Monday 21 May 2018

Surprised and Confused

In Conclusion

This turned into a long look at how surprise has worked through the early editions in order to try to fix the mess that later AD&D surprise became, so I decided to put the conclusion first so it’s easy to refer back to.

So what’s the fix? Quite simply, to go back to the original idea of the surprise die indicating both surprise and range, with “complete surprise” being the case where melee can start without any closing of range. Literally “in your face” in the case of the catoblepas and some other monsters.

I don’t want to simply go back to OD&D, however. Many players feel that multiple surprise segments is a core feature of AD&D and so I want to retain that. But I do want to get away from the idea that anything can cause an adventuring PC to be unable to react for half a minute or more.

The proposal is:

  1. Each party rolls for surprise (usually on 1d6).
    1. If surprise exists, individuals modify this rolled “surprise number”:
      1. Unencumbered figures may apply any reaction bonus.
      2. All figures apply any reaction penalties.
      3. Figures with heavy gear get +1 to their surprise number.
      4. Figures who are encumbered get +2 to their surprise number.
    2. A modified score of 0 or less is un-surprised.
    3. A modified score of 1 is surprise.
    4. A modified score of 2 or more is complete surprise.
    5. If no one is surprised after these modifications, then it is a standard encounter at normal ranges.
  2. Surprised creatures are “frozen” for one segment.
  3. Completely surprised creatures are “frozen” for two segments. If one is holding a crossbow of speed, it fires in the second segment.
  4. The less surprised (un- Vs surprised or completely; surprised Vs completely) figures have automatic initiative on the first immediately following combat round. If both sides are equally surprised then there is no initiative advantage.
  5. If all the members of a party have the same score then that modified score is used to determine the party level of surprise and encounter range. Otherwise, range is determined based on the party die roll (and maximum available space, of course):

    Party A Party B Effect Range
    Unsurprised Unsurprised None, proceed to 1st round. Normal
    Unsurprised Surprised B immobile for 1seg; A gains initiative 3”
    Unsurprised Completely B immobile for 2seg A gains initiative 1-3”, at A’s choice
    Surprised Surprised 1seg wasted 2”
    Surprised Completely A: 1seg wasted; B: 2segs 1”
    Completely Completely 2seg wasted 1”

If any opposing figures are not surprised then any “frozen” segments are part of any combat round which is engaged in by those unsurprised figures.

Notice that this already allows for the possibility that a surprised party will receive three sets of attacks before being able to answer back, so I don’t think there’s any need for a “3 segment cap”.

Note roundup

These notes are in priority order where there is a clash - so #3 can not override #1, for example.

  1. Monks above second level can never be completely surprised by anything.
  2. Piercers only ever surprise, they never completely surprise no matter what penalties the target has. This is more to do with their need for a ranged attack than the level of shock they create.
  3. Aerial Servants which are not detected always gain complete surprise without a roll; otherwise normal rolling is done based on a chance of 1-4 on d6.
  4. Quiet things grant +1 to the chance of surprising others. Quiet things include undead, bugbears, hobbits or elves in non-metalic armour, rangers, golems, cats of any kind. Some of these are already noted in the books, some are not.
    • A party only gains these bonuses if all the members qualify. There’s no use a ranger and a hobbit sneaking about if they have a donkey tapdancing on the stone floor.
  5. Modifiers to the chance to surprise others are cumulative only insofar that they reflect different advantages. Being silent is one advantage; being hidden is another. Hiding in shadows while invisible is a single advantage. As a specific example, an elven thief hiding in the shadows of a forest surprises on 1-4, not 1-5. In effect the hiding in shadows is assumed as part of the elven ability to blend into woods. Monsters appear to have slightly different rules, but PCs generally can only get +2 to their chance to surprise.
  6. A party with any members with a reduction in chance to be surprised gains the best such reduction.
  7. Surprise reduced from 1 in 6 goes to 1 in 8, then 1 in 10, 1 in 12, 1 in 20. In the opposite direction, 5 in 6 goes to 7 in 8, to 9 in 10 etc.
  8. When encountering settlements, and fortresses use the standard rules on DMG p182-183.
  9. Wilderness encounters with surprise are as per general encounters (1-3”).
  10. Wilderness encounters without surprise are as per DMG p49.
  11. Ruins are spotted at 1d10 half miles if no surprise; and 1-3” if the party is surprised. This score is shared by any monsters within.

