Archive for the ‘Through the Ages’ Category

Swimming, or Not Drowning, Through the Ages

Here’s an illustration made by my players at a recent game that has inspired me to revisit my sadly ignored blog:


The predicament my players found themselves in was the need to cross a large underground lake, and it seems someone had stolen their raft.  They left a lot of treasure on the other side of that lake, but also were worried there may still be some enemies, so what’s a party of 4-5th level characters to do?

Working from left to right, it begins with the thief, who had invisibility cast on him and felt confident in his swimming skills.  Naturally though in D&D no character is ever allowed by his party to endanger himself without a rope firmly fastened around him.  At the end of this rope we have the party’s first magic user, who has cast levitation on himself.  He’s pictured here reclining on his back with his arms behind his head.

Furthermore, magic-user #1 has cast floating disc, upon which sits magic-user #2.  Not to be out-done by his wizardly compatriot, magic-user #2 has also cast floating disc, and upon that disc sits the fighter, fishing pole deployed.  Naturally, though much game time was spent formulating and illustrating the above amidst whoops of laughter, this one did not make it past planning stages.  Not in this form anyway, though the thief and the levitating mage were still involved at the end.

Besides being an awesome image that deserved to be posted here for posterity, this has got me thinking about swimming in D&D.  In the past I’ve taken a pretty hard line about swimming with any gear heavier than a knife.  It’s generally known at my table that swimming in armor is a sure-fire way to end up dead very quickly, but in this case the thief really wanted to try it with his leather armor on.  I guess he was concerned that the benefit of invisibility may be moot due to water displacement.

Anyway, I had him make some rolls, and there was a tense moment when he ended up winded and the levitating mage had to lift him up and let him rest for several minutes, but he made it across and I wasn’t very satisfied.  I was making rulings off the cuff because nobody has ever really pressed me on this one, and in retrospect I think it should have been harder.  So here I am with my books at hand and the following questions to answer:

  1. How frequently should checks be made when in the water to prevent drowning?
  2. Related to the previous, how far can a character swim in this duration?
  3. What penalties should be applied for armor, clothing, and any other equipment carried?

I decided to first look at 3e, since that is so readily available and searchable online:

Make a Swim check once per round while you are in the water. Success means you may swim at up to one-half your speed (as a full-round action) or at one-quarter your speed (as a move action). If you fail by 4 or less, you make no progress through the water. If you fail by 5 or more, you go underwater.  Double the normal armor check penalty is applied to Swim checks.

Note that armor check penalties for common armor types is -6 for plate, -5 for chain, and 0 for leather. Double that for swimming and you get -12 / -10 / 0.  Interestingly this is from the 3.5 srd, and it’s been pointed out to me that this differs from the 3.0 text which states “Instead of an armor check penalty, the character suffers a penalty of –1 for each 5 pounds of gear the character is carrying or wearing.”  In 3.0 that would equate to -10 / -8 / -3 for swimming in plate, chain, or leather respectively.

Note even with all the above text we’ve still only answered question 2 and half of question 1.  For the actual rules on drowning we must see the DMG:

Any character can hold her breath for a number of rounds equal to twice her Constitution score. After this period of time, the character must make a DC 10 Constitution check every round in order to continue holding her breath. Each round, the DC increases by 1. See also: Swim skill description.

When the character finally fails her Constitution check, she begins to drown. In the first round, she falls unconscious (0 hp). In the following round, she drops to -1 hit points and is dying. In the third round, she drowns.

I was about to complain about how complex this is, but then again, this is 3rd edition we’re talking about. At least it’s easier than grappling.

OK, let’s go back further.  The 1st edition AD&D DMG has this to say:

Swimming will be impossible in any type of metal armor with the exception of magic armor.  Any character wearing magic armor will be encumbered and the only stroke possible will be the dog paddle.  It is possible to swim in leather and padded armor, but it is awkward and there is a 5% chance of drowning per hour.  All heavy possessions must be discarded or the chance of drowning increases by 2% for every 5 pounds on the character’s person other than his or her leather or padded armor.  This includes weapons, purses filled with gold and/or gems, backpacks and hard boots.  One unsheathed dagger may be carried by the adventurer between his or her teeth.

… movement (either swimming or walking) is the same as the speeds used in dungeons, even though underwater movement is “outdoors”.  Average movement is a function of encumbrance in exactly the same ratios as in dungeon movement.

This must be the origin of special-casing leather armor.  Though even then you’re still looking at a 5% chance of death every hour.  Still, not much here on how long a character could keep it up.  Also in general I see that 3.0 actually appears to be more restrictive than 1e.  Half move instead of normal move, and 5% difficulty increases per 5 pounds rather than 2%.  The only point that 1e takes a harder line is the absolute restriction over swimming in metal armor, while I’m pretty sure a clever min-maxer could figure out how to make it work in 3.0.

OK, let’s look at what my personal rules edition of choice uses, B/X.  Um, it’s here somewhere, I think?  No?  Seriously, can anyone find it?  As far as I can tell, there is not a single word about swimming nor drowning in the B/X rules.  There’s a section on boats and naval combat, but nothing here about swimming or drowning.  Huh.

Fine, let’s skip further back and see what OD&D has to say.  Here we are in Volume 3:

Men in armor have a chance of drowning.  Those in metallic armor must shed their armor or be drowned.

Armor Type Chance of Drowning Must Remove?
Plate 100%
Chain-type 80% yes
Leather 20% no
None 05%*

Note that in gale and storm conditions there is a 50% chance that any man in the water will drown.  Roll for this possibility each turn.

*only if thrown overboard

Swimming speed is 3″ per turn. … Only daggers or wooden weapons which are buoyant can be carried when swimming.  Buoyant weapons: wooden club, quarter staff, spear.

Love that chart, don’t you?  This section comes under the naval combat, and you can see I’ve trimmed some text out that’s specific about being rescued from a boat.

So OD&D has gone really restrictive in the movement area, basically movement for any swimmer is at the slowest rate in the game.  The armor restrictions are similar to 1e, though OD&D does seem to allow for a chain-wearing character to shed their armor and survive.

When I first started writing this post I was hoping to cap it off with a nice chart showing the answers to my 3 questions above for each edition and major armor type.  The problem is that they vary so widely, from the 3.0 idea of figuring out what sate you are in (swimming, holding breath, or drowning), then adding in skill checks and DCs based on conditions, etc. to full plate in AD&D, which seems to me to be just “you drown”.  It’s very hard to find common axes for comparison.

