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Saturday, May 23, 2020

RSA: Create Water and Create Food

As far as utility spells go, it's hard to get more utilitarian than create water or create food. There are obvious reasons for not seeing either in play more are: Taking up 4th and 5th level spell slots, not to mention how often resources like rations are simply not tracked in a game, especially once the PCs are higher in level and can afford all the beef jerky they want. Nevertheless, these are some powerful spells and, under the right circumstances, could provide a lot of fun for a campaign. But first, let's look at the spell descriptions. Both are from the Cook Expert rules.

Create Water (Cleric 4th)
Range: 0'
Duration: Permanent

With this spell, the cleric summons forth an enchanted spring from the ground or a wall that will give enough water for 12 men and their mounts for one day (about 50 gallons). For every level the cleric is above 8th, twelve additional men and mounts can be supplied.

Create Food (Cleric 5th)
Range: 0'
Duration: Permanent

With this spell, the cleric may create enough food to feed 12 men and their mounts for one day. For every level the cleric is above 8th, he or she is able to create food for 12 more men and their mounts. Thus a 10th level cleric could create enough food to sustain 36 men and their mounts for one day.

First a note or two about both spells in general. I find it interesting that they both make specific mention of the characters' mounts. Since these are obviously spells geared toward wilderness/overland travel, it's logical that things like horses or camels would be addressed. Also, the fact that the amounts scale up so quickly. This would seem to move from dealing with a groups like a party and some hirelings to whole military units.

A couple of things about create water: One, note that even though the duration is permanent, the amount of water is finite. In other words, the spring stops springing after about a barrel of water has flowed. Two, there is no mention of retaining the water. By the book, the characters need to be ready with wineskins, bowls, what have you. Nice DMs, may cut some slack here, but if the party is in the middle of a desert, it's reasonable to expect the water to run off or soak into the sand.

Create food is very similar mechanically, but doesn't specify how the food appears or what form it takes. I would assume the food for the mounts is appropriate to the type of animal (grains, etc.). Other editions of D&D describe it as "nourishing." DMs are free to describe it how they will, but I've always imagined it as a sort of gruel or dense loaf. In other words, it will keep you fed, but that's it. Clerics aren't opening restaurants selling the stuff as "cuisine."

Now that we've covered the basics, how might one use this in their games? Well, let's say the party is planning a long trek across a desert to fight a blue dragon. Even if you don't normally track rations or water, you can give the players a gentle heads up by saying something like "The journey may take many days, and there aren't towns along the way. Make sure you have what you need to survive on your own." I'm not saying deliberately screw the PCs over, but if things like running out of food, getting lost, etc. is possible, then forewarned is forearmed.

Now, if there is a cleric in the party, he might prep these spells just in case but doesn't use them. Let's say they get to the beast's lair, kill it, and want to load up the hoard. Gold is heavy. So is water. What can they do? Why, drop the water of course and create it as needed along the way! Or perhaps the dragon (or a random encounter) killed some pack animals and the group has less carrying capacity.

Imagine the PCs are stuck in a siege situation. Create food or water might allow those stuck in the castle to stretch the rations by days or weeks. In a less benign situation, what if there were people in a place with no water. A not-nice cleric might charge for him to cast the spell each day. Heck, 50 gallons+ of water might even help put out a fire!

Despite not having the usual kinds of effects for "adventuring spells," when you're dealing with the possibility of starving or dying from dehydration, spells like these start looking a whole lot less useless.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Moldvay Musings XVIII: Encounter Distance

Greetings! It's been a little while, but  I will try to be a little more consistent with my postings.

What with COVID-19, the end of the world, and everything, I have actually been playing D&D fairly regularly via Discord and Roll20. I started a very basic Keep on the Borderlands run for my group using Labyrinth Lord/AEC rules. Nothing exceptional to report, but it's been fun dusting of a classic like that.

Now, one of the little quirks of BX (as well as some other editions) is that distances and ranges (not Areas of Effect) are converted to yards in the wilderness (as opposed to feet indoors). More on that in a bit.