The Problem

On the surface of it, surprise is a very straight-forward mechanism in AD&D: when any encounter happens each side rolls a d6; on a 1 or 2 they (not the opponent) are surprised and spend that many segments in a state of basic helplessness as they fumble or drop weapons or what have you.

Characters with low dexterity are not surprised more often, but instead take longer to recover if they are; high dexterity is the same, not reducing the incidence but improving recovery time. There is a slight asymmetry in that high dexterity can eliminate recovery time, so in a practical sense the high dex character is actually surprised less often.

This basic system is then absolutely screwed up even at this early stage by the sort of over-explanation that melee weapons Vs spells suffers from. Because, the above is all you really need to know and it is a simple and obvious consequence of these rules that if a PC walks around a corner and meets an orc and both roll 2 for surprise then the net effect is that both are helpless for 12 seconds but unable to exploit their opponent’s state, while being surprised for 1 segment against an opponent spending 2 segments fumbling gives you one segment to act.

Sadly, it was decided to spell this out in gruesome detail which (aside from a misprint in early printings, which didn’t help) gave the impression that the DM was supposed to subtract actual time spans from each other, leaving a muddle about what happens when two parties are surprised but one or more extreme-dexterity individuals do not share the result of their companions.

So: the first rule of surprise club is that surprise is measured in segments and you never, ever subtract one side or individual’s surprise from another. If I wait for ten minutes and you wait for 15, that doesn’t somehow mean that you only have to wait for five minutes.

But, sadly, things did not rest even there. That 1-2 on d6 has some exceptions even in the days of MM/PHB/DMG AD&D. For one, elves surprise on 1-4 on d6 when in natural surroundings. For another, rangers are only surprised on a 1 on d6.

Now, the elves are a problem. Because each segment of surprise allows an unsurprised opponent a full rounds’ worth of attacks. And four rounds of attacks is deadly. Those elves could be 7th level fighters, so they get 6 attacks in that time. Given that this is all down to basically pure luck, that’s a very big advantage, and if you have a dexterity penalty then leaving the house is basically suicide.

You're surprised for...4 days!

It gets worse. Later monsters introduced different dice, and eventually we have the example of the greenhag from MMII who can attack from invisibility, gaining surprise on 1-19 on d20. Strictly speaking, that’s a potential 19 rounds’ worth of attacks from a 9HD monster with 2 attacks per round - against AC -5 she’ll do an average of 71¼ damage!

Additional complications include what to do about a ranger’s implied -1 to surprise when faced by such a monster. Do we say that the greenhag surprises a ranger on 1-18? Big deal! Note that the DMG specifically rules out the alternative suggestion made by some that we treat the ranger’s bonus as a 50% modifier, which would reduce the greenhag to surprising on 1-10 (and only doing an average of 136hp damage to an unarmoured opponent).

There are various monsters which surprise on x on d8 and d10 floating around too.

What a mess.

How it was in the old days

So, how did we get here? That’s a multi-stage process.


The very first published version of D&D included surprise. In book three (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures) surprise is introduced as a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6 and it states that the existence of surprise indicates that encounter distance is between 10 and 30 feet.

The primary effect of surprise is to grant “a free move segment, whether to flee, cast a spell, or engage in combat” (my bold).

In addition, the surprise roll is referred to as the “surprise distance determination die” with a roll of 2 indicating a distance of 10 feet.

At this point I’m going to get controversial. The normal belief is that melee range in D&D is 3”, because that’s what it was in Chainmail. However, Book III of D&D contradicts this once in plain language and once more by implication, in both cases when dealing with surprise. The first is when describing surprise distance in the wilderness: the statement is made that a range of 10 yards (1”) will enable a monster to attack. Under the 3” rule, this would be a redundant statement since the surprise range is between 10 and 30 feet - all of which would be in Chainmail’s melee range. The second case is in the primary discussion of surprise in the underworld where surprise is described as being an opportunity to close distance and also the encounter example which continues from determining a range of 10’ (1”) to the wyvern attacking as if there were a connection. I believe that these passages were written with a 1” melee range, the same as AD&D, in mind. This becomes more important later.

