Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "Sticks, Stones, and Bones"

I fear that it will seem as if I have a special dislike for articles by Stephen Inniss, since, a little over a month ago, I had some harsh words about another one of his articles, there's good reason for this fear. This time, Mr Inniss provides us with a lengthy article -- and tables -- to aid the referee in dealing with "improvised and impromptu weapons." Published in issue #97 (May 1985), "Sticks, Stones, and Bones" is intended to fill in what the author deems a significant lacuna in AD&D's rules. He explains his purposes better than I ever could:
The Players Handbook lists more than forty different weapon types, covering nearly every combat weapon invented before the gun. Doubtless, those that haven't yet been detailed will be added as the scope of the AD&D game system increases, but a whole area of armed combat has yet to be touched on: the game has no rules for the combat use of items which aren't designed to be weapons. In fact, so great has been the concentration on designed weapons that even the commonplace rock has been ignored in the official tables.
One wonders how AD&D players survived for so many years without official stats for the commonplace rock! If that sounds unbearably sarcastic, my apologies; it's just that I find it difficult to imagine that any referee or player would be the least bit bothered that Gary Gygax had omitted to include rules for rocks in his Players Handbook. Indeed, the entire notion that referees might need a six-page article with ten different tables to adjudicate a character picking up a broken bottle to use in a bar fight strikes me as absurd. And yet that's exactly what we get. The author even provides a separate table specifically for "rock-like items," so that the referee can properly distinguish between bricks and whetstones, saucepans and skillets.
Am I being too harsh here? I don't think so. Certainly I understand that a player might wish, in the course of play, to have his character employ an unconventional weapon and in such a case the referee would need to come up with some statistics for that weapon. That's what a referee does, right? However, given the large number of weapons already described in AD&D, how hard would it be to find a rough and ready equivalent rather than having recourse to several new tables just to determine that, say, a chamberpot does 1-2 points of damage per hit?

36 comments:

  1. Perhaps we see here the loss as it was happening of the expectation of the ability  of DMs to just "wing it" and TSR's drive to provide more all-encompassing rules.  Your scorn is justified I think.  When I was reading your comments about the brick, I thought to myself that I would roll 1-2 points of damage. 

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  2. Is that a full chamberpot, or an empty? Splash effects? Pc phobias or saving throws vs nausea? The possibilities are endless! ;-)

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  3. I think an unofficial Dragon magazine article is the perfect place to explore this kind of question. I think the real problem is that this simple idea got blown out of proportion. This probably wouldn't be that bad an article if it were 1 page long and included a couple of simple guidelines for the referee.

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  4. Speaking as someone who has edited a professional gaming magazine for 12+ years (!!!!!), I have great empathy for the voracious pit that is a periodical. In this case, Dragon had dozens of pages to fill every month... and it's not the sort of thing where you can go, "Well, we don't have enough top-notch awesome articles for this month, so we'll just push back this issue by a month or two until we do."

    Now, that may raise the question of whether there was enough good material to justify a monthly magazine, but obviously it sold well enough that TSR likely believed it to be the case.

    I don't remember seeing this article the first time, but speaking from the point of view of my 11-year-old self (May 1985), I think I would've been excited to see an article like this. "You mean, if I decide to pick up a rock and hit someone, there are real rules I can use?!  Awesome!" (I think part of the appeal of the game to my young self was that there were rules for adjudicating oddball situations; if most of the game degenerates to GM Fiat, how different is it from playing Cops & Robbers or Calvinball with neighborhood kids?)

    I'm not saying I'd agree with my young self, but I can certainly understand the reasoning... and I remember that a magazine has to try to keep as many fanbases happy as it can.

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  5. Yeesh. The only thing positive I can say here is that many times, given a makeshift weapon, I and others would tend to overvalue the damage on the fly. Like: 1d6 for a rock or saucepan of water, and I agree it should really be less, like 1-2 or 1-3. That could be a worthwhile observation, but in the earliest Dragon issues it wouldn't be even one page -- it would be a single paragraph on a 1/4 page block (or less).

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  6. I think that the fact that AD&D had fairly complicated combat rules (that most people ignored!) naturally led to things like this. As I prepare to run AD&D largely RAW (some house rules are inevitable, like the execrable weaponless combat rules or making sense of segments and weapon speed), I find that I don't want to, say, come up with the weapon vs. armor type modifiers for improvised weapons, and think that article will be an excellent source for having those already made for me.

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  7. These rules are of absolutely no use to me as I attempt to adjudicate a sorority pillow fight.  Is Dragon magazine still accepting unsolicited manuscripts?

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  8. These rules are of absolutely no use to me as I attempt to adjudicate a sorority pillow fight. Is Dragon magazine still accepting unsolicited manuscripts?

