Friday, February 5, 2016

Magical Skills (Cantrips)

You'll probably want to read this post first, for a little background. Oh...and this little follow-up, too.

"Wizard Week" (apparently) continues here at Ye Olde Blog. Wouldn't say that was my original plan for the week, but I can roll with it. Anyway...

After bitching and moaning about my five year old's magic-user's limitations (the child in question? we've yet to get back to the game. Probably in a couple more years...), I received a lot of feedback...which I do appreciate, by the way. But the one comment that made the biggest impression was this bit of an (off-hand?) remark from Thomas Williams, stating:
Oh, and finally, I think if consulted, the spirit of EGG he would say that MUs played by children under the age of 10 can blast doors with a 1-2 on a d6 (modified by INT) ;-)
Thomas, that's kind of brilliant.

Back in...oh...2009 or so I was trying to think up little things to add to the magic-user character to be "more magical." Because a guy who carries around a single spell in their head (as the 1st level B/X magic-user does) ain't all that. And one of the things I considered was the addition of minor magic, something "not unlike AD&D cantrips." Which, I should note, is something I never really allowed or used back in the days when I did play AD&D.

[cantrips weren't outlawed or anything...they simply didn't seem worth inclusion. My co-DM used them a bit, but mainly for NPCs of the "jokey," humorous variety. That's what cantrips were seen as by our group: comic relief. Certainly not a valuable magical resource]

The apprentice hard at work.
It was a suggestion, but one without a specific system, and something I didn't really try to pursue. But a lot of other folks ARE doing cantrippy things to their campaigns. I had at least four different people suggesting the addition of cantrips to help "boost" the beginning mage, and I know of a couple others who allow cantrips as part of their house campaigns (mages in Alexis's campaign, for example, receive 2-3 cantrips on average, plus a couple more with every level. Of course, his 1st level mages can cast three 1st level spells to begin...). Even so, I wasn't very keen on the whole cantrip concept. I just wasn't interested in adapting a batch of 0-level spells from AD&D to B/X, let alone trying to create my own list.

[and, dammit, a 1st level magic-user isn't supposed to be an "apprentice," anyway...]

But after seeing the simplicity in Tom's suggestion...of basically re-skinning existing B/X systems as magical variants...I have a way to give cantrips a try. Here's the proposed text:
By the time human magic-users are ready to begin their adventuring career (i.e. have achieved 1st level) they are presumed to have been trained in the theories of magic and spell creation. The fact that they have created and cast their first 1st level spell is proof they are ready to "graduate" and go out into the world. 
While training, apprentice magic-users learn and practice basic theorems and rudimentary spells, called cantrips. These mercurial magics are unreliable compared to the greater, formulaic spells used by adventurers, but they are good practice for the student precisely because of their difficulty and magic-users retain knowledge of this training even after finishing their studies. 
All magic-users know the following cantrips: 
  • Charm of Opening (2 in 6): With a word of command, a locked/stuck door shudders and bursts open. Does not function on doors that are magically held or locked.
  • Dowsing for Traps (2 in 6): With the use of a dowsing pendant or apparatus, the magic-user can discover if a particular object or area is trapped or not. A failed roll means that the result of the dowsing is inconclusive.
  • Ignite (2 in 6): May start a small fire, such as for  torch, without the need of a tinderbox.
  • Premonition (2 in 6): A minor form of ESP, the magic-user can detect the presence (or lack) of living creatures within a short (30') distance, such as on the other side of a closed door. A failed roll indicates nothing can be sensed. Premonition faces the same restrictions as ESP.
  • Revelation of Secrets (1 in 6): With a few minutes meditation, the magic-user can sense the presence of concealed objects (secret doors and hidden compartments, for example) and gains knowledge of the means to reveal the same. This spell will not detect invisible or magically concealed objects.
  • Water Finding (1 in 6): As dowsing for traps, but will discover the location/direction of natural freshwater outlets (streams, springs, wells, and rivers). This spell only functions outdoors (i.e. in the wilderness). 
The numbers in parenthesis indicate the character's chance of successfully casting the cantrip. Magic-users with an intelligence score of 13+ have a number of bonus points (equal to the number of bonus languages known) to distribute amongst these skills; for example, a magic-user with a 17 intelligence could add one point to ignite and one point to premonition, raising the chance of each to 3 in 6. Mastery of cantrips proceeds over the length of a magic-user's career; with each level earned, a single point may be added to any one of the character's cantrips. 
Each cantrip may be used but once per game session; however, a cantrip only counts as "used" if its casting is successful. A magic-user could thus attempt a specific cantrip multiple times, though not for the same purpose (for example, if a dowsing for traps fails in a particular room, it may not be tried again in the same location, but may be tried in different room later in the adventure).

