Tag Archives: Ken St. Andre

The Dungeon Mapper: From Half of D&D to a Forgotten Role

In 1977, when I found the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, I noticed that the dwarf description included a lot of fluff: stocky bodies, long beards, and an ability to detect slanting passages, shifting walls and new construction. I figured the slanting-and-shifting thing would never affect the game unless some dwarf skipped adventuring for a safer job as a building inspector. “Your rolling-boulder ramp isn’t up to code. Someone might not trip.”

Years later, I realized the dwarven fluff actually helped players draw the accurate maps needed to keep characters alive. Sloping floors and shifting walls made more than a nuisance. In the mega-dungeons of the era, greater threats prowled on lower levels, so tricks that lured characters too deep threatened their lives. Lost explorers deep in a sprawling multi-level dungeon could run out of resources before they got out. Originally, the spell find the path found an escape path.

Level 1 of the dungeon under Greyhawk Castle photographed in 2007 by Matt Bogen

In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. The original rules present mapping as half of the game. In the example of play, the referee—the title of dungeon master had not been coined yet—spends half the dialog reciting dimensions. The rules’ example of “Tricks and Traps” only lists slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to vex mappers. The text’s author, Gary Gygax, suggests freshening explored parts of the dungeon by adding monsters, but also through map “alterations with eraser and pencil, blocking passages, making new ones, dividing rooms, and filling in others.”

Despite the emphasis, many gamers found mapping less compelling. By 1976, the first D&D module Palace of the Vampire Queen included players’ maps to spare explorers the chore of transcribing dimensions. By fourth edition, labyrinths had changed from mapping challenges into skill challenges. Such mazes were no more fun, but they saved graph paper.

Today, only players who play D&D in an older style draw their own maps as they explore a dungeon.

Did anyone ever think translating distances to graph paper added fun? Or was mapping another way to thwart players who tried to steal the quasi-adversarial referee’s treasure. (In that original example of play, the Caller finds hidden loot, and the Referee responds by “cursing the thoroughness of the Caller.” Rules question: Must the Referee curse aloud or can he just twirl his mustache?

Blackmoor scholar Daniel H. Boggs describes mapping’s appeal. “If the DM is running the game with a proper amount of mystery, then mapping is one of the joys of dungeon exploring. In my experience, there is usually at least one person in the group who is good at it, and it is lots of fun to see your friends pouring over maps trying to figure out where to go or where some secret might be.”

In 1974, D&D seemed so fresh and intoxicating that even duties like mapping found love—just less love than the game’s best parts. Then, exploring a hidden version of the game board seemed revolutionary. Even the wargames that relied on umpires to hide enemies from opposing players let everyone see the terrain—and only a tiny community of enthusiasts played such games. In 1975, when Tunnels & Trolls creator Ken St. Andre attempted to explain dungeoneering to potential players, he could only reach for a slight match. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon. He tells the players what they see and observe around them.”

As fans of competitive games, D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax relished tests of player skill more than many D&D players do now. To the explorers of the mega-dungeons under Blackmoor and Greyhawk, map making became proof of dungeoneering mastery. In the game’s infancy, different groups of players mounted expeditions as often as Dave and Gary could spare them time. Separate groups might compile maps and keep them from rivals.

While recommending slanting passages and sinking rooms, Gary seemed to relish any chance to frustrate mappers. Describing a one-way teleporter, he crows that “the poor dupes” will never notice the relocation. “This is sure-fire fits for map makers.”

Dave favored fewer tricks. Daniel Boggs writes, “Arneson would actually help map for the players by drawing sketches of what players could see in difficult to describe rooms.” In early 1973, Dave Megarry, a player in the Blackmoor campaign and designer of the Dungeon! board game, mapped much of Blackmoor dungeon during play. Megarry’s maps proved more accurate than the versions published in The First Fantasy Campaign (1980), a snapshot of Arneson’s Blackmoor game.

Still, Dave Arneson expected players to show mapping skill and deal with setbacks. In a 2009 post on the ODD74 forum, he wrote, “A referee ‘happy moment’ was when the mapper was killed and the map lost. ‘OK guys now where are you going?’ What followed was 15 minutes of hilarious, to me, fun. A non-player character gave them a general direction. Another was when the mapper died and the players couldn’t figure out how to read the map. Again an NPC saved them.”