Ultimately, I guess I’ll just have to find a system I like or invent my own.  As of right now, I most like OD&D’s version.  The text is simple and concise, and the chances seem about as deadly as I’d like them.  Maybe it’s a little too heavy handed against plate wearers, as I wouldn’t mind if someone in plate falling into a shallow pool still had enough time to struggle out of their armor and survive (especially if helpers are at hand).  I imagine the 100% chance is really assuming the poor guy fell out of a boat in the middle of the ocean, given the context and presence of footnote about being thrown overboard without armor.

Anyway, I think I will mull this one over more.  It is not quite as straight forward as I was expecting when I started writing this.

Oozes through the Ages: Gray Ooze

Technically the only “ooze” in the game, the gray ooze is the monster one of my players asked some specific questions about.  I suppose that might make this a very short series, though by 2nd edition all slimey monsters (green slime, gray ooze, gelatinous cube, etc.) get filed under the moniker ooze.  Actually, the real reason for the title is simply my preference for alliterative titles.  Let’s get on with it.

Let me start by summarizing my player’s questions:

Shouldn’t it have taken a full turn (10 minutes) for the gray ooze to dissolve our armor?  Also, the text says nothing about it destroying weapons.

They recently lost a magic sword fighting a gray ooze, so naturally they’re a bit distressed.  These questions are rooted in the B/X description, so I’m actually going to start there.  A bit backwards, I know, but don’t worry we’ll look at the OD&D description next.  For now, here’s B/X:

This seeping horror looks like wet stone and is difficult to see. It secrets an acid which does 2d8 points of damage if the gray ooze hits bare skin.  This acid will dissolve and destroy magic armor in one turn.  After the first hit, the ooze will stick to its victim, automatically destroying any normal armor and doing 2d8 points of damage each round.  Gray ooze cannot be harmed by cold or fire, but can be harmed by weapons and lightning.

What an unusual description.  Certainly there is text in there about it taking one turn to destroy magic armor.  How odd to list the special case (magic armor vs. normal) first, given that the next sentence directly states that normal armor is destroyed in a single round.  I didn’t even notice the second bit myself until typing it out above, and assumed B/X was going to tell me that all armor takes a full turn to destroy.  Probably my player made the same mistake.  Also, the player is correct, no mention of destroying weapons, or any other material other than armor.  Of course, one can infer that acid that can eat through armor can also eat through a sword.  And why is lightning specifically called out here?  Is it not susceptible to all forms of magical attack that are not fire or cord (eg. magic missile)?

Side note: Mentzer edition and Rules Cyclopedia are essentially identical, though the text is rearranged to make a bit more sense.  Also, RC changes “magic armor” to “magic items”.

OK, let’s pop back to OD&D for some context:

A seeping horror which closely resembles wet stone and is thus difficult to detect. It will not be spread by non-harmful weapons, but it is subject only to lightening bolts or cuts and chops by weaponry, for it is impervious to cold or fire. It does not harm wood or stone, but it corrodes metal at the same rate that Black Pudding does. It does two dice of damage to exposed flesh for every turn it is in contact with it.

And since it references it, here’s Black Pudding:

Another member of the clean-up crew and nuisance monster, Black Puddings are not affected by cold. It is spread into smaller ones by chops or lightening bolts, but is killed by fire. Black Puddings dissolve wood, corrode metal at a reasonably fast rate, have no effect on stone, and cause three dice of damage to exposed flesh. If an armored character runs through a Black Pudding the monster’s corrosive power will eat away the foot and leg  protection of the armor so that it will fall-away next turn. Black Puddings can pass through fairly small openings, and they can travel as easily on ceilings as on floors.

Clearly the whole special mention of lightning bolts is for specific comparison to Black Puddings, which have a specific reaction to lightning (splitting into multiple puddings).  As for destroying metal, it does so “at a reasonably fast rate”, whatever that is.  There is one mention of turns here, that when running through a pudding the foot and leg protection will “fall-away next turn.”  My first instinct was to say that here’s another confusion of rounds vs. turns in OD&D.  However, I suspect what’s going on here is the supposition that combat is not being entered, and thus the party movement through the dungeon is being tracked by turn.  The party in question here decides to push through a passageway totally ignoring the black pudding and walking right through it, the result of which is that the next turn (which is immediate when tracking movement by turn) the armor dissolves.  Interesting that the assumption here is that the black pudding does not pursue and attack, making it almost more like a trap than a monster.

Also as a side note, I’m tickled here by the direct reference to these monsters being “member[s] of the clean-up crew”.  You can just see the thought process of how these things were invented.  They players start to wonder what happened to all those orc bodies that they killed last time they were in this passage.  The DM, thinking quickly, replies “a gelatinous cube must have got them.”

Anyway, let’s look forward now to AD&D 1st edition.  Remember that the Monster Manual was the first printed AD&D book back in 1977, four years before B/X is printed:

This creature corrodes metal at the same rate a black pudding (qv) does, i.e. chainmail is eaten through in a single melee round.  Its acids do no harm to stone or wood.  Spells do not harm this creature, and it is impervious to heat or cold.  Lightning, however, causes full damage to gray ooze, as do blows from weapons.  Note, however, that in the latter case the weapons striking the creature may corrode and break.  They strike like snakes when attacking.

Being AD&D there are of course several more paragraphs, but the one above is the most interesting for comparison.  Again we must consult the Black Pudding entry for specifics on the metal corrosion ability.  Here’s the pertinent bit:

Black puddings also eat away metal with their corrosive saliva: Chainmail in 1 melee round, plate mail in 2, and an additional melee round for magical armor at a rate of 1 melee round for each plus of armor.  Thus, +1 magic (plate) armor would have to be in contact with a black pudding for 3 melee rounds before it dissolved.

OK, as usual AD&D has to add some flourishes, now separating number of rounds for normal armor based on type.  No mention of leather here though — are we to assume that like wood and stone, leather is also impervious to the gray ooze’s acid?  Interestingly magic armor is dissolved much more quickly here than in B/X, especially considering the differing rounds per turn in each.  In AD&D, 1 round = 1 minute, thus 1 turn (10 minutes) = 10 rounds.  In B/X, 1 round = 10 seconds, thus 1 turn (10 minutes) = 60 rounds.  Wow, in AD&D my +1 plate armor takes one twentieth the time to dissolve as it does in B/X!

Also, did I just see that these things are totally immune to all magic except lightning bolts?  Holy crap!  For a 3 HD creature, this thing has serious potential towards TPK.  In AD&D, I’m thinking the best bet is to just run away.  In 2nd edition AD&D not much has changed, the description is simply a bit more concise:

The gray ooze strikes like a snake, and can corrode metal at an alarming rate (chain mail in one round, plate mail in two, and magical armor in one round per each plus to Armor Class). Spells have no effect on this monster, nor do fire- or cold-based attacks. Lightning and blows from weapons cause full damage. Note that weapons striking a gray ooze may corrode and break.

