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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Endgame, part 6: Elves and Dwarves aka Tree-huggers and Stumpies

I put the last two demi-humans together to wrap this p and because the rules aren't very elaborate with either of them. Like the halfling, elves and dwarves have level limits in BX, meaning there is a point at which (BtB) they aren't really gaining much mechanically from adventuring.

Side Note:

I know this is one of the complaints against race as class, and I don't want to get to deeply into that here, but I would mention a couple of things I've observed over the years. First off, I've rarely (if ever) played or run in a classic D&D game where characters who started at 1st managed to run up against their level caps, even 14th for humans. Second, it's my belief that by the time characters reach those levels, a few more hit points or incrementally better THACO or another spell slot just isn't going to be that crucial. Hopefully PCs involved in the end game at that point are focussed more on the roleplay aspects of being commanders and high priests, etc.

Not to mention that when elves and dwarves hit their cap around 600K XP, the humans are all at about 11-13th anyway. Even if the demi-humans don't level up again and keep adventuring while the wizard is trying for another 400K or so, they'd still be seeing HUGE gains in terms of treasure (coin and magic) during that time.

End of tangent.

Dwarves


The Dwarf Lord follows a very similar model to the fighter's. He builds a stronghold and protects it. At 270K xp to reach 9th, the dwarf should have acquired enough loot for constructing at least along the Tarnskeep level of complexity.  He attracts members of various clans to his territory. There is a lot of leeway given to the DM in how these clans are organized; be it by bloodlines, trades, homelands, or what have you. In keeping with the stereotype, dwarf holds are largely underground and often in mountains or hills. Dwarves will only hire or retain dwarf soldiers, but can hire other races as specialists, etc. One bit on X7 that intrigues me as plot-fodder says: 
"There will be many different clans of dwarves, each gathered under the protection of a Dwarven Lord, but usually only members of the same clan will live together. Dwarven clans are generally friendly with each other and may join forces in times of need, such as when there is a war of natural disaster."
(emphasis mine) 

So the implication is that the clans don't necessarily get along. That's not to say that there is open warfare in the tunnels, but perhaps rivalries or petty feuds? Dwarves are known to hold grudges, after all. 
In some worlds, they have a book full of them!

The "may join forces" line leaves the door open to the idea that they may not. A good leader would need to herd those bearded cats in times of crisis, and that could make for some fun diplomacy sessions.


Elves


Elves can become lords of their lands at 9th level, which takes them 400K XP to reach. This puts them later than everyone except, interestingly, Magic-Users. The assumed stereotype has these sylvan elves creating a base of operations in some spot of great nature beauty and seclusion. An interesting conceit to balance the cost to the PC is that the efforts of beautification (elaborate woodcarving, landscaping, statuary, or what-not) means that even of the elf-hold is not made of great stone blocks, it costs just as much. Like the dwarves, I find the default assumption of demi-humans retreating somewhat from human lands and being somewhat insular a definite, though not exclusive, trait of a BX setting. Like the dwarves, the elf lord attracts other elves to his hold, and only hire elven soldiers. 

Elves have the interesting twist that they protect the creatures of the forest around them and, in turn, all the critters are friendly toward them. These animals can even bear messages to and from the elf lord. (!) Does this mean he can talk to these animals innately? Or does he give them a little scroll to carry a la "Game of Thrones" ravens? I say it's up to the DM, but personally, I'd let him speak to them and they can make themselves understood to the recipients via the elf lord's bond with them and his magical nature. 

(I don't know why I went all Rankin-Bass on this post!)

What a wonderful plot device for low level PCs to be at a village and have a fox come out of the woods to deliver a warning from the local NPC elf lord about some imminent threat!

Speaking of magical natures, I should also mention that as a 10th level spell-caster, like the magic-user, the elf lord-wizard is theoretically capable of spell research and magic item creation. So in addition to his duties as a leader among his people he can also play mad wizard in his laboratory, adding to his arcane powers.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Endgame, part 5: Halfings, aka "There's a new Sheriff in Town!"

Down, down to Hobbiton. You go, my lad!

Halflings are an odd one in BX. I've already espoused their general kickassery as adventurers. Their name level/end game scenario is quite different from the human classes', and only slightly less so compared to other demi-humans. A lot of this can probably be chalked up to the Professor's influence on the class' conceptualization. The LOTR/Hobbit overtones are quite strong. Some later TSR products, like "The Five Shires", offer some different takes on halflings, but we're dealing with straight BX for now.

Since the halfling XP chart caps out at 8th, they reach name level ("Sheriff") before anyone else (120K). As Sheriff, they don't get troops or apprentices. If they build a stronghold, they get "a whole community of halflings." Numbers aren't specified, and I assume are at DM's discretion, but it's interesting that the halfling gets by default what fighters need to entice to their lands. It should also be noted that technically, a halfling doesn't need to wait until eighth level. X7 specifically states he can set up a shire "any time a halfling has enough money."