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  9. I agree. It seems to me ideal as an article concept, but given players are resourceful
    enough to go beyond the objects listed even here, the article can only really be another limited patch. Why not simply offer suggestions for universal or near-universal approaches to the problem? Two good answers are given in the comment Steven
    Marsh makes - filling space and the variety of fanbases.





    I think the real issue here is the nature of the objects listed, and the way
    they could suggest to the reader the nature of the world the reader's
    group ought to be playing in. Not every game world has or needs nightstands, pans or bricks, or even firewood. Any specific range seems likely to set limits on the imagination, intentionally or not.

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  10. I don't see what the problem is. All of those rules were OPTIONAL rules. Nobody was forced to use em.

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  11. Well said, Steven.

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  12. One of my players took weapon proficiency in barstool  since we had so many bar fights in the campaign and it was the weapon he deployed the most with success.
    As I recall it was treated as a club with little worry. "Official" stats would have been great...  ;-)

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  13. I've written more than one "filler" article for publication before, fortunately not for RPGs, but I imagine the process is similar: start with a reasonable question ("How to handle unconventional weapons?") and then start to create details.

    If he was pre-assigned a word-count or page-count, his objective expands accordingly. If he was not, he just goes off on a tangent: a thought experiment is expressed in writing, and then that writing is monetized.  A six-pager pays more than a two-pager.

    Rocks, chairs, torches, etc. do make for strange weapons in AD&D, particularly when it comes to damage. In the old days, I can remember a few instances where there was an argument over whether a burning log did double damage on a natural twenty (and if the fire did automatic extra damage, non-automatic extra damage, or was just included in the damage) even with the the "to hit" penalty, for example.  I too, recall (not in detail) certain "stupid" weapons that unintentionally became too useful until the DM changed the damage.

    An article on the fuzziness of unconventional weapons would be interesting, but there really was never a need for anything but the referee to stop allowing weird things to "break" the game. We did very little common rock warfare, but I'm pretty sure we just did damage like a sling, but with a gigantic to hit penalty. Not that difficult.

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  14. "Adjudicate"!?!?  There are NO losers when there is a sorority pillow fight.

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  15. Hot liquids are kind of super-weapons.

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  16. We must've ignored this one at the time. I can't imagine me using it in a game, even in my "crunchiest" phase as a GM. But, regarding the author, he may well have been fulfilling a request from the editor. If Innis was a regular freelancer at the time, the editor may well have contacted him and said "Hey, can you give me X-number of words on improvised weapons? We have some space to fill in an upcoming issue." (And a question, if Mr. Innis happens to read this: Did you ever use these rules in your game? ;) )

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  17. All of those things are clubs.  Simple.

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  18. The problem is that the author was an obvious idiot.

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  19. "I think that the fact that AD&D had fairly complicated combat rules (that most people ignored!) naturally led to things like this."

    Maybe the fact that most people were ignoring large portions of the existing rules should have served as a signal NOT to add any more?

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  20. Well, just because he wrote a article giving us more features for AD&D makes him an idiot?

    And what *would* a "sane" person care for in your opinion? Maybe creating the uptenth dungeon adventure, giving us the same old, same old, yet calling itself creative?

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  21. Didn't you understand how DRAGON articles work?

    Unless otherwise specified, all rules add-ons were OPTIONAL stuff. They could be used or ignored, at the DM's discretion.

    Now of course, if somebody would mindlessly use everything from DRAGON, allow classes explicitely specified as NPC CLASSES for his PCs, and just use all magic items etc from DRAGON without using his brains by engaging in selecting some of them rather than just gobble up all of it, than I can understand why so many dweebs whine about "rules bloat" supposedly caused by DRAGON.

    But it's their fault. DRAGON offered OPTIONAL additional features. How (and if) they were used is solely the discretion of the DM. People NEED to be able to think for themselves, after all.

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  22. Peter V. Dell'OrtoApril 10, 2012 at 7:16 PM

    I think you're being a bit harsh. Extensive stats for improvised weapons is bad in a system with extensive rules for weapons vs. AC and weapon speed and a big bunch of polearms all with their own stats? It's perhaps more detail than you need on this subject, but AD&D is chock full of more detail than people needed on other things.

    I think this article wasn't great, but it's not bad just because of it's topic of coverage. It wasn't great because it was unwieldy in actual play (and I tried to use bits of it). And Dragon was full of optional rules and house rules and variations from issue #1 on . . . I think it's fine to say "I wouldn't use this" but this type of article is 100% fine with me. Different strokes and all.

    My real question with this article is, was this stuff that this guy needed in his own gaming? I'm always curious how house rules worked out in the play that inspired them.

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  23. Apparently, the Shadow...

    ...does NOT know!

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  24. Ha!  How quaint!

