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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

PDF for BX Ranger

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Bighara's BX Ranger

A Walk in the Woods: A non-LOTR Ranger for BX/LL

Like so many of these posts, this started when I was flipping through BX. I was reading a section in the Cook Expert book about wilderness travel and ran across a couple interesting passages that, while I've read before, stuck in my mind.

The first was "Becoming Lost" on X56. It begins by explaining how not to get lost; which is basically follow a road or some feature like a river or have "a reliable guide." Otherwise, the DM starts rolling for your party to wander through the woods until an OP random encounter eats you or you starve.

This got me thinking about how much plot goodness could be derived from paying more attention to these rules, but that's another post for another time.

The second part was about foraging for food. Not only is it a bit of a desperation move for when you're out of rations, but it slows travel down considerably.

This led the bucket of squirrels I call my brain to mull over the idea of the "reliable guide." Who are these guides? It wouldn't make sense for most dungeons to be right off the main road. They should be deep in the wilderness or similar, Players are notoriously suspicious of hiring someone to lead them to some lost temple. They'd much rather just use a map or stumble off through the swamp by themselves. Less chance of betrayal, and no annoying NPC to keep alive and/or share loot/pay.

Like this. But usually fighting over the remote.

If the DM is using the wilderness rules properly though, this can end badly for the PCs. To quote Cook:
"Strangely enough, traveling in the wilderness can actually be more dangerous for a low-level party than venturing into the first levels of a dungeon."

So what if, instead of hiring some local yokel to lead you to the dungeon or whatnot, you had PC fulfill this role? Someone like, I dunno... a RANGER?

First off, let me say that if you want a ranger like a 1st edition AD&D ranger in your BX/LL game, look no further than the Advanced Edition Companion. It's got a great version.

I was looking for something a little less Tolkien: With the orc-slaying, palantir-viewing, spell casting version we all know. I didn't want another fighter either. I wanted someone who was at home in the wilds, who could track, hunt, scout, and also find his way through the wilderness. In many ways he is a support character, like the cleric, but hopefully still with enough to offer a player to make running one interesting and fun. Enjoy.

BX Ranger

Primes: WIS and CON
13+ either = +5% xp
13+ both = +10% xp

Fight/Save/Level as: Cleric

Weapons: Any
Armor: Leather (no shields)

Class Abilities:

Known Regions: The ranger starts with a working knowledge of his home terrain. He is considered a "reliable guide" within this region and can navigate cross-country without getting lost. Once every three levels, the ranger can add familiarity with a new region with DM approval. He must have spent time there and/or studied maps of the area. The size of a given region is determined by the DM, and may be dependent on size, geographical, or even political features.

Tracking: A ranger can follow tracks. The base chance of success is 50% + 2/level. A success shows the ranger a discernible trail and what kind of a creature made it. A failure shows no trail or possibly even a false trail (DM's discretion).

A new tracking roll must be made every hour in a dungeon or urban environment and twice a day in the wilderness (usually in the morning and at midday). The DM may ask for a new roll if the trail crosses breaks in the terrain or might have been obscured (eg crossing rocky ground, a stream or a busy road).

Modifiers to the basic roll include age of the trail, weather, and the nature of the terrain. The list below is not exhaustive, but give the DM a basis to work from. Modifiers are cumulative.

Modifiers Example
-5%         per day since tracks were made or on a shifting surface like sand
-10% hard ground (stone or packed earth) or steady rain for more than an hour
+5% Large beast, a cart, or multiple creatures on foot
+10% Huge creature, a caravan, or a large group on foot
-25% Rain for more than day since trail was made or a storm
+25% Tracking through snow or other obvious footprints
-10% Tracking at night or through poor light/visibility

Nature Lore: A ranger is familiar with the natural world of his known regions. He can easily identify normal plants and animals. He knows how to equip and dress for the weather, and find appropriate shelter. He is also aware when something is amiss (birds stop singing, an odd smell, etc.). As a result he is only surprised on a 1 in the wilderness of his known regions.