I’m noticing now this recurring thing of no real guidance on how likely it is a weapon striking it will corrode and break.  Simply that it may.  Does the weapon get an item saving throw?  I would argue yes, but there’s no text indicating such here.

Here’s the 3.0 edition (again, just the pertinent metal corroding and immunities parts):

Ooze: Immune to mind-influencing effects, poison, sleep, paralysis, stunning, and polymorphing. Not subject to critical hits.

Acid (Ex): A gray ooze secretes a digestive acid that quickly dissolves organic material and metal. Any melee hit deals acid damage. The ooze’s acidic touch deals 40 points of damage per round to wood or metal objects. Armor or clothing dissolves and becomes useless immediately unless it succeeds at a Reflex save (DC 19). The acid cannot harm stone. A metal or wooden weapon that strikes a gray ooze also dissolves immediately unless it succeeds at a Reflex save (DC 19).

Hmm, now wood is also not safe, but at least our weapons and armor get saves.  Magic immunities have also been reduced to some very specific effects.  Here’s 3.5:

A gray ooze secretes a digestive acid that quickly dissolves organic material and metal, but not stone. Any melee hit  or constrict attack deals acid damage. Armor or clothing dissolves and becomes useless immediately unless it  succeeds on a DC 16 Reflex Save. A metal or wooden weapon that strikes a gray ooze also dissolves immediately unless it succeeds on a DC 16 Reflex save. The save DCs are Constitution-based.

The ooze’s acidic touch deals 16 points of damage per round to wooden or metal objects, but the ooze must remain in contact with the object for 1 full round to deal this damage.

Getting weaker here, the save DC is down by 3 points and are now based on Con rather than Dex (not sure how that’s pertinent to item saving throws, but my 3.5 knowledge is a bit lacking). Also I don’t see anything here about immunities to any kinds of spells.

The interesting thing I’m noticing here is that it looks like after OD&D, AD&D made this creature super hard while B/X made it much weaker, and then subsequent editions have progressively tried to find a middle ground.  The whole magic immunities thing I find very strange and really not appropriate for a 3 HD monster.  You might argue that the authors of B/X felt the same, though they may have simply been pulling from OD&D which makes no mention of such immunities.

So why the additional pull back on duration to destroy magic armor, and no mention at all about weapons in B/X?  Well, one interesting thing to note about the gray ooze in B/X is that it appears in the red book.  Yeah, that’s right, the authors thought this was an appropriate monster for levels 1-3.  Ouch!  It’s possible they thus decided to try and dial back some of its deadliness.  Also, as for weapon destruction, I’ll point out that item saving throws are not introduced until the Expert book, and even then the text is extremely limited:

The character’s equipment is assumed to survive if the character survives.  If the character is killed by a special attack form (fire ball, dragon breath, etc.) normal equipment is considered destroyed.  The DM may give magic items a saving throw equal to that of the character, and may allow a saving throw bonus equip to the item’s bonus in combat, if any (armor +2 saves at +-2, a ring of protection +1 saves at +1, etc.).

Expert Book, Page X24

This only seems to apply when the character is out right killed by the attack.  It makes no provision for attacks that specifically target the item.  Still, it is at least a starting point for introducing item saving throws when desired.

How will I rule it?  Likely I’ll just pull back to OD&D, being closest to what feels right to me.  I think the intention with these things is clearly to let them destroy armor, and taking 60 rounds to do so sounds bizarre.  It also begs the question, can the armor be saved in those 60 rounds?  There’s no mention of that here.  To keep things simple, I’d say armor and weapons both get a single save, and if they fail they are immediately destroyed.  OK, it may take some time for the acid to fully destroy the thing, but within the round they are damaged enough to no longer be used for their intended purpose.

So there you have it, the gray ooze.  I had no idea it varied so much between editions.  I’m kind of tempted now to look at the Rust Monster for additional comparisons.

Spells Through The Ages: Clairvoyance

I’m going to do something unusual with this one — I’m actually going to compare this spell all the way through 3.0 and 3.5.  Usually with these articles I stop at 3.0 assuming that’s far enough into the editions for my own interest.  Clairvoyance, however, has been my example of choice for why 3.5 was my personal breaking point with modern editions.  As mentioned in my last post, I played in a 3.0 campaign for some time, but when 3.5 came out we did not adapt to those rules.  A lot of people like to complain about 4e, but for me it was 3.5 that made me start questioning the blind adoption of each new edition as it came out, and ultimately in the long run what brought me back around to looking at the old stuff again.

But for now, let’s start at the beginning.  Here’s the very simple OD&D text for this spell:

Cairvoyance: Same as ESP spell except the spell user can visualize rather than merely pick up thoughts.

OK, like some other OD&D spells (I’m looking at you Haste and Slow), the description rather unhelpfully just points us at another spell.  So here’s ESP:

ESP: A spell which allows the user to detect the thoughts (if any) of whatever lurks behind doors or in the darkness. It can penetrate solid rock up to about 2′ in thickness, but a thin coating of lead will prevent its penetration. Duration: 12 turns. Range: 6″

What I find most interesting about the OD&D spell is the limited range and the explicit mention of the spell’s use for discovering what is “behind doors or in the darkness.”  Frankly, this is a much more tactical use of the spell than my memory of using it in the past.  I always thought of these spells (ESP, Clairvoyance, and Clairaudience) as more strategic story driving types of spells than combat spells.  I imagine using them during down time to spy on specific NPCs and plan long term goals, not just to see what monster is hiding in the darkness.  To see this use though, we’ve got to take a quick peek at Clairaudience:

Clairaudience: Same as Clairvoyance except it allows hearing rather than visualization. This is one of the few spells which can be cast through a Crystal Ball (see Volume II).

Ultimately all three of these spells are means of spying on your enemies.  To get this at an unlimited range in OD&D though, we must incorporate a specific magic item: the crystal ball.  Of course given that a crystal ball by default is purely visual, it makes sense that Clairvoyance makes no mention of it, as the crystal ball basically supersedes that spell entirely.  However, given how much these three spells reference each other, I think we can easily make the leap that they’re all related to and considered alongside the crystal ball.

B/X basically follows the OD&D model here, with a 60′ range.  However, it adds a new limitation of requiring a creature through whose eyes you are looking.  The spell even gives instructions on how to switch which creature the scene is viewed from, but the implication here is that the spell cannot be used to see an unoccupied area.  This as far as I can tell, is entirely unique to B/X.

