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Monday, December 28, 2015

An artist has left our company

Sorry to hear of the inestimable Mr. Zieser's passing. For those of you who aren't familiar with the name, Steve Zieser was responsible for some of the most iconic work in the OSR, including almost all the illustrations for the revised Labyrinth Lord and Advanced Edition Companion books. He drew many pieces for Faster Monkey Games and was –above all– an incredibly decent human being. Steve fought a ten year battle against cancer and fought unbelievably well.

He will be missed, and not just his art.

Monday, December 14, 2015

RMA: Lich

Honestly, what other image would do?

Okay, the lich isn't exactly obscure,  nor is it a B/X monster. It does appear in the Rules Cyclopedia and the Advanced Edition Companion though, so close enough. It is also certainly an uncommon occurrence in most adventures, as they are one of the nastiest pieces of work out there.

Rather than a typical RMA where I go down through the stats and description (though I'll do some of that too), I'd like to look a bit more closely at what role the lich fulfills in a game.

Now, in terms of raw stats, the lich is quite respectable. That's not what a lich is all about, really. Let's get the numbers out of the way though, so we have them for ready reference.

Lich (from AEC)

No. Enc.: 1 (1)
Alignment: Neutral (evil)
Movement: 60' (20')
Armor Class: 0
Hit Dice: 12+
Attacks: 1 (cold touch)
Damage: 1d10 cold damage
Save: M18+
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: XXII

XP: 4,400

OK, so good AC & HD, nasty cold damage, undead abilities, crazy saves, etc. etc. But that's not what makes the lich so terrible. Reading on into the description:

A lich is an undead magic-user of at least 18th level (and possibly multi-classed) who has used its magical powers and a phylactery to unnaturally extend its life.

A minimum 18th-level spell caster where the GM can take time to plan their spells. That's scary! Still, read on:
Liches are only vulnerable to attack by creatures of 6 HD or more (or creatures of a magical nature), magical attack forms, and they are unaffected by non-magical weapons.
So only magic or big monsters can physically hurt them. Also scary, but not really the point. What else?
 In addition to having undead immunity to charm and sleep, liches are immune to the following spells or forms of damage: cold-based and electrical- based attacks, death spells, enfeeblement, polymorph, and any effects that cause insanity.
Lots of immunities. Sounds like demons and devils. This thing is looking harder and harder to kill. But wait! There's more!
A lich may attack by spell, or with a cold touch attack that deals 1d10 hp damage. Victims must also save versus paralyze or become paralyzed permanently, unless magically cured. Finally, all beings with 4 or fewer HD that see a lich will be affected with fear, and no saving throw is permitted.
Yup. Permanent paralysis and a no-save fear effect. All this and a few other odds and ends (depending upon which version you are using) adds up to a formidable, but not unstoppable, opponent. So why so scary? Well, a few things.

First of all, the lich –like dragons or senior demons– are not random encounter fodder. Not only should they be planned encounters, they are often the keystone of entire campaigns! To quote the Rules Cyclopedia entry:

Liches are master villains, coordinating armies and spy-networks made up the undead. Each one has its own goal: One may want to achieve true Immortality, one may serve an evil Immortal of Entropy, one may wish to transform the entire world into a horrid playground for the undead. Each lich in a campaign should have its own name, style, and motivation.

 In other words, think about it a bit before placing one of these things in your world. What does it want? What steps has it taken thus far? What precautions has it taken?

Precaution-wise, liches are likely to have whole legions of minions –undead or otherwise. Not to mention fortifications, hidden lairs, magical wards, etc. Plus, while it's not actually stated overtly in the rules, the implication is that the phylactery is necessary to keep existing in its undead state and if it were destroyed, the lich would die too. If the phylactery endures, the lich may return even if it's body is "killed."

Certainly this is how I've seen it played out or referred to in later gaming texts. Of course, locating the phylactery is often the point of major quests. Much like getting the One Ring to Mt. Doom, the horcru– I mean phylactery!– must be found and destroyed to end the lich's schemes.

The lich's plans may have been centuries in the making. GMs' default assumptions should be that the lich would have thought of something as a precaution against nearly any plan the PCs might cook up. Their lairs will be fortified, guarded, and probably trapped. Not to mention the lich may be willing to play a longer game; even lose a fight to fool the PCs into thinking they've won!

Liches' master plans should be epic in scope, like the examples above; taking over the world, becoming a god, etc. A lich isn't going to stoop to hanging around some dungeon guarding a chest of coins.

PCs should have plenty of chances to learn of the lich's existence before getting anywhere near it. That said, if they do barge ahead and bash in the gates without truly preparing for the fight, then they shouldn't be surprised when they find themselves rolling up new characters for the following session!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

RSA: Spiritwrack (-wrath)

Now, this spell is technically a 1st edition creation, but I decided to do a write-up for it because:

  • A version of it is in Labyrinth Lord's Advanced Edition Companion ("Spiritwrath")
  • It fits the obscurity test I generally apply to these kinds of posts (I've never seen it used or mentioned in play)
  • It is so darned cool!
The nature of the spell can be briefly summarized thusly:

The MU can create a scroll which, when read in the presence of a specific infernal/nether creature (e.g. a demon or similar), will A) root it to the spot, B) torture it for a for a bit, then C) banish to imprisonment on its home plane.

