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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 "mundane" 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 by 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 to the random table in Cook Expert, the book suggests 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 are 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.