OK, let’s move on to the 1st Edition AD&D text:

Explanation/Description:  Similar  to  the  clairaudience  spell,  the  clairvoyance  spell  empowers  the  magic-user  to  see  in his  or  her  mind  whatever  is within sight range from the spell locale chosen. Distance  is not a factor, but the locale must be known  –  familiar or obvious. Furthermore, light is a factor whether or not the spell caster has the ability  to see into the infrared or ultraviolet spectrums. If the area is dark, only a 1″  radius  from the  center  of  the  locale  of  the  spell’s  area  of  effect  can  be clairvoyed;  otherwise,  the seeing extends to  normal vision  range. Metal sheeting or magical protections will foil a clairvoyance spell. The spell functions only on  the  plane  on  which  the  magic-user  is  at  the  time  of  casting.  The  material component of the spell is a pinch of powdered pineal gland  from  a human or humanoid  creature.

I guess this must be the version of the spell I’m used to.  Here we have basically an unlimited range, and no requirement that the area being spied upon be occupied.  It’s interesting to note that the AD&D crystal ball now has some serious overlap with this spell, though it does have it’s own flavor.  The crystal ball focuses more on locating an individual regardless of location, while Clairvoyance seems more tied to a specific locale and discovering what is there.

The 2nd edition AD&D version of this spell is basically identical to the 1st edition.  3.0 likewise touches this spell little, though does combine the descriptions of both Clairaudience and Clairvoyance into a single text block, which I suppose makes sense given how the two spells only differ in terms of which sense is used.  Interestingly, 3.0 also introduces the spell Scrying, one level higher that combines the two spells allowing both vision and hearing, but also oddly incorporates a skill check.  This is the only case I’m aware of in any edition of the game that directly ties a spell with it’s own unique skill.

In 3.5 again the text is very similar.  The same locale targeting language exists, with the limitation that the location must be “familiar or obvious” that has existed since 1st edition.  Gone though is the phrase “distance is not a factor”, and range has changed from “See text” to “400 ft + 40 ft/level”.

In the past I have used this spell as evidence of what I refer to as the “board-game-ification” of D&D: that as the game evolved everything took on a tactical use in combat or dungeon exploration.  Clairvoyance, which in 3.0 was excellent for spying on enemies and doing long term strategic thinking that implies a complex campaign world, is now reduced to simply seeing what kind of monster is behind the next door.

However, as we can see, this was always its use.  Only in AD&D did the spell expand it’s range, and to give 3.5 it’s due, the new Scrying spell introduced in 3.0 retains the “any distance” range.  Much like OD&D’s crystal ball, the Scrying spell is given the advantage of infinite range, possibly to differentiate it from the lower level more tactical spell Clairvoyance.  Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that as you go from 3.0 to 3.5 to 4e you still see the “board-game-ification” effect, by which the game dwindles down to a game about moving miniatures around on a gridded board and fighting monsters rather than the exploration of a imaginary world with infinite possibilities.  However, Clairvoyance may not be the poster-child for this effect I’ve always thought it to be.

So where does that leave us?  Clairvoyance is a bit different in almost every single edition of the game.  My personal preference seems to lean slightly to the 1st edition AD&D version, simply because that’s the version that seems most familiar to me.  Likely this is because it’s unchanged in 2nd edition, which we know is the edition I really did grow up with.  I can’t say that I’m terribly fond of B/X’s insistence that it causes the caster to actually see through another creature’s eyes.  It’s a neat idea, but one I’d rather see as a separate spell or item, perhaps joined with the ability to summon and control a small creature as the subject.

As for limiting the range, I don’t really mind it so long as there is something in the game which extends that range.  In fact, I kind of like the idea of changing the crystal ball into simply a range-extending device for these kinds of spells.  On it’s own, it’s just a hunk of glass, but when clairvoyance, clairaudience, or ESP is cast upon it the spell’s range is extended to any distance.  Obviously that’s not cannon from any version of the crystal ball, but I think it has a nice feel to it.

What comes closest to all of my preferences above?  What a surprise: OD&D.  That could be due simply to the openness of the text to interpretation, or simply that these spells hadn’t had the chance yet to be over-worked and over-designed across many editions.  More and more I think that were I to start a brand new campaign tomorrow, I would seriously consider using OD&D as a base rather than B/X.  For now though, I may simply house-rule out the “see through another creature’s eyes” bit of the B/X text to make the spell more like the original version.  That of course means that long-range spying will require a crystal ball, but that in turn makes that into a much more interesting item, which isn’t a bad thing in my book.


Turning Through the Ages

In our last session we played with the B/X Changelist I posted earlier to see what it was like.  It was pretty good, but last session was dominated by a visit to town, so I’ll give it another session before really calling a verdict.  We did discover a few small problems, and one big one.  One of my players who plays a cleric asked if we would use the B/X turning chart or the LL one.  I hadn’t realized they were significantly different — turns out they are.

I decided to also look at other versions of the turning chart to get some historical insight on how the chart has changed over time.  I was surprised to see that it changes radically from one edition to the next.  Rather than post all the charts here to compare, I wrote up a spreadsheet (in open office) that you can download.  I also have that as a PDF for easier reading.  In both the first page is the raw charts from various editions of D&D, and the second page has them all translated into percentage values, as some editions use different size and numbers of dice.  Below is some discussion about the key differences I discovered in various editions:


Always the starting point, OD&D looks pretty similar to the charts I’m used to looking at from B/X and Labyrinth Lord.  It’s a 2d6 chart based on level vs. type of undead.  In my pdf I include the HD of the undead in parenthesis, as later systems will convert to HD based rather than call out specific monster types.  One thing that is interesting here is that the HD of some common undead is lower than I expected.  Skeletons are only 1/2 HD, and zombies 1 HD.  More on that in the B/X section.


B/X gives us exactly the same chart as OD&D, but the HD of the lower level monsters has changed.  This gives us the odd presence of two rows for 2 HD monsters (zombies and ghouls).  Of course, anyone that’s ever fought either will tell you that ghouls are way tougher than zombies and kind of deserve their own row.  Frankly, I kind of think OD&D did it right here from a mechanical vantage of having a unique row per HD, but on the other hand I just can’t seem to swallow skeletons having the same hit points as goblins.


In AD&D we get the switch to a d20, which forced me to convert all the charts to percentages so I could actually compare them.  (Probabilities for 2d6 shamelessly stolen from this site.)  The other thing AD&D introduces us to is a wider band of possibilities.  This is likely due to their also adding many more same-HD entries (look at how many 4 HD rows we have!)  Another oddity is the sometimes presence of a 19 value (levels 1-3, 9-13).  Also note that compared to B/X, AD&D is much slower to grant destruction.  A level 8 B/X cleric can destroy a 4 HD wraith, the same ability is not granted in AD&D until 14th level.


