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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Homebrew Hag for Halloween

Here's something a little different today. I was thinking about an adventure I had worked on years ago involving a hag killing of a village and that got me looking at various versions of these uber-witches in D&D. None of the versions I found quite worked for what I had in mind, so I cobbled this one together from a few sources. It's got a bit of the BECMI rules' version, as well as some Castles & Crusades inspiration. Anyway, here it is in case anyone has some use for it. There's a link to a pdf version below.

AC: 4 (silver or magic to hit)
HD: 8-12*******
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 2 claws or spell
Damage: 2d4/2d4 + STR drain
No. App: 1 (1)
Save: D10
Morale: 12
AL: Chaotic

Night hags appear as tall (7'), ugly, female humanoids. They are typically dressed in ragged clothes and have jet-black skin that always glistens as if wet. They have lank, tangled hair, jagged teeth and jaundiced eyes. Their fingers have long iron-like nails. They smell of decay and death.

Night hags are evil creatures from another plane of existence. As such, spells like Protection from Evil will keep them at bay physically, but will not stop their spells or magical powers.

Mundane attacks and weapons have no effect on the night hag. Even non-magical fire will not burn them. Silver and magic will affect them normally. Hags are also immune to charm and hold spells as well as poison and the effects of undead such as energy drain, ghoul paralysis, or mummy rot.

Strength Drain:
The claws of the hag are supernaturally cold and if she strikes a victim successfully, they must save vs spells or lose 1 point of Strength permanently. Slaying the hag will restore the Strength score at the rate of 1 point/day.

Night hags cast spells as a cleric of the same level as their hit dice. They normally choose spells for destructive and harmful purposes, only using healing on themselves. They also have the following innate, spell-like abilities 1/day:

-Animate Dead
-Dark Sleep
(Similar to the Sleep spell, but it affects 2d4 individuals, each equal to or less than the hag's own HD.)

Dark Haunting:
If a character is put into the Dark Sleep (see above), the hag can forge a magical bond with the victim. The PC must save vs. spells or the hag fills their dreams with horrid nightmares. The dreams install evil thoughts into the minds of the victims and they find that the only way to quiet them enough to sleep at all is acting upon these evil impulses in their waking hours.

The victim of the haunting must save vs poison each day or lose 1 CON permanently. When their CON reaches 0, they fall into a final coma and just before death, the hag appears in their dreams and rips their soul from their bodies, carting it off to the dark plane she originates from. Victims who die in such a way are beyond the power of spells like Raise Dead or Reincarnation to bring back to life. Even Speak with Dead will not work, for their soul is unreachable in the hag's realm. Only a Wish or direct divine intervention can restore a victim to life.

There is no cure for the dark haunting other than the death of the hag that caused it.

Dark Company:
Hags attract evil to them. Night hags are found with 3d6 evil creatures in their thrall. These typically include lesser undead, giant spiders or scorpions, trolls, and sometimes goblinoids. These creatures will fight to the death for the hag (no morale checks).

 Night Hag for BX pdf

Monday, September 14, 2020

Moldvay Musings XXI: Surprise!

Surprise is one of those rules that I often see misapplied or simply done wrong. I admit I've not always done it correctly in the heat of the moment, but I honestly don't know why some people have trouble with it Perhaps it's because of its actual simplicity. In any case, let's take a look at it, shall we?

Like many rules in games like BX, the surprise mechanic is fairly abstract and is used to cover a lot of different scenarios. Being surprised is not just standing agog at the fact that there are six goblins with spears in front of you. Neither is it necessarily a "jump scare" type ambush.

Being surprised can be as simple as just being caught flat-footed; or a moment's inattention that gave the opposition the chance to act first. Maybe the door took an extra shove to open or the floor was a bit uneven. The point is you're playing a bit of catch-up for a few seconds.

Once the DM makes the call that surprise is at least possible for one or both groups, I think there are two main areas that throw some people off mechanically: The order of events and the nature of the dice rolls themselves.

Surprise isn't rolled until step 5 of the turn order. By that time, the party has already entered the area. Narratively speaking, people would expect to hear about the encounter right at that point. The thing to remember is that all this is more or less happening at once.
"If surprise is possible, the DM should roll 1d6 for each side in the encounter. A result of 1 or 2 for either side indicates that the side is surprised (unless given otherwise in the monster description)."
The stumbling block here seem to be that the die roll for "your" side is actually based on your opponent, not you (the PCs). It's the chance you are surprised, not of you doing the surprising. This becomes apparent when dealing with creatures whose surprise roll is not the default 1-2. For example, a bugbear surprises on a 1-3. That means the chance of PCs being surprised goes up.I've had to remind people of this at the table more than once.