There isn't any overt mention of clearing a hex or getting a title from the local rulers, but since halflings "prefer pleasant communities in fair countrysides," it seems unlikely that such prime real estate would be unclaimed in any civilized territories. Again, JRRT's idea of hobbits having a secluded nature is coming through here.

In terms of gameplay. I suppose a halfling sheriff would get taxes and could hire mercenaries to protect his borders (bounders), but he isn't really set up to do a lot high level adventuring. Unlike the human classes, he isn't going to progress any further (not in BtB BX, at any rate).


I do see some interesting roleplay opportunities when it comes to things like trade and diplomacy. A fertile land producing goods and commodities, which a powerful character protecting its interests could influence a lot of things in the wider world. Assuming you break with Tolkien's isolationist model enough to have the halflings get involved in such matters.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Endgame, part 4: Thieves in the Night

"Behind every great fortune there is a crime."


I saved thieves for last among the "Core Four" human classes, since he's a bit unusual. For one thing, he reaches name level sooner than any other class (160,000 xp). For another, he doesn't build a stronghold, tower, or castle. He usually sets up shop in an established area. Lastly, exactly how his endgame plays out can vary a lot more than most other classes, depending upon the DM and how the player wants to handle things.

A ninth level thief is not actually all that powerful a PC. With an average of only 18 hit points, limited armor options, and no spells he is not making anyone quake in their boots.Of course he has probably picked up some magic items along the way and made enough money that he owns quality gear, but he still isn't all that intimidating on his own. A name level thief's strengths lie in his ability to operate "off radar." The underground world of crime and corruption is bread and drink to the higher level thief. Dark alleys and shadowy corners are fine for a low level cutpurse or thug, but master thieves need to think bigger.



I've always thought Charisma should have been a prime requisite for thieves. Sure, DEX is nice, but eventually being able to convince and persuade is going to count for a lot more potentially. Ah well, a topic for another time.

Cook says that name level thieves "...a thief may construct a hideout (a fortified house in a city, a cave network, or so forth). A thief who has constructed a hideout will attract 2-12 1st level thieves who have come to learn under a master."

2d6 apprentices is not a lot to work with, manpower wise. However, he's not manning a castle or patrolling a barony, he running a gang of crooks. Sure the gang might one day rule a whole city's criminal underworld, but that's not something most DMs would just hand wave away. They'd play that arc out (as well they should!).

Furthermore, thieves don't need to set up shop in a city. They can be highwaymen, smugglers, spies, or pirates. The Master Thief can arguably adapt to settings or individual player concepts to what they want more so than the other classes. 

To use the pirate example, a sailing ship costs much less than our Tarnskeep example. A small ship might even be crewed by your 2d6 apprentices alone. Not to mention it provides convenient transportation to various parts of the world for the PCs and the thief can sack ships or raid coastal settlements as they go.

Name level thieves need to be smart more than tough, and willing to look at the different ways they can profit from their newfound status in the shady underworld of the setting.





Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Endgame, part 3: Mages, Magical Studies, and Masonry


Magic-Users vary a bit from the previous classes since they don't necessarily have a role in a larger political or religious institution when it comes to reaching name level and building a tower. I like to think that the local rulers turn a bit of a blind eye to wizards laying claim to some lonely hill and starting construction. In truth, there are a couple decent reasons when I think about it:

  1. Wizards aren't (generally) trying to rule over an area. They just want a place to work.
  2. I mentioned in an earlier post how magic in a BX setting is somewhat limited in nature, so it doesn't really do to irritate high level MUs unnecessarily.
  3. Do you really want them doing magical experiments right in the middle of town?
While the wizard's redoubt is traditionally dubbed a "tower," I'm sticking with the Tarnskeep 175K price tag for simplicity. Also, there are other costs a name level MU incurs that we'll get to in a minute. At 600000 xp to reach 11th level (that's right, 11th, not 9th), The MU should be able to afford the place.

First off, I'm going to quote a chunk of Cook Expert's text about name level MUs from X7 and then break it down a bit:
"Magic-users may add more spells to their spell books through spell research. At 9th level (Wizard) or above, magic-users may also create magical items. Both of these activities are explained under Magical Research (p. X51). Upon reaching 11th level, a magic-user may choose to build a tower, provided that money to pay for the construction is available. A magic-user who constructs a tower will gain 1-6 apprentices of levels 1-3."
Spell Research:

So while any level MU can do research, it can get pricey. Page X51 sets it at 1000gp per spell level with two weeks' research. The other party members might find waiting around for weeks at a time as the MU plows through books a bit dull. Sure they can have a town adventure, but then the MU's player is left out, and that's no fun for them. Better to be in a play mode where people are more settled and have the facilities to do proper research. You can still have adventures. How awesome would it be for the wizard to find out that in order to complete the formula, he has to find the lost scrolls of Kalb-Th'arr? Time to go collect your pals and go raid a lost temple!