Thus ends the text.

Astute veterans of B/X will recognize that each of these cantrips is a slightly re-skinned version of a standard adventuring procedure (hearing noise, breaking down doors, foraging in the wild, etc.). The main difference here (besides magical "color") is that the cantrips gain bonuses for a magic-user's (presumably) better than average intelligence, and increase over time...possibly increasing to the level where the cantrip can be used automatically (6 in 6) like any other spell. The trade-off is that, like all spells, each can only be used a single time in the game session...the charm of opening could not be used to blast every door in the dungeon, for example (unlike the bruiser fighter's muscles).

A final note, and then I'll leave off: I'm not a fan of cantrips that add attack or defense (i.e. combat) abilities to a mage. There's a reason magic-users are "nerfed" regarding weapon use and armor allowed; adding cantrips that "correct" this design choice run counter to the spirit of the game in my opinion. Shield and magic-missile are powerful, formulaic spells that address the imbalance, but within the spirit of the game concept. We don't need weaker magic giving MU's the equivalent of leather armor or a throwing dagger, for example.

But I plan on talking specifically about weapon limitations in a follow-up post.
: )

You Know What?

I actually HATE the whole "spell points" thang.

I've got another post coming today, but I just thought I should get that out and up front. I woke up this morning and I honestly couldn't remember what idea I'd had Wednesday to offset my irritation with magic-users. When I went back and read what I wrote I was just, like, oh how stupid.

If I can't remember a concept, let alone a system, two days later then it's probably not quite awesome enough.

No. I was being silly.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Just To Be Mean

After careful consideration, I'm adding a few weapon restrictions to my B/X game:

Spears may only be thrown by fighters and elves.
Axes/hammers may only be thrown by fighters, dwarves, and elves.
Javelins may only be thrown by fighters, dwarves, elves, and halflings.
Daggers may only be thrown by fighters, dwarves, elves, halflings, and thieves.

Is that it? Did I leave out any B/X throwing weapons? I think I got 'em all, yeah?

Throwing a weapon with an intention to injure/kill isn't easy...certainly not as easy as throwing a rock or a baseball. Trying to hit a target that's aware of the danger (e.g. in a combat setting) isn't like simply "going for distance" with a javelin throw. Like many things, it requires specific training and a lot of practice.

My loving wife was kind enough to gift me with a set of throwing knives a few years back (she's at least somewhat tolerant of my weirdness)...special blades designed specifically for target throwing. They aren't fighting knives...they've no guard and they're balanced for throwing. They certainly look nothing like medieval daggers. But with some instruction and a bit of practice, one can get them to stick in a target with proper technique. Most of the time.

So long as the target's not moving. Or covered in armor. Or trying to kill you with its own weapons.

I understand and realize that fantasy adventure games like D&D take a lot of creative license...they err on the side of the cinematic, or pulp literature that inspired them. And that's cool because that's what we want to play: cinematic/literary heroes taking part in pulpy adventures. It's why one blow from an owl bear doesn't (usually) disembowel your fighter, or render the cleric unconscious and concussed. It's why your sword talks to you and fireballs fly from the bearded geezers finger-tips.

