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Friday, October 13, 2017

Shhh! It's a SECRET (door, that is)

Secret doors are so common in classic gaming that I'm surprised when see a dungeon map without one. Players regularly search for them, assuming they'll find one at some point in the crawl. Which is odd, when you think about it. Do you normally assume there are hidden stairs or tunnels in or out of rooms when you walk into them? Of course not, but we're not real-life murder hoboes, we just play them at the table.

According to BX (Moldvay),
"A secret door is any door that is hidden or concealed. A secret door usually does not look like a door; it may be a sliding panel or hidden under a rug. Any character has a 1 in 6 chance of finding a secret door; any elf has a 2 in 6 chance. The DM should only check for finding a secret door if a player says that the character is searching for one and searching for one in the correct area. The search takes one turn. Each character has only one chance to find each secret door."
 Whenever I think of secret doors, the default in my mind's eye is a sliding panel or door that's fashioned to blend with the wall. Surely that's a classic, but it behooves the dungeon designing DM to think about the other ways that a portal may be hidden.

Secret doors might like the images above, or they could be concealed by a tapestry. They could simply be a tunnel with loose bricks or stones stacked in the opening. Perhaps a panel that isn't nailed down or loose planks? A cave entrance could be camouflaged by brush or rocks. Maybe it's even a magical or cunning optical illusion masking an otherwise open passage? The point is, you should feel free to mix it up a bit. 

So what's the point of elaborately designing such a thing if the players are just going to roll their search and find it (or not)? Well, two things:
  1. Which is cooler in play? "We go back to that secret door in the last room." or "We go back through the revolving fireplace."? 
  2. Remember the second part of the above rule citation. "The DM should only check for finding a secret door if a player says that the character is searching for one and searching for one in the correct area."  
If the players ignore something that doesn't look like the typical secret door, then their search rolls don't apply there. Of course, they can say they search "everywhere" but that takes time.

"The search takes one turn."

If you're doing your job as an old-school DM, you should at least consider tracking things like wandering monsters, needs for rest, and torches. Also, the PCs might be on the clock for other reasons. Maybe they need to find the hidden temple before midnight in order to stop the sacrifice or some such. The point is that time is a resource that shouldn't always be unlimited.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Curious Objects: Potion of Treasure Finding

This is a very simple item with a very short description:

"The user may, when concentrating, detect the direction and distance of the largest treasure within 360' (unless blocked by lead)."

I don't know that I've ever seen this one used. Granted, there's only a 2% chance of randomly rolling this result on the potions table, but I've certainly never placed it deliberately either.

Like other potions, it last for 7-12 turns, so it can be useful in triangulating a bit, but if you're moving at "dungeon exploration speed" and run into any kind of obstacles, you might not get to the loot before the potion wears off.

No, what I find most interesting about this item is its existence at all. Sure, detecting gold and gems makes sense in D&D, but offering the ability as a potion is telling to me. The idea that it isn't a spell, but anyone (e.g. a thief) can quaff this and scry the location of the "largest treasure" underscores the idea that classic games like BX are about exploration, not combat. Finding the treasure gets you more XP than killing the monster. Wasting time checking every door and risking random encounters is not the preferred method. Home in on the reward and get out. You can always come back and check the next area after the Teeth of Gwalhur are safely back at the base camp.

Friday, October 6, 2017

REF: Spectres

I haven't done a Random Encounter Fun™ posting in quite a while, but –in keeping with the Halloween vibe– I did roll up a semi-random encounter* to try and cobble together into a (hopefully) fun little set piece.

*I did decide to use the Undead Sub-table, but I randomly rolled the location and type of undead, as well as the treasure, hit points, and number appearing.

I rolled "City" as the location and a total of four (4!) spectres. Yikes!

I decided it made sense that three of the spectres were underlings, drained by the "boss" and under his sway (as per the description in Cook). Hit points came out to 36 for the boss and 24 each for the lesser spectres ("lesters?")

When I rolled treasure, I was bemused to get a result of 4,000 silver pieces and 5 gems. Why would an undead tolerate the presence of so much silver? But then I read in the description the spectres "... have no solid bodies, and can only be harmed by magic weapons: silver weapons have no effect." So no problem there, other than why an incorporeal undead wants cash at all, but we're getting to that.