Item Creation:

Name level wizards can actually craft magic items. This is a time-consuming and expensive process. Having a "lab" and a place to work seems like an obvious choice. The expense of some items is why I leave the price tag for the tower as high as I do. Since a wizard (probably) isn't commanding armies or raising temples, he is probably adding to his knowledge and his magical skills. Not every mage is going to sell magic items, but they might. They might focus on strengthening their own power, or their tower's defenses. In either case, it can get expensive. It can envision some wizards seeking patrons instead, like powerful fighter or local rulers and going the "Court Magician" route. After all, spell research and item creation gets pricey when, "There is always a 15% chance (at least) that magical research or production will fail. This check is made after the time and money are spent." (X51).

Apprentices:

1d6 apprentices is not a huge following, but keep in mind some of these might be up to 3rd level MUs. While the idea is that they are there to study and learn from the wizard, not act as soldiers, they could certainly bolster the defense of the tower. Nothing prevents a wizard from hiring mercenaries, either! (I have a vague memory that one flavor of D&D or clone allowed for the idea that chaotic wizards might attract monsters into the lower halls of his tower, I couldn't find it. EDIT: It was in the Rules Cyclopedia) Apprentice MUs can act as errand runners, too. Perhaps allowing for a split-level campaign where recovering rare materials for the high-level mage is a task for the lower level (N)PCs.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Endgame, part 2: Fighters, aka The Lords of the Land.

Fighters are pretty straightforward. First off, the class information expressly states:
“High level fighters usually spend their time training and leading men-at-arms, clearing the wilderness of monsters, and expanding human settlements.” 
So the idea is that the whole “endgame” thing is a big part of what name level fighters do.

Tallyho!

Fighters reach ninth level at 240k xp, which is fairly middle of the road, advancement-wise. Using our earlier Tarnskeep example of a 175k gp price tag, it’s likely the new Lord would have enough scratch to at least start the construction process.

Unlike clerics, BX fighters don’t automatically attract followers to their castles. In fact, only clerics and thieves gain followers by default. Why is this? Well, it seems to me that a cleric’s followers aren’t really his. They are followers of his faith. We’ll talk more about thieves in a later post. A fighter must gather men with the force of his personality (CHA) and by the promise of rewards. If he hires mercenaries and leads them well, he might recruit more easily in the future, but in the end the soldiers will want their pay.

Another fun tidbit mentioned on X7 is that:
“When a fighter reaches 9th level (Lord/Lady), the character may become a Baron or Baroness  and the land cleared and controlled by that character will be called a Barony.”
So the assumption is that the fighter joins the ranks of his homeland’s nobility. (Note: While it’s not really a “BX product,” GAZ1 (Karameikos) does do a pretty nifty job of integrating these aspects of play into the societal/political structure.) DMs can harvest a lot of plot fuel from characters that are not only vested in the current power structure, but under an oath of fealty to serve it!

This also makes a Baron or baroness all the more interested in attracting settlers to their lands in order to collect taxes to help pay for their soldiers. When the crown calls in the banners, a lord that cannot respond might lose their fiefdom!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Endgame, part 1: Castles, Clearing Hexes, and Clerics


Turning on Retro-Scope, I dredged up a post on this topic from that iconic Old-School gaming blog of yesteryear, Grognardia called “on the Loss of D&D’s Endgame.”  Rather than regurgitate it all here in bits and pieces, I urge you to follow the link and give it a read. Mr. Maliszewski has been kind enough to leave the blog online even though it has long been mothballed. It reflects many of my thoughts on the subject. Not to mention James is a far more articulate writer than I.


Once a character reaches name -usually 9th- level (so called because that’s when the character’s experience “title” stops changing and they are referred to by such grandiose labels as Lord, Wizard, Master Thief and so forth.

Most classes are going to construct some sort of castle, keep, or tower. There are short, but functional rules in Cook for costs, times, and more. But before the PCs can build anything, Cook has a few things to say (from X52):

“When building a castle or stronghold, a character must first clear a hex or local area of monsters, entering the hex with a force of men and dealing with any lairs the DM has set up in the area. (The DM may also require the character get a land grant from the local ruler, if any.)”

So it looks like the PC is going to be busy before the first stone can even be laid. There are critters to clear out! A character might pay some men at arms, or lower level adventurers, to do the dirty work. The bit about the local ruler is not insignificant, either. That’s the sort of thing a DM needs to think about for his setting ahead of time if he plans on getting into this aspect of the game eventually.

As sort of a baseline cost for these posts, I took the description of Tarnskeep from Threshold in the Karameikos Gazetteer and priced out something roughly equivalent. Without getting into all the particulars, a character wishing to build Tarnskeep would be looking at approximately 175,000 gp, including hiring two engineers from the specialists section, and a little under a year in building times.


Not to mention Tarnskeep's owner is a high-level cleric!