However, let's put things in a LITTLE bit of context. In real life combat, one would be hesitant to throw a dagger (or any weapon) at an opponent. You leave yourself unarmed (or down one weapon) and you may be arming your enemy. Plus, it's hard to do...hard enough to be fairly unreliable, certainly a tactic of last resort unless you're talking massed pilum throwers of the Roman army or something.

But in a heroic fantasy game that features single combat and small scale battles, we can be forgiven a certain degree of creative license. Hell, a certain degree is to be expected. Even so, that "certain degree" is never so much as to allow pasty academics of occult lore to turn in Danny Trejo like performances. Sorry.

Not a wizard.
SO...no more magic-users with bandoliers of throwing knives. Not in my games, not as a matter of course...perhaps if they spend a "feat" or two (or whatever equivalent I use) to acquire the proper training. And maybe not even then. Too frigging ridiculous.

Now consider THAT and then tell me: do you thing the 1st level magic-user might need something more than a single spell to go with that pointy thing in the scabbard?

No more knife-throwing wizards. I'm done with it.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Paying Dues - Magic-Users

[continued from here]

Monday, I decided it was time to teach my son how to play D&D. I offered him a choice between Holmes Basic and B/X and he decided on Ye Olde Moldvay. Here is a picture of his character sheet:


The writing is mine, other than the name (yes, he decided to name the character after himself). The picture is his (in case folks are wondering, he has a small pet monkey perched on his shoulder...a request from my son, that I allowed him to purchase for 10 gold pieces). All equipment (including a normal dagger...the silver one was "too expensive") is written on the back.

The choice of magic-user was based on his ability scores (3D6, rolled in order), intelligence being his best stat. His choice of spell (magic missile) was based on my brief description of the magic system and each available 1st level spell. This was to be B/X strictly "by the book;" with the only exception being that I allowed him maximum hit points at level one. I opened my book to The Haunted Keep scenario in the book, explained the background and started the game with Diego the Mage (and Meme the Monkey) outside the door to the east tower, where the goblins' tracks had led.

"I blast the door with my magic missile."

I explained (again) that his spell could only be used once per day, and that was really intended for combat. I also explained to him that the tower was fairly dilapidated and the wooden door was rotten and hanging by one rusty hinge...easily opened without the aid of magic. Would he prefer to save his spell? Yes, of course.

He entered the tower and avoided the pit trap (thanks to his 10' pole). After exploring the pit with his rope, he proceeded through the interior door, finding himself in a hallway with doors to both the left and right.

"I blast the right-hand door with my magic missile."

I should point out that my son only just turned five (last month). His relationship with doors are not the same as an adult, nor even an older child. There are many doors he's not allowed to pass through without permission. Doors that are stuck or locked can easily confound him (especially if the key hole is higher than he can reach unaided, as with our exterior door). And, of course, he has no preconceived notions of how the D&D game is "supposed" to be played...I'm trying to NOT instill any of my "gaming sensibilities" into him, wanting him to formulate his own ideas, come to his own conclusions. In the past, I've taken this tactic with "newbie" role-players and found the results surprisingly excellent.

However, here I was running up against the confounding limitation imposed by the D&D system...that ridiculous model that requires characters to "pay their dues," playing multiple sessions of ineffectuality (is that a word?) before becoming even mildly proficient.

Mmm...let me back up a moment. It's not really the model that's "ridiculous." A fantasy character beginning her adventuring career can be expected to be a bit wet behind the ears, and should also be expected (with time and experience) to become more proficient and effective. To me, that's what the whole level thing models...1st level characters are new to the career while a 9th ("name") level adventurer should be pretty darn proficient...near the top of her game, really. At least, that's kind of the implication of making a "name" for oneself, no?

