[Games Anatomy] Of Attack Matrices and Spells By Level

So far, Von’s been finding the original Dungeons and Dragons rules to be fairly sensible and easy to parse. That said, he’s only gotten to the end of character generation so far. How well will things hold up in combat? Will the archaic customs of mid-1970s historical wargaming defeat him? Will he ever stop talking in the third person?

Not to spoil my own post, but the answers are “moderately”, “a bit”, and “yep.” Also, I’m having hilarious Internet-connectivity problems at the moment, which apparently preclude Googling pictures of Bohemian ear-spoons with which to amuse you. Sorry about that.

Fighting things in this old-fashioned old-school D&D is a bit different to what I’m used to. Later iterations of the game would encourage one to do SUMS (d20 + Base Attack Bonus + STR modifier + weapon modifier + anything from feats + the calendar date divided by 212 vs. 10 + Armour Class + DEX modifier + further armour modifiers if any + your will to live, expressed on a scale from 1 to 20). This one encourages you to look at matrices.

There’s one matrix for Men Attacking and one for Monsters Attacking. Basically, anything which has levels in a class uses the first matrix and anything which just has hit dice (dice rolled to determine how many hit points it has, also indicating much experience is awarded for beating it and approximately where it should go if your dungeons are built on the ‘first level for level 1 characters, second for 2’ principle) uses the second.

Find your character’s level or your monster’s hit dice across the top of the matrix, the target’s armour class (Armour Class 2 is the best, indicating plate armour and a shield, while 9 is the worst, indicating no armour or shield) down the side, cross-reference them and you get the score on a d20 that you need to score a meaningful hit.

I say this because the whole “armour makes me harder to hit… no it doesn’t, it makes me easier to hit and harder to hurt!” argument in part spins out of how OD&D does these things. OD&D seems to base everything around the odds of actually landing a decent blow on the target, and roll both the chance of physically hitting or missing and the chance of bypassing armour into a single roll. It has the advantage of being speedy, and so I like it, but the disadvantage of being a bit ‘unrealistic’, which I can see causing legitimate issues for some people.

Anyway. The higher level a character is (or the more hit dice a monster has), the lower the roll that’s required on that d20. Fighting-Men jump in effectiveness every three levels, Magic-Users every five, and Clerics every four. Everything that hits does d6 points of damage ‘unless otherwise noted’, and I’m on the lookout for some of that ‘otherwise noted’ as it seems rather redundant to bother listing lots of different weapons for sale if they all functionally do the same thing.

We also have a similar matrix for Saving |Throws – a d20 roll to resist the effects of a particular nasty thing being done to a character. This time the classes and levels are listed down the side and the various effects across the top. You look up your class and level in the same place – finding Magic-User 6-10 between Cleric 5-8 and Fighter 4-6 on the side of the matrix – and then look for the nasty effect to cross-reference with. Death Rays/Poisons, All Wands (including Polymorph or Paralysation), Stone (petrification, or having rocks bunged at you?), Dragon Breath and Staves and Spells (a Stave, you will note, is differentiated from a Wand… so the length of the wizard’s staff is what matters, not the knob on the end?).

I’ve always been very fond of the saving throw as a concept. It enables GMs to sprinkle all sorts of lethality throughout their creations, safe in the knowledge that there’s always a throw of the die there to save the unwary, inept or unfortunate player character, and that that throw of the die isn’t dependent on a finite resource (cf. the Storytelling System’s Willpower, WFRP’s Fate Points or AFF’s Luck). What I’m not fond of is the slightly arbitrary dividing up of different saves vs. different things here; I prefer the d20 system’s generic Reflex, Will or Fortitude saves over these, and what I really prefer is a ‘save with stat’ system where the character has one Saving Throw and the player gets to add (or take away) a modifier from their roll to make that save based off whatever stat they’re using to save with (so a save with DEX is an attempt to dodge, while a save with CHA is laughing off a bad joke in the dwarf king’s court). But that’s enough about my house rules – you didn’t come here for me to anatomise those, right?

So much for hitting things. Now on to something which people either love or hate about D&D – the magic.

D&D’s magic is heavily informed by the fiction of Jack Vance – it’s from him that we derive the idea that spells need to be impressed on a wizard’s mind before they go off to adventure (indeed, the Vancian magician doesn’t even take a spellbook on his travels – such things being too valuable to risk, the wizard memorises as many as possible and trusts that those will do the job until they’re back in their mansion again), and the approximate ‘levelling’ of spells (though Vance suggests that there are only greater and lesser spells, and that even the lesser spells might be perilous things indeed).

D&D’s take on this is to suggest that a wizard of a given level can memorise X number of level 1 spells, Y number of level 2 spells and so on and so forth up to six. The level 1s are quietly useful things like Detect Magic, Hold Portal, Light, Charm Person and Sleep; the level 2s are mostly innocuous except for Knock, which makes a mockery of lockpicks, and Continual Light, which should totally revolutionise a world in which it exists since it offers fuel-free lighting once imbued into an object. It’s not until we get to third level spells (only accessible once one’s Magic-User character has five levels of experience) that we start seeing flight, fireballs, lightning bolts and waving thrown objects out of the air. The sixth level spells, which are inaccessible from single-digit-levelled Magic-users, include things like ‘Reincarnation’ and ‘Death’, just to give an idea of how epic things are up there. And later editions felt compelled to make up another three levels of magic…

By comparison, Clerics are pretty sensible; they have five spell levels, many of which have similar “hang on, if people can do this then why hasn’t it changed the world” knock-on effects, but fortunately those don’t start appearing until the third or fourth spell level and the answer is simply “most priests are not adventurers and so don’t have class levels, and very few of THOSE live long enough to learn these spells”.

The other thing Clerics can do is turn away undead; there’s another matrix for this, with various types of monster (Skeletons are easily turned, Vampires very hard) cross-referenced with Cleric levels (annoyingly referred to by name rather than level number – all the levels have a cheery little descriptor like ‘Acolyte’ or ‘Curate’ or ‘Lama’, and these are both eccentric in their ordering and mildly unhelpful when one just needs to cross-reference at speed). Cross-referencing gives you either a number to roll on 2d6 in order to turn the monster away or an automatic effect that effects 2d6 undead monsters (they’ll either be auto-turned, auto-destroyed, or totally unconcerned). Skeletons can be auto-turned by even a second-level Cleric, while Vampires are laughing at anyone below level 7. Curiously, evil Clerics don’t get to do the same thing to… whatever the opposite of the Undead are, which I find curiously lacking. You’d think there’d be more of a perk for following evil gods than trading in all your healing spells for things that can hurt people (though the Finger of Death is kinda groovy – it’s a ‘save or die’ point-click-delete spell that replaces Raise Dead for evil Clerics). Note also that this is the first hint that Good and Evil really matter here – it’s been all Law and Chaos so far in, and now suddenly there’s this new moral axis to deal with. I can’t cope!

Characters can also make up their own spells, at an astronomical cost in research materials. 2000 gold pieces per level of the spell you wish to create, and that buys you a 20% chance of succeeding. If you want to be ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN of making up that new first-level spell, that’s 10,000 gold pieces… and it still won’t be as good as Continual Light.

And that’s the end of Dungeons and Dragons Book One, Men and Magic. What happens next is up to you. I’m perfectly willing to mount an assault on Book Two (Monsters and Treasure), or if you’ve had enough of this tedious wittering, we can lay siege to some other system next week.

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