Live off the Land: A ranger is better at hunting and foraging than other classes. He can successfully find food on a 1-2 (d6) for 1d6+Level people and can hunt without having to stop traveling for the day. Alternately, if the party does stop or the day to hunt, the ranger finds game on a 1-2 (d6). At 7th level, these increase to 1-3. He is also skilled at skinning and dressing normal game animals.

Scouting: A ranger can move quietly and hide in the wilderness of his known regions as a Thief of the same level. Starting at 2nd level, he has gained sufficient knowledge of game traps like snares and pits to let him set, find, and disarm them as a Thief of half his level (round down).

Monday, October 23, 2017

Curious Objects: Holy Water, Holy Symbols, Garlic, and Wolfsbane

Moving away from the magical treasure aspect a bit. I am occasionally bemused by some of the mundane offerings in the classic equipment list and, in keeping with the halloween theme, I thought I would talk about some of the "folklore" items that characters can avail themselves of for dealing with supernatural spookiness.

Holy Water

This one is pretty straightforward in game terms. Later versions of the game go into more detail about how exactly it's made, but in BX it is simply "made holy by a high level NPC cleric." Its harmful properties to undead are of course the go-to function of the item, but I am intrigued by the possibilities opened up by the statement "[It] may be used in certain rituals." I like the idea that having a vial handy could make the difference as to whether the party's cleric can perform certain rites.

Holy Symbols

In the Moldvay equipment list, it states that "Each cleric must have a holy symbol." Referring to the item, not the design concept. This is interesting because it's sort of a class restriction/requirement that isn't listed under the class, but in equipment. In later editions, there are wooden or silver symbols, but I don't recall any rules mechanic being affected by the difference. It does offer some roleplaying opps for the player. Spending coin on a nicer pendant might show piety, and the shinier bling could be considered "formal wear" at the great temples.

The main use of holy symbols is usually turning undead and warding off vampires. The former is really just a common house rule, but the latter is spelled out in the Expert monsters section. It doesn't turn  the vampire, but keeps him away.

What I find interesting is the comment "they may move to attack the person holding the symbol from another direction." This implies that the "strongly presented" symbol is  pointed in a particular facing. That could lead to some dicey tactics, especially since there can be 1d6 of them in a lair!


Continuing the vampire countermeasures, we come to garlic. It isn't in Moldvay, having been added in Cook (haha! "Cooking"). Oddly, there is no description. It must have gone the way of "Detect Invisible." 

At 5gp, it seems pretty pricey. I cook a good deal and like to buy fresh ingredients. I probably spend more than I should at farmer's markets and the like, but 5gp for garlic is kinda crazy. I assume we're talking a string of bulbs here, not just the one. Or maybe those wascally merchants know that adventurers are idiots about mundane gear and will pay ludicrous markups for such things! In either case, vampires hate it.

Garlic is the only thing I know of that causes any undead to save vs. poison. If the vampire fails it cannot attack that round! No attack. That's huge! Of course, that implies that the garlic must be re-introduced somehow the following round. I suppose the original idea was the vampire needing to overcome his revulsion a the string of garlic at the door or window or around the maiden's neck to get on with the bloodsucking business at hand. In a melee, I don't imagine a PC simply chucking cloves at the creature. 


Wolfsbane is a real thing and it is actually quite poisonous if ingested or gets into the bloodstream. I think some of the anti-werewolf legends stem from the fact that it has been used to make arrow poisons that can drop a wolf or other large mammals in real life! It seems less about magic and more about IT'S FREAKING POISONOUS!

That said, it's important to note that wolfsbane does not kill weres in BX, it drives them off. Still, if I can smack a werewolf on the nose with a purple bouquet and have it flee, I'm good with that! At 10gp a pop, they are not cheap flowers! I would expect that they should lose potency in-game after a time as the blooms wilt and fade.

