Monday, February 17, 2014

Weapons vs. Armor in Old School D&D, Part II

Two weeks ago I argued that each attempt in old school D&D to simulate variable weapon damage against different armor types was a failure. In the next few posts I want to look at why.

There were four such attempts:

1. Chainmail, 1971.

2. Greyhawk (or actually the 3LBB's plus Greyhawk), 1975.
3. 1e AD&D, 1978.
4. 2e AD&D, 1989.

(As I explained in Part I, Chainmail is included because it formed the foundation for the systems set out in Greyhawk and 1e AD&D. 2e AD&D is included for comparison whether or not anyone wants to quibble about whether it is really old school.)

What are the criteria for success? I would suggest three:

1. Realism. You want to realistically simulate how actual historical weapons  performed against actual historical armor.

2. Playability. You don't want the system to be too complicated or fussy.

3. Enhancing (or at least not impeding) weapon diversity. You want the system to give players more meaningful choices in selecting weapons. So, for example, if in the initial combat mechanic swords are almost always better then maces, ideally the new mechanic would give players more of a reason to (sometimes) fight with a mace-maybe maces are better against really tough armor. This sort of thing is almost by definition more "realistic" in that we know that historical medieval and renaissance fighters used a variety of different weapons. The criterion is also almost self-evidently true in that if all the new system does is to amplify trends present in the initial mechanic, it isn't clear that there is any need for it. For example, if a two-handed sword does 1-10 points of damage versus a dagger that does 1-4 points of damage, one might wonder whether there is any point in imposing an additional mechanic stating that against most types of armor a two-handed sword gets an average +x bonus, whereas a dagger gets a -x penalty, etc.

1. Chainmail

The relevant tables are given on p. 41 of the 1975 edition rules, and they pertain to the second of three separate methods for adjudicating combat-in this case the "Man to Man Melee" method.

Now, I actually think the Chainmail system is the least obvious failure of the four. It has elements of realism: maces are better against plate armor (or, rather, aren't worse, like most other weapons), slashing and piercing weapons get worse quicker against heavier armor-with the important exception that if you can knock your opponent over, you can then put a blade through an eye slit. And so on.

The two biggest problems are the table's treatment of the two-handed sword and the flail. The table implies that the two-handed sword is almost always more effective than any other melee weapon against any type of armor. In only two cases is it even tied with any other weapon-the flail (see below) vs. plate armor and vs. plate armor and shield. But this flies in the face of the historical record. It's true that medieval and later combatants would often use their standard swords with two hands, but the large 5-6 ft. long-two-handed sword was a somewhat unusual weapon-either a cultural artifact such as the Scottish Claymore or a weapon used by specialized military units such as elite renaissance Swiss and German mercenaries to lop the heads off pikes. It also incidentally served as a ceremonial sword for executioners.

The physics behind this is that large blades can't cut through metal any better than small blades. They might even be worse at doing so, if you can't wield them with as much speed or concentrate the same amount of force on a small point. You might be able to knock someone over with a large blade, but if so, you could presumably do the same with a wooden club or pole, or with your mailed fist, clutching a dagger.

The above claims are confirmed by the obvious fact that medieval and renaissance combatants didn't usually use such swords. But if two-handed swords were the "nukes" of Chaimmail and OD&D, why didn't they? Citing expense is no explanation, since if you could afford a suit of plate armor (and perhaps a horse), you could certainly afford such a sword.

One might object that OD&D is fantasy, and one standard fantasy trope is that the hero has a big sword (how much of this "trope" might actually be based on OD&D itself is another question). But whatever one thinks of this  claim, the fact is that Chainmail purports to be a realistic simulation of medieval (and renaissance and post-renaissance) combat.

The other historical whopper is the flail. It's pretty much agreed by military historians that the spiked ball at the end of a chain-or three balls or spiked balls at the end of three chains-wasn't ever used as an effective combat weapon (the few possible exceptions show that it was an experimental mock-up wielded by a few individuals, that probably didn't really work). There is evidence that farmers occasionally used threshing implements-a section of rotating metal at the end of a stick or pole-for want of anything better that they could afford or have access to in "peasant rebellions" and the like. But the idea of the flail as the 2nd most effective go-to weapon in medieval (or any other) combat has no factual basis whatsoever.