After a couple of wilderness encounters (some lizard folk and a random run-in with some giant boars), it got me thinking about the encounter sequence, specifically distances. In BX -and by extension LL- when there is a random encounter, the DM is supposed to roll to determine how far apart the party and the monster(s) are when they notice one another (assuming the terrain/floorplan doesn't dictate otherwise). In the dungeon, this roll is (2d6) x 10 feet. In the wilderness, it is (4d6) x 10 yards.

The changeover mostly makes sense. In a typical dungeon, the party is not moving very fast. They usually have very limited light, in unfamiliar territory, often tight quarters, etc. Ranged weapons are limited by low ceilings and crowded conditions. Outside, you can arc a shot much farther. [Though since taking up archery, I can say that the ranges in D&D for targeting a single, mobile target are ridiculous (e.g. bowhunting). Extreme long range with a modern compound bow in those circumstances is 70-80 yards, and that would be with severe penalties. But I digress.]

One of the pitfalls of encounter distance is that it can lead to an encounter getting stalled before it starts. In the case of the boars, the party's ranger spotted the boars over 200 yards away. This gave the party ample time to pepper them with spells and missiles as the pigs closed the distance. The party's druid slapped an Entangle spell on two of them and things ended fairly quick after that.

Now, I know that if this had been a straight BX game (no druids) and the random distance had been closer, things could have gone very differently. So I am not faulting the party or the rules. That's just how the dice go sometimes. In fact, I think the players were very wise to minimize their risk. It was a random encounter with creatures that typically carry no treasure. The risk/reward ratio was not in their favor here.

The DM may want to take a moment when setting up such an encounter to think about a few distance-related factors, especially in the wilderness. 1) Does the range that was rolled make sense? Maybe there are terrain features that make is unreasonable (tree cover, uneven ground, etc.)  2) Will these features affect things like movement rates, line of sight for spells, cover from missiles, etc.? 3) Remember that the implication is that, unless one side is surprised, both groups become aware of each other at the start of the encounter. If either side is surprised, the distance is reduced to a maximum of 40 yards (X23), so surprising an orc patrol 100 yards away is a no-go.

Because of things like this, I highly recommend going through all the steps "behind the screen" first and figure out the logical way to set things up before beginning to describe the situation to the players. The encounter in general will flow much more smoothly.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A brief note about a nice BX channel

RollStats is a YouTuber who has recently returned to posting videos online. For those interested in BX/BECMI product reviews and discussions of things like the merits of Moldvay, etc. would do well to give him a glance.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

RSA: Speak with Plants

This one appears in nearly every version of D&D that I can think of, yet I have rarely seen it used. Maybe after druids became more of a thing, but as a clerical spell? And a relatively high level one at that (4th)? Not so much. It's not that SwP doesn't have its uses, but it takes up a slot that could be used by things like Neutralize Poison or Cure Serious Wounds. The good news for the spell is that since it's clerical, the caster can trade out for a day if need be without it taking up a fixed spot in a spell book. 

So what exactly does the spell do (or not do)? It has a range of 30' (yards in wilderness) and a duration of 3 turns. It "gives the cleric the power to talk to plants and request simple favors of them." One example the description lists is undergrowth bending out the way to allow a clearer path through. It also allows communication with plantlike creatures (eg Treants).

An interesting caveat is that while a request is automatically received favorably by the plants, they must be able to perform and understand what the cleric is asking. Since the spell's operative verb is "speak" it's fairly obvious that covers the comprehension part of things. I imagine "understand" in this context has more to do with the complexity of the request. 

Beyond the undergrowth example, or translating Treant-ish, I could see this spell being handy for things like quieting threats from shriekers or yellow mold. I know I've already written about fungi vs. plants on this blog, but for simplicity in gameplay let's just consider them equivalent. (If there were a "Speak with Mushroom" spell I might have a different opinion.) One could also use it to more effectively camouflage a party to hide from pursuit or to stage an ambush. It could also be used to wipe out a trail to prevent being tracked. 

I have to say the spell contains a lot of potential for creative uses. I just wish it was lower level to make it less unlikely to see play. The Ring of Plant Control offers similar options to the PCs, but is much more powerful in many ways. Maybe a scroll or potion to introduce the spell into a campaign instead?