I thought we’d look at the human classes first, as they are the most common. Going alphabetically, we’ll begin with the Cleric. The cleric is also the class that’s going to reach name level sooner than most in the XP charts, so it seems as good a beginning as any. (Thieves are a bit unusual, so I’m happy to save them for later).


The cleric PC hits 9th level (Patriarch/Matriarch) at 200,000 xp. Considering that most of a character’s experience is coming from treasure, this means he should have a fair bit of coin to work with. Of course a good bit of it may well have been spent along the way, but he should still be pretty flush.

When looking at the rules for clerics, Cook Expert has several things to say about 9th level. Rather than quote a great block of text, I wan to take each point in turn.

“When clerics reach 9th level (Matriarch/Patriarch), they may choose to construct a castle (see p. X52) or stronghold.”

Seems straightforward enough. This next bit is interesting:

“...the cost of building the castle will be half the normal amount due to miraculous assistance from the deity.”

So if you were wondering how those ancient civilizations managed to build such elaborate temples before you dungeon-crawled their ruins, now you know!

Once a keep or temple or whatever is built, it needs to be manned. No worries for a cleric though:

“Furthermore, once the castle is completed, fanatically loyal troops (the "faithful", who never need to check morale) will come to defend the cleric. There will be from 50-300 soldiers (5d6 x 10), from l-2nd level, armed with various weapons.”

Wow. No morale check for an average of over a hundred soldiers. That is not insignificant in a portion of the game where things like having troops to call on can have a real impact. Never mind wars, take a look at this bit from the castle construction section again:

“When the building is complete, the character may want to clear the surrounding area of monsters. The cleared area will remain free of monsters as long as it is patrolled.”

Finally, there is a section about settlers moving in if areas are cleared and improvements are added as enticements (mills, inns, etc.). This can yield 10gp annually per family of settlers. That will help pay for a lot of the day to day expenses once things are up and running.

So even after looking at a fairly simple clear & build model for just one class, we can already see some of the shifts that this sort of play would lead to in a campaign. I can understand some folks questioning whether this sort of thing would be fun, or just more book-keeping. But I also have to ask, if you’ve run a character all the way up from first to ninth level or higher (after all, you don’t need to start building right at ninth), don’t you think you might be ready to try something different? Of course you could always just start a new campaign or play a different system for a while, but it seems a shame to me to shelve a character that has paid such heavy dues when there is a whole new sphere of play awaiting them. The potential scope and depth of the plot-lines that could unfold. Whether it’s the responsibilities of leadership, political intrigue, or even militarily.

The Endgame: Getting to Name Level (part 0)

Old-school D&D systems in general, and "non-Advanced" versions in particular, have a bit of a reputation for slow advancement and lethality (not necessarily in that order). How many 1st level corpses lie in he caves of chaos? How many brothers, sisters, sons, or cousins of the original PC had to take up the mantle before one of them made it to 2nd, or even 3rd (!) level? Some players are frustrated by his, and that's a fair point. The PC that perseveres may one day not only graduate from the red book to the blue, but eventually reach the airy realms of 9th level. A world where strongholds and wizard's towers may be built, followers start following, and the PC can move from murder hobo to robber baron.

Of course the party might choose to continue their wandering ways, slaying bigger and badder monsters and taking bigger and cooler stuff. Perhaps they need to gather a bit more hard coin before they can afford that moat for the castle. Maybe they're trying to impress the king so they can receive a title and fiefdom. In any case, a campaign that manages to get to this point is likely to see the dungeon crawl for crawling's sake as getting a bit stale. Players may well be ready for a new kind of challenge.

I confess that I've never run a BX game that got to this level. The closest it ever came was having a couple of Labyrinth Lord PCs reach 5th-6th level by the end of B10: Night's Dark Terror. Back in the day, our 1st edition game saw name level PCs and strongholds, etc. but we were pretty monty haul as kids & teens in the 80s. We hardly explored the political or military aspects that could have been integrated into the campaign.

For the next few posts, I plan on taking a look at the "name level PC" rules in BX, as well as some of the secondary rules associated with this level of play.




Friday, April 13, 2018

The BX setting (part 3)

OK, I am wrapping this up. Seriously!

To finish up my musings about settings for a setting representative of the Basic/Expert game, I wanted to touch on just a few more topics: Resources, Risks, and Rewards.

Resources

For me, and many grumpy old-schoolers, managing your resources is no small part of classic D&D play. Heck, I even created products specifically to make it easier to incorporate into tabletop play. Rules like encumbrance, searching times, movement rates, and light source duration all lead to some real cost/benefit decisions being made: Do we take the time to search every room? How many torches did you bring? Do we hire someone to carry our extra stuff?