The 3.0 SRD switches us to HD based rather than specific monster based rows.  It also introduces a modifier to the roll, based on Charisma for some unknown reason.  For comparison’s sake I assume a cleric with no modifier, which essentially turns all those 22’s into not possible.  Given 3.0’s permissive ability rolling, I suspect this is probably not realistic.  Another interesting thing to note is the algorithmic autoturn.  In fact, I had to extrapolate this entire chart as the SRD just gives equations based on HD of undead and level of cleric.  The interesting is that by the chart auto-turning happens if the cleric is more than 2x the HD of the monster.  Given the presence of a “1” entry in the chart though (which is also essentially an auto-turn, except for you clerics with a very low Charisma), this means that auto-turn is basically non-existent until level 9.

Labyrinth Lord

Labyrinth Lord is very interesting.  Here we revert back to a 2d6 mechanic, but expanded from B/X to include a wider band of chances.  Compare 5th level for example.  At 5th level a LL cleric has an 8% chance of turning a 7 HD monster, a power the same B/X character won’t get until 6th level.  On the other hand, the B/X 5th level cleric is automatically destroying 1-2 HD undead (skeletons and zombies), which the LL cleric won’t get to do until level 7.  It’s like the LL cleric gets a more gradual curve, with low chances (but still a chance) of turning more powerful undead earlier, while the B/X cleric has a sharper curve that automatically turns or destroys less powerful undead sooner.  Also of note, LL has special text in the ghoul entry noting that it turns as if it’s a 3 HD undead, but still only counts for 2 HD when totalling HD turned.  This is a curious ‘fix’ for the lack of a special ghoul row in the chart.

So I’m not seeing a clear winner here.  AD&D and 3.0 are just too far different to even consider.  OD&D and B/X are virtually the same, while LL is what we’ve been using to date and is better in some ways and worse in others.  I think ultimately I’m tempted to go with B/X for no reason other than it’s one less thing to put on the changelist.


10′ Poles Through the Ages

One of my players just pointed out a discrepancy in the equipment list of Labyrinth Lord.  According to the equipment list, a 10′ pole costs 2 sp, while a 10′ ladder costs only 5 cp.  Thus, 1 10′ pole = 4 10′ ladders.  But surely one needs two 10′ poles to construct a 10′ ladder, right?  It seems one could make a killing by simply buying up 10′ ladders, knocking them apart, and then selling off the two 10′ poles individually.  That’s 15 cp profit right there, not even including what you might get out of the 8 or so rungs.

So where did this come from?  Like much in Labyrinth Lord, this is right out of the 3.0 SRD.  Take a look at the chart on the right side of this page, and you will see the same two items with the same costs.  Of course, I couldn’t leave it there, and started back tracking other systems.

In 2nd edition AD&D, a 10′ ladder is listed in the equipment section as costing 5 cp.  The 10′ pole is not listed at all.  Not listed at all?!  I am amazed that any version of D&D would leave out this staple of adventuring gear!  Let’s go back a bit further.

In 1st edition AD&D, a 10′ pole costs 3cp, while it’s the 10′ ladder that’s not listed.  That sounds a bit more reasonable to me.  Also, it would seem to be the origin of this error.  If you just blindly take stuff from the 1st edition list and stuff from the 2nd edition list and ram them together, you get this weird pricing of 10′ wooden implements.

Likewise, B/X and OD&D list only the pole and not the ladder.  OD&D of course lists no prices, but B/X shows a 10′ pole as 1 gp.  That’s quite the price increase from AD&D, though I suspect it’s simply because everything in the chart is listed in units of gold pieces with nothing costing less than 1.

It appears we have 2nd edition to thank for the ladder and the ham-fisted combination of 1st and 2nd into 3e for weird error.  For my own game, I’ll be increasing the cost of the ladder significantly.  Given the addition of rungs and the labor of construction, I think a 10′ ladder should cost well more than twice that of a 10′ pole.

Spells Through the Ages: Spell Progression

OK, this isn’t really a normal Spells Through the Ages.  I was looking at the pre-generated characters in the A-series modules and thinking about how I might translate them into the flavor of B/X-esque D&D I usually run.  The spells are the hardest bit, especially when one of the PCs is an illusionist, and I happened to notice that he also had more 1st level spells than I expected for a 5th level caster.  I did some digging and found out that it’s not illusionist vs. magic-user here, but that AD&D has a pretty different spells per level progression than B/X for all classes.

I started plotting the numbers for magic-users against each other, and felt I needed to add OD&D as well for the comparison.  Here’s the table I generated, I’m sure someone with better spread-sheet skills could make this into some kind of fancy graphical 3D bar chart or something, but I think it’s enough to spot the differences.  To explain a little, the y-axis here is character level while the x-axis is spell level by edition (O=OD&D, B=B/X, A=AD&D).

O1 B1 A1 O2 B2 A2 O3 B3 A3 O4 B4 A4 O5 B5 A5 O6 B6 A6
1 1 1 1
2 2 2 2
3 3 2 2 1 1 1
4 4 2 3 2 2 2
5 4 2 4 2 2 2 1 1 1
6 4 2 4 2 2 2 2 2 2
7 4 3 4 3 2 3 2 2 2 1 1 1
8 4 3 4 3 3 3 3 2 3 2 2 2
9 4 3 4 3 3 3 3 3 3 2 2 2 1 1 1
10 4 3 4 4 3 4 3 3 3 3 3 2 2 2 2
11 4 4 4 4 3 4 4 3 4 3 3 3 3 2 3 1
12 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 3 4 4 3 4 4 3 4 1 2 1
13 5 4 5 5 4 5 5 4 5 4 3 4 4 3 4 2 3 2


The interesting thing to note here is that B/X is the real outlier.  All editions are the same for the first two levels, and oddly at third level OD&D grants an extra 1st level spell over the two newer editions.  AD&D quickly catches up, and then more or less agrees with OD&D all the way up to name level, while B/X regularly lags behind, especially in first level spells.  Then bizarrely at 11th level B/X jumps the gun granting a 6th level spell before AD&D and OD&D, but by 13th level B/X is one spell behind the other two for every single level.  I stopped the comparison at 13th level as AD&D grants the first 7th level spell at 14th level at which point I think it’s not really fair to compare to systems that don’t have those higher level spells.