Why Gygax, who appeared to pride himself on his knowledge of military history, or Jeff Perren, the co-author of Chainmail, made these mistakes is anyone's guess. Gygax would pen long articles on subjects such as the "Nomenclature of Pole Arms" where forty-four somewhat similar looking (to the average reader) blades on sticks would be minutely described and analyzed. I don't mean to be prudish or inappropriately critical here. Chainmail is a fascinating and worthwhile game that probably contains many valuable and original historical insights. But Gygax and Perren just get two-handed swords and flails totally wrong. And since they appear to be the top two melee weapons, that sort of sticks out.

As we shall in the next post, the weapon vs. armor tables in Chainmail were the direct ancestor of the tables presented in Greyhawk. Ironically, however, it's unclear whether very many players actually used the tables in Chainmail, either for Chainmail itself or for resolving combats in OD&D. "Man to Man Melee" was after all a sort of optional add on to the standard "troop-type" mechanic of Chainmail. And though Men & Magic almost implied that Chainmail was the sort of default for OD&D combat-the "D20" system was labeled as an "alternate" mechanic-reports of early OD&D play suggest that it was the "alternate" system that very quickly became the default.

So does the Chainmail weapons versus armor mechanic work on its own (for, say, playing Chainmail)? Well, sort of, at least if one averts one's eyes from statistics for the two most powerful weapons. It does simulate some things, including little quirks like knocking one's armored opponent over and then jabbing him in a weak spot. One thing one can say is that the system does not appear to me to be overly complicated or fussy. In general, you simply cross-reference your weapon with your opponent's armor and find a number that you have to exceed on two dice. In terms of weapon diversity, the question is not really applicable. After all, Chainmail opponents are not really choosing weapons for their soldiers in the sense that you would outfit your character in OD&D. At the most, you're probably just using a point buy system to get troops already armed and equipped.

But in general, especially if looking at its impact on OD&D, I think you would have to characterize it as a failure.

In Part III we look at Greyhawk...

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Did Gary Gygax's Father Play for Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

The answer is almost certainly No.

But that is not the conventional wisdom. Wikipedia states: 

     (Gary Gygax) was the son of Swiss immigrant and Chicago Symphony

     Orchestra violinist Ernst Gygax.

(This is sourced from obituaries in the London Times and Washington Times.)

The story has exaggerated legs. Elsewhere on the internet it is claimed that Ernst Gygax quit CSO (and therefore the family subsequently moved to Wisconsin) because he was passed over for the position of Concertmaster.

I work for Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Or more accurately, I have been working for a vendor that has been associated with CSO for the last thirty years, and I have been operating next to or out of Symphony Center (where CSO plays) for the last twenty years. Having rediscovered D&D a bit more than three years ago, and been keenly interested in the early history of the game for almost as long, I had read Gygax's biographical blurbs many times. But I had never noticed the CSO link. (This shows how careful a reader I am.) Finally I saw it.

Eureka! (I said when I finally noticed it). Let's find out what years Ernst Gygax played for CSO.

So I contacted our archivist, Frank Villella. Now, Frank knows everything. Or if he doesn't, he can quickly find out everything. Don't ask me how. Most of what he can tell us is not digitized. But all the musty program notes, annual reports and what have you are at his fingertips. Or so it seems. His fascinating and always informative blog is here. He's also a good guy.

Ernst Gygax never played for CSO.

Now, he might have been a substitute. He also might have played for one of the numerous ensembles and orchestras that rented out Orchestra Hall in the 1940's and 1950's. But we can say for sure that he was never on the CSO roster.

According to Frank, this sort of mistake is fairly common. Frank fields a fair amount of calls from people who ask, "I know Uncle Adolph (or Uncle Luigi or Uncle Claude) played for CSO. Can you tell me when?" And the answer is usually and unfortunately, well, no, he didn't.

You see, there were many talented European expat musicians in post-war Chicago. And there were also many fine ensembles and even orchestras (perhaps more than now) that played in the city and may have even rented out the Hall. But to be, say, a good concert violinist in post-war Chicago does not mean that you played for Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

This is not a dig at Wikipedia (which I think is superior to any previous encyclopedia) nor (obviously) a criticism of Gygax Sr. It is only an attempt to set a small part of the biographical record straight. 