Now all these sound more game mechanics-related than setting, but bear with me. A BX world is a place where not only do decisions like those above matter, they matter because it's a world where dungeon crawls are a relatively common. Ancient labyrinthine ruins, extensive subterranean caves, mysterious catacombs, they practically flourish in a BX world. Of course this is true for many other versions of D&D, too. The point is the characters live in a world where someone, at some point, decided that it was a good idea to carve out an underground lair that looked like this.


There are weird, even zany places in a BX world. Maybe they are ancient ruins or a mad wizard's tower, but those that decide to brave those places prepare for mapping long corridors, regular booby traps, hidden passages, and foul monsters lurking around corners. Which brings us to...

Risks

Whether it's claw, sword, or spell PCs face most of their risks in combat. The BX world is one where monsters are real and your character is going to have to fight for his life at some point, if not many times. A BX world allows for the possibility of a dragon flying over your head as you travel the King's Road or for a hill giant to be walking down a city street! This is a fantasy world. 

That being said, most of these creatures are monsters, not NPC or PC "playable" races (BtB at least). But "monster' does not always equal "enemy." A decent reaction roll and the appropriate language slot can result in parley or even friendly communication. So this is a world

Combat can be de-emphasized and other aspects of play can be focussed upon, but by default at least the threat of violence is deeply ingrained into a D&D setting. What can give this a more "BX feel?" Well, BX is a fairly lethal flavor of D&D. PCs tend to be fragile with their lower hit dice and -by the book- 0 hit points being dead. Even mid to high level PCs can be killed fairly easily, and morale rolls can lead to the better part of valor being exercised by monster and hireling alike. Compare that to some of the later versions of the game and you can easily picture a world where life can be a bit cheap and those that live by the sword are likely to pick their battles carefully as well as try to squeeze every advantage out of a situation. And once the battle is over, they will be sure to get as much of the spoils as possible to offset the risks.


Rewards

XP for GP. That brief statement tells me this is a world where its inhabitants gain influence and become more competent by getting as much as they can for as little risk as possible. It's not the slaying of the monster, it's the treasure it was guarding. A BX world is a place where foul humanoids have piles of loot stolen from victims or looted from old castles they now infest. Half-rotted coin pouches lie among the bones in the lairs of terrifying trolls and gigantic spiders. And that axe of antique design wielded by the bugbear chieftain? It has a +2 enchantment on it. 

This is a world of coin-filled coffers and magic swords. Of scrolls containing mystic spells or treasure maps. Of idols with a single ruby eye the size of a golf ball. Of dragon hoards, staves of power and magical rings. The DM may not wish to flood his world with  magic items but in a BX world, such things exist and, even leaving it to the random treasure charts, the PCs will encounter at least some of them. 

Assuming the characters live long enough, it's also a world where lowly murder-hobos and would-be heroes might accrue enough wealth, fame, and connections to become lords (and ladies) of the land themselves. It's not a place where everything is 100% fixed sociopolitically. Maybe there are wars, or dynastic struggles, or rebellions and invasions. Maybe there are young nations that are still growing. The point is even if your PC started as a turnip farmer, he could one day be a knight in a keep with a fiefdom of his own to rule.

Wrapping Up


What does all this mean? Have I answered the question? Well, no. probably not. But I don't think that it's a question that can be answered definitively. What I do think I've accomplished was to work through some concepts of what I think a setting should or shouldn't have to be a good fit for Moldvay/Cook. 

And maybe it's done a bit that for you, too.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The BX setting (part 2)

Races

Soldiering on, one of the ways that a BX setting is not like a typical swords & sorcery world is the presence of "non-monstrous" demihumans.

These guys

S&S tends to be fairly human-centric. With nonhumans relegated to the monstrous or degenerate. While it's not fair to say that classic D&D's default is somehow less fantasy-laden than more modern versions, I think that's its style of fantasy ends to be more of the 'grounded reality with a fantastical layer,' as opposed to 'full-on mix of fantastical elements where the "real" world is almost gone from view.' There is a spectrum here to be sure, and any system has representative settings from various points along the line. But to me BX leans to a pseudo-medieval with magical elements world, and that includes things like elves and such. That being said, the idea of level limits and race-as-class could indicate a world where demihumans that follow the path of the PCs are outliers among their kind and outsiders among the humans. But that's just one interpretation.

Magic

Typical BX settings also stray from many swords & sorcery tropes with magic being far more common and 'stable.' Predictable effects and organization of set spells is a mainstay of nearly all flavors of D&D, as opposed to things like spells using blood-soaked rituals and spells only being found in long-lost tomes. Also wizards in those worlds are typically quite rare and often in league with multiple foul demons or similar.


BX is hardly unique in D&D with settings that include things like player character spellcasters, magic schools, court wizards, as well as town clerics that can cast healing magics up to -and including- raising the dead. This aspect puts it more in line with 'high fantasy' settings. Where BX varies from most other editions is while BX magic isn't terribly rare as a rule, it is relatively limited. 