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  25. William WueppelmannApril 10, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    Remember that a new issue of Dragon had to come out each and every month; not just whenever enough insightful material had been accumulated to warrant a new issue. Looking back through issues of Dragon and comparing it to other magazines with a similar publication schedule, I'd have to say the average quality of its articles was comparatively high. Nevertheless, when you have to publish to a schedule, there is bound to be a lot of fluff and at best notionally useful filler.

    However TSR might have marketed it, none of the content of Dragon is vital to running a fulfilling game of D&D. Some of the articles are insightful and provide useful ideas for running a game, but Dragon is primarily a source of entertainment: enjoyable first and foremost as literature and imagination fuel, and incidentally as an instruction manual. (Though I will admit I feel that way about D&D as a whole: actual games were fun, but they never lived up to the promises my imagination made to me after reading the books.)

    By issue #97, you have to expect that most of the obvious and important areas would have been addressed at least once if not multiple times, leaving mostly the obscurae and minutiae, or yet another take on the same thing that has been covered before. But an author can't exactly market his piece as an overly detailed set of rules that are too cumbersome for real play and, in the end, just don't matter that much. I think we need to allow for a bit of hyperbole and self-promotion in this sort of thing. 

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  26. Have you read the article? It's not really so much new rules as a set of resources to be used with the existing rules. That is to say, it's a set of weapon stats for item categories that can be applied to a variety of improvised weapons. It's not a whole new system or anything like that.

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  27. This article doesn't add more "features" or "options".  It just makes fine distinctions between a lot of blunt objects for no good reason.

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  28. I recognize the work of an author with OCD when I see it.  Maybe some people need to learn the difference between chicken salad and the other stuff.

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  29. No one is saying Dragon articles weren't "optional".  Of course no one was FORCED to make use of them.  The point is, if most players were already ignoring the most complicated aspects of combat in the original game (weapon vs. AC, weapon speed, segments, the unspeakable unarmed combat rules) then what was the likelihood anyone would really make use of ten tables to resolve the occasional use of improvised weapons?  Especially since there were very few ways to become disarmed of your regular weapons, making the whole issue almost moot?  Why offer "options" that no one would have been likely to use anyway?  This article seems to reflect some weird obsession of the author more than any attempt to meet player demand or add anything USEFUL to the game...

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  30. What? I didn't say anything about "optional". I said that it was a set of resources, not a set of rules. It's like a list of magic items, spells, or weapons (in fact, it is a list of weapons).

    And some of us did use the weapon vs. armor type tables. Weapon speed factors were more difficult to use, but people frequently found a way to use them (note that Gygax himself did not use them; Gygax also used a different unarmed combat system, which was published in Unearthed Arcana). Segments are necessary for using psionics and spellcasting by the rules in AD&D (though, as you note, many people - but not all of them - skipped over that stuff and did things more freeform).

    So, what I'm saying is that some people would certainly find a use for these new weapon tables. Other people wouldn't. That's the great thing about this world, it has room for all sorts.

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  31. Which is a kind of feature, isn't It? If the difference between between a thrown rock, bottle or wood box doesn't matter, why should the difference between a club and a mace matter?

    And I for one thought it amusing that now there were optional guidlines (sort of) for using all kinds of ordinary items in combat. (Albeit I have a hard time imagining Sturm Brightblade or even King Arthur reaching for their chamber pots, if attacked in their sleeping rooms and being for whatever reason disarmed. Oh, well.)  

    Again, what would YOU suggest as an useful DRAGON article? You know, the kind of articles a "sane" person would write?

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  32. Huh. Seems to me you're more "obsessed" than that writer ever was, going by your calling him explicitly an idiot and implicitly insane...

    Well, I would've ignored weapon speed but would've used the rest of the weapon guidlines from that article.

    As for there being very few ways to get disarmed: There're ALLWAYS ways for a good DM to disarm you, if he wants to.

    What would you consider an "useful" article from DRAGON? Gimme an example.

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  33. Oh, great. That other writer was an idiot and insane (did that make him idiotically insane or insannely idiotic?), and now somebody has OCD.

    Where's a cleric, if you need him?

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  34. Indeed. The DRAGON magazine didn't survive as long as it did because it was TSR's official magazine. It survived because it had stuff for everyone. Even super hero stuff, for a time.

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  35. If I recall this article correctly, throwing pepper in someone's face was a kind of super-weapon, too.  I can't remember if it just blinded your opponent or if it had a Dust of Sneezing and Choking-style effect, but it certainly made me think that adventurers must be stocking up on pepper in that dude's campaign!

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  36. Found the article.  Throwing pepper in someone's eyes required you to hit AC 5, then the target had to save vs. breath weapon or be blinded and unable to cast spells for 2-8 rounds.

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