[of course, I realize that's not actually the case. Character hit dice peak at level 9 and most "endgame" options are opened for B/X characters at this level. However, magic-users don't gain their full abilities (spell-wise or endgame) till 11th level, fighters gain even greater attack abilities at levels 10 and 13, while thieve abilities don't start hitting the 90s till levels 11 and 12. In the end, the only thing reaching "name" level actually ensures is the end of new level titles for your character]

But a 1st level magic-user shouldn't even be let out of the tower. Compare such an entity to, say, the children in those Harry Potter novels (and please allow me to say for the record that I dislike a LOT about J.K. Rowling's wizarding world, both as a setting, as a magic cosmology, and even as children's literature. Sorry, J.K.). Look at the newbie wizard, Skeeve, from Robert Aspirin's humorous Myth books. While clearly "apprentice level" youngsters, their abilities utterly dwarf that of a beginning magic-user in B/X...or most Old School editions of D&D.

More powerful than your seer.
This is not a new bitch for Yours Truly, by the way. This post is a pretty good example of my standard gripes. But while I've come to accept (or, rather, re-accept) "Vancian" magic (in light of its injection of a distinct play style...not to mention ease of implementation), I quite simply hate the way it scales. One more time: it's too weak at the low levels; too much at the high levels.

Yes, too much. 30-40 spells...hell, 20 spells...is simply too many for a single session of game play, in my opinion. Consider a typical session: you can expect perhaps 4 to 7 encounters in an evening of B/X play; my sessions average about six, probably four of which have some sort of combat component or potential (interactions with "monsters," in other words). Should magic-users be able to cast a spell every round? Or should there be some threat of "running low," prompting them to husband their resources? To me, 10-12 spells in a game session feels about optimal (2 or 3 per encounter, with another 2 to 3 used outside of combat), with something like 15-18 spells being the maximum (for the highest level characters) for a single game session...though even that feels pretty darn high to me.

Note, I'm talking about the number of spells being cast, not necessarily the number of spells known. I think it would be fair (and sticking with the strategist play style paradigm) to allow a magic-user to actually know more spells than they can cast (that's an AD&D concept, by the way, not B/X). On the low end (for the newbie adventurers), I'd think four or five spells cast would be about right, maybe as low as three for a truly deficient wizard. The problem is, how can you scale that over X number of levels?

Doesn't that dude with the pointy hat look capable of more than one spell?

[in writing this, I am reminded of the Dungeon! board game. In the 1975 edition, wizards received 7 spells to start (each spell being represented by a card that was discarded when cast), but could opt for an additional +D6 spells by choosing to forgo the use of magic swords during the game]

Because THIS is the main "carrot" for the magic-user. M-U players are not expecting to gain much in the realm of combat ability (HPs/attack bonus), but they are expecting to become more proficient in their craft. More spells known, more spells cast, and more powerful spells. Certainly, these things are best linked to level (the more proficient the adventurer, the more powerful the magic)...I'm just not sure they need to be linked in the specific fashion they are.

This is about to go off the B/X grid. Ah, well...just call it a 'thought exercise.'

I suppose the easiest thing thing would be to link spell-casting to hit points. Spells would be given a power rank (say, from 1 to 3) and each spell cast would drain a number of hit points from the caster. I did something similar to this in Cry Dark Future in order to model Shadowrun's "mana burn" system, and it worked pretty good...but then even a 1st level spell-caster in CDF/SR can fall back on an automatic weapon when they're running low on spell juice.

[I say this would be "the easiest thing," though one could certainly fall back on the CHAINMAIL system...as I did in Five Ancient Kingdoms...of requiring a dice roll to effectively cast a spell, with higher level characters having a better chance of casting spells...in effect, making the magic system more-or-less the same as combat. But here I'm trying to preserve the asymmetry of the class and magic system, even if I'm otherwise changing it]

*ahem* The note here is that unlike a traditional "spell point" system (Palladium, as an example) you're only tracking a single resource: your character's health. Plus it measures the effects of pain and suffering as a distraction without the need for "concentration" checks and such. Also, it models that hoary staple of fantasy literature where the mage sells her life to get off "one final spell." I dig all that.

So then, what effect would leveling up have on your character's magical might? Other than increasing your hit points, of course. Well, you'd need gain additional spell knowledge (more arrows for your quiver)...perhaps one or two spells per level...and might increase the power rank of spells that could be learned. With such a system, I'd probably try something like:

1 point spells at 1st level
2 point spells available at 4th level
3 point spells available at 7th level

With 1 pointers being the equivalent of 1st and 2nd level spells, 2 pointers being the equivalent of 3rd and 4th level, and 3 pointers being 5th and 6th level spells.