In addition to granting one “free move” having surprise also grants initiative on the first round of combat (a rule that is referenced in DMG without any real explanation).

There are no rules given for both sides being surprised but it’s not hard to imagine that the expectation was that the DM would count this as a cancelling out. Since there was only one segment of action possible, there was no real need to go into any detail.


Greyhawk introduced nothing new except for the bugbear, who surprises parties 16⅔% more often (in one sense, in another 50% more often). In other words, they surprise on a 1-3.

Notice that this has no real problematic aspects in the rules as stated so far. There’s still only two questions being answered by the surprise roll:

  1. Does either side get a surprise bonus move?
  2. If so, are they in melee range to attack?

As before, if both sides are surprised then there’s just a general fumbling about and then combat proceeds as usual. Some surprise is still all surprise and we can probably assume that a roll of 3 from the bugbear means that it’s in melee range, just as a 2 did for the wyvern. The binary nature of both surprise and melee range means there are no questions about being very surprised compared to only slightly surprised.

Although thieves are introduced in Greyhawk, the only mechanical application of their ability to move silently is to allow them to make a backstab attack.

The guy at the bottom is still not
completely surprised


Blackmoor does very little about surprise except for one paragraph in the introductory material dealing with monks, which are a new class based on the Destroyer books of Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir.

  • Third-level monks, it says, are surprised only on a 1 on d6.
  • Fifth-level monks are surprised on a 1 in 8.
  • Seventh and higher level monks are surprised on a 1 in 10.

It seems from this that a 3rd or higher level monk can not find themselves in a surprise situation where their opponent is in melee range unless they have the advantage (i.e., that is indicated by the opponent’s die). This situation is still not a complication, however because both parties are still surprised equally, in terms of time.

The paragraph (still dealing specifically with monks) goes on to note that “extremely silent creatures will double surprise possibilities, i.e., halflings, thieves, bugbears, and undead”.

In the context of a monk who has a 1 in x chance of being surprised, doubling the chance is the same as saying that the monster increases the chance by +1 - so 1-2 on d6 or 1-2 on d8 etc. Which fits what we were told in Greyhawk about bugbears but is innovative here, as far as I can see, in extending this to thieves and so forth.

Nothing in the text implies that this +1 to surprise is extended to situations not involving monks, but I think that’s logical in the same way that I assume that the thieves in question must have rolled a successful move silently check.

Eldritch Wizardry

EW took a look at the whole question of initiative which had been studiously ignored in D&D up to this point, with DMs assumed to have cobbled together something based on Chainmail’s Man-to-Man Combat section. As well as being incredibly opaque it introduced many key concepts such as segments and (implied) spell casting time and the surprise die as a number of rounds of free attacks. It may also hold the seed of a mistake.

EW tried to create a individual clockwork initiative system whereby the round was divided into segments and each combatant would be assigned an attack rhythm within that round which would essentially repeat from one round the next, at least as long as they fought the same opponent with the same means.

On the initial round of combat, surprise was used to modify this system and the notes on the tables involved included the statement that “complete surprise is basically a die of 2 when checking” (EW p6).

So you're saying...what exactly?

To throw another spanner into the works there is also a note that says that “surprise is basically a die 1 when checking, or a die 2 in those cases where the creature in question is difficult to surprise and has only a 1 in 6 chance of being surprised” (my ephasis).

The implication of this last statement is that in the EW system the chance of being surprised is 2 in 6 for everyone and the effect of being hard to surprise is just that you don’t suffer the penalties for complete surprise. It’s pretty weird if it’s not a typo.

Anyway, we are also told that “If surprised lose the 1st segment on a die roll of 1 and the 1st and 2nd on a die roll of 2”. This seems to mean that you lose your first one or two attacks, in the context. And another way of looking at that is that the opponent gets one or two rounds of attacks free of reply. Sound familiar?

And note the phrasing: the text does not say that a character that rolled 2 missed 2 attacks because he was completely surprised. This creates a dangerous link between the number on the die and the length of time a character is unable to fight back. EW never considers the possibility that a surprise die might be 3 or more - much more.