“In terms of tricks, Arneson primarily relied on complexity,” Boggs writes. Despite ranking as the first dungeon ever, Blackmoor includes rare vertical twists. “The combination of connecting shafts, pits, elevators, and literally hundreds of stairs across levels is just astounding. There is also the fact that the dungeon is segmented, so portions of certain levels could only be accessed by stairs on other levels or via secret doors. Secret doors abound in Blackmoor dungeon and most of Arneson’s dungeons.”

Nowadays, the task of transcribing explored rooms and halls to graph paper lacks its original novelty, but turning unexplored space into a map brings as much satisfaction as ever. Sometimes as my players explore, I draw the map for them on a grid. For some sessions, I bring a dungeon map hidden by scraps of paper fastened with removable tape. Players can become so eager to reveal rooms that they vie for the privilege of peeling away the concealment. While running Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I loaded the maps on a tablet and concealed them under an erasable layer. All these techniques eliminated the chore of mapping for the pure fun of discovery.

Meet the Woman Who by 1976 Was the Most Important Gamer in Roleplaying After Gary

In 1976, after Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax, the most important person in roleplaying games was a Los Angeles woman named Lee Gold. She still contributes to the hobby and still runs a campaign using her Lands of Adventure (1983) game.

Lee who? And what happened to Gary’s co-designer Dave Arneson? Although Dave and his circle of Minneapolis gamers deserves the most credit for inventing roleplaying games, Dave’s passion centered on sailing ships in the age of Napoleon. He never matched Gary’s fervor or written output. In 1976, Dave would work briefly for TSR, but little came of it. See Basic and Advanced—Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR.

Meanwhile, D&D’s popularity exploded. Nothing else like the revolutionary game existed and it proved irresistible to most wargamers and fantasy fans. See 4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed.

In 1975, Hilda and Owen Hannifen told their friend Lee Gold of a wonderful new game called Dungeons & Dragons. “Hilda had made up a dungeon and she ran it for us. So you see our first experience was with a female game master. It was a lot of fun.” Lee’s friends gave her a photocopy of the rules, but not before they watched her post a check to TSR for an official copy. “I started making up a dungeon—and told our local friends that they could start coming over and participating in D&D games that I’d be game mastering.”

Alarums & Excursions issue 2

Even before Internet message boards and blogs, science fiction and fantasy fans liked sounding off. So they published fanzines, or just zines. To publish, fans typed their thoughts, printed copies on a mimeograph or an employer’s photocopier, and then mailed to friends. “A zine may include essays, comments on previous issues, poems or songs, a writeup of a gameplaying session, artwork, and just about anything imaginable,” writes Lee. For efficiency, zine publishers started collaborating in amateur press associations, or APAs. These associations bundled collections of zines under a single cover to save on postage and to create publications matching the substance of a magazine.

Excitement in the new D&D game fueled so much discussion that it started to overwhelm the pages of the APA-L from the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. To meet surging interest, and to the let APA-L refocus on literature, Lee Gold started a new APA devoted to roleplaying games. She named it Alarums & Excursions after a phrase Shakespeare used to denote a confused uproar in stage directions. Plus, a name starting with ‘A’ would appear at the top of any list of APAs. Pronounce “Alarums” as alarms. The first issue debuted in June 1975 as the first periodical devoted entirely roleplaying games.

For a standard APA, an official collator collects fanzines and then mails the collections to the authors. “I didn’t want anything that minor,” Lee explains. “I also wanted subscribers, and the subscribers would support the contributors. It was something that had never been tried before. Therefore, I wanted to have something where there would be lots of subscribers and then contributors wouldn’t have to pay anything for postage. This was a whole new thing that had never been done before. It was my entirely new and brilliant, I hoped, idea.” This model allowed Alarums to reach a wider audience than a traditional APA. Hobby shops stocked issues of A&E alongside magazines. As A&E gained contributors, the page counts burgeoned from 30 to 150, when the limits of binding and shipping forced Lee to hold contributions for future issues.