Nasty, huh?

Here are the basics (from AEC)

(MU) Level: 6
Duration: Special
Range: 10' +1/level

For starters, this isn't a spell that you'll memorize "just in case." You need blood from the type of creature you're preparing the scroll against. the individual creature's true name, and 100's of GPs worth of gems ground into the blood ink.

Spiritwrath can be used against demons, devils, powerful vampires, or liches. The description mentions that the spell is "often used to extort something from its victim, and may be stopped at any time short of imprisonment." This bespeaks a level of premeditated nastiness not typically seen in dungeon crawls.

The scroll is recited for several rounds, basically in effect until the mage stops reading it. It is interesting to note that the intervals listed are in turns (10 minutes). So this is an extended process, not fire & forget.

Another fun tidbit is while the entity gets a saving throw, even if it does resist, it can't directly attack the caster. The scroll acting much like a scroll of warding. It is most likely the creature will flee.

If the spell works and is read through to completion, the demon (or whatever) is banished to its home plane (undead are sent to the plane of negative energy) and imprisoned there for one year per caster level! Since this is a 6th level spell, under normal circumstances the caster is at least 11th level. So the nasty is gone for a decade or more. in practical terms, this means most campaigns will not see the banishee again. Of course, that demon the PC MU's mentor banished a decade ago might show up any time!

The description makes a point of explaining that the banished entity will likely harbor ill will against the caster. Also, if the spell is used to broker a deal, the caster better be pretty darn careful about the letter of the agreement, because you know the baddie will be looking for a loophole to screw him over with.

This spell is one of those very evocative and fun uses of magic that so rarely gets any table time that it's a shame. While I can totally understand PCs not prioritizing this one, I would love to drop a book or scroll into a game describing the ritual so that MU gets to add this to his grimoire. Once a PC has the spell available, who knows when they might decide to give it a whirl?

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Nick of Time

Something that came up in a conversation about a mini-module I wrote got me thinking. The issue was related to encounter randomization and pacing. It's all well and good to say "The monster lives in the cave, which is located at the 'X' on the map." If the PCs never go to X, they don't fight the monster. Simple. But if they miss all the interesting spots, the night's session can get a bit dull.

In cases of a limited layout (i.e. a dungeon) the odds of not finding anything of interest in any room is slight; even if it's not combat (maybe there is a puzzle or trap to deal with). In wilderness or town adventures, the odds of PCs wandering into Dullsville get higher.

I have a solution I like to use: I just move the set pieces around on the fly. Go west instead of east, then I just move the haunted farmhouse (or whatever) into their path. In fact, for my own games, I've actually stopped placing things on the overland maps until after the encounter happens.

This can be seen more than one way, of course. On the one hand, it allows a level of player agency where you let them decide how to proceed ("We cross the river" vs "We stay away from the water"). Players like to feel like their choices matter. Otherwise why even ask them? On the other hand, if the trap or the monster is going to end up in their path anyway, what's the point?

My answer is that the set piece(s) aren't the only thing that the PCs might encounter. Also, once a feature like a town or dungeon or temple, etc. is encountered, then it is  fixed on the map. I'm not going to move it about in their way– geographically or narratively. Unless the nature of the encounter is mobile (caravan or some such).

It's the same with time.  If the players have no knowledge of a timetable to work with, then they will arrive when it is dramatically appropriate. On the other hand, if they are given a deadline to work with ("The scrolls say the hellgate opens at sunset!") and they choose to wait or are delayed, then so be it.

All this flies in the face of sandbox lovers but I have to admit, over the years I've played too many pure sandboxes that fell flat when it came to pacing and excitement to worry too much about it.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Necromancy Arcana for FAGE: My First Take

I decided I wanted to have some rules for necromancers in my game (who doesn't?!), so I worked these up. I tried for more of a witch doctor/shaman vibe as opposed to just "evil with skulls." 

Obviously, like most magic in the book, more powerful versions of the magic might be possible with things like rituals and legendary items.


You can pierce the veil between the land of the living and the realm of death.

  • Novice: You learn the spells Voices of the Dead and Death Ward. 
  • Journeyman: You gain the spell Unbinding. You also gain the focus Intelligence (Necromancy Arcana).
  • Master: You learn the spell Animate Corpse. You can also choose one spell stunt you can perform for –1 SP when casting Necromancy Arcana spells.