Alternatively, you could keep the standard rate of spell level gained (2nd level spells at 3rd, 3rd level spells at 5th, 4th level spells at 7th level, etc.)...but I'm not sure that's really necessary. After all, B/X fighters don't learn more weapon and armor types as they level up, and thieves are likewise stuck with the same skills at 1st level as 10th (yes, they get the ability to read languages and magic..but magic-users gain the ability to enchant items and brew potions; it's a wash). Allow each character to start with a number of spells determined by their intelligence...say six for average INT and add the standard B/X modifier of plus/minus one to three.

That gives a range of three to nine to begin and, on second thought, I'd probably limit the number of spells gained to one per level. However, magic-users could attempt to "master" any spell scrolls found (adding the spells to their repertoire) or spend hard earned treasure on additional spell research to increase their knowledge. That's a win-win in my book: players have a good reason to spend gold and it gives me an alternative use for spell scrolls (since they won't function the same under this system as they do in the Vancian universe).

I do want magic-users to pay some dues, after all...I just don't think their dues need to be as high as they are in the default B/X system.

[as always, feedback and disagreement is welcome]

Original Edition Delta

I spent a lot of time researching medieval archery (longbows, crossbows) around 2am this morning because...well, I don't honestly remember what put that particular been into my bonnet. For whatever reason, I felt I needed/wanted to "correct" some things.

[I also spent a good bit of time researching The Runaways. Cherie Curry was a phenomenal talent for her age. Well, I suppose they all were, but I know quite a bit more about being a vocalist/front than those stringy-instrument things...]

Anyhoo, while watching videos of dudes with British accents shooting arrows into things and comparing my copy of D&D with CHAINMAIL and a bunch of pseudo-scholarly web sites devoted to medieval weapons, I...

[oh, wait! I remember! I was checking archery technology in relationship to the development of armor in western Europe...again...especially in the 13th through 15th centuries. Duh]

...I found myself getting more blah-blah-blah-blah because is the kind of shit I am always doing: re-re-inventing the damn wheel just trying to reconcile historic stats with design models. Surely a lost cause when players would prefer to do cool stuff like putting an arrow through a dragon's eyeball.

[having been stabbed in the eyeball with a lollypop stick a couple years back and managing to make a full recovery without the need for medical attention (I got the medical attention, but the doctor did nothing but set me home with some painkillers) I would be inclined to think such an attack, while inconveniencing, would not be nearly as deadly as the players might assume...just given the scale and all]

However, I am what I am (depressing as that can be at times), and I can't help but feeling that if I could just get it right once, then I would stop repeating the damn wheel.

Enter Delta's D&D Hotspot.

Delta's blog is a wealth of good material, most especially for folks (like me) who are interested in the development of D&D over the decades and the modeling of historic accuracy with the oldest versions of the game (including Chainmail). I've been reading his blog for years, but I've never really put in the time to read back over his older stuff. I could have saved myself a shit-ton of trouble if I had. Not only is his archery conclusions fairly close to my own, most of his house rules (Original Edition Delta...available as a free, 6-page PDF) are excellent, well-reasoned, and quite practical. I especially dig on his encumbrance ("stone based") rules and - oh, lookee - a thoughtful distinction of weapons and the use of "real time" for wandering encounters. His system for helmets is pretty much the same as what I was using for my Goblin Wars setting and (with adjustments), Land of Ice.

O Those Mathematicians! If I'd checked here first I might have shaved a couple hundred hours off my design time.

You might want to check it out (if you haven't already)...I'll probably be making reference to OED in future (design-related) posts, seeing as how most of it is so right on.

Okay, now that I got that out there, I shall return to my B/X dissatisfactions...



Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Paying Dues - Thieves

Going back over B/X stuff the last couple weeks has made me remember just how much I enjoy that particular edition of Dungeons & Dragons. That's nice. Re-reading my own old posts and (especially) my B/X books that I've published (my B/X Companion and The Complete B/X Adventurer) has also been good for Ye Olde Ego...I've been kind of a badass. Even now, I'm especially proud of how the B/X Companion turned out...there's a lot of very cool stuff crammed into its pages.

But there are things about the B/X game that I still dislike, things that have been brought (back) to my attention lately that irritate me. The lack of real production that comes out of the low level character, most especially the thief and the magic-user. Neither one is a very viable option as a 1st level character. They just aren't, no matter how you slice it. They are struck too easily, and they have too few hit points, and the production from their special abilities is so low as to be laughable, quite frankly.

Even considering that the thief's skills are more special than one might superficially presume, most of their skill percentages are at 20% or below. If we consider that on the same (D20) scale as combat, that's the equivalent of pitting characters against monsters armed with plate & shield (AC 2) or better...assuming, of course, that the character's have no bonuses to hit from a high STR or DEX. Which most players would find to be grossly unfair...usual fare for 1st level characters in B/X would include things like bandits, goblins, kobolds, orcs, and skeletons, with the occasional ogre or zombie encounter thrown in as a "challenge." All these creatures have an AC in the 6 to 8 range, save the ogre with its AC 5, meaning the attack roll falls mainly within the 11 to 13 range, even without the potential +1 or +2 bonuses most B/X fighters will have.

That's equates to a 40% to 50% rate of success for their actions. What 1st level thief wouldn't kill to have a 40-50% rate of success for moving silently, or finding traps, or opening locks? If I've only got a 1 in 5 chance of performing a skill (with failure indicating I've activated a trap, or given myself away to the person I'm trying to surprise), I'm probably going to opt out of even attempting such an action...but give me even (or close to even odds) and I'm much more likely to take the chance. After all, it's not like I can shine in combat or spell-casting. The way the game is set-up at the moment, I'm likely to spend the first few months of my existence acting as an archer rather than a thief (high DEX, bow, and stay the hell out of combat). Is that what thief players really want to sign up for?

I wrote earlier that one of the very cool things about D&D (at least, the older editions) is the way the game allows for different asymmetrical play-styles. While the fighter is solid (if simple), and the magic-user is the strategist, the thief is the gambler, and people like to gamble! I like to gamble (though I don't like to lose money...), but like all gamblers, I like to measure my odds. If the Seahawks are playing at home on Monday Night Football, you're going to be hard pressed to get me to bet against the home team. The Seahawks own a .733 win percentage (best in the NFL) on MNF. Combine that with a league best .844 win percentage at home the last four years (since Russell Wilson became their quarterback)...and why would anyone (let alone a homer like me) take a chance of losing their money?

Which is why Vegas gives odds, adds points, and provides bigger payouts as a reward for betting the underdog.

Worth it?
Unfortunately, in D&D the payout is pretty much the same whether you decide to fight the monster for the treasure OR sneak by it "for the steal." Sure, if you manage to make your stealth roll the thief can end up with some phat loot and no HPs lost, but if you fail (and oh what a good chance that is), your lone sneak is going to end up in serious trouble. Probably of the mortal variety. Best to let the fighters take on the bad guys while you plink it with arrows, yeah? Hope the magic-user still has that sleep spell up her sleeve?

This kind of skulking through the low levels (which I've observed time and again), was one of the main reasons I simply junked thief skill rolls from my B/X campaign back in 2011 (with good effect). The problem with doing this, though, is two-fold:

  • It precludes thief characters from seeing any increased effectiveness from earning levels (aside from a paltry increase to HPs and combat ability). Compared to other classes (spells for clerics and mages; much better combat increases for fighters), there's hardly much "carrot" to keep thieves excited.
  • It removes that "gambler" style of play from the game, making for (in my opinion) a less interesting contrast in styles.