My suspicion is that Tim Kask (who wrote the EW initiative system) was simply carrying on the previous tradition of surprise starting either outside of melee or within melee, and that was the distinction between plain surprise and complete surprise with no further consideration given to higher values.

But by not saying “If surprised lose the 1st segment and the 1st and 2nd if completely surprised” he unwittingly left the door open to 19 attacks from greenhags etc.


  • The Monster Manual

    No further tweaks were made in official supplements to normal combat before the Monster Manual came out. So, what initiative system was assumed to be in play for MM?

    It’s very hard to tell. I believe that Gygax never even considered using the EW system - he simply wasn’t that mad - and that it died a quick death just like the hit location system of Blackmoor (which, to be fair to Kask, was actually worse).

    Orcus is listed as having a tail which strikes as if 18 Dex, but this could either look back to the “adjusted dexterity” system in EW, or it could look ahead to the AD&D system where high dexterity grants bonuses to both surprise and ranged attacks (which the long tail might be seen as).

    There are several references to “complete surprise” in the MM and also in PHB and DMG. That’s an interesting clue as it suggests that even when Gygax had definitively abandoned EW’s system (which he had by PHB where he had gone back to a foundation in Chainmail with its weapon factors and first strike rules, even though he had not yet formulated the final system), he had decided to retain that division.

    In the Monster Manual and PHB we encounter monsters and characters gaining surprise on 1-4 on d6.

    Piercers have a 95% chance of surprise.

  • DMG

    With DMG we finally got the official word that surprise was the number on the die, even if it was a 4, and no explanation of what “complete surprise” actually was, despite the fact that whatever it was it gave you a bonus in various situations (or a penalty, if on the receiving end).

    As far as I can see, Gygax’s next step was to forget all about this and go back to pre-EW days, at least as far as initiative and surprise was concerned.

    There was never a single official explanation or expansion of the initiative and surprise rules in Gygax-period Dragon magazine. Nothing. The world of AD&D DMs and players was baffled by the presentation of the rules yet this was never addressed in over 100 issues of the in-house organ.

    The simple reason was that Gary was as ignorant of the DMG initiative rules as he was of the falling damage rules. He continued to play to the rules in his head, leaving the formal rules for people who wanted to play in tournaments. It’s entirely possible that Gary didn’t even write the DMG rules, just as “Gygax & Blume” had not written the system in EW. No one else has admitted responsibility, however.

    The DMG combat rules were certainly not well proof-read in any case, with dead-end cross-references and a table explaining surprise which had a hideous error in it (to say nothing of the screeds of combat examples in PHB and DMG which simply didn’t match up to the rules given).

    As Gary went on creating monsters, he retained the distinction between surprise and complete surprise in his head but nothing much else. So, even in the MMII we find several new monsters still referring to complete surprise alongside monsters that cause crazy numbers.

    Like Kask before him, Gary simply didn’t think about the consequences of making that link between the number on the die and the number of segments of free attacks and largely acted as if it didn’t exist. Because, I suggest, that link did not exist for him.

    So, what to do about all this? Go back to the top of this document to see.

Saturday 19 May 2018

Spell: Dream Quest

Philippe Druillet

Dream Quest (Alteration)

level: 7 (I), 9 (MU) Components: V, S, M
Range: Personal Casting Time: 6 turns
Duration: Special Saving Throw: None
Area of Effect: Personal  

Explanation/Description: The illusionist prepares for this spell by burning incense (costing 100gp) and meditating before going to sleep. During the course of the casting, any familiar within 12“ will also fall into a deep sleep. The spell may only be cast on a plane which touches the Ethereal Plane - the various material planes, the elemental planes, and any demi-plane created within the ethereal plane.

Once asleep (at the end of the casting time), the caster will find themselves lying on their bed (or whatever) on the ethereal plane and will be able to rise and move about on that plane. The only possessions they will have will be the equivalent of what they were wearing when the spell was cast. The spell can not be cast while wearing or holding enough to encumber the caster at all.

If a familiar was within range, it too will be active on the plane so long as it remains within 12“ at all times thereafter.

Magical items taken to the ether in this way are unlikely to work unless they originate from one of the Inner Planes. For each item not so sourced, the caster must make a saving throw against spells modified by their wisdom Magical Attack adjustment. Artefacts and relics will always work, although their characteristics may alter (perhaps radically) at the DM’s discretion.