I'd like to point out that surprise can actually be a big help to PCs. With smart play, the PCs will have many opportunities to be the surprise as opposed to the surprised. Things like sneaking thieves reconnoitering, careful listening, and detection spells give a party a decent to get the drop on things. It's important to pay attention to the text on B23. It points out that surprise is not always possible, but that doesn't mean it can't be possible for one side and not the other. Honestly, in my experience, PCs being surprised actually doesn't come up all that often.

Despite this, I frequently hear complaints from players that surprise is just for screwing the PCs over: "How can we be surprised by the goblins?! We're in a dungeon! We're ALWAYS expecting an attack!" and so forth.

If this sounds familiar, perhaps consistently applying these rules in a way that doesn't slow down play can smooth things out a bit and let you enjoy the added richness they can give to your encounters. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

Moldvay Musings XX: Saving Throws

"Save or die is so stupid! One bad die roll and my PC is dead?! LAME!"

I can't count the number of times I've heard these complaints or some variation of them. It's a hallmark of old-school D&D, like dying during Traveler character generation, that gets repeated as a standard dismissal or condemnation of the older rules sets.

Yes, a saving throw comes down to a single die roll. And yes, a failed one can result in a character dying. But allow me to present some of the rationale behind them and how I interpret them in my games not as a rebuttal necessarily, but at least to show another perspective. I should point out I am far from the first to do this and many of my thoughts are based upon others'.

First of all, what is a saving throw? Well, in Moldvay it's defined as "...the chance that a special attack may be avoided or will have less than the normal effect." (B26). Not to get pedantic, but let's look at the wording of this for just a moment, shall we?
"a special attack may be avoided"
Many special attacks require a successful to-hit before a save is even necessary. Poison attacks are the obvious example of this. The snake must successfully bite you before you need to worry about its venom. So right there you have multiple "buffers" between you and the dreaded Save or Die.
  1. You are forced to fight the snake. This isn't a forgone conclusion, what with things like reactions, encounter distances, and running away taken into account.
  2. The snake successfully hits you. Depending on things like initiative, marching order, and armor class, the snake might not even get a hit in before being dealt with.
  3. Assuming the above two sets of factors go against you, THEN you make your saving throw.
Some attacks have areas of effects (breath weapons) and/or are magical (wands, spells, etc.) and don't roll to-hit. However these are generally from more powerful foes that low-level characters should seriously think twice about facing unprepared. That's not to say sutff doesn't happen, but it should mitigate things somewhat.

Finally, it should be pointed out a couple concepts that have been touched on a bit on this blog before.
  1.  "D&D characters die frequently" - Frank Mentzer. In older versions of D&D, it was fully expected to rack up a body count, especially at lower levels. Character creation was simple enough that the loss of your 1st level fighter was a 10 minute interruption at best. Once you got to higher levels and had some investment in the PC, well then point #2 comes into it.
  2. Death is a speedbump at mid-to-higher levels. Even if your party doesn't have a cleric capable of casting Raise Dead, you can probably find an NPC that can. Likewise, spells like Resist Fire are going to make that red dragon less scary. Sure, your 10th level Thief might get unlucky with a cockatrice, but Flesh to Stone isn't quite so hard to find as it once was, is it?
  3. I wish I could find the original for this, which I believe is attributed to Gary, but to paraphrase, "A saving throw usually means that you've already screwed up and should probably be dead. It's a chance to avoid the worst of the consequences." So when the fireball goes off and you only take half damage, maybe you got luck and were partway behind something. Or maybe you managed to dive out of the way. But it started with you standing there in the line of fire.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Moldvay Musings XIX: Doors

I've blogged before about magically barring and opening doors as well as secret doors, but a recent thread on Dragonsfoot got me looking over the text on just plain old doors in dungeons.

Moldvay (B21) says:
NORMAL DOORS: Doors in a dungeon are usually closed, and are often stuck or locked. A lock must usually be picked by a thief. An unlocked door must be forced open to pass through it. To force open a door, roll Id6; a result of 1 or 2 (on Id6) means that the door is forced open. The roll should be adjusted by a character's Strength score adjustment. The number needed to open a door can never be less than 1 nor greater than 1-5.