The easiest fix, of course, is to up the skill percentages. This is what AD&D with the PHB and (later) the Unearthed Arcana, adding bonuses for race and high DEX scores...plus increasing thief hit dice so that they had a little more "staying power" in combat. But in B/X there ain't any halfling thieves and I dislike an increased emphasis on ability scores. The real issue (for me) is one of scale...thief skills start to low and are stretched too thin (especially in the BECMI/RC "reboot" that scales thief skills from 1 to 36 instead of 1 to 14).

Probably it would make sense to add DEX bonuses to thief skills in the same way that B/X adds bonuses to melee attack and damage rolls for STR, say:

13-15 +5%
16-17 +10%
18      +15%

[with equal penalties for low scores]

...but the base skill percentages probably still need to be scaled up. Not so much as combat perhaps (since the opportunity for thief skills probably should occur as often as combat...all characters have a chance to fight, only thieves have thief skills), but better than 1 in 5 and 1 in 10. 25%-35% sounds about right for 1st level (plus the DEX bonus) with a straight 5% bump per level thereafter. This will give thieves even odds of pulling off their skills by about 5th level and name (9th) level thieves will have around a circa 75% chance of success...which they already do in B/X, by the way, they just do it with larger "bumps" as they level up.

All right, my writing time's eaten up for the day. I'll write about magic-users tomorrow.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Assessing Damage

Jonathan N. posted the following comments on Wednesday's post regarding the B/X battle axe:
Huh. I would have made the battle axe just do 1d4+4 damage instead. Actually, 1d6+2 is probably more fair. Same average as 1d10.

Indeed, it IS the same average damage. But it's not the same range of damage, which for my game is the important part of the design model.

Back up for a moment. Recall D&D's original roots in CHAINMAIL, a tabletop war-game. It included a man-to-man element, but it was still of the "one hit equals one kill" variety: with a war game we are much more concerned with the movement of armies as a whole, not individual melees. Weapons were on a human scale, and humans (with the exception of some fantasy hero-types) of the "grunt" variety, regardless of arms and armor. One man = 1 die roll = 1 hit absorption...the standard unit of play from which all other units derive.

[a "hero," as an example attacked as four units, i.e. four humans, capable of rolling four dice to attack and absorbing four hits of damage. A "superhero" was the equivalent of eight units]

When you get to Men & Magic (volume 1 of OD&D, from which B/X is, more or less, directly derived), this standard unit mentality is still present. Heck, CHAINMAIL is the default combat system (with the "roll-D20-versus-AC" being an "alternative" option). The new game, however, is concerned with a smaller scale of action...heroic individuals operating at the skirmish level...and thus a more granular approach to combat is needed. Players aren't using armies in D&D, but individual characters...and losing one's character is the equivalent of losing one's entire army.

Enter hit points: the granular solution that fits the war gamer's paradigm. If your character is your "army," than each hit point represents a "grunt."  On the battlefield scale we're concerned with how one force attacks another force, and standard units (i.e. soldiers) are removed depending on the results of the attack. On the small scale we look at attacks on an individual (man-to-man) basis, to see how many hit point "units" are removed as the result of an attack.

Now, as I said, weapons are based on "human scale;" originally (in CHAINMAIL) a successful attack resulted in the removal of one unit, i.e. one soldier. But now that we are looking at a granular scale, we need to determine just how granular (that is, how many hit points) are possessed by a "standard unit." And the OD&D answer to that question is D6. That is how many hit points a one HD human soldier has in OD&D.

[remember that the D8 hit points per HD thing in B/X was a later adjustment in Supplement I (Greyhawk) that was carried over to Basic, AD&D, B/X, etc.]

One unit has 1 to 6 hit points. Thus, one human scale weapon inflicts 1 to 6 hit points of damage...this is the origin of the "all weapons do D6 damage" rule of OD&D and its descendants: Holmes, Moldvay, etc.