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Moldvay Musings XVII: DM Information - Scenarios

The first sections of Part 8 in Moldvay (Dungeon Master Information) fascinate me on several levels. While the "B" in "BX" is by its nature basic and tries to keep things simple to let people get their feet wet who might have been new to the game (or running it), this section actually holds a lot of cool stuff that's far from just typical murder-hoboing and ties in to some of my thoughts on a BX setting. Not to mention demonstrating the BX wasn't "the kiddie version" of D&D.

The chapter is broken down into several parts that can walk a tyro DM through creating an adventure and even lay the groundwork for a rich campaign. Let's start by taking a look at the first bit: Choosing a scenario. Moldvay defines a scenario nicely for us in the following passage:

"A scenario is a background theme or idea which ties the dungeon together. A scenario will help keep a dungeon from becoming a boring repetition of 'open the door, kill the monster, take the treasure.' A good scenario always gives the players a reason for adventuring. The DM should also design a dungeon for the levels of characters who will be playing in it. A good scenario will also give the DM a reason for choosing specific monsters and treasures to put in the dungeon."

The idea seems, well, basic, doesn't it? Remember this was 1981, though. Not everyone implicitly understood this. I love that he spells out that adventure design should have a theme and a rationale and should avoid simple grinds. He neatly sums up monster ecology too by stating one should choose critters appropriate to the scenario.

He then goes on to list several kinds of scenarios. While many of these can be translated into a dungeon crawl (or contain one), it's the different reasons for the adventure in the first place that are the real meat on the bones. The doesn't claim to be exhaustive, but I would be hard-pressed to think of any adventures that don't fall broadly under one or more of these categories.

  1. Exploring the Unknown
  2. Investigating a Chaotic Outpost
  3. Recovering Ruins
  4. Destroying an Ancient Evil
  5. Visiting a Lost Shrine
  6. Fulfilling a Quest
  7. Escaping from Enemies
  8. Rescuing Prisoners
  9. Using a Magic Portal
  10. Finding a Lost Race
Now obviously, several of these are pretty standard. The section even gives examples of published adventures that fit some of the categories (B2 is the quintessential investigation of a chaotic outpost), but some of these are ones that I've seen much less often. When was the last time your campaign found a lost race or reclaimed ruins for settlement? That's some good adventure fodder there. You could even combine scenarios. Perhaps the PCs must use a magic portal to find a lost shrine?

The next parts of this section are relatively mundane, but still useful. They cover such issues as the location of the dungeon proper (Is it a cave? A crypt? A castle?), the monsters within, the map itself, and how it's stocked. The random stocking tables aren't always the best way to fill the map, but they can be handy at times.

The final section offers good advice and help with prepping an NPC party ahead of time. You might not need one right away, but like treasure maps, you'll be happy you have one ready instead of having to work one up in the middle of a session. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Kaag the Hill Giant

Several months ago, I posted an encounter from my then-ongoing BX campaign involving a group of bugbears and an aranea. In it, I mentioned that the spider wanted some giant's blood for an experiment. This is the giant the PCs went after.

Kaag, the Giant of Soot Hill

AC: 3
HD: 8+ (36 hp)
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 1 (rock or spear)
Dmg: 2d6+2/2d8+3
No. App: 1
Save: F8

For a hill giant, Kaag is an exceptional example of his breed. He is stronger and smarter than most of his kin. Kaag lives in a large hall set partway into a hillside cave. He has spent a good deal of effort to enlarge the cavern and finish the exterior building. The location is known as Soot Hill because Kaag burned all the trees on and around it to give him a better view of anything approaching. 

Like most hill giants, Kaag can be violent and greedy, but he usually satisfies these cravings by hiring out to local humanoids as an enforcer. He is paid in food (usually livestock or game), drink (barrels of ale), or treasure (he loves gold in particular).

Kaag bears humans no malice, but dislikes being disturbed. He speaks Giant, Chaotic, Orcish, Goblin, and Common. 

When Kaag fights, he can hurl melon-sized rocks with great accuracy up to 100’ (yards outdoors) for 2d6+2 damage. In melee, he wields a huge spear of unusual workmanship*. He is unarmored, but carries a large hide shield.