I’m especially intrigued by the progression of 1st level spells.  While B/X pretty regularly lags by one spell per level, it’s especially slow to ramp up the first level spells.  It doesn’t grant a third spell until 7th level, 2-3 levels behind the other two, and it doesn’t hit 4 until 11th, 6-7 levels behind the others.  Why?  If anything, it seems to make more sense to me to grant plenty of first level spells early on, as at the later levels how big a difference is one more 1st level spell?  Aside from Magic Missile, most 1st level spells aren’t particularly useful to a level 7-11 Magic User.

To be honest, I’m kind of tempted to just retro-fit the OD&D chart for my own game.  I’m sure my players won’t complain about getting some extra spells.  I’d be very curious though if anyone can argue in favor of the B/X progression.

Spells Through the Ages: Neutralize Poison

If you take a look at the death toll from my campaign over the last year, you may notice that about 25% of the deaths were due to a failed save vs. poison. The save or die mechanic is in fact viewed by many as a hallmark of an old school game. How does a party deal with this kind of problem? Well, let’s take a look at what magical recourse they have. I’ll be looking both at Neutralize Poison, which exists in every edition, as well as the lesser versions (Slow Poison, Delay Poison, etc.) that have existed in various editions at various times. And as a matter of course, we’ll have to look at the poison rules themselves. Let’s start with OD&D, the easiest and most vague.  It includes the following 4th level cleric spell:

Neutralize Poison: A spell to counter the harmful effects of poison. Note that it
will not aid a character killed by poison, however. It will affect only one object.
Duration: 1 turn.

Poison is mentioned in other places besides this spell throughout the LBBs, mostly in regards to the attacks of various monsters.  Its effects are never actually spelled out.  There is a brief hint in the description of saving throws that mentions a successful save vs poison results in “scoring one-half of the total possible hit damage”.  This implies that poison causes hit point damage, but how much?  No indication exists.

Holmes does not have any anti-poison spell, but given it’s previous incarnation as a 4th level spell this is not surprising, as Holmes does not reach that high of a level.  The next we see the spell is in Cook’s expert book, again as a 4th level cleric spell:

Neutralize Poison (Range: 0′, Duration: permanent)

This spell will cancel the effects of poison and revive a poisoned character if cast within ten rounds.  It can also be cast on a poison or poisoned item to make it harmless.  It acts only on poison present at the time it is cast.

Now, in the basic book poison is specifically addressed, telling us that “if a character is hit with a poisoned attack and misses his or her saving throw vs. Poison, the character will usually die.” (B 29).  Presumably the word ‘usually’ is in there as some monsters may dictate a special kind of poison other than standard death-dealing poison (eg. the spitting cobra’s blinding poison).  In addition to this general description, most monsters with a poison attack tell us the victim must “save vs. Poison or die”.

Item of note here is the rule that the spell may be cast within 10 rounds of being poisoned.  Presumably in B/X this is how long it takes for poison to set in and actually kill the victim, though it’s never described anywhere but in this spell.  We’ll see this duration extended in 1st edition AD&D, but more so we’ll see a lot more time spent on the final statement of the spell only effecting “poison present at the time of cast”.  It seems there may have been some debate about whether this spell when cast on say a poisonous viper, would permanently detoxify the animal.  AD&D tells us it certainly won’t:

Neutralize Poison (Alteration) Reversible

Level: 4, Components: V, S, Range: Touch, Casting Time: 7 segments, Duration: Permanent, Saving Throw: None, Area of Effect: Creature touched or 1 cubic foot of substance/2 levels

Explanation/Description: By means of a neutralize poison spell, the cleric detoxifies any sort of venom in the creature or substance touched.  Note that an opponent, such as a poisonous reptile or snake (or even an envenomed weapon of an opponent) unwilling to be so touched requires the cleric to score a hit in melee combat.  Effects of the spell are permanent only with respect to poison existing in the touched creature at the time of teh touch, ie. creatures (or objects) which generate new poison will not be permanent detoxified.  The reverse spell, poison, likewise requires an attack (a “to hit” touch which succeeds), and the victim is allowed a saving throw vs. poison.  If the latter is unsuccessful, the victim is killed by the poison.

Interestingly, there’s little here about using the spell to save a poisoned comrade.  B/X tells me I have 10 rounds in which to cast Neutralize Poison on my friend, but this spell mentions no such thing.  For that, we have to look at the new 2nd level cleric spell, Slow Poison:

Slow Poison (Necromantic)

Level: 2, Components: V, S, M, Range: Touch, Casting Time: 1 segment, Duration: 1 hour/level, Saving Throw: None, Area of Effect: Creature Touched

Explanation/Description: When this spell is placed upon a poisoned individual it greatly slows the effect of any venom, even causing a supposedly dead individual to have life restored if it is cast upon the victim within a number of turns less than or equal to the level of experience of the cleric after the poisoning was suffered, i.e. a victim poisoned up to 10 turns previously could be temporarily saved by a 10th or higher level cleric who cast slow poison upon the victim.  While this spell does not neutralize the venom, it does prevent it from substantially harming the individual for the duration of its magic, but each turn the poisoned creature will lose 1 hit point from the effect of the venom (although the victim will never go below 1 hit point while the slow poison spell’s duration lasts).  Thus, in the example above, the victim remains with 1 hit point until the spell duration expires and hopefully during that period a full cure can be accomplished.  The material components of this spell are the cleric’s holy/unholy symbol and a bud of garlic which must be crushed and smeared on the victim’s bare feet.

Wow, that’s quite a lot of text.  And ultimately for a solution I find highly unsatisfying.  I mean, I do like the idea of having a less powerful spell for delaying the effects of poison that might allow a group of 3rd level characters or so make it out of the dungeon in time to find a priest and pay for a full Neutralize Poison.  I really dislike the lose 1 hp but never go below 1 hp though, as it smacks of game design-ism.  That is, I’m sure the designer felt very clever writing this, but it feels like it has so many edge cases that it causes more problems than it solves.  What if the victim is poisoned again, does he lose 2 hp per turn?  Once he reaches 1 hp, is he now impervious to all poison effects, at least until the spell runs out?  Can he be healed back up, and if he is, will he lose hp from the poison again?  Yuck, why not just give the poor bastard a break and say that the death by that particular poisoning is delayed by the duration of the spell?

This is further confused by the addition of more kinds of poisons in the DMG.  Not only do we have death causing poisons, but also hp damage causing poisons, and damage amounts for poison you fail to save against (eg. type E ingested causes death, or 30 hp damage if you save).  What does this mean for Slow Poison?  If a character fails his save vs. damage causing poison and gets a Slow Poison cast on him, what does that do?  Is it different depending on whether the amount of damage was greater or less than the victim’s remaining hp?

