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Friday, November 23, 2018

Moldvay Musings XI: Initiative

In a recent game, the PCs had a wilderness encounter with a nest of four giant scorpions. Fortunately for the characters, they were mounted and were able to turn things into a running battle where as they literally ran the monsters  in circles as they peppered them with arrows. The monsters could catch up with the PCs each round, but not also attack.

By the end,the fight had become a simple matter of tedious attrition. After the session, I thought about it and how it might have been handled differently. Not to punish the players for using tactics, but to keep it more exciting. (Though honestly, they should have just run away). I chided myself a little for not applying circumstantial modifiers for things like terrain slowing them or giving cover from missile fire to the monsters (they were in a relatively dense forest). They main thing I found though was something in the rules as written that I have always been aware of, but seem to have difficulty remembering for reasons uncertain: In BX, initiative is supposed to be re-rolled every round.

At some point in our group’s history with various editions and systems, we’ve fallen out of that habit and simply rolled for initiative at the start of an encounter. We use individual initiative as opposed to group, so at first I was thinking it was just a good way to reduce excess die rolling, but it turns out that rolling every round matter more than I first realized.

For example, in the above circumstances the kiting players wouldn’t have been able to rely on going first each round (they’d rolled well) to evade the monsters again & again. One low initiative and the scorpions would do their thing. This ties into the rules for Defensive Movement, i.e. Fighting Withdrawal and Retreat (B24). To use these types of movement, one must declare intent to do so before rolling the round’s initiative. This increases the risks, but does keep things fresher. Keep in mind the rule applies to monsters as well as PCs.

The other circumstance where an action is “pre-declared” in BX is spell casting. This one always catches me out because the rule is listed in Cook, not Moldvay. A character wishing to cast a spell that round must A) say so, and B) declare which spell before the initiative order is rolled. Again, upping the tension in the fight. I usually haven’t applied this rule in the past because I felt like it weakened already fragile spellcasters, but I am considering reintroducing it.

For a more detailed discussion on some of these and other mechanics, I highly recommend reading the “An Interpretation of Basic D&D” post over at the Basic Dungeons and Dragons blog.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

RMA: Manticore

vb Wyrde over on the MeWe OSR group asked about who had used or encountered these critters in their games and I realized I had never done a Random Monster Assessment on them.

These creatures appear in Cook Expert. This makes sense as they would be a handful for Basic level PCs and they are more suited to wilderness encounters (they do appear on the random monsters for dungeon levels 8+). They are on the flyer table for Mountain and Desert terrain, which also makes sense given their origin in persian mythology. 

Manticore (from Cook)
AC: 4
HD: 6+1
Move: 120' (40'), Fly 180' (60')
Att: 2 claws/1bite or spikes
Dmg: 1d4/1d4/2d8 or special
No. App: 1d2 (1d4)
Save: F6
Morale: 9
Treasure: D

So stat-wise, the manticore is pretty tough, but not unstoppable. Its AC is so-so for a 6 hit die creature. It has poor morale, too. What makes this fella formidable is a combination of factors. This makes a little work for the DM to keep them all in mind, but the result can be a pretty memorable encounter.

  1. It can fly. I know that's hardly unique, but it does add a wrinkle to facing one (or more) of them. 
  2. It has ranged and melee attacks. In both cases it is potentially striking multiple times per round. 
  3. The melee attacks (claws/bite) are not automatic kills, but if all three hit a single target, you're looking at up to 16 points of damage per round. A perfectly respectable number.
  4. The spike attack is nasty. Granted the manticore only has four of them before his tail is empty, but each round that it uses it can mean up to 36 points of damage dealt out. And this is a ranged attack. 
  5. "The manticore's favorite food is man." (X35) These things seek out people and eat them. They are not just dangerous, they actively hunt humans. Their chaotic alignment also points to them not feeling too terrible about it either.
  6. "They will frequently track parties with humans, ambushing with spike attacks when the party stops to rest." It's interesting to note that it specifically says "with humans." One reading of that could be distinguishing them from demihumans. So a party with a mix of races could see the humans specifically targeted. 
  7. As a 6+ HD monster, it is capable of flying off carrying a man. Or, say, flying up 100' or so and dropping him on some rocks. 
Treasure Type D is pretty respectable, so I could see PC parties being foolish and greedy enough to seek out a manticore lair for the loot. Perhaps in a desert, where the creature(s) have made a den in an old pyramid tomb full of the gold of a lost king?