The shabby state of D&D’s original rules inspired much discussion, and Lee’s Alarums & Excursions served as the hub of this network. “All the role players I know, when we looked a Gary Gygax’s game with its “% liar” and all its typos said, ‘this stuff needs tinkering.’ Ken St. Andre looked at it an wrote Tunnels & Trolls, and the people in Michigan wrote their thing, and the people at CalTech wrote their thing, and Steve Perrin wrote his thing. Everybody tinkered with D&D because it needed tinkering to be playable. The nice part about D&D was that it obviously needed player help. Well, obviously to all the players I knew.” (The people in Michigan likely refers to Kevin Siembieda and his Palladium Books the Metro Detroit Gamers, who published the original tournament versions of the TSR modules S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and O1 The Gem and the Staff, and regularly ran conventions like Wintercon and Michicon. The thing from CalTech is the Warlock rules which came to influence D&D through J. Eric Holmes. For more on Warlock and Steve Perrin, see How D&D Got an Initiative System Rooted in California House Rules.)

The zines that Lee published in A&E became profoundly influential on the evolution of role playing games. Lee says, “I remember zines from Dave Hargrave giving tidbits of the Arduin Grimoire, Steve Perrin’s Perrin Conventions (which were the start of the system that later grew into Runequest), Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus’s discussion of Chivalry & Sorcery, John T. Sapienza, Jr.’s discussion of various game systems, and other professional and semi-professional writers. I remember Mark Swanson’s ‘character traits,’ a way of individuating characters with minor bonuses and minuses. I remember a number of people (including myself) getting tapped to write games professionally because RPG publishers read their A&E zines.“ Other contributors included D&D Expert Set author Steve Marsh, third-edition D&D lead designer Jonathan Tweet, Vampire: The Masquerade designer Mark Rein-Hagen, fourth-edition D&D lead designer Rob Heinsoo, Paranoia and Star Wars roleplaying game designer Greg Costikyan, and more. Plus, a fellow named Gary Gygax contributed to issues 2, 8, and 15.

Alarums & Excursions issue 1

Soon though, Gary came to hate APAs like A&E. Partly, he seemed to see APAs as ringleaders for thieves, and not just the sort who—in Gary’s estimation—stole a ride on his coattales. Remember that Lee Gold started with a photocopy of the D&D rules. Early on, copies of D&D, especially outside of TSR’s reach in the Midwest, proved scarce. The $10 price of the original box struck many gamers as outrageous. In the first issues of Alarums & Excursions, some contributors argued that TSR’s profiteering justified Xerox copies of the D&D rules. Gary wrote a rebuttal and Lee told readers that Gary deserved to gain from his work and investment. Surely though, he remained incensed.

Eventually, all the discussion of D&D’s flaws and all the redesigns of the game wore on Gary’s pride in his creation. In issue 16 of The Dragon, he wrote, “APAs are generally beneath contempt, for they typify the lowest form of vanity press. There one finds pages and pages of banal chatter and inept writing from persons incapable of creating anything which is publishable elsewhere. Therefore, they pay money to tout their sophomoric ideas, criticize those who are able to write and design, and generally make themselves obnoxious.” For a rebuttal of Gary’s criticism, refer back to A&E’s list of contributors.

Meanwhile, Lee published A&E and began writing games. Much of her work showed an interest in history and particularly Japan, where she lived 4 months during A&E’s first year. Land of the Rising Sun (1980) extended the Chivalry & Sorcery system to Japan. Her game Lands of Adventure (1983) aimed for roleplaying in historical settings. Her other credits include GURPS Japan (1988) and Vikings (1989) for Rolemaster.

Men dominated the gaming community of the 70s, but Lee felt insulated from that culture because she came from science fiction fandom. “The SF fan experience was largely male when I entered in 1967, but it wasn’t male-dominated. SF fandom of the late 1960s had only a few women, but they were highly charismatic women—including women like Bjo Trimble—and they were not dominated by men. I entered the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society as an editor and the leader of a sub-group that produced a fanzine, The Third Foundation.