BX magic-users get 72 standard spells, 6 levels at 12 spells each. They don't even see a 6th level spell slot until after name level (11th). Elves don't even get a 6th level spell by the book, being capped at 10th. Compare that to 1st edition AD&D, with 194 spells spread out (unevenly) over NINE spell levels. Clerics fare similarly, with BX clerics getting 34 spells over 5 levels  vs. AD&D's 76 over 7. That doesn't even take into account the druid and illusionist lists. Not to mention starting clerics aren't even spellcasters yet!

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying AD&D (or similar) is 'broken' by too many spells, but I do think it changes the tone of the game somewhat. It's still definitely Dungeons & Dragons, but I do feel that BX's more streamlined list does contribute to part of the game's feel, and -by extension- to the feel of a BX world.

(to be continued in Part 3)


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The BX setting (part 1)

[Edit: this started to ramble a bit, so I decided to cut myself off and save the rest for a later post.]

While there is certainly no shortage of settings for fantasy RPGs, it seems that some are better suited to certain games than others. I’m not interested in dissecting every published setting out there. Rather, I’ve found myself mulling over those aspects of some fantasy worlds (whether it’s a game setting or a piece of fiction) that seems -merely in my own personal opinion and experience- to embody some facet or facets which fit a Basic/Expert D&D game.


 To begin with, I find BX and OD&D lend themselves a little more towards "swords & sorcery" and little less to "high fantasy." I'm not sure I have hard and fast definitions for either of those terms, but let's see if we can't parse that a little bit.


 Wikipedia defines the swords & sorcery genre as:

"... a subgenre of fantasy generally characterized by sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent conflicts. An element of romance is often present, as is an element of magic and the supernatural. Unlike works of high fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters. Sword and sorcery commonly overlaps with heroic fantasy."

And high fantasy as:

"High fantasy is defined as fantasy set in an alternative, fictional ("secondary") world, rather than 'the real', or 'primary' world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ from those of the primary world."

The theme of good vs. evil features heavily in such stories as well. Whereas S&S tends to have more personal battles. But I don't think of Moldvay/Cook or Labyrinth Lord quite as "Swords & Sorcery" games. They are after all, still Dungeons & Dragons; and while the roots of D&D may be more John Carter than Aragorn, it's not quite pure Conan to me either. The truth of it (if there is one) seems to lie somewhere in between. Which brings me to alignment.

3 v. 9

Classic D&D uses the three-point alignment spectrum as opposed to the nine of AD&D. There is no 'Good' or 'Evil'. Just law, chaos and neutrality. I have heard the opinion that this is a simplification for a "basic" game, but I don't find that to be the case. Rather the opposite really. I've rambled about this in the past, so I won't rehash it here. But I do feel that keeping the three point system and what it entails firmly in mind influences the nature of the setting. One need look no further than the introductory text of the seminal B2: Keep on the Borderlands for an indication of how Gary envisioned Chaos in the world:

"The Realm of mankind is narrow and constricted. Always the forces of Chaos press upon its borders, seeking to enslave its populace, rape its riches, and steal its treasures. If it were not for a stout few, many in the Realm would indeed fall prey to the evil which surrounds them."

One could read this as a classic "good vs. evil" set up, and -to be fair- that's perfectly valid. But reading the wording closely, I notice two things: Firstly, it's the "Realm of mankind." A human nation. This realm is "Narrow and constricted," seeming to imply that civilization has a limited reach. Much of the world is wild and quite possibly chaotic.

Second, while the text does talk about "evil" preying upon the populace, the fact that this evil seems to be interested in personal gain (slaves, riches, etc.) and not necessarily covering the world in darkness makes this less about EVIL and more about Us vs. Them. Sure, the "them" in this case are primarily humanoid monsters, as opposed to just some other country of people, but this IS a fantasy game after all.

It makes sense to me that the majority of people you'd meet would fall under Neutrality in this model. Most people have a natural desire to just get along and live their life. They recognize the utility of law & order, but they also don't want to jettison their desire for a level of personal freedom. Benign self-interest is the rule of the day. I'm reminded of a quote from The Hobbit about the dwarves when Bilbo goes through the hidden door.

“Dwarves are not heroes, but a calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.”


That last part pretty much sums up my idea of neutrality. So in a world where that's where most people fit, it's pretty reasonable to expect their motivations to be more personal and self-interested. As opposed to altruistic world-saving. It also follows that players are more likely to accept the hooks that benefit their characters directly, as well as trusting NPCs who seem motivated by self-interest as well. Adventurers tend to be a greedy bunch, as a rule. Especially in a game where advancement is largely achieved through the finding and gaining of wealth. At least, I've also found that a better fit in my BX games.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

RMA: Harpies



Despite their mythological pedigree, harpies are not a common occurence in games I've played or run. Which is odd, because their fit the bill for so many things I find compelling in an old-school monster encounter:

1) They're stats allow for use in low level games, but their abilities make them interesting even for more powerful characters.