Frankly, after watching those monster movies and re-reading these entries, I think the next time I have a PC in a Ravenloft-ish situation, I'm going to stock up at the dungeoneering produce aisle!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Monster Mash


The other night I stumbled upon the fact that iTunes had several classic horror/monster movies at very low prices. I picked up what many consider the unholy trinity of OG Halloween films: Lugosi's Dracula (1931), Karloff's Frankenstein (1931), and Chaney's Wolfman (1941).

It had been decades since I had seen any of these and could hardly pass up the chance to add them to my library. All three films are short (under 90 minutes each), so I watched them over the last couple of nights. There have been so many attempts to remake and reboot these stories in film over the years, I was eager to go back to the source a bit. I have read Stoker's book, but not Shelley's. The Wolfman was an original screenplay.

Rather than enter into an exhaustive review of each film (You can find those online, and written by better qualified critics than your truly!), I thought I'd talk a little about what struck me after having not seen these films after so many years.

First of all, leaving aside things like primitive special effects (Any movie 70+ years old gets a pass there!), I was struck at how simple these films were. I don't mean they were crude, but they were distilled down to only the bones of the story. In both Dracula and Frankenstein's  cases, to the point where large chunks of the original story were simply dropped. Obviously at the time these were made, the studios didn't necessarily know they were filming anything that would become so iconic. They were making movies to sell tickets at the matinees.

The theme that ran through all three of these films was that modern man scoffed at the supernatural or divine at his peril. This is an idea that is still used quite a lot today. But back when these movies were made, the medium of film was, if not novel, the dominant form of entertainment and there were still new things to see.

In Dracula we see Renfield (his character was combined with Harker's) dismissing the villagers' warnings about going on to the castle at night. When the Count arrives in London society, Mina and the others accept him at face value. When van Helsing arrives, his greatest challenge is getting the people to believe that there are such things as vampires and the Count is one of them. The actual slaying of Dracula takes place off screen and is almost anticlimactic.

Frankenstein sets a wonderfully gloomy tone with the doctor and Fritz (no, not "Igor") robbing a grave. His fiancĂ© and friends are worried about his odd behavior and confront him at the lab, where he is ready to bring his creation to life. He succeeds but is horrified at its violence ("Bad Brain!"). At the end, after the creature has gotten loose and wreaked its havoc, the doctor joins the villagers in hunting it down. After the monster is destroyed in a burning windmill, the doctor convalesces at his father's home. The implication is that his efforts to destroy the monster, along with the mental strain of his realization that it was a bad business to begin with, caused a breakdown.

Both of these cases are man vs. monster. There is an evil loosed upon the modern world. Men must recognize and defeat the evil.

But the Wolfman is different.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Larry, the 2nd son of a lord who had gone to America to make his own way. When his brother dies, Larry returns as heir apparent. He and his father begin to reconnect and Larry notices a pretty girl in a shop. After some frankly creepy stalking by today's standards (watching her through a telescope), he convinces her to walk out with him to a gypsy camp where they can have their fortune's told. The upshot is one of the gypsies (played in fact by Bela Lugosi) is a werewolf and attacks one of the girl's friends. Larry beats the creature off with a silver handled walking stick but is wounded. The werewolf dies from the battering and turns back into Bela.

I tell this much of the plot to set the scene on Larry waking from his ordeal after being brought home. For a large stretch of the remaining film, it could be viewed as Larry losing his mind. It's in many ways a psychological thriller. He believes he killed a wolf, but instead there lies a dead man. He's told the legend of the werewolf and how surviving victims become wolves. His father, his doctor, and the local law are rational men and believe Larry is simply traumatized. And the argument could be made for it. Does he really change or is he suffering from a split personality? His victims can't say, they're dead! You could watch it from either perspective until the end, when the monster is confronted and defeated by a surviving witness.

What made the Wolfman different? I'm not sure. Perhaps it was the fact it was an original story instead of an adaptation. Maybe it was because it was made later. What I can say is that, after watching these classics through a much older pair of eyes, I was happy to revisit all three. But I would pick Chaney's film as the best "horror" movie.

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 be 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 blasĂ© 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 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 have 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.