Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Toward a History of RPG Mechanics, Part 11: The Perrin Conventions

As discussed previously, Dungeons & Dragons spread far beyond the wargaming audience that TSR initially aimed for. In Playing at the World, Jon Peterson speculates that D&D may have spread so because its setup didn't focus on 'war' in the sense of large-scale battles. The counterculture of the late 60s/early 70s was strongly anti-war, and, indeed, some within it went so far as to protest wargame conventions and wargames in general.

D&D did have combat, but it tended to be on a smaller scale, and the universe it posited, like that of Tolkein (who the counterculture of the time also seized on), featured a clear-cut morality that the members of the counterculture could no longer believe in with regard to conflicts in the real world.

There was also a hearkening back to 'simpler times' in much of the counterculture, and the medieval setting of D&D played to that. Of course, D&D wasn't the only thing that the counterculture seized on that did so - another was the nascent Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA, which had initially formed in the late 1960s. Some of the SCA's founders styled it as a "protest against the 20th century", and the Society often describes itself as recreating the Middle Ages "the way it should have been".

Naturally, then, many of those in the already-existent SCA found themselves interested in D&D. These people were already practicing faux medieval combat with padded weapons and armor, and found D&D's wargame-based combat rules to be quite unlike their own experience.

Thus, players in the San Francisco Bay area began to create their own modifications to D&D combat. In 1976, Steve Perrin typed up and copied a set of such modifications, which he named "The Perrin Conventions", and distributed to the attendees at DunDraCon I, a D&D convention held in Berkeley.

Copies of the Conventions were borne back from DunDraCon to groups across the United States, and the Conventions were further spread by being included in the second volume of All the World's Monsters, an early 'universal supplement' for fantasy RPGs. Steve Perrin went on to be the primary creator of the rules for RuneQuest, which bears many obvious similarities to the Conventions.

So, what were the Conventions, exactly? Well, you can find them here, but these are what I consider to be the most interesting points:

1. The melee round was reduced from D&D's one minute to ten seconds. Similarly short melee rounds are seen in many later games - including Holmes' Basic D&D and its descendants.

(As a side note, the reduction to a ten-second melee round, with 'normal' movement being 120 feet per round, works out to a speed of about 8 miles per hour... which is also the same speed as D&D's standard outdoor running movement rate of 240 yards per 60-second round. This contrasts to D&D's own combat rules, where characters fighting indoors move at 1/3 the rate of those doing so outdoors because of the difference in scale.)

2. Rather than being randomly rolled, initiative was determined by Dexterity. There is, however, mention of the possibility of adding a random factor, and of allowing someone with a longer weapon to strike first against a foe with a shorter one. Dexterity could also be modified by armor, for both this purpose and other purposes. Holmes' Basic D&D also adopted this rule, although later versions of BD&D went back to traditional randomly-rolled initiative.

3. Characters who moved more than half their movement allowance were not allowed to make melee attacks. This is seen later on in Melee, and in the action system in the d20 System underlying recent versions of D&D.

4. The idea of using a "Dexterity roll" to determine success at actions such as changing a weapon, jumping over something, and so forth. Original D&D made no mention of the idea of directly using ability scores in this way (although Peterson's Playing at the World indicates that Dave Arneson's proto-D&D used ability scores for rolls... and also differed from the published D&D in many other significant ways).

5. Combatants could be knocked back or knocked down by blows, with an increasing probability as they lost hit points. These conditions each carried different penalties.

6. The Conventions had the idea of characters being "engaged" in combat (although not using that term). Withdrawing from combat with an opponent once engaged required an opposed dexterity roll, and carried the possibility that the opponent could get an attack in as you tried to break off.

These ideas were carried forward into many other RPGs. Steve Perrin says that he did not originate all of them, but gave the collection he created the name "The Perrin Conventions" because they were the ones he was choosing to use and was writing up together.

Overall, the modifications proposed by the Conventions make things much easier on GMs. A melee round which is a full minute long allows for a huge amount of movement in the course of it: presuming people can jog at about 8 mph (the "running" movement rate in classic D&D), they can cover more than the length of a football field in one round!

Such long rounds therefore make missile weapons much less useful than they are with shorter rounds: with the one-minute melee round, an attacker can move from being out of bowshot to melee range in one round. Further, since D&D without the Conventions doesn't prevent someone who has moved their full movement from attacking, they can then immediately attack! Depending on the GM, then, a warrior in non-Conventions D&D might close against a bowman and attack before a single arrow can be shot!

The Conventions change this greatly. The distance that the warrior closed in one round before (240 yards outdoors) now takes six rounds to close. This is the same 60 seconds of in-game time, but the bowman gets twelve shots off in that time! This makes missile weapons far more effective for defense. This in turn tends to make numbers more important. A dozen bow-wielding goblins become a much more significant threat!

The requirement to not move more than half your movement in order to make a melee attack also changes things a bit, and the concept of becoming engaged with a foe does it even more. All in all, these changes provide a GM with rules support to keep PCs from just running past foes, and enable some tactical considerations in movement. More limited movement makes it easier to form up lines to protect a target, makes formations such as combat wedges work better, and so on.

(This also makes horses actually useful in combat: in the standard D&D version, you can already close from out of bowshot to a bowman in one round. Unless you're facing opponents using catapults or other weaponry that can't be used by a single man, riding a horse provides no tactical advantage from speed. In the Conventions, however, a horseman can close from out of bowshot in 3 rounds instead of six, halving the number of chances the bowman gets to hit them!)

These movement restrictions also interact with the changed initiative system. While initiative is more fixed, the ability to gain first attack by preparing a missile weapon allows a tactical way around it. However, the Conventions also make it so that switching weapons is not "free"!