2) Their magical abilities are scary, but not insta-TPK.

3) The fact they can fly adds a fun tactical twist to encounters.

4) They are intelligent enough (INT 7, according to the Rules Cyclopedia) that communication and varying response are possible.

So, let's take a look at these feathered fiends.

Harpy (from Moldvay)
AC: 7
HD: 3*
Move: 60' (20')
Fly: 150' (50')
Att: 2 claws/1 weapon + special
Damage: 1d4/1d4/1d6 + special
# App.: 1d6 (1d8)
Save: F3 (+2)
Morale: 7
AL: C
TT: C

First off, it may (or may not) be worth pointing out that Gygax & co. sort of mashed together two mythological critters into the D&D harpy. Harpies were bird women that stole and killed. Sirens were bird women that sang and charmed victims. Easy enough to confuse or conflate, but I just thought I'd mention that the harpies of myth were not typically portrayed as hypnotic singers.

Anyway, the harpy is said to be part giant eagle, part hideous woman. As there is no "Eagle, Giant" in BX, let's go with the giant hawk. It's pretty close HD-wise to the harpy and is described as the size of a large dog or small pony. So that sounds like it could be the creature's lower half. A giant hawk can carry away small targets like halflings, so right there you can have some fun. Imagine a charmed hobbit letting himself literally get carried away!

Harpies have lousy morale, so they are likely to flee at any fierce resistance. Harpies aren't smart, but the aren't mindless animals either. The description says a successful save lets a character resist the song for the rest of the encounter. Meaning if the ladybirds show back up later that day, it's time to roll again! They could harry a party striving to lure at least one PC away with their song. Perhaps enticing him to walk off a cliff! Then the PCs would have to find a way to reach the body while the harpies simply fly down and feast. Treasure type C is no great shakes, but lends me to think the harpies might carry shiny trinkets back to their eyrie even if they may leave the picked-over bones behind.

How to fight them? Well, as mentioned, they aren't particularly tough. Their morale is poor, so chasing them off is a possibility. Judicious use of a Silence 15' Radius spell could potentially render the harpies mute for the encounter, depending on how much room they have to fly around and where the cleric centers the spell.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A brief Garycon X aside

As it is BX related. I though I'd mention that I managed to get copies of my Moldvay & Cook rule books signed this year by David "Zeb" Cook and Erol Otus (his first GC). Both of them couldn't have been nicer. My only regret is that the inestimable Mr. Moldvay is no longer with us.




REF: Black Dragons?! Plural?!

Random Encounter Fun time! Where we roll up a wandering monster/encounter and try to make sense of it.

I decided to go back to the dungeon this time. I rolled a d14 (Thanks Col. Z!) to determine the party level, though I suppose I could have just rolled a d8 for the dungeon level. I got a 9, which was level 8+. So we're pretty far down in the ol' labyrinth here.

A roll of 5 on a d20 results in (drumroll)

1d4 Black Dragons (result 3)

Wait, what?

That's right, folks. We've got THREE black dragons roaming the halls here. Granted, the DM needs to make judgement calls about whether an encounter makes sense or not, but this is an exercise so we're going with it.

So obviously it's not normal for these critters to be walking down a 10' corridor. Not to mention they need some sort of access to open spaces for hunting, etc. Blacks are listed as living in swamps and marshes, so perhaps they lair in an underground lake or grotto? This is a random encounter, though, so they aren't necessarily in their lair. Further, who's to say they share a lair at all? maybe one (or more) is visiting...

It wouldn't make sense for dragons to live in the same lair. They are solitary creatures as a rule. They also don't like sharing, not to mention a single micro-environment like a dungeon would have a hard time feeding multiple dragons. But what if it was mating season?

Two male blacks have entered the dungeon seeking a female that lives in the deeper caves. The party encounters the two would-be suitors just as they have met upon each other! Reaction rolls are rolled aaand

The dragons have a 5 toward each other (Hostile, possible attack) and an 8 and a 9 toward the party (Uncertain/confused and no attack/considers offers). So the two bucks are wyrming their ways through the halls to the lower caves when they spy each other. It's obvious why each is here. Now they're circling and snarling, spoiling for a fight when the PCs stumble into the mix. Neither dragon is so stupid as to ignore a party of 9th level PCs, but the other dragon has to be its main concern. One is flummoxed by this added complication. The other is pondering if the PCs could be enticed to help him, or at least to attack his rival first. All this plus the THIRD dragon is somewhere in the dungeon, and maybe she is on her way up to see what all the Draconic trash-talk is about...

EDIT: It should also be mentioned that the two visiting dragons wouldn't have any treasure, as they are not in their lairs. Talk about a lousy risk/reward ratio!

Monday, March 19, 2018

RSA/RMA: Invisible Stalker



It's a spell! No, it's a monster! No, it's a spell and a monster! It's the Invisible Stalker! It's a Random Spell + Monster Assessment!