If I was a player facing such an encounter, I would work hard to find a way to ground it (perhaps a Web spell?) then close to melee so it couldn't shoot me with those 6 x 1d6 spikes. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

RSA: Silence 15' Radius

Would you believe a FIVE foot radius?

One of the big benefits of clerical magic is the ability to change out spells each day. This gives the cleric some nice flexibility in their magic as well as allowing the player to try out different spells more easily than with an elf or magic-user character. As a result, I think I would have seen even less of this spell in use if it had been an "arcane" offering instead of divine; even though it is only 2nd level. If I had to guess, Bless and Hold Person are probably most people's go-to 2nd level clerical spells. While I have seen Silence used, it's not really that common.

Silence, 15' Radius (Cleric 2)
Range: 180'
Duration: 12 Turns

I always used to think of this spell as something the caster would use on themselves or their own party to aid in stealth as opposed to offensively against someone. While both applications are valid, the description focuses more on the latter.

Briefly put, the spell renders anyone or anything inside the area of effect silent. Spells can't be cast, giving verbal orders or conversing normally is impossible and so forth. The effect is normally stationary as well, though it can be cast on an individual so it will move with them. This can be resisted with a saving throw, but even if the target succeeds, the spell will still take effect in stationary form.

For a second level spell, the thing has pretty decent range and duration. Enough so that I could see it being used tactically in a battlefield situation. Not just to mute enemy mages, but to silence a commander trying to order his troops' movements.

Using it to make your party sneakier has the advantage that those inside the effect can still hear what's going on outside the spell's area. DMs would be wise to limit table chatter or players' ability to act upon others' suggestions while the spell is running. If you use command words for certain magical items, it can further limit their options.

Another use for the spell could be for traps or ambushes. Dropping the spell ahead of time in a likely spot, or targeting the PC mage, or a permanent spell effect along a stretch of corridor  could make the party very vulnerable in certain situations.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Moldvay Musings X: We have liftoff!

I've talked about flying in D&D before, but I wanted to briefly touch upon a nugget of wisdom in Cook that I recently re-read.

In the section on Traveling by Air (X20), it actually gives guidelines for how big (in HD) a creature needs to be to pick up or carry a person. This is useful not only for transport, but for whether a monster can snatch up a PC and carry him off into the air. For example, 3+ HD is required to lift a halfling or smaller. Therefore, technically, a cockatrice could carry a halfling or gnome off. Weird!

This information is incredibly handy, IMO, as it gives me as a DM a quick reference to decide about the tactics of aerial encounters, which can be complex enough as it is. For example, my group recently fought some harpies. While there were no hobbit-sized PCs or NPCs, it would have been nice to know ahead of time that they could have been carried off. (The idea of a charmed halfling just holding out his arms and being flown to the nest for devouring makes me laugh.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

RMA: Ghost

More Halloween fun!

While not part of the core BX roster of monsters, ghosts are in the Moldvay/Wells Basic series module Palace of the Silver Princess. You can also find a version in the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion,  but that always struck me as more of a 1st editon version ported over, so I'm sticking with the B3 version (I'm working from a pdf of the orange cover, if they are markedly different in the green cover version, please let me know).

Ghost (from B3)

AC: 1
HD: 5
Move: 150' (50')
Att: 1 + Aging
Dmg: 1d6
No. App: 1d4
Save: F5
Morale: 12

Ghosts are (obviously) a type of undead, and can be turned as wights. Their attacks have a 50% chance of aging the target by 1d8 years due to fright. What's odd is that -while described as translucent- there is no mention of them being incorporeal or requiring any special weapons (i.e. magic or silver) to strike them. I assume the standard undead immunities, such as charm and hold spells, are still in effect. 

Overall I am unimpressed by this listing. Other than some mention of them haunting certain types of locales and the idea that rich and powerful people become "powerful" ghosts in the afterlife (whatever that means!), it's basically a GINO (Ghost In Name Only). The Rules Cyclopedia's "Haunt" offers some more flavor, but it's still basically more monsters.

I am record saying that the undead's scariness should be more psychic than physical. I don't feel that the classic D&D Ghost delivers on this one. I do feel that it has a lot of potential, though. 