“This pattern of female equality also held true for the D&D play and roleplaying that took place in SF fandom—and that’s where I did my roleplaying. Not at hobby stores but at the LASFS and at science fiction conventions, usually with old friends or with people I’d met through A&E. A&E started through people who already knew one another through APA-L or through science fiction fannish connections.”

Meanwhile, the men in gaming tended to suppose that only men contributed to the hobby. Lee remembers visiting the Origins convention and spotting shirts for sale that identified the wearer as a “wargaming widow.” Why else would a woman attend a gaming convention?

After Lee finished writing Land of the Rising Sun for Fantasy Games Unlimited, she met publisher Scott Bizar at a local convention to sign the contract. She recalls discussing the game’s credits.

“Do you want to say this game is written by yourself and your husband Barry?” Bizar asked.

“No,” I said. “Barry didn’t write any bit of it. He did the indexing, and I gave him full credit for that. I wrote all of the game. Just say the game is by Lee Gold.”

“Most female writers say they wrote a game with their husbands,” said Bizar.

“I don’t care what other people do,” I said. “Just say the game is by Lee Gold.” And so Land of the Rising Sun came out as written by Lee Gold.

Her one personal encounter with Gary Gygax revealed a similar bias. Early on, Lee sent copies of A&E to TSR. After a couple of months, she received a phone call, which she recounts.

“This is Gary Gygax,” said the voice, “and I’d like to speak to Lee Gold.”

“I’m Lee Gold,” I said. “I gather you got the copies of A&E I sent you.”

“You’re a woman!” he said.

“That’s right,” I said, and I told him how much we all loved playing D&D and how grateful we were to him for writing it.

“You’re a woman,” he said. “I wrote some bad things about women wargamers once.”

“You don’t need to feel embarrassed,” I said. “I haven’t read them.”

“You’re a woman,” he said.

We didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so I told him goodbye and hung up.

Despite her design credits, Alarums & Excursions rates as Lee Gold’s most stunning achievement. Since 1975, she has sent the APA monthly with only two lapses: one during her stay in Japan and a second scheduled for health reasons. Today though, many subscribers take their copies through email.

The Surprising Trait Fourth Edition Shared With Original Dungeons & Dragons

The first Arduin Grimoire starts by explaining how to play Dungeons & Dragons. Sure it claims to be an explanation of how to play “a fantasy game,” but in 1976, when Dave Hargrave penned the tutorial, the range of fantasy games included D&D, D&D set in a world called Tékumel, and a game designed under the generic name of D&D until it reached stores as T&T.

Gamers needed the how-to. The original D&D rules read as a summary for people who already knew how to play. D&D arrived as a companion to a miniature battle game called Chainmail, and the rules built on a foundation of turns and moves. Gary Gygax’s peers felt comfortable with rules for inches of movement and for how many 10-foot squares a character could search in a 10-minute turn. To Gary’s audience, D&D made sense. But the rule books confused folks accustomed to rolling dice to see how many squares a wheelbarrow could move.

Hargrave’s how-to amounts to this: move, roll for monsters, repeat. If monsters appear, roll for distance, surprise, reaction, and then initiative.

As hard as D&D proved to grasp, this “sequence of play” isn’t too different from Risk. Aside from the referee, the game seems nearly as constrained as Clue—except D&D features a hidden board like Battleship.

Ken St. Andre wrote T&T—Tunnels & Trolls—because he found the D&D rules “nearly incomprehensible.” He describes T&T as having the same relationship to D&D as “Chevrolet does to Ford.” His explanation of how to play T&T worked for D&D too. “The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the DM knows what is in the dungeon.” In 1975, games needed boards. (See 4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.)

There exist numerous enchanted tunnel complexes (call them dungeons or underworlds if you wish) that are liberally loaded with many types of treasure, and abundantly guarded by every imaginable form of monster, magic, and trap. Generally speaking, the greatest treasures and most powerful monster are found further below the surface. Brave men and women arm themselves and venture within the tunnels at risk of body and soul to seek treasure and experience.

In 1975, games also needed a way to win. St. Andre explained how. “Every time your character escapes from a tunnel alive, you may consider yourself a winner. The higher the level and the more wealth your character attains, the better you are doing in comparison to all the other players.” (See But how do you win?)