While it doesn't specify this in BX, the Rules Cyclopedia gives this creature an average INT of 8. This isn't a genius, but it is sentient.  Also, it's possible our little academy of apparitions (yes, apparently that's the correct collective) is smarter than the average spectre. Let's stick with 8 for now, shall we?

So we've got four of these terrifying but not so bright undead spirits –with a modest pile of loot– hanging out somewhere IN A CITY. What gives?

It seems to me that in a city of any size, the local temples would have destroyed these things pretty quickly. So it one of two scenarios seems the most likely:

  1. The "infestation" is recent.
  2. They are in a relatively isolated location.
As this was rolled up as a random encounter, not a predetermined part of an adventure, I don't want to overthink the setup. So here goes:

A few nights ago, three ruffians knifed a merchant and took his money: a coffer of silver coins. Pursued by the watch, they jumped the fence into the local graveyard. They hid in an old tomb. While waiting for the coast to be clear, the spied a gem-encrusted urn on the altar. Uninterested in the contents, they smashed the vessel and bent to scoop up the precious stones. 
The urn was magical and trapped an evil spirit. The family had built the tomb when the wicked patriarch had died because it was expected of them and they wished his evil to remain a secret, but they knew his foul necromancies might allow him to return from death in some form or another, so they cremated him and had the vessel enchanted to hold his spirit. 
Free of its prison, the spectre quickly slew the thieves and they soon rose as his spectral slaves. Their bodies, and the treasure, lie on the cold stone of the tomb's floor.  The family died out generations ago, and no one ever visited the grave while they still lived, so it is largely forgotten. The spectres have no master plan, and they shun the daylight, but if anyone were to stray too near after dark, or enter the tomb, they will gladly feed off his life force.

Why are the PCs in or near the tomb? Maybe they are searching for the entrance to the catacombs, maybe they are chasing someone? You tell me!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Undead Should be Spooky

Halloween is nearly upon us and while I have spoken about horror gaming in the past, I thought I'd talk about something more specific to D&D-style games as opposed to systems like Call of Cthulhu. More specifically the undead.

Undead monsters are pretty much a trope in fantasy RPGs. Whether it’s a crypt full of animated skeletons or a barrow full of wights, the unliving are as common as the gossipy barkeep or the blind beggar on the corner.

Therein lies the problem. When you look at the stories that inspired these monsters, the undead were, well, monstrous. The idea of meeting a walking corpse or entering a haunted house was supposed to be terrifying. It’s the whole basis of ghost stories after all. That something dead is in fact not.

In later years, the undead in fiction became more fodder than horrifying. Certainly many a fictional character was taken down by the zombie horde or strangled by a mummy, but the wrongness of it -in that which is dead moves, threatens, and kills- was lost through continuous exposure. Ask any Call of Cthulhu GM and he’ll tell you, scaring the players (not the characters) is the hardest part. At least partially due to overexposure.

Usually in a monster movie, the protagonist is an every-man. He's a regular Joe -maybe with a bit more sand than the next fellow- who finds himself in an extreme situation. He must dig deep and find a way to overcome the evil that faces him. This is the classic trope we see time and again. Ash in the Evil Dead. Van Helsing in Dracula (the original, not the Hugh Jackman version). Brendan Frasier’s Rick in The Mummy. The list goes on.

But in fantasy games like classic D&D, the characters are heroic. They are a cut above the crowd. It’s an adventurer’s job to go out and fight monsters. That crypt full of skeletons isn’t all that different from an orc lair. They all fall to the swing of a sword or the magicking of a missile. Classic D&D style games don’t generally include rules for things like PC insanity, so there isn’t much there to daunt the dauntless PCs.

Another feature that can make dealing with the undead blasé is the cleric’s Turn Undead ability. The rules as written are sadly silent on the penalties for failure or how often this power can be invoked. Unlike a spell, turning is not “fire and forget.” Granted, the more powerful undead are harder to repel, but the you can see my point. If a dozen skeletons can be chased off by one PC holding up a necklace, they are bit less intimidating.

If you’re a GM like me, you’re always looking for ways to make the game fresh and interesting for you and the players. And if you are planning to run an undead-themed campaign, adventure, or even just one such encounter, you may be trying to decide how best to ramp up the tension and excitement.