Finally, questions arise when the players get high enough level for their cleric to start packing Neutralize Poison.  Can Neutralize Poison be cast on someone that failed to save vs. a death dealing poison?  If so, how quickly must it be cast?

I was going to go into later editions as well here, but this is getting long so let me sum up.  The rules in 2nd edition are not much different from 1st, Neutralize and Slow Poison pretty much do the same things.  By 3rd and 3.5 poison has been greatly reduced.  There’s no more save or die, the strongest poison causes 3d6 points of Constitution loss, with a 0 Con equating to death, but on average this isn’t going to be enough to kill a character who rolled 4d6 drop the lowest for his Con.  Slow Poison becomes Delay Poison (still 2nd level), and grants complete temporary immunity to poison, Neutralize Poison prevents ongoing effects but does not undo any immediate damage caused by the initial poisoning.

Sigh.  It’s all so convoluted, and could have been fixed so easily.  I think B/X gets closest to what I’d want, though I’d be tempted to take the 10 rounds out of the spell description and make it a general rule for poison.  Poison attacks require you to save vs. poison or become comatose for 10 rounds and then die.  Neutralize Poison is then simple – it removes poison and wakes the comatose victim.  I have no problem with it being used as an attack against a poisonous creature, well done I say.  I’d also say that a Dispel Magic might return the creature to its naturally venomous state (the poison is still there, it’s just been magically neutralized).  Finally, the addition of a 2nd level spell that increases the duration of the comatose state sounds pretty cool to me, but I don’t need it.  Might make for an interesting potion for low level treasure though.

Huh, yet again I find the B/X solution the best.  I hope I’m not starting to appear biased.

Spells Through the Ages: Cure Light Wounds

Remember this little feature? Man, I haven’t written one of these in forever. Sorry everyone! OK, today I’m tackling a staple of the clerical spell list: Cure Light Wounds.  I’m going to start by just quoting the text from various incarnations and then review.


Cure Light Wounds: During the course of one full turn this spell will remove hits from a wounded character (including elves, dwarves, etc.)  A die is rolled, one pip is added, and the resultant total is subtracted from the hits [sic] points the character has taken.  Thus from 2-7 hit points of damage can be removed.

Holmes edition:

Cure Light Wounds — Level: clerical 1; Range: 0

During the course of one melee round this spell will heal damage done to a character, including elves, dwarves and hobbits.  A die is rolled and 1 is added to it; the result is the number of hit points restored (2-7).  The zero range means the cleric must touch the wounded person to heal him.


Cure Light Wounds* Range: 0, Duration: permanent

This spell will heal 2-7 points (1d6+1) of damage done to any living creature (character or monster) when the cleric touches the individual.  This spell may also be used to cure paralysis, but will not then cure any points of damage.  The spell may be cast on the cleric’s own body.  The spell’s effect will not, in any case, increase a creature’s hit point total to more than the normal amount.  EXAMPLE: Tars the fighter normally has 6 hp.  In battle with goblins, he takes 5 points of damage.  Gantry the cleric casts a cure light wounds spell on him during the battle, and rolls a 6 on the die, which cures up to 7 points of damage.  Tars is restored to his original total of 6 hp, but the 2 extra points are wasted.

1st Edition AD&D PHB:

Cure Light Wounds (Necromantic) Reversible

Level: 1, Range: Touch, Duration: Permanent, Area of Effect: Character touched, Components: V,S, Casting Time: 5 segments, Saving Throw: None

Explanation/Description: Upon laying his or her hands upon a creature, the cleric causes 1 to 8 hit points of wound or other injury damage to the creature’s body to be healed.  This healing will not affect creatures without corporeal bodies, nor will it cure wounds of creatures not living or those which can be harmed only by iron, silver, and/or magical weapons.  Its reverse, cause light wounds, operates in the same manner; and if a person is avoiding this touch, a melee combat “to hit” die is rolled to determine if the cleric’s hand strikes the opponent and causes such a wound.  Note that cured wounds are permanent only insofar as the creature does not sustain further damage, and that caused wounds will heal — or can be cured — just as any normal injury will.  Caused wounds are 1 to 8 hit points of damage.

3.0 SRD (Sorry, don’t have a 2nd edition text here)

Cure Light Wounds Conjuration (Healing)  Level: Brd 1, Clr 1, Drd 1, Healing 1, Pal 1, Rgr 2, Components: V, S, Casting Time: 1 action, Range: Touch, Target: Creature touched, Duration: instantaneous, Saving Throw: Will half (harmless) (see text), Spell Resistance: Yes (harmless)

When laying the character’s hand upon a living creature, the character channels positive energy that cures 1d8 points of damage +1 point per caster level (up to +5).  Since undead are powered by negative energy, this spell deals damage to them instead of curing their wounds. An undead creature can attempt a Will save to take half damage.

OK, I’m not going to talk about the inflation of hit points.  Clearly cure light wounds follows the gradual increase of hit points that’s reflected in the editions in general.

The one completely unique thing in the OD&D text is its mention of subtracting hits taken rather than later editions which restore hit points lost.  It’s a minor difference, but it seems to imply that in OD&D perhaps the practice was to track hits taken, and death was caused when they equaled or exceeded the creature’s hit point total.  Later editions all seem to imply that hit points are lost, and that cure light wounds restores lost points, but not above the original total.  In retrospect, the OD&D system seems to have a bit of clarity to it that would be easier to explain to newbies that later editions lose.  I wonder how or why that change came about?

Also interesting in the OD&D text, and carried forward into Holmes, is the text about how it does in fact effect non-humans.  Was this a question that needed clarification?  Are there other spells that only effect humans?  Moldvay even extends this notion to indicate that you can even heal monsters.  I imagine this question probably came up when the party cleric wanted to heal the charmed orc the party was toting around.  1e goes ahead and switches to simply stating what it can’t effect, and this is carried forward into 3.0 with an interpretation of it being powered by positive energy, thus causing damage instead of healing to negative energy creatures (ie. undead).

Moldvay is my favorite, and not just because it’s the edition I actually play with.  First of all, this is the first case we see of the spell being reversible (that’s what the asterisk indicates).  Well, OK, that’s not actually what makes it my favorite.  In fact, this introduces some very odd ideas about good vs. evil clerics.  According to the Expert book, clerical spells can be reversed on the fly, but it’s generally looked on with disfavor by the gods.  Good clerics cast cure, evil clerics cast cause, and if either uses the reverse it’s only acceptable in “life or death” situations.  I suppose this makes a bit of sense when you consider good clerics smiting their enemies with cause light wounds, but the opposite doesn’t hold up.  Do evil clerics really not need to cure their minions, or themselves?