The addition of new combat states (being knocked back and knocked down) have significance as well. Knocking someone back or down allows disengaging from them with little risk, and provides a way to break up combat formations! They also make formations more important, by allowing for more situations where one character might need the help of another during combat.

Overall, these changes make combat much more tactical - there are many more significant decisions for players to make. While Tunnels & Trolls had actually abstracted combat even more than D&D, most subsequent fantasy games in the rest of the '70s would follow the lead of the Conventions toward more detailed combat.

In addition to the changes in combat, the shorter rounds mean that it's considerably easier to judge how much someone who's not engaged in combat can get done during a round. For example, in 60 seconds, I can walk through my house, not particularly hurrying, open the door to every room, and look into each and every one (not including closets). Pretty much no D&D GM would allow a party to check 9 rooms for opponents in one round! With ten-second rounds, allowing me to check one room per round would result in it taken 90 seconds... which is a bit longer than it actually took (58.65 seconds on my stopwatch), but not too bad. Thus, a shorter round makes it much easier for a GM to reasonably judge how much a character can get done.

We'll see the impact of the Conventions in our next game - The Fantasy Trip, which we'll be touching on in a few days!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Toward a History of RPG Mechanics, Part 10: Finishing Early D&D

Last time, we discussed the Greyhawk supplement to Original D&D - the supplement that made OD&D into something that players of later editions would much more readily recognize. We closed with a discussion of the race/class rules that Greyhawk introduced, focusing in particular on the level limits for non-human races.

To modern players, level limits of 9th level and below probably seem extremely low - especially to those used to computer RPGs. Classically, though, D&D was largely played at such low levels. Indeed, in his article "D&D Is Only As Good As the GM" (The Strategic Review, April 1976), Gygax wrote that 
"It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play."
And that last bit is important - character mortality was quite high in older versions of D&D, especially at low levels! A typical 1st level character would be killed by one or two hits from a monster. In the AD&D1 DMG (1979), he wrote:
"The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years to see 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level."
This would seem to indicate in turn that the rules for higher level characters in OD&D and AD&D1 had not been well playtested, if indeed they were playtested at all. For example, judging by this, no PC in either campaign had yet become capable of casting 7th level cleric spell, nor 8th or 9th level magic-user spells... even those had been introduced three years previously, in Greyhawk.

We can also see the focus on low level characters in the level titles of OD&D and AD&D1. A fighter becomes a Lord at level 9; a magic-user takes a bit longer, becoming a Wizard at level 11. Moldvay's version of Basic and Expert D&D similarly covered levels 1 to 3 (in Basic) and 4 to 14 (in Expert). A "Companion" set was promised to cover levels 15 to 36, but this would not be released until after Basic and Expert were revised a few years later.

My own experience with first edition AD&D was similar, with us considering "low levels" to be 1 to 4, "mid levels" 5 to 8, and 9th level and higher to be "high level" characters. We considered the "sweet spot" for adventuring play to be levels 3 to 8. Below that, characters were too easily killed, and above that, they should be settling down and beginning to establish their own domains. Such high-level characters we would usually retire, to bring out for rare "high level" adventures.
Thus, the level limits for non-human characters didn't seem so onerous; they were within the "sweet spot" that we considered to be D&D's best play experience, and thus, didn't really feel limiting. We also kept Tunnels & Trolls style "stables" of characters. Before starting a new adventure, the GM would normally announce what level range it was for, and players would either use existing characters they had of those levels, or, if they had no character in that range, would create one. The fact that a dwarven warrior couldn't get above a certain level thus wasn't a problem - it just meant you'd have to play a different character if your dwarven warrior wasn't high enough for a particular adventure.

The Rest of OD&D: Blackmoor and More

While Greyhawk brought D&D into the same basic form it would continue to have until around third edition AD&D in 2000, it was not the last of original D&D. Blackmoor came out in 1976, but most of its bulk was devoted to an adventure, and new 'things' - the Monk and Assassin classes, new spells, new monsters, and new magic items. Its expansion of the rules in general was smaller and less successful. Six pages were devoted to a hit location system, which was not carried forward into any future version of D&D. Seven pages in the rear gave brief rules for underwater adventures, diseases, and NPC specialists.

Eldritch Wizardry  came out later in 1976, and added Druids as a class, along with spells for them, more monsters, and more magic items. Artifacts were introduced here, but the only additional rules for them consisted in the idea that their powers should not be known by players, and so various lists of possible powers were given instead of set powers for them.

The largest rule addition in EW was psionics - but while the various psionic abilities introduced were carried forward into future editions of D&D, the methods used for determining what abilities characters have changed greatly between EW and AD&D's Player's Handbook, which came out two years later.

A Dexterity-based initiative system was introduced as well, which cut the one-minute melee round into six "segments" of ten seconds each. As with the hit location rules introduced in Blackmoor, however, these initiative rules were not carried forward into future editions of D&D.

Lastly came Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes, which gave game statistics for various gods and monsters, but added no new rules of significance, and Swords & Spells, which brought D&D full circle back to Chainmail, as it was a D&D-based system for conducting fantasy battles. While S&S introduced a large number of new rules for this, most of those were either straightforward extensions of what already existed in D&D (for example, units did damage computed from their chance to hit, number of attacks in D&D, and how much damage each of their attacks did in D&D), or were carryovers from Chainmail. In any case, S&S did not sell well, and its rules were not carried forward into future versions of D&D either.

Finishing Up

This concludes our coverage of "official" OD&D. Next time, we'll be looking at The Perrin Conventions, a set of early 'house rules' for OD&D that were highly influential, and at Melee, initially released as a combat system to use with other RPGs, but which formed the basis for another early fantasy RPG, The Fantasy Trip.