For example, the aging effect is a nice twist, but it's a pity that there is so little in the rules to make this really matter to the PCs. Sure the DM can make a ruling, but it's unlikely to make much difference unless a PC gets hit several times. This is certainly possible, but in practice how does the DM decide when the unlucky character has burned through his mortal coil? Or aged enough to affect scores, etc.? An on the fly ruling here can feel a bit arbitrary to the player if it's his PC on the line. I know that other editions do cover this, but it's still a weak link for the BX version IMO. 

Instead of just aging, what if there was some other effect? Maybe the PC literally dies of fright or "System Shock" from aging several years in an instant? Save vs. Death Ray/Poison or your heart fails.

I would keep the notion of ghosts being tied to something in the material world. It may be a place, or an object, or their own remains. It may even be their descendants (or those of their killer's!). 

Of course, the lack of "incorporeality" may just be a typo or oversight in the listing. Let's just put that back in, shall we? Like spectres, they have no solid bodies. I might also suggest that they have a higher chance of surprise (1-4?), due to popping out walls and such. Magic or silver to hit them seems appropriate as well. I would also give it the ability to turn invisible so it can toss things about poltergeist-style.

Finally, it may make sense to abandon the idea of the ghost as a "monster" altogether and think of it like a trap or puzzle. It is an anguished soul seeking release. The PCs could vanquish the spirit by laying it to rest. Maybe they need to bury its remains in consecrated ground or bring its killer to justice. Who knows? But it seems a heck of lot more spooky than some glow in the dark cookie cutter stat block. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

REF (Random Encounter Fun): Magic Men

Switching things up from the last REF, I thought we'd go back to the dungeon. A random determination took us to level 3 of the crawl (Moldvay). The result? Medium.

That's right. 1st level magic-user(s). 1d4 of them, actually. I rolled and got a 3.

Three unarmored fellows with daggers and one spell apiece aren't exactly terrifying. Granted, the spells could be a challenge, but if our PCs are 3rd level on average, I doubt they're quaking in their boots, here. I decided to roll randomly for the spells for Huey, Dewey, and Louie. I came up with Read Magic, Protection from Evil, and Light.

Scary? Not so much.

However, there is an interesting wrinkle to Mediums in the monster listings. There is a 50% chance that they are accompanied by a 3rd level MU, like a senior student or teacher. Rolling d100, I got 09, so guess who's coming along?

The conjurer gets two 1st level and one 2nd level spells. Again, rolling randomly, it turns out he has Protection from Evil, Magic Missile, and Web. No wonder he was sent along to watch these three newbies!

There's nothing inherently hostile about this quartet of spell-casters. Maybe they are searching the dungeon for some magic item or a spell scroll. Or maybe they're in the employ of the evil overlord and they are patrolling this sector of the lair. The point is that because of the fact that they are essentially NPCs (as opposed to "monsters"), they can have just as many motivations as the PCs for being in the dungeon.

In my campaign, magic-users and elves need to find spells to fill their grimoires, so this encounter would be a huge potential win for them. Likewise, the mediums (and their 3rd level buddy) might covet the PC spellcasters' books.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Curious Objects: The Rod of Cancellation

It's very plain-looking, but that sort of makes sense.

I can't say that I recall this ever showing up in play for me. I've thought about placing one to see what players might do with it, but I don't think it's ever happened. The RoC is odd for three main reasons.

1) It's the only rod that appears in the Basic/Expert books. Which is strange that they created a whole category for just the one item. Of course the idea is that the RoC can be used by anyone, not just spellcasters, so I guess that was how they chose to indicate that.

2) It's one and done. The RoC carries one charge only. Granted, it has a powerful effect, but again, it seems radically different in this regard from its other cylindrical cousins (Wands and Staves).

3) It is incredibly likely to succeed in its function. i.e. destroying the enchantment of another magic item. It has merely to make contact (to -hit vs. AC 9 if opposed) and there is no save. The effect is permanent, too. It's a maxed-out Dispel Magic that anyone can use (once). 

As I looked at its description, I thought about ways it might be used in a game, and to be honest, I'm surprised I haven't used it yet. It could be a nasty gotcha for the PCs in the hands of a foe, but I would make it the object of a quest. Imagine hunting one of these down to destroy a lich's phylactery? Or negating the power of the BBEG's sword? Of course, the one charge means you have to resist using its power prematurely. Also, unlike Dispel Magic, you need to physically touch the magical object you wish negate. Still, this anti-magic dowel does present some fun possibilities.