Kaag’s Treasure
  • 3 scrolls: Protection from Lycanthropes, Protection from Elementals, and a Treasure Map (leads to a Ring of Regeneration).
  • Sword +1, locate objects (shortsword)*
  • 6000 gpv skulls**

The scrolls are useless to Kaag as he can speak several languages, but does not read. They are hung on the wall as decoration. (He finds the colorful inks pretty)

*The sword is too small for him to wield normally, so he has converted it to his spear point. It grants him +1 to hit and counts as a magic weapon for hitting special creatures. He has no idea of its location powers.

**The gold coins have all been melted down. Most of it coats the skulls of various creatures, including people. These are battle trophies of foes Kaag found especially worthy and sit on shelves around the cave. There are 88 skulls of human, demi-human, or humanoid origin. In addition, there are:
  • 1 troll skull
  • 2 cave bear skulls
  • 2 ogre skulls
  • 1 stone giant skull
  • 1 dire wolf skull
  • 1 owlbear skull
  • 1 dragon skull (from a young black)

Over the years Kaag has gotten fairly skilled at the process and re-did the older ones to improve the job. The skulls are quite beautiful, if in a macabre way. If the PCs manage to befriend Kaag, he may show off his collection, boasting of his prowess in battle.

There is also a large lump of leftover gold that he re-melts when he wants to coat another skull. The lump contains 1000gpv of unused gold. It lies under a cloth among some sacks and casks (food and ale).

Friday, June 21, 2019

RMA: Camels

No, I don't have a cigarette!

I think one of the reasons that camels are rare in my games, and I suspect other peoples is two-fold. One, they are heavily associated with desert climates and most campaigns are not set in the desert (at least not for extended periods). The second reason is that most games don't track resources and travel the way that lets these creatures shine.

Camel (from Cook)

AC: 7
HD: 2
Move: 150' (50')
Att: 1 bite /1 hoof
Damage: 1/1d4
No. App: 0 (2d8)
Save: F1
Morale: 7
Treasure: nil

So we can see these stats are not impressive. Camels are not very tough, fast, brave, strong, or impressive in a fight. In the description, it even specifies that riders cannot perform a lance charge from camelback. Horses, on the other hand, can faster, do more damage, have better morale, and/or carrying capacity, depending on what type you choose. So why choose a camel?

Terrain: While it is true that a riding horse can easily outpace a camel (240' vs. 150'), remember that desert terrain drops movement by 2/3. Camels treat this as clear terrain, meaning under those conditions the difference is 160'  vs. 150'. Draft and war horses are even slower. This can make a crucial difference when it comes to overland travel in a harsh environment like a desert.

Climate: It's true that a camel cannot carry as much as some horses, but by moving faster through the desert, you need fewer supplies. Also, you don't need to carry water for the camels (provided you plan on being out for two weeks or less. I know that many campaigns aren't tracking every coin of encumbrance, but water is heavy and in the real world horses be thirsty critters! 5-10 gallons per day is normal for horses (as opposed to 2 quarts for people). For the record, that's 40-80 pounds! So even low-balling it for a horse that's more acclimated to the environment, you'd still need to pack 400cn of water for every day you plan on being out in the sandbox. And that's just for one horse!

Imagine a scenario where a desert caravan with horses has to drag along casks of water in a wagon or some such only to have the containers destroyed by some foe or clever monster. They know the party will never make it out of the desert alive, so they just wait a few days and then pick over the caravan after everyone is dead of dehydration. A cleric with the Create Water spell could thwart this plan, but the odds favor it as a successful tactic. How many 6th+ level clerics are wandering the dunes anyway?

So we can see that using camels in such a situation would mean carrying a couple of gallons of water  per day for a party vs. 20+ gallons. This could be managed with several skins or one small cask. Food is still an issue, but that's true of both horses and camels.

Camels are specialized animals, for specialized environments. While it's true they aren't very impressive in a fight, that shouldn't be the only measure of their worth to a party of adventurers. Especially if they need are traversing the Emirates of Ylaruam or such places.