I wonder if any other information will ever be presented. Gary has of course passed to another place, and I doubt whether his six children know anything more about the professional music career of their grandfather. The authors of the wonderful looking forthcoming documentary about the early history of D&D, The Great Kingdom, tell me that they have no photographs of Ernst Gygax-this for a movie that has 140 HOURS of largely historical material. But of course, any further information would be welcome. I will cc Jon Peterson to see whether he has any leads on this.

(The public domain image, above, is taken from Mary's Rosaries.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Weapons vs. Armor in Old School D&D, Part I

For purposes of this post, by "old school D&D" we mean:

1.   Chainmail, 1971 (not D&D obviously, but its combat mechanics heavily influenced what came later).
2.   The "three little brown books", 1974.
3.   Greyhawk (or actually the three little brown books plus Greyhawk), 1975.
4.   Holmes Basic, 1977.
5.   1e AD&D, 1978.
6.   Moldvay/Cook, 1981.
7.   2e AD&D, 1989 (I don't want to argue as to whether 2e is "really" old school or not. For purposes of this post, it is).

Let's look at how each deals with three basic issues:

1. Basic Armor Effectiveness

Each edition assumes that there is a continuum of armor "classes" and that one may make oneself harder to kill by wearing armor of a higher (or lower, depending on how the terminology is used) class. It should be noted, however, that in the Man to Man Melee Table in Chainmail (p. 41), there are exceptions to this for certain weapons. For example, while, say, a dagger has a 72% chance of killing an unarmored opponent vs. only a 3% chance of killing an opponent wearing plate armor, a two-handed sword has an unchanged 72% chance to kill whether the opponent is unarmored or wearing plate, and a mace actually has an increased chance to kill the armored opponent-42% against unarmored and 58% against plate. On average, however, armor is helpful.

Originally, each class didn't merely represent a place on the continuum but represented a specific armor type or combination of armor types, or at least it did for armor-wearing men and some armor-wearing humanoids. Thus Armor Class 7 simply was leather armor, Armor Class 4 was mail (or "chain mail") with a shield, and so on. AD&D changed this, adding more armor types and slightly stretching the continuum. The classes now ranged from 10 to 2 (as opposed to 9 to 2) and, with the exception of a few classes at each end of the scale, each now represented a selection of armor combinations. So, Armor Class 7 was now leather or padded armor + Shield or studded leather or ringmail. Armor Class 4 was chainmail + shield or splint mail or banded mail. And so on.

2. Variable Damage by Weapon

In Chainmail, the 3LBB's, Holmes and the introductory weapon rules of Moldvay/Cook, all weapons do the same damage-1-6 points (or for Chainmail, simply, a "kill"). Though, notoriously for Holmes, if calculating damage per turn as opposed to per strike, the expected damage per turn of weapons ranges from 2-12 to half of 1-6. (Small weapons-daggers, etc.-strike twice per turn and heavy weapons-halberds, etc.-only strike once every other turn. Interestingly, this yields results for relative weapon effectiveness that are almost the reverse of the other editions.) Holmes also implicitly states that his combat rules are somewhat simplified and explicitly directs those desiring more detail to consult AD&D. Greyhawk and AD&D have variable weapon damages ranging from 1-2 to 3-18. For the optional or advanced weapon rules in Moldvay/Cook there is a smaller spread-1-4 to 1-10.

3. Variable Weapon Effectiveness vs. Different Armor Types

The idea here is that while bettering one's armor class is on average a good thing, it may be relatively more (or less) helpful depending on precisely which weapon is being used against it. Or conversely, some weapons will be relatively better than others at attacking opponents wearing certain specific types of armor. One standard example would be that low impact slashing weapons are relatively less effective against plate armor than, say, blunt weapons. So, an AD&D longsword might on average be better than an AD&D hammer (because it does more damage) but it's not as much better (and depending on certain assumptions might even be slightly worse) against a target wearing plate armor.

On the chronologically ordered list given above, every other edition-Chainmail, Greyhawk, 1e and 2e-has some table or method of simulating this.

I would argue that while having a rules mechanic that simulates variable weapon damage versus different armor types is laudable and, all things being equal, desirable, each attempt in old school D&D was a failure. This claim is not really controversial (though no doubt some would take issue with it). But looking at why each attempt was a failure may give us clues as to whether or not such an effort could succeed.

More in Part II...