Magical weapons and armour will normally operate at one plus less than normal unless cursed. Again, items from the Inner Planes will not lose their enchantment and may even gain.

The spellcaster must choose a destination as part of the casting process and the spell will take them there using the normal procedure for ethereal travel (i.e., check three times for encounters at start, middle, and end portions of the journey). However, the chance of actually arriving in the correct location depends, like teleport on the familiarity of that location:

Familiarity Illusionist Magic User
Very Familiar 5 5
Studied Carefully 6 6
Seen Casually 7 8
Viewed Once 8 10
Never Seen 12 16

The number indicated or higher must be rolled (by the DM) on 1d20, modified by magical attack adjustment. If a lower score is produced, then the traveller arrives in some other location. It is not possible to give exact details since the intended destination could be anywhere on any world or plane which touches the Ethereal Plane but in general the longer the journey from the caster’s location and the larger the margin of failing the roll, then the greater the error. Thus, if the spell was cast in an inn near a castle the user was intending to spy on, and which they had studied carefully on a previous occasion, a score of 3 might indicate only that they arrived in a forest near the castle. If the castle had been in an alternative reality, then s/he may have arrived on a different parallel world where it might not be initially obvious that anything had gone awry. Similarly, if the destination had never been seen by the caster, such a roll could indicate arrival almost anywhere.

Additionally, travel on the ethereal plane is akin to travelling quickly through a fog; it is not teleportation. Barriers may be erected on the plane itself to prevent “normal” ethereal travel. This may create additional, non-random, encounters, particularly at pylons or similar structures around domains if the caster's destination is within an area dominated by some powerful entity.

The caster’s perception of any plane, including their own, from the Ethereal will be of psychic impressions only - living things will appear like ghosts, with higher intellects being more life-like and animals as little more than shades of colours with little form. Spells like wizard eye or clairvoyance can be cast from the dream form to allow perception of an adjacent plane. Notice that most normal types of shielding against such spells (metal sheeting, for example) will not prevent entry of the ethereal caster.

Contact other plane may be cast from the ether, in which case any appeal to the elemental planes has half the normal chance of insanity (after Int modifiers).

By and large, however, the sights of the ethereal plane for the dreamer will be those native to it, with the addition that other dreams will be visible when near creatures engaged in sleeping and dreaming. These dream-forms may be interacted with but they will generally exhibit dream-logic and only the most intelligent such dreamer will be able to act sensibly and with planning. Even these, however, will seem insubstantial and ghostly. The only exceptions to this will be other users of the spell, certain psionic individuals, and the insane.

The dreams of the insane will always manifest in a substantial form on the ethereal. This does not apply to mild forms of insanity (see DMG p83).

Once the character has reached his or her intended destination, s/he may choose to awaken at any point or continue on to a new destination on the ethereal realm. In any other case, return from the dream state may be difficult or impossible. Any attack on the dream-self which causes damage or results in a failed saving throw (such failure may not be deliberate) will allow the character to make a roll of 3d6 to attempt to awaken - if the result is less than their intelligence score, then they succeed.

The only other way to wake up is to “die” in the dream state, but this is dangerous to the character’s mind. Being reduced to exactly zero hit points will awaken the dreamer with only a mild shock requiring bed rest for a day. Being reduced below zero causes shock akin to a psionic blast. The character must save as if the blast was at short range (with the usual modifiers, and +3 for illusionists), and if that fails they must roll for the effect as normal. However, both save and effect are made as if the character’s wisdom and intelligence total was reduced by the amount by which they went below zero hit points.

In any case, being taken below zero hit points increases the amount of bed rest needed by days equal to the excess damage, i.e., a character struck by a fireball and reduced to -6 will require a full week before being able to do anything more strenuous than walking to the privy and back (initially they will need help even with that).

No dream-damage will otherwise be reflected on the character’s real body.

Marvan the Miraculous (Int 17, Wis 13) has entered the dreamlands and there encountered a rakshasa. In the resulting fracas he is reduced to -5 hit points. His saving throw is made as if his combined score was 25, although he gets +3 to the die due to being an illusionist. On rolling a 6, he must roll on the effects table. A score of 98 causes him to awaken in a panic state for 2d4 rounds, at the end of which he collapses in a state of exhaustion and will require 6 days rest.

