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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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

RSA: Animate Dead

Animate Dead is not a particularly uncommon idea in D&D. Evil necromancers and liches summoning armies of the undead is a pretty standard trope in fantasy fiction and games. However, the spell's use by player characters is a bit more out of the ordinary. Often, it's considered an evil (or chaotic) act, or at least morally dubious.

In BX, Animate Dead is a 5th level MU/Elf spell, which means a 9th level PC caster level minimum. It also means having it in your spellbook, not something you trade out during morning prayers like a cleric. There are other spells the Wizard or Wizard/Lord might typically choose before this one (assuming your players choose their spells as opposed to randomly learning): i.e. Conjure Elemental, Telekenesis, or Teleport come to mind.

So let's take a look under the hood, shall we?

Animate Dead (from Cook)

Range: 60'
Duration: Indefinite

OK, right off the duration jumps out at you. These rotting minions don't fall apart after an hour or so. You've got to kill them, turn them, or use Dispel Magic on them. They obey the caster (natch) so that's where you get skeletons guarding some tomb for centuries and the like.

Next off, the caster created 1HD of skeletons or zombies per caster level. So your 9th level wizard can animate 9 skeletons or 4 zombies + 1 skeleton, etc. That's fairly straightforward.

Wisely, the spell description states that character levels don't apply to determining the undead's hit dice, otherwise you could have things like 14HD skeletons walking around.

Here's what gets me. This isn't some elaborate ritual like Spiritwrack where you need a lot of prep for it. You can keep casting it every round if you've got the spell slots and there are enough cadavers about. A high level mage in the middle of a battlefield could recycle a lot of troops that way. It's even handy in the crawl, where a nasty fight with a lot of orcs can be balanced by getting some of their hacked comrades back on their rotting feet. Heck, I could imagine a fun "spell duel" where two casters in a cemetery are burning through scrolls and spell slots trying to get as many "residents" on their team as quickly as possible. While it's not a standard item, imagine a staff or wand or intelligent sword (!) with this spell's ability!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Curious Objects: Light Sword

No, not this:

I'm talking about that (potentially) massively powerful weapon found in Moldvay's treasure charts; the +1 sword, casts light on command (30' radius).

Bear with me a moment.

If you refer back to my RSA on the Light spell, you can see that the item effect is basically the same. Though it does list the effect as a 30' radius, not diameter like the spell. I'm not sure of that's a typo or deliberate change. Either way it's a fair interpretation that the sword is simply granting this spell-like ability to its wielder. So three things immediately come to mind here:

  1. The ability is on command, which means no limit per day.*
  2. Light can blind an opponent if cast on their eyes.
  3. It's still a magic sword that lets you hit things like wights and lycanthropes.
Following this model gives the user a huge leg up in a fight. Now, you could make the DM ruling that the light can only be centered on the blade as opposed to "targetable," and that would be fair enough, I suppose. Unfortunately there isn't a more detailed write-up of the weapon provided in the book. However, in Cook, there are a couple other weapons with spell like effects which do have some accompanying text. In those cases (charm person and locate objects), the powers are described as per the relevant spells. So that's a point for the original premise.

It's worth noting that even without the blinding ability, a light spell ability that doesn't take up a spell slot is a great resource for a low (Basic) level party.

* The Cook Expert items do include a frequency cap on invoking the powers, but they aren't uniform.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

RMA: Prehistoric Plant Eaters - Stegosaurus, Titanothere, and Triceratops

I've taken a little time on these last few Lost World entries because

A) Their roles in such a world aren't that different from one another, and
B) that role is a little boring

Their similarities are why I decided to lump them into one entry. So we'll talk about those first.

First, the stats.