Neither D&D’s original rules nor interpreters of those rules describe the loose play of D&D today. They describe a tightly-focused game where treasure hunters enter dungeons, spend turns moving and fighting, and keep score in gold.

From 1974 through the 80s, the evolution of role-playing games marks a move from D&D’s medieval fantasy to universal systems like GURPS, the HERO System, and Basic Roleplaying. In the early 90s, universal systems peaked, and the hobby started moving toward games optimized for one genre or even a narrow range of activities. You could play Kung-fu or vampire campaigns in GURPS, but for many players, optimized systems like Feng Shui and Vampire the Masquerade offered a more compelling experience.

D&D followed the same evolution. Original D&D didn’t aim for the same scope of a modern D&D campaign. The 1974 game arrived laser-focused on dungeon expeditions—and not even on naturalistic lairs, strongholds, and tombs. Original D&D assumed multi-level undergrounds with wandering monsters and rooms stocked randomly from monster and treasure assortments. (See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) The only rules for non-player characters treated NPCs as monsters to kill or as hirelings to die in dungeon crawls.

Almost everything in the little, brown books supports dungeon expeditions. Sure, the books included rules for wilderness adventures, but as a way for characters to find castle sites. The rules for castles and followers only build a bridge to another game—Chainmail. Few players crossed that bridge. Even subsequent editions of D&D largely ignored it.

As a focus, the dungeon crawl proved a massive success. Dungeons provided an evocative environment with built-in threats and rewards. Plus, dungeons kept characters on that secret board behind the DM’s screen. The walls made the game manageable for new DMs, and all but two DMs were new. (See How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.)

Even though the D&D’s turns and hidden boards felt familiar to gamers in 1974, the game’s wide-open possibilities captured the imagination. In D&D, players could attempt anything. Hardly anyone held to the rigid structure or stayed in the dungeon. A city, The City State of the Invincible Overlord, became the first setting for D&D. (See A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.) By 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery offered rules for everything in a medieval fantasy world, from kings to peasants, and from jousting to courtly love. That game stemmed from a D&D campaign where players had tired of dungeons and embraced the larger world. (See Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun? Newer games with more realistic combat systems even made dungeon crawls too lethal to be a campaign’s focus. (See The Brilliance of Unrealistic Hit Points.)

As the role-playing hobby broadened, D&D’s scope grew too. By 2000, third edition arrived late to the universal system party. D&D became a branch of the d20 system, which extended to modern settings and Star Wars role playing.

By 2007, the trend toward systems optimized for a narrow range of activities reached D&D and its fourth edition. This version returned to the narrow focus of the original game, but with a completely different choice of optimal activities. Now the game focused on designing characters capable of dynamic battlefield stunts, and then showing them off in combat encounters. Dungeon expeditions became an interchangeable backdrop for combat encounters and skill challenges. This new focus drew criticism from players who felt that a miniature skirmish game, or perhaps a video game, had replaced the original role-playing game. Sure, most players knew you could run fourth edition in the same wide-open style as the prior editions, but plenty saw the new focus as a sign that D&D no longer invited role playing.

Today, D&D returns to a comfortable balance between the sharp focus of the original game and the sprawl of d20. Rather than optimize a system for a narrow focus, the game seeks to embrace three pillars of exploration, combat, and interaction. The game is bigger, but you can still dungeon crawl in the original style—as long as you can live without 10-minute turns.

Basic and Advanced—Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules (Part 2)

The Story of Basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Part 1: The time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games
Part 2: Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules
Part 3: Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions
Part 4: Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR
Part 5: Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game?
Part 6: Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game

In 1976, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax realized that the appeal of D&D reached beyond wargamers to “almost anyone with an active imagination.” TSR’s first full-time employee, Tim Kask wrote, “Gary and I, and probably Gary and others, had often discussed how to broaden our market.” But unless players understood miniature wargaming with its inches, attack rolls, referees, and so on, they had little hope of understanding the original rules. D&D defied popular assumptions about games and fantasy. People wondered where to find the board, and how you won.