Any normal attempt to awaken the sleeper on their home plane will be futile, although any damage done there will be reflected in the dream-state and that may have the desired effect.

However, time on the Ethereal Plane passes differently - roll d100 each time the spell is used to find the ratio between the planes. Thus, a roll of 34 means that every 34 minutes, hours, days or whatever in the ether will represent only one such unit on the original material plane of the sleeping body.

Finally, each full (real-world) day spent in the dream state will reduce the character’s level by one (until rested) and at level zero there is a 10% chance per day, cumulative, that the physical body will die, and the dreamer with it.

The Dream Lands

The ethereal plane is inhabited by many strange beings, demons, devils, druids, forgotten or shunned gods, and travellers from unknown worlds and alternative realities. Although it is influenced by the material planes where they are close by, the nature of reality in the ether means that it may contain many strange things unbound by any material physics. Although many who pass through it view it only as a means of transport, it truely is the realm of dreams and, of course, nightmares.

Some inhabitants are entirely disinterested in the material realms, as most denizens of they are of it, and some such as the nighthags use it as a fishing hole for prey. Dream empires exist which defy comprehension, while a few insane or gifted poets have woven new hells and paradises to explore.

Wednesday 16 May 2018


Here's some pictures I took at the British Museum one lunch time in 2015. They're all reconstructions of ancient Athenian statues of their patron deity, the great Athena. The golden statue is based on the work of Phidias for the Parthenon and is called Athena Lemnia, which is now lost but known from copies of varying ages and certainty. The purpose of this (and the other statue below) was to give some idea of how these works would have looked when new. Marble was painted and bronze gilded or polished to a high shine, with glass for the eyes. In fact, the eyes were the most striking aspect of the first statue and the second photo only hints at the life-like quality of the statue's gaze.

Both statues show the goddess wearing her aegis, a sort of shawl with snake heads attached (and the head of Medusa embedded on it too, on the first statue. In the second example it's on her shield). The Phidias version has the snakes almost as broaches around the edge and they're easy to miss, especially when distracted by what is certainly a great evocation of what I suppose is the supernal origin of the goddess. If it wasn't so golden it would be a superbly realistic creation in bronze and it's easy to see why later generations would assume that the Greek masters "cheated" and used casting of living people.

Naturally enough, the Christians despised it in much the same way that they hated anything bright or positive and it was destroyed, probably in the orgy of book-burning and murder which led us into the Dark Ages in the name of the Prince of Peace.

But I digress. The second statue is based on a marble original and is a good deal less sophisticated, suggesting that the arrival 40 years later of Phidias must have been something of a revolution on the Acropolis. However, the very primitiveness of the pose makes the aegis much more prominent and its purpose as something to be thrust into the face of attackers, human or giant, more obvious. And of course the colour is striking. The museum notice said that the white areas were thought to be unpainted but it's hard to believe that there wasn't some skin tone applied. Phidias is mentioned by Himerios as having applied blush to Athena's cheek and the stark contrast between the coloured aegis and the white skin really cries out for it, IMO.

The so-called "Golden Age" of Athens was no such thing, in basic human terms. Inequality was worse than anything Donald Trump could wish for, with slavery a routine part of life while the elites of the city had no need to physically exert themselves except for that other stain on their world: constant and never-ending war and it's peaceful equivalent of politics. Alternative facts were the coin of the political classes and Athen's democracy was repeatedly undermined and subverted by lies and plain old misconceptions - to accuse was all to often to condemn, and Phidias - possibly the greatest artist we know of before the renaissance - was ultimately accused of a highly unlikely crime and exiled. During his exile, towards the end of his 60 years he created his masterpiece and one of the Wonders of the World: the statue of Zeus at Olympia. This the Christians destroyed too but for once art defeated pig-ignorance and Phidias's evocation of the ultimate deity was too strong to resist and the face of the master-sculptor's Zeus became the model for the equally mythical Jesus, and his flowing locks, beard and moustache can be seen in billions of images around the world to this day. So, that's some consolation, I guess.