(from Cook)


HD: 11
AC: 3
Att: 1 (tail or trample)
Dmg: 2d8/2d8
Move: 60' (20')
No. App: 0 (1d4)
Morale: 7
Save: F6
Treasure: nil

HD: 12
AC: 5
Att: 1 (butt or trample)
Dmg: 2d6/3d8
Move: 120' (40')
No. App: 0 (1d6)
Morale: 7
Save: F6
Treasure: nil

HD: 11
AC: 2
Att: 1 (gore or trample)
Dmg: 3d6/3d6
Move: 90' (30')
No. App: 0 (1d4)
Morale: 8
Save: F6
Treasure: nil

Each of these are large plant-eaters, but not so large as the mega-herbivores like Apatosaurus. Don't get me wrong, they're big. But the aren't HUGE.

Each of these animals has decent HD. they aren't particularly fast, either. They can also deal out a reasonable amount of damage, but they have skittish morale. They aren't after a fight. They are generally prey, not predators. They are herd animals, though. granted the number appearing stats are pretty small herds, but it stills add up to a lot of prehistoric trampling and goring on the hoof -er, foot.

Now let's talk about some differences.

You'd think the Titanothere to be the most dangerous in general, due the extra HD and the slightly faster movement. Not to mention the higher damage. It isn't as well armored as the dinos, but it does have a bit of hide to get through.

No, my money is on the triceratops. The two things that make me vote that way come from the description.
"Although these creatures are plant eaters, they are aggressive and dangerous, usually attacking on sight. They charge for double damage on the first attack."
So they are more likely to pick a fight, (slightly) less likely to run away, and their initial attack can do up to 36 points of damage. To be fair old Tricorn is a bit slow, so even on the charge he isn't running down able-bodied PCs, but you do to get caught walking when its initiative comes up.

Lastly, if I were actually running a lost world setting with all these creatures from various eras and epochs mashed together, I'd have one word about these prehistoric herd animals.


An amusing number

I haven't forgotten the Lost World RMAs. I am nearly through. I just thought I'd share something I observed.

As I have been posting these writeups, I've shared them on various Google+ RPG communities where I felt they were relevant. Like most bloggers (even infrequent ones like me), I crave feedback, so comments and "+1s" are always welcome. I see the alerts on my gmail page that someone has done so to my posts and the little red circle is a pleasant reminder that someone, somewhere derived a bit of pleasure from my ramblings.

Last week I published an RMA for Sabre Tooth tigers. It was –by any measure– a pretty typical post of this type for me. I like to provide pictures when possible, if for no other reason than to break up the blocks of text. For the tigers, I found a classic bit of Frazetta art with a buxom lass flanked by two of the beasts in question. It amused me and that was about all the thought that went into it.

When sharing to G+, the posts will grab a thumbnail of (usually) the first image on the linked page. As this was the creature picture I chose, that was fine. I linked it to three or four different communities and went on with my day.

A week later, I was on the BX community page and noticed that this particular post had nine +1s. I don't usually keep count, but this seemed a little high, so I glanced back to see some older posts. They averaged about three each. this trend continued on other communities as well. Always with the most +1s of my posts, sometimes double or more of the next highest.

Conclusion? Sex sells. (cue the sounds of shock and surprise!)

Not really surprising, but it made me chuckle a bit. I'll try to post the last of the lost world critters within the next day or so.

See? Dinosaurs! Totally on-topic!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Come Sail Away: The Sailor for BX/LL

I actually prefer Gene Tierney, but this seemed more relevant.

A bit of a change from most posts, I know. I thought I'd post a link to something I wrote up a while ago. It's a (N)PC class for sailors, playable with most "0e" class & level games, but written for Labyrinth Lord in particular. The free PDF is here:

The Sailor Class

I posted it for two reasons:

  1. I talk a lot about encounters at sea and in the water, so it seemed fitting.
  2. It's related to a possible project I'm considering.
Comments & Criticisms are welcome. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Curious Objects: Wand of Enemy Detection

Like all Moldvay Basic wands, it's MU/Elf-only with 1d10 charges. At first glance it's pretty mild stuff but this little magic glow-stick is an odd one. It's not reading alignment, it's reading intentions (like Detect Evil). It will cause "all enemies within 60' (even those hidden or invisible) to glow, as if on fire."