Once a door is opened, it will usually swing shut when released unless it is spiked or wedged open. Doors will usually open automatically for monsters, unless the door is held, spiked, or closed with magical spells.
There's a lot to unpack here, given such a short entry, but that's part of BX's beauty, IMO.

First off, nearly everything described about doors is qualified with terms like "usually" or "often," leaving room for the DM to use their discretion and judgement. The language helps paint a picture of what dungeons are usually like. Doors warped and swollen in their frames bu the damp, or latches rusted shut. If it's a more heavily used location, like an active lair, perhaps a stuck door is rarer. Locks are still a thing, though.

This brings us to the next part: opening said doors. Locks are a thief's job, obviously. Of course a failed roll could lead to a brawny PC forcing it open as if it were stuck. This gives a sense of how these obstacles are expected to be handled. The smart party tries stealth first, force second.

The last part of this section seems at first a bit "gamey" in its language. Doors just swinging shut and especially the part about them simply opening automatically for the monsters. My own interpretation of this is that the location's denizens know the place well and are used to the doors' fiddly little ways. I wouldn't have a door just pop open for a creature that couldn't normally operate it, e.g. no hands or unintelligent.

As far as swinging shut, I interpret that as doors that no longer hang true on their hinges and naturally fall back closed. Again, this isn't every door all the time, but it can happen.

So all this begs the question of why? Why have door stick and slam shut? Why make it so the party has to take the time and effort to pick its lock, or force it open? The answer is time. All these efforts cost the party time. As classic D&D is a game of resource management and exploration, the players will have to make choices. Do we waste another turn trying to pick this lock? Do we risk attracting some wandering monster's attention with the noise of forcing open this door? How long until the current torch burns out?

But what if that's the door that leads to the PCs' goal? Or the lower levels? Aren't you just screwing with them by leaving whether the game progresses up to chance like that?

While you certainly can run a "pure" sandbox like that, with zero plot or plan; most experienced DMs follow the guideline of either A) not putting something critical out of reach because of one bad die roll, or B) Always have more than one way for the party to move forward. Maybe the lock is too tough for the thief and the door is too strong to be battered down. However, maybe there's a secret door they could find that will let them through? Or maybe there's a key to be found? I'm not suggesting this be the case with every door, and I admit it's still possible for bad luck to derail things, but used judiciously these wrinkles can add a lot of detail to an adventure.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

RSA: Locate Object

Locate Object is one of those utility spells that -at first glance- sounds really handy, but seems fairly limited. Some creative spellcasting can make a big difference, though.

It's important to note that the magic-user/elf version of this spell is slightly different than the clerical one. It's a third level cleric spell and 2nd level for MU/Elves. Clerics have a fixed range (120'), which is better than the arcane types' at first, but their version gets boosted by caster level, eventually outpacing the cleric at 7th. The cleric gets a much longer duration, though. The general effects of the spell is identical for both. Most of the time I've seen the spell it's been clerical. After all, the cleric can just pray for the spell for the day rather than permanently tying up a slot in their spellbook with it. So when used, it's often the 120'/6 turns version.

There's nothing in the BX description about being blocked by materials like lead, as some versions of the game have used. So dungeon walls, etc. aren't going to impede it. The spell will tell only direction, not distance, and only if the object is in range. Outdoors, even converted to yards, that's not terribly far unless you already know you're close.

To locate something specific, you need to know exactly what it looks like. You can't just say "The Crown of Oogabooga!" unless you've seen it or at least a good likeness/detailed description. Common, nonspecific objects (the text uses "stairs" as an example) are searchable based on what the closest example is (again, if in range at all).

I think the "common item" facet is where the spell is most likely to be useful. Once a party has been through a stretch of dungeon and mapped it out, movement back through the area can be made faster than "exploration" speed. If, foir example, a cleric casts the spell and moves steadily through the cleared area sweeping for "secret doors," he stands a good chance of finding any the party might have missed. If he "pings" one farther away in the dungeon, they know that there may areas they haven't seen yet.

The spell can't locate creatures, but -as the illustration above shows- it can get a fix on loot. "Gold." or "Coins" or "Gems" could save valuable searching time.

One caveat: The spell only locates one thing (or type) per casting. Meaning you can't start the spell with the crown example, then switch to secret doors, and then to gold coins. The duration's function is not to take inventory of the dungeon. It's to triangulate!