You can always make a monster more dangerous. You can boost hit dice, add special abilities, or even just increase the number appearing. This will have the effect of making the encounter(s) more difficult, but that isn’t necessarily the same as scarier.

How do we make the undead frightening? Without using a lot of house rules to mechanically affect the characters, here are a few general options to consider:

1) Scarcity: Whatever creature or creature type you want to be scary, use it sparingly. If there are zombies in every room or behind every tree, they become prosaic. You’re fighting an uphill battle with such iconic monsters already. Don’t make them common in your adventure or campaign. If horror is your goal, the world has to seem almost boringly normal, until it's decidedly not.

2) Environment: The location can be your friend in several ways. First, visibility. Broken tombstones block line of sight. Darkness makes it hard to see them coming (rulings vary, but infravision might be useless against room temperature corpses). Don’t send a handful of skeletons shambling down a long corridor at a party that has continual light spells blazing away; have them suddenly pop out of secret doors or around corners or at the bottom of pits the unwary fall into. Perhaps an eerie fog makes it hard to see them until they are practically on top you. Remember, the undead don’t need to breathe, so maybe they lie in wait at the bottom of a pond or pool.

3) Tension: Build toward the encounter. Pace yourself. Like a ghost story or horror movie, the monster doesn’t appear right away. Increase the tension a bit at a time if events allow. Perhaps there are clues that something wicked this way comes. A glimpse through the shadowy trees, perhaps? Maybe the hirelings are growing increasingly nervous before they finally break and run (frequent morale checks)? If you can arrange for an NPC friend or cohort to be snatched or killed by surprise, it can add to the immediacy of the situation. 

4) Rationale: Why are the undead in this place at this time? Unless you are running a setting that follows very different concepts, the dead usually stay dead. For a deceased person to rise as a mindless zombie or a foul vampire or anywhere in between usually has a cause. Is there a curse on the ground he was buried in? Was he bitten by a vampire? Did a necromancer cast Animate Dead? Is it a viral zombie outbreak? Why is this happening? This can add mystery to the story. In a dungeon crawl, if undead are just one of the things the party fights and there is some power creating them, could that mean other monsters that the PCs already bested rise to fight the party again? Perhaps the restless dead are merely a symptom. Sure you can hack the zombies, but will that stop the real threat?

Intelligent or sentient undead have their own motives. Sure a vampire wants blood, but longer term (he’s immortal after all) he should have plans. Like a dragon, smart undead who have been around for a while should have taken steps to protect themselves and be advancing their agenda. This may include mortal servants as well as things like zombie minions. Vampires and specters are not good random encounter material -they have long-term goals and consequences. Nor will they work for another monster or NPC without a very good reason!

How does this make things scarier? Well, it doesn’t necessarily, but it adds depth and mystery to the monster and therefore the encounter, both of which makes building tension easier.

5) Variance: I included this option last because I said I wanted to avoid house rules, and while this isn’t exactly a house rule, it isn’t strictly by the book either.

Mix things up with your undead (indeed, with all your monsters). Skeletons whose bones glow and burn like embers. Zombies that carry rot grubs inside their decaying entrails. The purpose of altering the “standard entry” of the monster doesn’t have to be to make them more lethal. It can also be used to simply make them more alien.

As an example, one of my favorite variants are peat bog mummies. Players (and their characters) won’t be expecting mummies in your setting’s equivalent to foggy Scotland. You can run the creatures mechanically identical to regular mummies, but their appearance and locale can give a party a nasty surprise! Another fun one is animal skeletons.

Most of these suggestions can be easily applied to nearly any encounter to make it more challenging and more memorable. Not every combat is going to send chills down a player’s spine, but if any creature deserves the chance to do so, it’s the undead.

Friday, September 29, 2017

An exercise for the writer: Ready-made NPC party

Back in the day I posted regarding the BX rules for creating an NPC Party. As I've been looking at using things like peasants and NPCs in an adventure I'm working on, I thought I'd go ahead and generate a party for general consumption and as a walk-through of the process.

1) Determine the number of NPCs in the party: 5-8 (roll ld4 + 4).