I can think of four situations where this "wimpy" wand would be highly useful beyond "Who here wants to kill me?":

  1. You need to quickly identify which combatants are hostile to you in a confusing or crowded situation. Maybe there are traitor soldiers and loyalists all wearing the same uniforms?
  2. Invisible foe or foes are about.
  3. The lights go out.
  4. Prove a negative. "See? He's not glowing! He isn't the assassin!"

The spell doesn't exist in BX, but DMs might even consider a "Faerie Fire" style bonus to hit vs. such well-lit opponents.

Monday, September 4, 2017

RMA: Sabre tooth Tigers

Smilodon for the camera!
I could have picked an image with just the cat, but when in doubt, use Frazetta!

Continuing in the lost world theme, we have the sabre tooth tiger. Our main predatory mammal for such areas. Of course, such a creature would have had a hard time competing against the likes of T-Rex, but during the ice age, when dinos were long gone, ol' Smiley did all right for himself. 

I've already done a Random Monster Assessment on tigers, and really smilodon is more of the same. It's a great big cat with teeth and claws. Granted, in BX, it's the biggest and toothiest of the bunch. 

Sabre-tooth Tiger (from Moldvay)
AC: 6
HD: 8
Move: 150' (50')
Att: 3 (2 claws/1 bite)
Dmg: 1d8/1d8/2d8
No. App: 1d4 (1d4)
Save: F4
Morale: 10
Treasure: V

The main thing I would note about this fella is that he is (was) an apex predator and not easily scared off (high morale). While -in real life- primitive man and the great cat would probably have done their best to avoid each other (top predators like their space), and the beast would have likely found easier pickings than the hairless apes with pointy sticks, competition over food might cause clashes. Maybe a clan of cavemen manage to down a mastodon. It would take more than a day to butcher such a kill and prep it for taking back to the cave. A pack of sabre-tooths might find the carcass in the night and decide to try staking a claim. 

A party of PCs  from "normal" times that find themselves in a lost world would probably be a smaller group than the smilodon typically would have to deal with (neanderthal mammoth hunting parties were typically a dozen or more men) . Snagglepuss might decide a handful of people are easy enough prey (or their horses). Especially if it's a pack of 3 or 4 cats. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

RMA: Of Cave Bears and Clans

Let's talk cave bear:

No, not really. Well... sort of. We'll get to that. First the actual bear.

As with many of the "lost world" entries in BX/LL, the cave bear only vaguely matches up with reality. Ursus spelaeus was a predominantly vegetarian megafanua not much bigger than the larger bears of today. But that's not important right now, we're talking fantastic monsters here!

In BX, the cave bear is "...a type of giant grizzly bear which lives in caves and 'lost world' areas. It stands about 15' tall and is the most ferocious of all the bears." It's described as having a fondness for human flesh. I assume that extends to demi-humans as well.

Cave Bears (from Moldvay)

AC: 5
HD: 7
Move:120' (40')
Att: 3 (2 claws/1 bite)
Dmg: 1d8/1d8/2d6
No. App: 1-2
Save: F3
Morale: 9

This blog has talked about bears before, and most of the ideas still apply. A BX cave bear is bigger, with more HD and dealing more damage, but other than that it's mostly more of the same.

In a lost world setting, cave bears would probably be both predator and prey. Old T-Rex wouldn't turn his snout up and some bear meat, and neanderthals could certainly use the food and furs. This leads to my earlier comment about the Darryl Hannah movie. More accurately the book it was based upon.

Before Jean Auel's novels shifted gears into pelt-ripping romances, the first couple books were actually pretty carefully crafted to describe Neanderthal life and culture as understood by modern paleontologists. The main character, Ayla, was a stranger; a Cro-Magnon (homo sapiens) among the older race of hominids. The idea being that the two races did exist simultaneously for a period of time.

All that aside, the relevant part is also drawn from history. The idea of the cave bear having religious significance to the neanderthals.

Is there a cave?!