Let's say the caster was looking for secret doors. If they are right in front of one, small movements to either side will cause drastic swings in the "angle" of the ping. If the nearest secret door is nearer to maximum range, the shift in angle is subtler. While I wouldn't allow precision to seconds of arc, I wouldn't punish clever spell use coupled with careful map-making to help the party find something. If multiple castings were used over time, it might be possible to find hidden treasure vaults or the like.

As far as specific objects are concerned, I can imagine scenarios where the spell could be useful, but unless the DM deliberately sets things up for it (e.g. a portrait with a detailed image of the item) or the players plan well ahead on this tactic, I see that use being somewhat uncommon. Still, it could be fun if it happened!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

RMA: Minotaurs

I'm not sure how I missed this one when doing my series on mythological creatures. It's not that uncommon a monster, but it definitely deserves to be in the "myth list."

Game mechanics-wise, the minotaur isn't overly complicated. It's a big, mean, humanoid with some natural weapons. One of the most famous occurrences of the creature in D&D is of course is in B2's Caves of Chaos. I admit, for years I had thought that the (spoilers) directional confusion the party suffers in its cave was an ability of the minotaur itself and not just a feature of those tunnels. (I actually often run it so the effect lifts after killing the beast.) But no, it is not a power of the creature in the book. Speaking of which, let's see the stats.

Minotaur (from Moldvay)
Armor Class:  6
No. Appearing: 1-6 (1-8)
Hit Dice: 6
Save As: F6
Move: 120' (40')
Morale: 12
 1 gore/1 bite or 1 weapon
Treasure Type: C
 1d6/1d6 or by weapon type
Alignment: Chaotic

Okay, so six hit dice is pretty respectable. It actually puts it in dragon territory (albeit the weakest of them). The armor class is not great, but as B2 shows us, they can wear armor. The minotaur has several options when it comes to attacks; horns, teeth, or weapon. The language in the rules is slightly confusing. It states:
 "If a minotaur uses a weapon, it may not gore or bite." 
Which can be read that it can never  gore or bite if it has a weapon, but again, the Keep tells us differently.
"The minotaur may only use his spear or his horns and bite."
Which honestly makes more sense. The +2 for strength on its damage rolls make even the 1d6 fairly respectable for a simple melee attack.

Minotaurs are described as semi-intelligent, larger than human sized, and man-eating. They will "always attack" smaller creatures and pursue them "as long as they are in sight." This speaks to its high morale and casts them as a bit of a bully (EDIT: no pun intended), temperament-wise. They are also said to be subterranean (usually in tunnels or mazes). They are only listed as wandering monsters in mid levels of the dungeon. They appear on none of the wilderness encounter tables.

This ecology speaks to the unnaturalness of the minotaur and -of course- its mythological roots. It is truly a monster. Minotaurs as described have no culture or civilization. They are strange and vicious things found in the dark places of the world. The term "semi-intelligent" says to me that yes, they can use tools like weapons, use simple tactics or maybe even speak. But no, they probably won't parley or be merciful. They can appear in some numbers, but I see that as a loose hunting packs, not sustainable tribes or clans. The text about always attacking and pursuing seems to support the idea that they are somewhat insane or berserk, and that's how I would run them.

So what does a party do when encountering one or more of these creatures?

Well, a minotaur is the embodiment of a melee brute, so hit it with ranged attacks and spells if possible. It's too strong for Sleep, but Web (B18) is a nice option. While the minotaur is strong, I wouldn't rule it as on the level of "Giant Strength" in terms of breaking loose from the spell quickly. A webbed minotaur could be fairly easily dispatched with arrows. If the thief has a chance to hide, the beast might charge right past him at a likelier target, giving him a chance for a backstab, especially if the monster is unarmored. The gore and bite attacks a good fit for flavor but aren't doing tons of damage. Be more afraid if it carries a big axe or similar. The real danger from the minotaur is its six hit dice give it good to-hit rolls and enough hit points to keep swinging for several rounds. A party of low-level PCs (<5th or so) going toe to toe with one of these is likely to lose a member before taking the beast down.

If the party is unlucky enough to run into a group of minotaurs, the same tactics apply. It's going to be that much harder to weaken or slow them down before a wall of horned rage crashes into them. Area of effect spells, burning oil, and defensible positions (bottlenecks in the corridors, etc.) might be your best bet.