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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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

How Weird are Monsters?

Last night's game (I'm playing, not running) had an encounter that got me thinking. Forgive a brief campaign story for context.

The game is a Savage Worlds conversion of the Rules Cyclopedia. We are playing high-expert level (name level+) PCs. I'm a crotchety mystic (monk). An NPC ally is clearing a wilderness hex for his keep and we're helping out. The MU plans to build her tower nearby and the Elf is eyeing an ancient wood as his realm. At a nearby lake, the cleric has discovered some magic-infused clay under the water that can make clay golems. The trouble? A mysterious swirl (small whirlpool) in the water appears at different spots at different times. We observed a shepherd from a local population suddenly break off from his friends and flounder out into the water only to disappear beneath the surface. The party has decided that whatever it is must be destroyed. I'm personally convinced it's Nixies and the elf might not want to go murdering fellow fae, especially if he wants to be their local lord. Also, if I'm right, the shepherd is not dead. Currently, I'm outvoted.

OK, end of story.

I've talked a lot here not only about various D&D monsters, but also about the kind of world they might live in. This got me wondering about the general perception of monsters and magical beasts in a D&D setting. Not by the players, but in-game for the characters.

Obviously there can be a wide spectrum on this. There can be worlds where it's perfectly normal to have ogres drinking in a tavern. Other settings might not even have demihuman PCs. All of this is perfectly valid.

 (art by dangercook on DeviantArt)

The question is; how weird is it to run into true "monsters" in your world? At what point does that creature stop being just some critter or fella going about his business and become, well, monstrous? To be sure, there are all sorts of dangerous things in your typical fantasy setting, including people. Combat is almost certainly going to happen at some point, but not necessarily.

The party in my earlier story might well be justified in going straight to combat-mode in some settings, whereas in another world such actions could even be criminal. It's up to the DM and the players to work out which kind of a world they're playing in, so everyone is on the same page.

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.