This is the most interesting part of the creature to me. The idea that tribes of cavemen might ritually hunt the bears, or hold them sacred. How would they react to PCs killing one in a random encounter? What's more, to reach into another creature's description, Stone Giants are known to keep cave bears as guard animals. What would the cavemen make of the giant and his pets? What about the neanderthals' chiefs and their foes the ogres? The opportunities to flesh out these dynamics within a "Lost Land" micro-setting are considerable.

Friday, September 1, 2017


(link utterly NSFK/W)

While not true dinosaurs, the pterosaurs are inextricably linked with the terrible lizards in people's consciousness. The distinction is even less an issue in a "Lost World" scenario where we are lumping species together that were actually separated by millions of years (and various continents).

In the real world, there were several species of these creatures, but for BX purposes they are split into two: The pterodactyl and the pteranodon. This is a nice, simple way to offer smaller and larger options for using the beasts in your game.

D&D took a page from classic prehistoric fantasy stories and doubled these creatures in size for the purposes of making the more fun.

It just doesn't get better than Harryhausen!

Pterodactyl (from Cook & LL):

AC: 7
HD: 1
Move: (fly) 180' (60')
Att:1 (bite)
Dmg: 1d3
No. App:0 (2d4)
Save: F1
Morale: 7
Treasure: nil

AC: 6
HD: 5
Move: (fly) 240' (120')
Att:1 (bite)
Dmg: 1d12
No. App:0 (1d4)
Save: F3
Morale: 8
Treasure: V

(Note: The Cook Expert rules contain a typo that doe not list the number or type of attack for these monsters, I took that stat from the Labyrinth Lord retro-clone)

The pterodactyl is the smaller of the two, with a wingspan of 8-10 feet (real ones it was more like 3 feet). They aren't big enough to haul away a character, but a half dozen of them harassing a party or their mounts could be an annoyance. Their low morale suggests they'd flee easily, but possibly return to harry a likely meal. Essentially treat them as prehistoric giant, non-vampiric bats and you'll be close. The way I might use them is to have them get defensive around their nests/roost and the resulting flapping and noise might attract a bigger threat (force a wandering monster check).

BX Pteranodons are much bigger (50' span) and described as more aggressive. Having one swoop in and grab a character is a classic move, though it would probably target the lighter/less armored ones for carrying purposes. They actually get a treasure type, so maybe shiny objects and former victims' equipment ends up in their nests? The most fun way to use them would be as flying mounts, of course. Perhaps a tribe of airborne neanderthals or some PCs with a charm monster spell?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

RSA: Growth of Animals

Since BX doesn't have druids, this one is under clerical spells. I wonder if elves had a separate list whether the designers would have placed it there? At third level, it competes for attention with some pretty heavy hitters in the cleric's go-to repertoire. Spells like Cure Disease, Remove Curse, or even Continual Light. So in the vein of other RSAs, let's take a look at this sucker and see what's what.

Growth of Animal (from Cook):

Cleric: 3rd
Range: 120'
Duration: 12 turns

So basically it doubles the size, strength, carrying capacity, and damage of a non-intelligent and/or "fantastic" creature. It can however, double the size  of a normal creature's giant version: . e.g. Giant Hawks, Weasels, Spiders, etc.

The obvious use of such a spell is to get more out of an allied creature. Your mount, your hound, etc. Changing a dog or tamed wolf into a Game of Thrones-style direwolf would give you an edge in a fight, to be sure. 

But that's low-hanging fruit. Let's look a little deeper, shall we?

First of all, the spell has a decent range. This means you don't have to be right next to the creature. Secondly, nothing says the animal has to belong to you. Imagine suddenly doubling the size of a foe's mount. Sure he's got a great big horse now, but he's too high up to hit you. Now imagine combining that same casting with a followup Cause Fear. You could also cause a helluva distraction in the enemy camp but suddenly having some bird or beast swell up in their midst. Maybe that rickety bridge they are galloping across won't take another half ton of horseflesh?

