would be cool to develop a mass-combat system simpler than Battlesystem.

    I agree. I don't think OD&D needs anything too complex and I'm fully in favor of GM fiat/ad hoc solutions in some areas, but it would still be nice if we had something to fill in some gaps and serve as a way to provide a reference for the game's power curve.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I had forgotten about Heroes of Battle, but it was very late in v.3.5's run and wasn't really a mass combat system so much as a book about how to fake having a mass combat system. :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. What about Monte Cook's Cry Havok? I haven't read that rule book.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Bloody brilliant observation. That's absolutely true.

    ReplyDelete
  8. D&D/AD&D have combat system - quite simple. What about War-Machine (or something like that) from Rules Cyclopedia or very fine and simple mass combat system in Birthright?

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'd love to see the Birthright mass combat system. That was supposed to be pretty simple and slick.

    I know very little of the Rules Cyclopedia and all of that. My knowledge is unfortunately limited to the core books and little else until 3.0/ 3.5 (PHB, DMG, MM...Dieties and Demigods, Unearthed Arcana, DSG/ WSG...that's about it). Like I really loved 2nd Ed AD&D...as long as it was just the core books: it all fell apart for me interest-wise as soon as they started putting out splat books/ kits/ etc.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I had forgotten about Heroes of Battle, but it was very late in v.3.5's run and wasn't really a mass combat system so much as a book about how to fake having a mass combat system.

    You are also forgetting the Miniatures Handbook, which has rules for skirmishes and mass battles for D20/3e. I think it had a very large print run, but it was published around 2003.

    Whilst it is fair to say that OD&D grew out of wargames and that the further along the timeline we progress the less evident is the influence, I think it was much more the move towards a "four man" party that increased the need for power.

    ReplyDelete
  11. One thing I found interesting about The First Fantasy Campaign (Judge's Guilds release of Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign) was the amount of material dedicated to improving one's new demense (such as building roads, canals, and attracting immigrants and tradesmen etc). The emphasis really did extend the old Book 3 idea that the eventual object of OD&D was to carve out a bastion of order in the midst of the wilderness of chaos. This included hiring troops and other specialists, which would then be used in a more wargame campaign environment.

    ReplyDelete
  12. What about Monte Cook's Cry Havok?

    I believe it was actually written by Skip Williams, who's got some deep old school roots -- thanked in the 1e PHB, for example. I thought it was a decent attempt at the kind of thing I'd like to see, but it was much too complex for my tastes.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I think it was much more the move towards a "four man" party that increased the need for power.

    That's certainly true, but of course the question must be asked: why four men? Back when I started gaming, our adventuring parties always had 8-10 people in them, sometimes more, plus henchmen and hirelings. Over time that number dwindled. Why?

    ReplyDelete
  14. The First Fantasy Campaign is a treasure trove of insight into the way the game was played back in the day. It's highly idiosyncratic (as all such things must necessarily be), but it's useful because you can see that the way D&D evolved over time is definitely at odds with how it was originally played.

    ReplyDelete
  15. That's certainly true, but of course the question must be asked: why four men? Back when I started gaming, our adventuring parties always had 8-10 people in them, sometimes more, plus henchmen and hirelings. Over time that number dwindled. Why?

    Good question, and one I have asked myself. My answer is that it's easier to get 4 people than 8-10. Certainly, when I was at school 8-10 was easy enough, but 4-6 has been much more common in my adult life (of course, we tend to use NPC adventurers, henchmen, and hirelings).

    Marketing would be my guess.

    ReplyDelete
  16. "That's certainly true, but of course the question must be asked: why four men? Back when I started gaming, our adventuring parties always had 8-10 people in them, sometimes more, plus henchmen and hirelings. Over time that number dwindled. Why?"

    Perhaps as the game moved more towards a focus on story rather than dungeon delving a smaller party size enabled players more "face time". Basically the shift in focus made large parties unwieldy.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I've never had access to a group of more than 6 (meaning 5 PCs) in all of my 28 years of gaming. I think there is a geographical divide here between "Big City" gamers and us small town/suburb folk. The "four wo/man party" (I've played with an inordinate number of females, surprisingly) is the only form I've ever known. It forces you to apportion roles strategically, so that you're no left without a particular skill (i.e., for the uninitiated, one thief, one fighter, one magic-user, one cleric). Not that we haven't mixed it up a bit here and there, but that's the trend.

    As far as mass battles go, I'm with the [/i]Heroes of Battles[i] school. Mass battles should be "faked" (that is, role-played with combat sandwiched in), not rules-governed.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I have used "Mass Combat Made Easy" from the Microlite20 webpage in a B/X game that worked quite well.

    http://microlite20.net/node/45

    ReplyDelete
  19. Again - War-Machine and Birthright. Some of you gives examples of editions with non-battle rules (3e/4e) or some homebrews, and ignore 2E/RC.