2) Determine the class of each character (roll Id8): 
1 Fighter 
2 Magic-user 
3 Cleric 
4 Thief 
5 Dwarf  
6 Elf 
7 Halfling 
8 Fighter

(It's quirky/interesting that the higher chance for fighter is split up at the top and bottom of the die results instead of just 1-2 or 7-8.)

So I rolled 8,1,2,5,1, and 4. That's three fighters, a magic-user, a dwarf, and a thief. This is a pretty muscle-heavy party, but maybe the wizard is after some ancient magic. The thief and the dwarf are there to foil traps and find their way in the deep places of the world. The group gets the mundane loot and the mage gets the mystic relic.

3) Moving on. We check for each character's level. Using the Basic rules, it's 1-2 = 1st, 3-4 = 2nd, and 5-6 = 3rd.

I rolled a mix. We have a 1st level dwarf, a 2nd level thief, one of each level fighter (1st, 2nd, and 3rd), and a 3rd level magic-user. This actually jibes well with the imagined scenario above.

4) Next, alignment. Same spread as levels, but Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic.

OK. The rolls make it pretty weird. Everyone except the 1st level fighter and the thief are chaotic. They are both lawful. It fits okay with the idea that they are all mercenary types, maybe hired by the wizard by the promise of loot. The chaotic wizard makes sense too. Maybe he's seeking black magic of some kind. Things might be kind of tense for the junior swordsman and the trap sweeper. Plus, a chaotic dwarf? Wacky!

5) Randomly determine spells. This will be interesting!

The magic-user gets two 1st levels and a 2nd level. The results are Light, Floating Disc, and Wizard Lock. Those are...unusual spells for a mage, but random is random!

6) Roll for any treasure. The book says you can also choose special treasure to give the party, but in keeping with the spirit of chance, I rolled and got nothing for them. The NPCs given that most of the PCs are higher than 1st level, one might assume they've somehow lost any treasure they'd won in previous adventures, or maybe they spent their cash on gear for this expedition.

Now, you could stat these characters out more fully with scores, equipment, etc. but at this point it's really just PC creation repeated a few times. As I mentioned in the earlier post, the Expert rules increase the level ranges for more powerful NPCs.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Curious Objects: Ring of Delusion

I've mentioned this item in the past, but only as an example of a cursed item.

The lovely thing about rings in BX -and most other flavors of D&D- is that they can be just so darned tempting to adventures. Unlike scrolls or potions, they are usually permanent items. Unlike, weapons, often any class can use them. There are exceptions of course,  but most are universal. Rings also contain some of the most powerful items. The Rings of Wishes spring to mind.

So it's small wonder when a player gleefully has his PC slip that golden band around his knuckle and asks "What does it do?"

The fun with a Ring of Delusion comes in two parts:

  1. The DM is encouraged to fool the player (as well as the PC) about the ring's effects for as long as possible. So when the PC tries to charm that guard with his "Ring of Human Control" he gets a rude surprise instead.
  2. PCs are supposed to be resistant to giving up cursed items in general. The ring is no exception. So it could be argued that the character will persist in believing the item is conferring some great benefit even though it is plainly cursed. It does create a delusional effect, after all.
Now, I wrote a post a while back titled "Magic with a cost", with the idea being that some items may not be entirely beneficial or malign. Imagine a Ring of Delusion that actually does grant a magical benefit -invisibility, for example- but at the same time also makes the wearer believe something delusional about something other than the item's effect. For instance, the ring can let you turn invisible, but you also become convinced that you are the secret son of the king. Perhaps a series of vivid dreams gets confused with reality. Roleplaying fun awaits as the player gets to act this out. Of course, the fact that the ring actually turn him invisible is a red herring. The other players will be unable to pinpoint the cause of their companion's odd behavior. Like the doppelganger scenario, a player willing to RP the situation properly could fuel a whole series of adventures.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Monster Man podcast

While my Random Monster Assessments (RMAs) over the years have focussed on Basic/Expert critters over the years, 1st edition AD&D fans might be interested in "Monster Man" Jim Holloway's new podcast. In it, he plans to cover each creature in the 1e Monster Manual in alphabetical order. The first entry is already up and he says he intends to post 2/week. Definitely worth a listen, IMHO.