Next, keep in mind that sometimes bigger isn't better. That giant spider chasing you Shelob-style through the tunnels? Zap! Too big to fit now. Sure it's temporary, but two hours is a nice head start. Granted, a fifth level cleric probably isn't running from Crab Spiders too much, but you get idea. 

I know it's not a spider, but hedgehogs are just so CUTE!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Curious Objects: Protection Scrolls

Shields up!

Continuing to look at unusual magic items in Moldvay/Cook D&D, I arrive at the scrolls of protection. They are the only magical scrolls (apart from cursed ones) that non spell-casters can use. They are described as written in the Common Tongue and Read Magic is not needed either. The scroll creates a 10' radius ward around the reader that effectively prevents the targeted threat from entering the area. The warding lasts one hour (6 turns). The types listed protect from:

  • Lycanthropes (Basic)
  • Undead (Basic)
  • Elementals (Expert)
  • Magic (Expert)

I know in my personal gaming history, scrolls were nearly always spell scrolls. Even though over a third of random scrolls results in BX (using the Cook table) are protection scrolls, I don't think one of these ever came up when I was younger. After coming back to the fold via Labyrinth Lord years ago, I've placed them deliberately now and then, but I don't remember one getting used in play.

Part of this is the specificity. That scroll vs. lycanthropes in your pack is only going to be handy if:
  1. You run into lycanthropes
  2. No one in the circle tries to attack the lycanthropes in melee (breaks the enchantment).
Now the interesting thing about that is the "in melee" part. Moldvay specifies "hand to hand." That could be interpreted as spells and missile fire being OK. If so, that makes that Protect from Undead scroll very nice indeed, as it seems undead are much more common than weres in most games (especially lower levels). 

The really interesting one is the Protection from Magic scroll. No spells or magical effects (items, etc.) in or out. Now this one lasts 1d4 turns, but there is no caveat about attacks ending the effect. Probably because it isn't a ward vs. a particular type of creature. This seems like a good way to try to hamstring that evil wizard: Get close enough, read the scroll, then stay on him so he can't get clear of the "dead zone." Now, the PCs' items and stuff are also nullified, but a 10th level fighter with a regular sword is way scarier than some unarmored guy in a funny hat.

Monday, August 28, 2017

RMA: Crocodile Rock

I think any discussion of crocodilians and their ability to intimidate is best summed up by the World's Greatest Secret Agent, Sterling Archer:

"Maybe deep down I'm afraid of any apex predator that lived through the K-T extinction. Physically unchanged for a hundred million years, because it's the perfect killing machine. A half ton of cold-blooded fury, the bite force of 20,000 Newtons, and stomach acid so strong it can dissolve bones and hoofs."

In BX, alligators, crocodiles, caimans, etc. are all basically crocs for stat purposes. Which is fine. The DM can describe the subtle differences in scales and jaw if he wants, but all the players are going to be thinking is:

I don't know how much these critters have gotten used in people's campaigns, but I can certainly see them coming up in swamp or river-themed adventures. Certainly that is where they are most likely on the wandering encounter tables.

Since I looked at these originally as part of the "Lost World" series I started with Neanderthals, we'll begin with the giant croc.

These are described as only appearing in lost world regions or settings and over 50' long. They can and will attack small boats or even ships.

Now, to put fifty feet long into perspective, we will assume that includes the tail (as most of these measurements in the real world do). Here is a photo of a fairly enormous croc (this is real):

That is Lolong, the largest crocodile ever captured (d. 2013). Lolong measured in at 20ft., 3 in. and was a saltwater variety from the Philippines. So imagine more than x2 that long, which means a LOT bigger in terms of mass. The biggest prehistoric "supercroc" known was Sarcosuchus, which came in about 40'.

OK, enough of the Discovery Channel stuff. Onto the stats!

The different sizes are really just for threat scaling (no real changes other than bigger stats). So obviously 15 HD for the giant version is kinda scary (more than dragons). AC is fair and its damage is rough. Even the smallest type would be a nasty surprise while crossing a river or similar.