What I really love about Moldvay is this line: “This spell may also be used to cure paralysis, but will not then cure any points of damage.”  I assumed that this was because the limited spell list in Basic D&D did not include whatever the spell is in AD&D for removing paralysis.  But then as I searched my AD&D PHB, I couldn’t find a spell for it.  We’ve used this in my game for anything from ghoul paralysis to enemy hold person spells.  I even extended it via house rule to allow the spell to fix minor injuries (sprains, broken bones, etc) at the cost of not healing any hit points of damage.  It adds a very nice versatility to the spell that I think helps my cleric player feel less like he’s losing spell slots by being forced to pack a bunch of cure light wounds spells.  Of course, it only makes it even more questionable why a cleric would ever memorize any first level spell other than cure light wounds.

Well, there you have it, the staple of the cleric’s arsenal, cure light wounds.  Love it, hate it, and always have as many as possible memorized.

Spells Through the Ages: Detect Evil

I suppose I’m on the hook now, having been mentioned on both Delta’s blog and Grognardia.  Actually, Delta and I already discussed doing these posts based on the evolution of individual spells through the various editions of D&D, and I’m totally on board.  I’m going to try and stick to clerical spells, as Delta doesn’t use clerics in his game, it should make it easy to avoid collisions.  However, today’s spell is on both lists, so I want to get it out there before Delta does.  🙂

One can’t really analyze the spell Detect Evil without also looking at the changes in the alignment system over the course of the different editions.  I’ll touch on those briefly, but I’ll leave it to the reader to dig up more specifics on the differing alignments systems.  So let’s begin with the beginning, the spell as it appears in OD&D (vol. I, page 24):

Detect Evil: A spell to detect evil thought or intent in any creature or evilly enchanted object. Note that poison, for example, is neither good nor evil. Duration: 2 turns. Range: 6″.

This is the level 2 magic-user version.  The level 1 clerical spell differs only in range (12″) and duration (6 turns).  Interesting though that the cleric version gets a boost in both, despite being lower level.  Also interesting to note, the Holmes version is pretty much identical, despite the change in alignment system.  OD&D uses the original single axis alignment of Chaos, Neutrality, and Law.  Holmes introduces the second axis of Good vs. Evil, but does not have variations of neutrality (no Neutral Good or Chaotic Neutral, for example).

Now OD&D doesn’t give us real direction on what is evil.  Holmes however, clearly tells us in monster descriptions whether they are evil via their alignment.  So the question is, in OD&D are chaotic creatures evil?  Well, let’s take a look at the B/X version of the spell, which also has the single-axis alignment system (Basic Book, page B15) :

Detect Evil Range: 120′, Duration 6 Turns

This spell can be used to detect evil intentions, or evilly enchanted objects within
120′ causing the creatures or objects to glow. Actual thoughts are not detected; only the “feeling of evil”. The exact definition of “evil” is left to each referee, and players should discuss this point so that all are in agreement; “Chaotic” is not always “evil”. Poison and physical traps are neither good nor evil.

Well, looks like it was already becoming a contentious issue.  Here we see that chaotic and evil are clearly not equal, and the entire thing is left to the DM to decide.  Moldvay wipes his hands of the issues, and tells the DMs: “you figure it out.”  But here’s an interesting twist, Moldvay tells us that this spell does not read the evil creature’s thoughts, and we only get a sense of evil.  Is this in opposition to the earlier verbiage?  Clearly the old description mentions detecting “evil thought”, but does that just mean that we know someone is having evil thoughts, or can we hear the thoughts themselves, a la an ESP spell?  I suspect the former, and I suspect misinterpretation of this resulted in a lot of teeth gnashing around the gaming tables.

Here’s the 1st Edition version to muddy the waters further (Player’s Handbook, page 44):

Dtect Evil (Divination) Reversible

Explanation/Description: This is a spell which discovers emanations of evil, or of good in the case of the reverse spell, from any creature or object. For example, evil alignment or an evilly cursed object will radiate evil, but a hidden trap or an unintelligent viper will not. The duration of a detect evil (or detect good) spell is 1 turn + 1/2 turn (5 rounds, or 5 minutes) per level of the cleric. Thus a cleric of 1st level of experience can cast a spell with a 1 1/2 turn duration, at 2nd level a 2 turn duration, 2 1/2 at 3rd, etc. The spell has a path of detection 1” wide in the direction in which the cleric is facing. It requires the use of the cleric’s holy (or unholy) symbol as its material component, with the cleric holding it before him or her.

Now we are detecting “emanations” of evil, clearly not thoughts nor intent.  And for the first time, the spell distinctly references the alignment system.  From this version forward, we’ll see this spell is always locked into a an alignment detection spell.  But wait, don’t we have a separate spell for that?  Indeed, it’s on the very next page of the PHB, Know Alignment, a 2nd level clerical spell.

By 3e and later the spell becomes increasingly complex.  So much so that I’m not going to post all the charts that go with it, but you can check them out yourself over on the Hypertext SRD.  Suffice it to say that the alignment hook is firmly in place by now, the spell has been broken out to a version for each alignment leaf node (Detect Evil, Detect Good, Detect Law, and Detect Chaos), and Know Alignment is gone.  Also, we get some very specific tables about what kind of creatures or objects emanate various strengths of evil auras.

I’m not posting a poll with this one, sorry everyone.  I know how I rule this one, and I sort of think Moldvay got it right.  It could be because I run B/X, or it could be because I see this spell as more of a plot hook spell than some kind of tactical bad-guy finder, but I happen to think this really is a case where the DM simply must figure it out for himself.  What is evil?  That’s a pretty philosophical question.  I can tell you how it works in my own game though:

I play the alignments fairly literally.  Either you’re in league with the forces of law, or the forces of chaos, or you just don’t care about the struggle (Neutrality).  Being chaotic isn’t just bucking the system, it’s trying to destroy everything that’s good, let loose the demons from the gates of hell, and purge the world of all that is right and good, or at least enslave them and rule them with an iron fist.  Chaotic people/creatures are just plumb bad, in fact, you might say evil.  Does a goblin radiate evil in my game?  You bet he does.  And he’ll prove it by gutting any of you surface dwellers any time he gets half a chance.

That’s my take on it.  Is it the right interpretation?  I don’t think there is such a thing.  Each DM has got to play it the way it best fits in his campaign.  Unfortunately, I don’t think the writers/editors of later editions really trusted their DM readers to make those kind of choices.