Despite being an avid wargamer, Kask struggled to learn D&D. “Had I not confidently announced that my club was going to have a go at this new game I was so enraptured with, I might not have spent three weeks trying to grasp enough of it to begin. And I had the benefit of having played it twice.”

Gygax and Kask saw D&D lure a new generation of players to wargaming conventions. Also, parents of potential players contacted TSR. Kask remembers, “We were starting to hear from parents that had bought the game as a result of their child’s cajolery, badgering or whining, only to find that it was too complex for their precious darlings to jump right in.”

The game’s supplements also caused confusion. After learning that a book called Greyhawk featured higher-level spells, I cajoled my parents into driving me to the store. Later, back at home, I learned of even more booklets.

Tunnels & Trolls

During D&D’s early years, D&D spread through the game table. Players started at Gen Con in Wisconsin or at Origins in Maryland. They brought the game to friends who taught their friends. But in the western states, the books reached folks before any gamers who had seen D&D played.

Far from Lake Geneva, confused but eager players created a market for games like D&D that featured clearer rules. In Different Worlds issue 1, Arizona gamer Ken St. Andre tells of reading the D&D rules in April 1975. He concluded that “as written the mechanics of play were nearly incomprehensible. I stood up and I vowed that I would create my own version.” By July, St. Andre began selling copies of Tunnels & Trolls.

California Neurologist J. Eric Holmes also found the original D&D rules incomprehensible. In Dragon issue 52, he writes, “There was no description of the use of the combat table. Magic spells were listed, but there was no mention of what we all now know is a vital aspect of the rules: that as the magic user says his spell, the words and gestures for it fade from his memory and he cannot say it again.”

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

To make sense of D&D, he found a set of rules circulating Los Angeles called Warlock, subtitled “How to Play D&D Without Playing D&D.” By using the combat table and spell point system from Warlock, Holmes could start playing.

Warlock came from a group of Caltech students. The game’s introduction tells a common story for the time. “When our group first started playing [D&D], our overall reaction was that it had great ideas, ‘but maybe we should change the combat system, clarify the magic, and redo the monsters.’”

In August 1975, the group published their new rules in a zine called the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal. The new rules took 33 pages. The introduction explains, “Warlock is not intended to replace D&D, nor is it intended to interfere with it. All we have tried to do is present a way of handling D&D without the contradictions and loopholes inherent in the original rules. We spent a considerable amount of time working out a solid combat system, a coherent magic system, and a more flexible way of handling monsters. We have been (rightly) accused of making D&D into a different game altogether, and we think a slightly better one.

“We recommend that you at least have access to a Dungeons & Dragons game, for the simple reason that we lack the space to go into some of the detail used in their three volumes. The D&D books are a good place to get ideas from. They are not a complete set of rules. We have completed them in our own.”

For more, see the Zenopus Archives post, “WARLOCK or how to play D&D without playing D&D.”

The threat of D&D offshoots like Warlock grabbed TSR’s attention. In the August 1976 issue of the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal, TSR published an ad for D&D urging readers to “TRY THE REAL THING!”

In December 1977, Gygax shared his feelings for such D&D “parodies” in the pages of The Dragon. “For most of these efforts TSR has only contempt. For saying so we are sometimes taken to task quite unjustly, but I suppose that is to be expected from disgruntled persons prevented from making a fast and easy buck from our labors—or from those persons responsible for cheap imitations whose work we rightly label as such.”

Gary understood that the fight against D&D’s imitators required a new set of rules.

Next: Campaigns, tournaments, and consistency

Hitting the to-hit sweet spot

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

Through the evolution of Dungeons & Dragons, the game uses two mechanics to determine an attack’s damage output: to-hit rolls and damage rolls.

In D&D, hitting is fun, while missing feels like a bummer, particularly if you waited a while for your turn. Why not remove misses from the game?  Once characters gain enough hit points to survive a few attacks, D&D could drop to-hit rolls and─with a few adjustments─still work.

Skipping damage rolls

Back in the third-edition era, Jonathan Tweet advised dungeon masters to speed high-level fights by substituting average damage for rolled damage. In fourth edition, first-level characters have enough hit points to make this approach possible at any level. In a The Dungeon Master Experience post, Chris Perkins explains how he uses nearly average damage plus 1d6, added for a bit of flavor.