It's important to note something about these critters (all three types) and this is based on the real-world versions: They can run as fast as they swim. An encumbered character may well not be able to outrun a croc.

Crocs are reptiles, which is to say they aren't super-bright. They are also not super-emotional. This is reflected in their morale score. If a meal is proving too difficult (or pointy), they may well give up and move on. They are great ambush predators, though. So there's always the chance they pop up again when you least expect it. 

As a DM, I would use them tactically. Knocking PCs out of their canoes, etc. or striking from the reeds and shallows. Once the PCs are in the water, they are usually -quite literally- out of their element. A swamp witch with an animal control magic item or spell could turn things ugly real quick. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

RMA: Neanderthals

I was reading through the monsters sections of Moldvay & Cook a few days ago (Shocking, I know!) and was reminded of several references to "Lost World" areas and settings. Prehistoric mammals, dinosaurs, etc. Of course this is all presented in a fantasy world/"Appendix N" manner, not with an eye toward paleontology. It's all good, though.

I was a kid in the 70's, OK?

So this got me thinking about these creatures and how they are often underused in many games. I've talked about some of these creatures before, but there are several more. So why not add to the series?

Neanderthals (Cavemen):

More Saturday AM flashbacks!

The neanderthal is a staple in time-travel and lost world stories. More advanced or "modern" characters meeting primitives. Before we get into it, true to RMA form, let's have the stats.

Neanderthal (from Moldvay)
AC: 8
HD: 2
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 1 (weapon)
Dmg: 2d4 or weapon +1
No. App: 1d10 (10d4)
Save: F2
Morale: 7
Treasure: C
AL: Lawful

They are considered demi-humans (like elves and halflings, etc.) and not humanoids or "monsters." It seems that this ups the potential for role-play and communication between the PCs and the "Clan of the Cave Bear." They are lawful, have fairly low morale. They are described as living in "family groups", and "usually not hostile unless they are attacked."

Their hit dice and damage represents their "powerful muscles" (tougher than a normal human) but they aren't insanely strong. They use stone weapons and clubs. All pretty straightforward as a fictional caveman so far.

Here's a few fun bits:

  • They keep White Apes as pets. That's weird. I mean, I like it! But it's an odd twist. Perhaps this is a nod to some fictional reference or trope that I'm missing? Having 4HD pet apes certainly ups the puissance of a neanderthal tribe. 
  • They hunt cave bears. That makes sense. The meat and pelts are useful and cave bears eat humans, so it's good to get rid of a dangerous predator. Unless of course they kill a stone giant's pet. Then things get real!
  • Neanderthals are "Friendly toward dwarves and gnomes, but hate goblins and kobolds." I assume this is taking the "cave" part of "caveman" to a semi-logical place. I like to imagine some sort of trade occurring between them and the gnomes or dwarves. A dwarf PC might get a favorable reaction roll modifier when a party encounters the cavemen,
  • "They will attack ogres on sight." Now that one needs a little looking at. It doesn't say they hate or feud with or are hostile to them. They attack on sight! There has got to be a story there, and I think it ties to the next point (or it can if you want it to).
  • Neanderthals are led not by themselves, but by "a similar race that is much larger than average Neandethal." It says they "choose" these leaders, so it implies this is a willing arrangement, not simple subjugation. The leaders are one male and one female, presumably a couple but not necessarily. That's an interesting twist as well. Compared to the "Club her drag her home by the hair" cliche, that's pretty darned enlightened. 

These leader types are ten feet tall and have 6HD. Considering normal Neanderthals are described with "squat" bodies, there is no mistaking one for the other. 

So. Ten feet tall, six hit dice. What would that sort of look like? Oh, I don't know... AN OGRE?!