Requirements: Necromancy Arcana (Novice)
Spell Type: Utility
MP Cost: 4
Casting Time: 1 minute
Target Number: 13
Test: Willpower (Self-Discipline) vs. Spellpower

You can contact a dead soul and question it. The spell must be cast where the soul died or its resting place (grave). There is no language barrier, but the creature must have been sentient in life. You can ask up to three questions, but the spell fades after one minute. The soul can attempt to resist answering at any point in the process, but only once. A success means it breaks contact without answering any further questions. If you have a piece of the departed's remains (bone, hair, etc.) or know their name, your spellpower is effectively at +2. The soul can only speak to what it knew in life. Its answers may be incorrect (telling what it believes to be true) but it cannot lie. 

Requirements: Necromancy Arcana (Novice)
Spell Type: Defense
MP Cost: 4
Casting Time: Major Action
Target Number: 10
Test: Willpower (Courage) vs. Spellpower

You can create a shield of energy, centered on one person within 12 yards of the caster, that holds back the undead, corporeal or otherwise. Spectres, walking dead, and similar creatures must succeed in a Willpower (Courage) or be held back a distance of 2 yards from the target of the spell. The ward does not prevent weapons or magical attacks from getting through (e.g. a spectre's shriek). The spell lasts until the end of the encounter, but if the warded character attacks the undead (magically or otherwise), the spell ends. 

Requirements: Necromancy Arcana (Journeyman)
Spell Type: Attack
MP Cost: 8
Casting Time: Major Action
Target Number: 14
Test: Constitution (Stamina) vs. Spellpower

A sphere of disruptive energy bursts out from your location in a 10 yard radius. Any undead in the affected area (including flying or underground) take 2d6+1 penetrating damage, a successful CON test reduces the damage to 1d6+1 penetrating. 

Requirements: Necromancy Arcana (Master)
Spell Type: Utility
MP Cost: 10
Casting Time: 1 minute
Target Number: 15
Test: none

You can create a Walking Dead minion (see FAB p. 113). It becomes either a skeleton or zombie, depending on the state of the body. The spell animates one cadaver for each casting, but it can be cast multiple times. The body must be within 10 yards of the caster. The undead will obey your mental commands for 1 hour before de-animating, but you can extend the spell's duration by 1 hour per +5 MP. Regardless of the MP spent, the spell will end at the next sunrise.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Fire it up!

Tonight is "Session 0" of the new campaign. We'll spend the beginning making characters and setting up things like PC goals and PC bonds. I have some basic adventure material scribbled out as well. Here's hoping things go well.

It's equal parts exciting and dreadful to start a new campaign as a GM. The potential is tantalizing but the possibility of things fizzling (or a crash & burn) is ever present. Nothing for it but to try, though! Let's roll some dice!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Church of the Radiance

The Church of Radiance's origins predates the Empire. Legends tell of early prophets traveling among tribal clans, delivering the Word of the Light to all. Many were martyred, but the faith spread and soon it was the predominant human faith in Bryll.

At the height of the Empire, great cathedrals were built and the priesthood grew strong. At the head of the institution was the Patriarch. This spiritual leader was selected from the pontifex when the old leader died.

The faithful depended on the church as much as the throne for succor and guidance. This twin poles were not alway in perfect accord. Sometimes emperors and patriarchs would clash over the issues of the day. Sometimes violently. More than once church templars took the field against imperial troops.

With the empire's decline, the church maintained its hold on the faithful, but politically it now had to juggle relations with multiple rulers instead of just the emperor. As a result, the prelates of areas like Peledan and Blackport have become more independent of the Sacerdom (the enclaved seat of the Patriarch in Rike). In the Splintered Princes, the church is strong among the people, but there is no central ruler to appeal to. Local priests have varying levels of influence with the petty lordlings that rule the various territories. Oddly, the church's political influence seems weak in Silverrun, despite the presence of the beautiful Winged Cathedral and a more stable social structure than the bulk of the region.

The core of the faith centers around the concept of illumination, or the opening of one's being to the light of the divine. The pillars of worship center on spiritual purification through piety and devotion to the church and its teachings. These include tithing as well as avoiding sinful pride, dishonesty, excess, and brutality. The faithful attend weekly services for blessings and to make regular confession. Priests perform these services as well as marriages, funerals, and the anointing of children into the fold.

There are some priestesses, but the overwhelming majority of the clergy is male. There has never been a Matriarch of the church, nor even a female prelate or pontifex. In addition to the ordained priesthood, there are also cloistered monks and nuns, as well as mendicant friars who are considered "of the radiance."

The templars are militant, chivalric orders that have cropped up from time to time in the church's history. The church does not actively support such organizations. Traditionally they have been comprised of privileged faithful, who have banded together –usually in times of crisis– giving the church a militant arm to wield. The would be templars must obtain the charter from the Patriarch to become an official order. At which point, they gain a certain status within the church hierarchy. The charter can be revoked at any time, so many orders have only lasted for one Primacy (or less). At present, there is no "active" templar order, though many nobles still claim a connection to some historical ones.

It should be noted that while the church is the official faith in the empire and Peledan, it is not the only religion. Nature worshippers, demonic cults, and other beliefs hang on in the fringes and shadows of society. The church is a distinctly human religion as well. There are no significant populations of nonhuman followers, though individuals may have adopted the faith.