The Chivalry & Sorcery game (1977) skipped damage rolls, assuming “that the damage inflicted by a particular weapon in the hands of given character will be more or less constant.”

The notion of dropping to-hit rolls may seem strange but here’s the crux: Against high hit points, to-hit rolls just turn into another damage-reduction mechanic. In fourth edition, everyone but minions has fairly high hit points and everyone hits about 60% of the time. The damage dealt in combat would work out about the same if we just assumed everyone always hits and multiplied everyone’s hit points by 1.67.

Of course, your to-hit percentage varies from a set percentage, because armor can make hitting more difficult. How can a system without to hit rolls account for armor class? In my post, “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points,” I explained how hit points in D&D function as an ingenious damage-reduction mechanic. Virtually every tabletop role-playing game that aimed for realism made armor reduce damage. In our hypothetical rules variant, why not use D&D’s damage-reduction mechanic to represent protective armor? Suppose different types of armor multiplied your hit points. Suppose high dexterity increased hit points, giving more ability to “turn deadly strikes into glancing blows,” just like the game says.

Does abandoning to-hit rolls seem crazy? It has been done.

Tunnels & TrollsTunnels and Trolls (1975) stands as the one early system that defied RPG hobby’s early mania for realism. Ken St Andre, T&T’s designer, aimed for greater simplicity. T&T drops the to-hit roll entirely. Combatants simply weigh damage rolls against each other. Like Tunnels & Trolls, most RPG-inspired video games seem to drop anything equivalent to a to-hit roll. The damage simply rises as you click away at your enemy.

Drawbacks of always hitting

While undeniably simpler, and probably about as realistic as D&D, the you-always-hit approach suffers three problems:

  • Especially with ranged attacks, rolling to hit fits real-world experience much closer than assuming a hit and skipping straight to damage. Technically speaking, skipping the to-hit roll feels bogus.
  • The two possible outcomes of a to-hit roll offer more drama than the mostly-average damage roll.
  • The to-hit roll provides intermittent, positive reinforcement to the process of making an attack.

You know all about positive reinforcement. It makes you stay up late chasing one more level when you should be in bed. Reinforcement that randomly rewards a behavior is more powerful than reinforcement that occurs every time. In a casino, the best bet comes from the change machines, which pay 1-for-1 every single time. Intermittent, positive reinforcement drives people to the slot machines. As the Id DM might say, “The variable ratio schedule produces both the highest rate of responding and the greatest resistance to extinction.” In short, hitting on some attacks is more fun than hitting on every attack.

Although D&D uses a d20 roll to hit, the game plays best when the odds of hitting stand closer to a coin flip. At the extremes, the math gets strange. For combatants who almost always hit, bonuses and penalties become insignificant. For combatants looking for a lucky roll, small bonuses can double or triple their chance to hit. Also, the game plays better when your chance of hitting sits around 60%. When your nears 95%, the roll becomes a formality. When your chance dwindles toward 5%, then the to-hit the roll feels like a waste of time, especially because beating the long odds probably still earns minimal damage.

When the chance of hitting stays between, say, 30% and 70%, the game reaps play benefits:

  • The to-hit roll provides intermittent, positive reinforcement to the process of making an attack.
  • Many attacks can hit and inflict damage, providing constant, positive feedback to players while everyone contributes to the fight.

So D&D designers face the challenge of arranging to-hit bonuses and armor classes so to-hit rolls require a result between a 6 and 14, a precious small sweet spot for all the levels, magic, and armor classes encompassed by the game. In practice, designers like to push your chance to hit toward the top of the 30-70% range, because while missing remains part of the game, it’s no fun.

The Palladium Role-Playing Game (1983) recognized the play value of the to-hit roll, but it avoided D&D’s problem of finessing to-hit bonuses and armor classes to reach a sweet spot. The game simply declares that “any [d20] roll above four (5 to 20) hits doing damage to the opponent.” Armor in the game takes damage, effectively serving as an additional pool of hit points.

In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss the very different steps the D&D Next and 4E designers took to find the to-hit sweet spot.

Next: Riding the power curve