Now standard ogres are eight to ten feet tall and 4+1 HD, so these are uber-ogres. Imagine some sort of split within ogredom that led to these two breeds being at constant war. The ogres' description says that the hatred is mutual between the groups. There is a lot of plot mining material there, IMO.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Stories vs Adventures

I ride the subway to and from work every day. Since I don't tend to obsess over my iPhone's screen and I don't like carrying "extra encumbrance" e.g. books, this leaves my mind some time to roam freely. Of course gaming is a common subject.

I was pondering different GM tactics the other day. More specifically how to incorporate certain classic plot devices into an adventure to add tension to a situation. The problem, it seemed, was that too often springing a "gotcha" on the party seemed like taking away player agency.

Here's a super-simplistic example:

GM: "Your torch sputters out."

Player: "I light another."

GM: "You don't have any more."

Player: "What? Yes I do! I have three more on my character sheet!"

GM: "You lost them jumping across that chasm. They fell out of your pack."

Player: "You didn't tell us that! I would have noticed!"

GM: "Well, you didn't and now it's dark. You hear slithering."

See what I mean? Kind of a screw job. The specifics can vary widely, but the general idea is that -in a piece of fiction- you see a character not lock a door or accidentally drop their phone or forget their ammo bag and it leads to extra tension or humor in the story. The tricky part about a PC leaving their lifesaver behind is that for it to work best the player can't be aware of it until after the fact, which means they can't "make a save vs oops!" Which brings us back to lack of agency. PCs are not characters in the GM's story, they are avatars of proactive agents: the players. The GM has no story, he is presenting the party with a situation, from which they create the story.

 A while back I wrote about the use of random encounters in "classic" style gaming, arguing that it's an important cost-benefit agent in a resource management focused game like BX. I would argue they serve another purpose: a way to represent a certain amount of the unplanned into the adventure. It's not a perfect parallel, but it seems a good way to make the PCs deal with something they couldn't have anticipated.

These aren't really new ideas, but it was another example of finding interesting depths between the lines of a "Basic" game.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Curious Objects: Treasure Maps (scrolls)

"Piranah Lagoon" is the name of my Slickee Boys cover band!

Now, maps are hardly unheard of in fantasy role-playing games. They are a classic trope as well as an essential dungeoneering tool. Treasure maps in particular are a staple of both fantasy fiction and adventures. What I want to talk about for a bit is the random treasure result under the Scrolls section.

When I found my way to BX many years ago, I was tickled that scrolls could be more than just extra or new spells. The two main twists were the protection scrolls and the maps. The idea that the rules included a mechanism for randomly dropping a plot hook into the party's collective lap was quite remarkable (to me).

Fully a quarter of all scrolls found are maps, according toe the random table in Cook Expert, the book suggest the DM make up several maps ahead of time and have them handy to use as props for when/if the party finds one.

In the Basic rules, the description suggests that the map lead to a treasure somewhere within the same dungeon, but the Expert rules rightly expands it to include possible wilderness travel. The tables results scale for the size of the treasure to be found, as well as having magical items as loot. There is also suggestions for placing monsters as guardians.

Two things occur to me off the bat: Firstly, a treasure map is a great way to delay a party from getting hold of too much wealth at once. Of course the loot from the dungeon isn't light! You just haven't gone to the haunted tower on that map to retrieve the fabled Emerald of Kun Par yet! This can be especially useful if you need a little extra time to figure out some things in the game.

Secondly, it's a great segue into the next adventure that saves you trying to get the players hooked. They know where a fabulous magical item (or pile of cash) is supposed to be, they just need to get their collective butts in gear and start walking.

Of course, they could try selling the map (for a fraction of the loot's value). But that could lead to even more plot hooks and complications. In a fun way!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Curious Objects: Ring of Djinni Summoning

Magic rings in BX are pretty powerful. They usually don't have charges, and most are usable by a variety of classes. This one has –to my knowledge– never shown up in a game I've run or played. Maybe other folks have different experiences, but it's a stranger in my games. So I was pretty unfamiliar with it when I was flipping through the items' listings looking for an idea to ramble about.

Holy lamp oil! This thing could eat a campaign!