Once you know the "standard" elements involved, you can tweak and adjust. You can say that a heroic fighter PC (who starts with the lofty title of "veteran") can have MORE than the standard HPs: in OD&D it's 1D6+1; in B/X, it's 1D8. You can say that a 1st level magic-user only has 1D4 hit points (no doubt due to being a pasty academic) but that an experienced 2nd level magic-user has 2D4...she's been hardened by adventure and hiking in the wilderness. You can say that an ogre, a creature capable of sustaining damage enough to kill four men, receives 4 dice worth of hit points.

And you can adjust weapon damage appropriately as well. A dagger is capable of killing a sedentary citizen within 10 seconds (the length of a B/X combat round), but generally takes longer against a trained fighter, except under extreme circumstances (the fighter is weak and/or injured, the weapon is enchanted, etc.).

SO NOW (having got the preamble out of the way), let's look at the battle axe again. An attack roll is a check to see if an opponent can inflict damage in the round; the damage roll provides an indication of HOW that damage was inflicted based on the amount of the result.

A battle axe has a good range of damage (1 to 8...enough to kill a trained veteran with a perfect blow). Let's break that down in granular fashion:

1 point - a blow from the weapon's haft, the kind that will leave a nasty welt or bruise.
2 points - a severe blow from the weapon's haft to a vital joint or organ (like jamming the butt of the axe into the diaphragm like a blunt spear).
3 points - a concussive blow, capable of stunning the person with pain or blunt force trauma.
4 points - a strike with the axe head, causing a major laceration and probable blood loss.
5 points - a strike with the axe head that tears muscle, breaks bone, and/or severs major arteries.
6 points - a deep blow to the body, causing massive internal damage and blood loss.
7 points - a severing blow to a vulnerable joint or a full-on strike to the skull with the business end of the axe causing immense damage and probable death.
8 points - a wicked blow to the neck causing decapitation and immediate death.

This is a good range of damage, easily scalable to an opponent. For example, a concussive blow (3 points) versus a normal citizen who only possesses 3 hit points, might be a blow that puts the guy into a permanent coma. On the other hand the 3rd level fighter on the receiving end of an 8 point decapitating strike can consider that she just dodged a bullet (or, rather, an axe) and that her luck (those extra hit points from her greater experience) won't last forever.
Darkwolf's rotoscoped axe-work is pretty good.

Decreasing the range from 1-8 to 5-8/3-8 as Jonathan N suggests decreases the range of possibility inherent in a weapon like the battle axe. What's worse, it's no longer "human scale:" a weapon that inflicts a minimum of 3 hit points of damage (let alone 5!) will automatically kill three-quarters of the "normal human" population found in B/X. It leaves no room for the possibility of a glancing, non-fatal blow from a weapon that has more attack surfaces than just the axe head.

The +1 attack bonus I gave in Wednesday's post ("Can-Opener") stems from the ideas that A) a wedge-shaped axe-head delivered forcefully is good at penetrating armor, B) a mass weapon like an axe delivers enough concussive force to inflict damage even when failing to penetrate armor, and C) the battle axe is light enough (compared to other two-headed weapons), that A and B aren't offset by the weapon's overall lack of maneuverability compared to light, one-handed weapons (5 pounds versus 15 pounds).

[a +1 attack bonus is also enough to offset the +1 AC bonus provided by a shield, and "hooking" shields was a well-documented tactic of axe-use by Viking warriors and others; however, I know there are more than a few people who disagree with the amount of protection offered by a shield in B/X]

These are justifications to my overall design goal of making the battle axe a viable weapon choice in B/X, based on the B/X system as it exists. Increasing the average damage doesn't fit into my particular paradigm, but increasing the range of weapon damage (via the use of the variable weapon damage table) does.

For me, anyway. Plus it gives me a chance to roll dice of other shapes besides the D6. I've got them on-hand anyway.
; )

By The Way: I personally don't think this is anything that needs to be pointed out in a game text. The designers of Monopoly don't bother explaining why you receive $200 for Passing Go, after all. I realize that it's kind of "the thing" these days to include handy little sidebars in texts explaining design choices (boy, role-players sure are an over-analyzing bunch, aren't we?) but is it really worth it to make a cramped layout and increased page count? Well...that's a rant for another day.