Friday 25 September 2015

Armor vs. Mobility

D&D and many other fantasy skirmish combat rules include a delicious tradeoff between protection and movement in choice of armor.

Even "D&D for Dummies" says so (via Google Books)

This tradeoff shines brightest when the DM applies old-school logic and throws in monsters that can't be defeated in a toe-to-toe combat, but can be run from. Each armor-wearer has to decide whether their armor makes them half as likely to be hit by low-level grunts, or lets them get away from slow and overpowering monsters.

The weird thing is that in  D&D up to 3.0, plate mail is really not that expensive compared to the tons of treasure you are required to harvest to level up (xp from monsters being stingy). So cost doesn't figure much in the tradeoff - especially given that armor is a common form of loot. In my campaign, armor is expensive and monsters and carousing count for more, so treasure amounts can be moderate at early levels; character typically get access to medium armor around level 2 and heavy around level 3.

The other weird thing is that as you get magic armor, the tradeoff disappears - it gives both greater protection and mobility. In my campaign, magic items are rare and the standard improved armor comes in either dwarven steel (+1 to armor class) or elven steel (+1 mobility class), where each bonus is valuable separately.

But hold on! Isn't the mobility-protection tradeoff overhyped when you look at actual medieval armor?

Plate armor wasn't all that restrictive of movement.
Armor didn't have to be expensive.
Wearing armor slows speed only through increasing fatigue.

And leather armor affording the same protection as metal, although lighter, would restrict movement in the same way, because to be effective at all against weapon it had to be thick, or treated through boiling to become a hardened material.

Well, the sovereign answer to all of this is that gaming combat doesn't have to be realistic - in fact, should include any and all misconceptions that are crucial to a fictional genre.

But here's the more satisfying answer: the mobility tradeoff is true on a large scale and over the long haul. Along with time and distance scales and archery ranges, this assumption built into D&D seems to be imported wholesale from the larger-scale wargames both Gygax and Arneson were most familiar with.

So while a heavily armored fighter can indeed run around and do jumping jacks, they tire a lot quicker from that activity. And being able to sustain a pace is what matters for a unit-based wargame where turns are a matter of minutes.

So in a gaming context there are three situations where movement matters.

1. Exploration and long-distance travel. Over ten-minute turns, hours or days, fatigue and needing to rest would definitely slow an armor-wearing person to about half the move a non-armor-wearer.

2. Tactical movement in combat. Here,movement from one foe to another, to flank, and so on tends to be short and sporadic. I've noticed that movement rates in dungeon combat, even if cut short to reflect being cautious and the possibility of making an attack. In a 30'x30' room, a plate-armored fighter's six 5' squares are enough to cover just about any kind of tacical movement needed, and an unarmored 12 squares are just excess. So even though the lobster-plated guy is entitled to more because fatigue's less likely to come in, it probably won't interfere -least of all if you are using area positioning or "theater of the mind" to run combat.

3. Hauling ass. In chase situations, armor and load will determine who catches up or gets away, and while it makes a slight difference in timing whether this is due to fatigue or movement, the ultimate effect is the sme,

4. Charging. Again, realistically an armored fighter making a long charge might suffer a round or so less of arrows and spells from the defenders before closing than their low  movement rate would indicate. But it's likely they would get there in less than full fighting trim. So, the slower movement here can reflect the fighter conserving energy.

In short, "realism" is often invoked as a reason to "fix" D&D but in this case I think the stark simplicity of the speed/armor tradeoff. If you want to cover short-term speed bursts I recommend ruling that you can move as unarmored in armor, but take 1 hp nonlethal fatigue damage per level each round you do so, that can be regained at 1 hp/level with each round of rest.

Saturday 19 September 2015

Stupid Good: The Case For Custom Alignments

It so happens that in my campaign that the party:

* contains a priest of Ygg, God of Knowledge At Any Price;
* has been fighting demons sprung from a painted canvas, who claim fealty to Lord Fraz, Princeof Deception;
* has also antagonized a hierarch of Pholtus, lawful God of Blinding Light,a narrow-minded and fanatic sect familiar to Greyhawk canon.

Yes, these could be summed up in basic D&D alignment terms as Neutral, Chaotic and Lawful respectively. Or in AD&D terms as Neutral, Evil and Good.