To understand what I mean, let's start with the item itself.

"The wearer may summon one djinni to serve for up to one day. The djinni will only serve and obey the person wearing the ring when it is summoned, even if the ring is then given to another character. (See MONSTERS for a description of a djinni.) The ring may only be used once per day."

So one use per day, only one person (the wearer) gets to command the djinni. OK, seems pretty straightforward. Here's the thing about that: a djinni can be summoned each day and can hang around for up to one day! That means the owner of the ring effectively has a djinni on continuous call. Sure, it might get killed and then he's out of luck until tomorrow, but let's talk about the djinni itself.

AC: 5
HD: 7+1
Move: 90' Fly: 240'
Att: 1 + special
Dmg: 2-16 (fists), or 2-12 whirlwind
Save: F14
Morale: 12

So it's got several very cool powers apart from combat. It can create food & drink, it can create metallic objects (temporary) and soft goods (permanent!), it has invisibility, gaseous form, illusions, and whirlwind. It can do any of these 3 times/day. They can also carry fairly heavy loads without tiring.

Having one of these on call would drastically shift most combats in the PCs' favor. Admittedly less so at higher levels, but if the ring were randomly rolled who knows when it shows up?

Three noncombat things jump out at me about the djinni though: 1) the object creation powers and 2) the flight speed and 3) the load carrying.

Why these three? Because if I had a PC with this ring, I would become insanely rich in a very short amount of time. I would have the djinni start by creating beautiful gold statues, as well as things like tapestries and carved wood. Then –while disguised by its illusions and it invisibly watching over me– I would sell the stuff for thousands of GP (preferably in gems). I would then have it fly me the HECK out of town before the gold disappears the next day. Once in a new town, I would repeat the process.

Cue the getaway music!

Now, as a card-carrying member of the SOB GM club, I could definitely find ways to screw with the party that tried something like this. More likely, I would let them get away with it for a bit, then catch them out. Either that, or maybe an NPC might be running the scam and the PCs get blamed.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Curious Objects: Staff of Command

Welcome to the first in a new category of posts on this blog. I've decided to call it "Curious Objects." In these posts, I will take a look at some of the more obscure and/or interesting items in "Classic" (e.g. Basic/Expert) D&D.

For our first installment, I chose the Staff of Command. I came across this magical item in Cook Expert and was immediately struck at how powerful this thing could be a game.

Brief aside: In Moldvay's Basic, staves held 1d10 charges and were cleric-only (wands were for wizardly types). That was changed in Cook to vary by staff type. Some are clerical, some are "arcane" (MU/Elf), and some are usable by all three spell casting classes. Their charges were boosted to 3d10 as well.

The Staff of Command is usable by any spell caster type and it can emulate the powers of three very powerful rings: Human, Plant, and Animal Control. Of course, a staff has limited charges (rings don't), but even so, this opens up all sorts of possibilities for zaniness.

Human Control is basically a charm person spell. The target can save (albeit at -2), and there are limits to how many people can be controlled as well as what they can or can't do (no spellcasting from the thralls).

Animal Control is limited by the fact that you have to concentrate on the control or it ends. The beasts also have a negative reaction modifier toward the caster.

Plant Control is the one that looks the most fun. The staff allows you to "animate and control all plants and plant-like creatures" in a 10'x 10' area up to 60' away. It too has a concentration requirement, but let's just look at two things:

1) No save. I know, they're plants. BUT -
2) Plant. Like. Creatures.

That means you can take control of a treant, it gets no save, and you it will fight for you as long as you maintain concentration.

(Oddly, if you want to get technical, the Treant is the only plant-like creature in the BX monsters sections. As fungus is not a plant, etc.)

I don't see the staff as a game-breaking item. If nothing else, its limited charges keep it from being too OP. But there is SO much fun to be had with something like this, either in an NPC or PC's hands. Horses throwing riders, merchants becoming charmed, thorn bushes grabbing sentries, and so on. Any wizard would find it well worth his treasure share to get hold of one.