Thursday, November 25, 2010

Magical Swords In ODnD

Magic swords in Original Dungeons and Dragons were far more potent that most people give them credit.

That is doubly true when using the Chainmail combat rules, rather than the "alternative" (d20) combat system. That alternative, d20 combat system diluted the power of those magic swords, and it, along with the innovation of hit points, were a baleful influence on future versions of D&D.

Remembering that the Chainmail combat rules were ODnD's original, default rules, this quote from Chainmail gives some indication of how magic swords were first viewed by Gygax as he penned ODnD:

"Magic Swords: because these weapons are almost entities in themselves, they accrue real advantage to the figure so armed. In normal combat they merely add an extra die. It is in fantastic combat the magical swords are most potent. Besides allowing Elves to combat certain fantastic figures, they give a plus 1 to the dice score when employing the Fantasy Combat Table, and Magical Swords shed a light of their own over a circle 12" in diameter (6" radius) which dispels darkness but does not equal full light. Excalibur and other 'super swords' would give a plus two or three!"
-- Chainmail, p.38

"Merely" adds an extra die? In mentioning the addition of an extra die, Gygax refers, of course, to the use of d6's, in Chainmail's normal (mass) combat rules, to determine the chance of wounding one's opponent. Using Chainmail's normal (mass) combat rules, and assuming both combatants are "armored footmen", either combatant needs to score a 6, on a single d6, to wound his opponent. The combatant with the magic sword, who adds an extra d6, needs to roll a 6 on either of his 2d6, and therefore has a 31% (11/36) chance of wounding his opponent, while the combatant, without the magic sword, has a 17% (1/6) chance of doing the same.

Put another way, that +1 sword, in ODnD, is actually a +3 sword, if you were to convert the odds of wounding over to the alternative, d20 combat system (you need an 18+ on a d20 without the magic sword, or a 15+ with the magic sword). Add to that, the 3% (1/36) chance that the magic-sword-weilding-combatant will score two wounds, and that humble +1 sword looks potent indeed!

Gygax's reference to the "addition of an extra die in normal combat" is more problematic (and potentially powerful), when you consider its application to Chainmail's man-to-man combat rules. Taking the "addition of an extra die" at face value, you could interpret this to mean you roll 3d6, instead of 2d6, when consulting the man-to-man combat table. Again, assuming the employment of our ubiquitous +1 sword, against an opponent with Plate Armor and a Shield, our odds improve from 11+ on 2d6 (3/36 or 8%) to 11+ on 3d6 (109/216 or 50%).

Again, converting this to the alternative, d20 combat system, that +1 sword actually improves my chances of wounding my opponent, from 19+, to 11+. My +1 sword just became a +8 sword!

Even if you dismiss that extreme interpretation, in favor of a more reasonable +1 to the dice score on the man-to-man table, your run-of-the-mill +1 magic sword is still very potent. Against Plate, your odds of wounding improve from 17% to 28%. Against other types of armor, your odds improve from 42% to 58%. Those odds turn that simple +1 sword into a +2 or +3 sword, when converted to the alternative, d20 combat system.

I see no evidence in ODnD that magic swords were considered to be anything but the puissant and dangerous items suggested by the Chainmail rules. In addition to the above combat bonuses, there was a 50% chance that a magic sword would have sufficient Intelligence to have a Will of its own, which it would attempt to impose upon its wielder:

"Swords: among magic weaponry, swords alone possess certain human attributes. Swords have an alignment, and intelligence factor and an egoism rating .... If the Intelligence/Egoism of the sword is six or more points above that of the character who picks it up, the sword will control the person ...." -- D&D Volume II, Monsters & Treasure, p. 27

This was the case, even of the lowly +1 magic sword. Indeed, those +1 swords had a 50% chance of having some special power, a 25% chance of talking, and 17% chance of reading magic or having some other extraordinary ability.

The most powerful sword bonus in ODnD was +3, and for good reason. A +3 sword would truly have been the equivalent of an Excalibur or Stormbringer, particularly if the sword had high intelligence, ego, and several extraordinary abilities to boot. The dilution of the magic sword, first, by the introduction (without adjustment of the odds) of the alternative, d20 combat system, and second, by the introduction of hit points and accompanying applications of 'bonuses to damage' instead of additional wounds, along with a host of additional features to add "granularity" to D&D, led us to the current morass of +16 Swords of Valiant Smiting and Characters with 40 hit points at first level.


Orion said...

They really do come into their own in the Chainmail combat system. Maybe it's the d20 gamer in me, but I figured that the one extra die in mass combat was for a +1 sword, and that a +2 or +3 sword offered 2 or 3 extra dice, respectively.

Timeshadows said...

I enjoy these sorts of your posts, if for no other reason than to assure me that other gamers think about this sort of stuff, to this degree of detail. :D

Nice analysis, and content I've taken into consideration regarding magic weapons in UWoM.


Rognar said...

Sweet! Where can I get one of those +16 Swords of Valiant Smiting? :D

Ronin78 said...

very interesting indeed. Thanks for this post. Really something to think about.

David J. West said...

Nice pic choice!

The Jovial Priest said...

Great post. Magic glut - hard to resist. I think it begins at Level 1 where a starting character receives 30-180 gold pieces and with this wealth can afford the best non-magical weapons and armor in the game. Plate mail: 50gp OD&D and Holmes, B/X and Mentzer 60gp. Only in AD&D chain mail 75gp, plate mail 400gp.

The first suit of chain mail should be a memorable moment, as should the first time one buys a two-handed sword.

Start your level one characters poor and increase the cost of weapons and armor, then they will appreciate that first +1 sword, whatever its relative merit compared to ChainMail rules, and you will never ever need a +16 Swords of Valiant Smiting.

1d30 said...

Also please note that 3d6 is a curve shaped probability space, 2d6 is a caret-shape, and 1d20 is a straight line. This means a +1 to the roll result means SO MUCH MORE to a 2d or 3d (or 4d, etc) roll than for a 1d roll.

Look at it this way. In 1d20, you need an exact number to hit. Say, 11. That means the sword helps you in that roll only if you roll 10 on the die. If you had rolled 11 or higher, you would have hit anyway. If you roll 9 or lower you would have, and still, miss. The sword helps you only 1 time in 20 (5% of the time).

Then take the 2d6 roll with its middle of 7. In a 2d6 roll, out of 36 rolls, you will probably roll a 7 six times. That means your chance of rolling a 7 is 1 in 6, or 16.6%. So the sword helps you in this case 16.6% of the time.

Of course this helps less at the ends of the curve. If you needed a 12 on 2d6, the sword will help you only 2 times in 36 (on a roll of 11), or 5.5% of the time. Worst-case scenario there, still better than the 1d20. The closer your target number is to the middle bulge of the curve, the more impact your bonus (or penalty!) has.

With a curve roll this also means, strategically, the player is better off striving for a few small bonuses and it's worth less to strive for that last +1. For example, if each +1 bonus costs you 100 resources, you receive more benefit for the first such bonus than the 5th (assuming the target numbers stay within the normal range of 2-12. If the target numbers get well outside that you would want to strive for any bonus you could get).

JB said...

Thanks for this piece of info. Having never owned or read Chainmail, I would have had little idea of this "nerfing;" even when using the LBBs, I've always used the D20 combat system (because I haven't had access to Chainmail).