But a different, um, alignment of forces occurred to me. Ygg stands for knowledge, the two other cosmic adversaries obfuscate and deny it. Once this "second axis of alignment" has been sketched in, other possibilities fall into place- the holy mystical force that stands for Knowledge Good, the merciful and cruel Oblivion personifying Stupid Neutral, and the Luciferian figure who brings humanity Knowledge Evil.

This kind of thinking is much more satisfactory to me than the usual second axis of Lawful/Chaotic tagging on after Good/Evil. I mean, it's really not clear whether Law/Chaos is supposed to be about:

* a cosmic force for the organization of matter and energy?
* a political philosophy of social organization?
* a matter of personal style separating staid bankers from wackadoo Malkavians?

Best Lawful buds for life!
This makes it the weak axis, more suitable for explaining why elves and dwarves, or demons and devils, distrust each other. I mean, since when does Jehovah team with Asmodeus to fight elves, Zeus, and Demogorgon?

It's far more interesting to cast out the Lawful-Chaotic axis and create your own cosmic alignment struggle, for a campaign, region, or episode.


Step 1: Fill in the blank with some THING interesting: "_________ is a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it."
Step 2: Think of ways you can be for and against this THING.
Step 3: Now personify "good" (morally upright)and "evil" (morally corrupt) variants on both the pro-THING and anti-THING forces.

Example: THE SEA is a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

You can be for the Sea by celebrating its life. You can be against it by celebrating ... dryness, the creation of new lands, ice ages ... so ...

The Good defender of the sea is the mermaid goddess SHAI, who tends the dolphins and whales and bargains with land-creatures for fish using a great random wheel of coral.

The Good opponent of the sea is SAINT COURVAL, who represents the dominion of wood over water. Ship hulls, docks, stilt houses are her domain, she blesses the salt-thirsty mangrove's roots, and her exorbitant ambition is to plank over the whole surface of the sea.

The Evil defender of the sea is the predator DAGON, half squid, half shark, bringer of the tsunami, begetter of the hurricane.

The Evil opponent of the sea is THULIS, Ice Demon, Wind of the Arctic Pole and Presence of the Ice whose lust is to roll forward the glacier, gather up the seas in piles of ice, and lock up the tides forever.

See, players like to think in terms of good and evil - the bright knight versus dark demon is a fantasy cliche. This cuts good and evil down to size - while the distinction looms large in players' minds still, it's just a lifestyle choice within a larger and more clearly defined struggle over the way the world should be. So, strange bedfellows and moral dilemmas are more compelling and believable than if you have your second axis based around, "Say, I rather admire the way you carry out completely unacceptable actions in an orderly and predictable manner."

Really interesting things happen when you insist on treating these alignments on a par with good and evil. Players have the option to cast their lot with one side or the other or remain neutral. Spells can detect friends of the sea, items can only be wielded by friends of the land, But if you don't want to give alignment such powers (anyway, I don't in my own campaign), the system can still be a structure for the world and its struggles.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Dukljan's Very Gameable Palace

The city of Split on the Croatian coast was built on the palace of the late Roman Emperor Diocletian. Or should I say built in - because the sixty-foot walls of that expansive compound, 500 by 600 feet, bounded the medieval city for hundreds of years. Dark Ages refugees from a nearby town fled to the well-preserved fortress and in time filled in the open spaces with narrow, tall houses and cramped streets. The temple of Jupiter and the mausoleum became a church and a cathedral.

I have just been to visit this postapocalyptic triple-exposure of Roman, Medieval and Late European Touristic. In the central square, former Peristyle of the palace, a rococo cathedral tower overlooks ruined columns and healthy arches. A faceless black granite sphinx from Egypt, as old to Diocletian as his ruins are to us, passes silent judgment on the grimacing heraldic lions carved on the cathedral columns.

Behind that archway is built Diocletian's split-level (sorry, but that is the mot juste) private apartments, the lower, vaulted chambers mirroring the upper works.

In his day these dungeons were flooded with a higher sea level, and his private boats floated past the pillars. As they dried, they filled with twelve feet of garbage from the dwellers above. Now they are excavated and impressive.

And what might dwell in these forgotten chambers beneath the crowded city? Balkan folklore abounds in monsters, most appropriately the chained devil Dukljan, a memory of the works of the late Emperor (on the medieval understanding that any sufficiently advanced architecture has to come from the devil.)