    Strange logic (from Barsoom, I think), because stinky-n-unplayable, non-gygaxian systems by WoTC isn't D&D at all. Why search for such rules when you find it already?

    ReplyDelete
  20. Perhaps as the game moved more towards a focus on story rather than dungeon delving a smaller party size enabled players more "face time".

    It's possible, although I guess it's a chicken and egg kind of thing. Did smaller parties arise become of a shift in emphasis on story or did story arise after the party sizes declined?

    ReplyDelete
  21. I've never had access to a group of more than 6 (meaning 5 PCs) in all of my 28 years of gaming. I think there is a geographical divide here between "Big City" gamers and us small town/suburb folk.

    Could be, although I've ironically found that my smallest groups have occurred when I lived in big cities. I'm not convinced, though, that there isn't a broader "cultural" shift involved in the shrinking of the party, but I can't prove it either.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I have used "Mass Combat Made Easy" from the Microlite20 webpage in a B/X game that worked quite well.

    That looks rather nice, but it's a bit simpler than I want. I suppose what I want is something that isn't just an extrapolation of normal melee combat to a larger scale but doesn't get bogged down in having to use tons of minis or counters.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Again - War-Machine and Birthright.

    I have used the War Machine rules to good effect in the past. Maybe I should take a look at them again.

    ReplyDelete
  24. @Jeff:
    paizo.com have a .pdf of the "Birthright" set for $4. It is gold, even if not strictly old-school.

    The mass combat system doesn't really integrate with table-top D&D at any point (jump from D&D skirmish to a card-based battle system, then to a separate map-and-token strategic movement/logistics level), but if you can get past the tactical/strategic disconnect it's a fun mini-game.

    ReplyDelete
  25. @Chris
    Ha! That's exactly where I ended up right after I posted that. You're right...absolute solid gold. Lots of goodies there!

    On a different note: is there a webpage that details the changes between AD&D 1st Ed and AD&D 2nd Ed?

    Not the additional optional rules per se, but the core system itself.

    ReplyDelete
  26. There's also the Mongoose Mass Combat system available as a PDF:

    http://www.mongoosepublishing.com/pdf/conanmasscombat.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  27. That looks rather nice, but it's a bit simpler than I want. I suppose what I want is something that isn't just an extrapolation of normal melee combat to a larger scale but doesn't get bogged down in having to use tons of minis or counters.

    Ahh, but that's the charm of it. It is very easy to bolt things on "old school style". Do you want the characters to lead a squad? Have them make some tactical decisions that give bonuses for occupying the higher ground, flanking, etc. Do you want the characters to be completing a mission while the battle ranges on around them? For example, a quick strike versus the enemy commander. They get to fight a “standard” combat while, with a few quick rolls, you know the state of the ongoing combat and can provide the description. No minis required.

    ReplyDelete
  28. @pdiddy...I kinda dig that. Any additional modifiers for morale and specialists I can fudge as I go.

    I kinda liked War-Machine rules as well.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Isn't there a D&D miniatures game out at the moment which is some kind of cousin to 4e? Is that scaled up to mass battle levels?

    My favourite rpg mass battle rules came from the first edition of Legend of the Five Rings, but I'd guess that they'd be considered a cheat of sorts. The emphasis was very much on what the characters did during the battle, giving them opportunities for heroic actions which could affect the tide of battle (for example, kidnapping the enemy's standard bearer, run as a combat/roleplaying episode), but no direct control over the troops.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Oddly enough, Chivalry & Sorcery - your "high fantasy medieval alternative to D&D" ;) - had an extensive "build your kindgom" section AND a set of miniatures rules built right into the game. There are times when I have a strong desire to start up a 1st Edition C&S game, just for that reason. Hmmm.

    ReplyDelete
  31. @jeff
    On a different note: is there a webpage that details the changes between AD&D 1st Ed and AD&D 2nd Ed?

    Try Wiki, under Specific differences between versions of Dungeons & Dragons, 1E to 2E.

    Here:
    http://tinyurl.com/o2kvy

    ReplyDelete
  32. Victor,

    I never owned, let alone played C&S back in the day. I wonder if it'd be worth hunting down a copy just for "research purposes."

    ReplyDelete
  33. I love C&S, but I won't be cracking it open anytime in the next decade. You could have mine on long-term loan, if you like - the kind where it's up to me to remember to ask for it back some day.

    ReplyDelete
  34. I love C&S, but I won't be cracking it open anytime in the next decade. You could have mine on long-term loan, if you like - the kind where it's up to me to remember to ask for it back some day.

    Well, I would like to see the thing ...

    ReplyDelete
  35. If you'd like me to send it, drop me a message at richardthinks with an address, and I'll get to it some time this week.

    I'd rather someone was looking at it, rather than just having it languish on my shelf.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.