This one has been around for nearly every edition of D&D that I know of, yet it seldom comes up in play. The BX version of the creature only appears if summoned via the 6th level MU spell of the same name, which may be unique for a creature listed in the monsters section; unless you include elementals, which can be summoned in three different ways (staff, device, or spell).

Invisible Stalker (from Cook)

AC: 3
HD: 8*
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 1
Dmg: 4d4
No. App: 1
Save: F8
Morale: 12
Treasure: Nil
AL: N

Since it's summoned via a 6th level spell, it makes sense that this is a fairly tough creature: good AC, high HD, respectable damage, and infallible morale score are enough to make a bad time for anyone the stalker is sent after or who gets in its way.

The stalker is summoned via spell to perform some task for the magic-user. It could be to kill someone, but it might be an entirely different objective. Unlike automatons like zombies or golems, the stalker is 'very intelligent.' So much so that it may try to subvert the spirit of the command while obeying the letter of it because it resents being summoned (much like an Efreet).

Other factors that make the stalker so dangerous is its innate invisibility. While BX does not go into detail, other editions describe the ability as persisting even if the creature attacks and not being affected by dispel magic. Further, it surprises on a 1-5 (thanks to the invisibility) and is described as a "faultless tracker" (similar to an Amber Golem).

There is no duration to the spell. The Invisible Stalker remains until its task is complete, it's slain, or the 5th level clerical spell dispel evil banishes it. A scenario that requires the presence of fairly powerful characters: a 7th level cleric for banishing and/or an 11th level MU for summoning. This implies that the creature really shouldn't be too common before PCs have a few levels under their belts. ISs do not appear randomly; in the wilderness or in dungeons. They should be placed deliberately if they show up at all (unless summoned by a PC).

As a DM, I can imagine scenarios where an NPC wizard summons an IS and sends it on a mission that conflicts in some way with the PCs' goals. It isn't sent specifically to kill the party, but it will eliminate obstacles as necessary. Remember that stalkers are intelligent, they will solve problems creatively.

Likewise, I expect a scroll or other non-permanent item that allows summoning an Invisible Stalker falling into the party's hands could cause a good deal of plot-fodder. If they aren't careful, they may find that they don't quite get the results they hoped for.


Friday, March 16, 2018

RMA: Giant Ferrets


I mentioned these very briefly when talking about gnomes, but didn't go into any detail. Never seen one in a BX game. There was a 3e campaign where a gnome illusionist had one as a familiar, but other than that...

Ferret, Giant (from Moldvay)

AC: 5
HD: 1+1
Move: 150' (50')
Att: 1 (bite)
Damage: 1d8
No. App: 1d8 (1d12)
Save: F1
Morale: 8
Treasure: Nil
AL: N

Unlike the weasel version, giant ferrets are "only" three feet long and just over 1HD. In terms of randomly encountering them, they only show up in grasslands and -interestingly enough- inhabited lands. They never appear randomly in dungeons.

They aren't really that impressive in a fight. With their low hit dice, skittish morale, and single simple attack, they should be fairly easy to deal with. What's most interesting about these are two tidbits from the description.

"They hunt giant rats underground and are sometimes trained for this purpose."

This ties in nicely with them appearing randomly in inhabited areas. One could see folks not particularly interested in tangling with giant rats, so they send in these tubes with teeth to deal with it. Which brings us to the next point.

"Unfortunately, their tempers are highly unpredictable, and they have been known to attack their trainers and other humans."

This isn't anything earth-shaking, but it's yet another example of the plot-rich material just lying there in the text of Moldvay & Cook.

I can imagine a town mini-adventure involving some irksome giant rats, the ferrets that were supposed to take them out, and the rat-catchers that "trained" said ferrets and then lost control of them. The ferrets are wreaking havoc, as they have found there way into several homes and stolen people's valuables  (ferrets will steal almost anything, especially shinies). The rats are still a problem (perhaps spreading disease), and the rat-catchers are desperate to clean up the mess. Enter our brave, low-level heroes who must now make a foray into the sewers to rout out the offending rodents and mustelids, possibly encountering something more sinister in the process.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

RMA: Aranea


While the Aranea isn't from the rulebooks' monster listings, it is in the classic module X1: Isle of Dread by Moldvay & Cook, so I feel it qualifies as a BX critter. It's probably not fair to say it's obscure, since so many people have played X1 over the years. The Aranea also was included in BECMI's Creature Catalog (AC9) and even later editions of the game, so it has some staying power.

What caught my eye about this monster wasn't its stats or its prowess in battle, but how the creature was fleshed out in quasi-gygaxian naturalism. Let us explore. First (as always) the stats:

Aranea (from X1)

Armor Class: 7
No. Appearing: 1-3 (1-6)
Hit Dice: 3**
Move:60' (20')
     -In web: 120' (40')
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d6 + poison
Save As: MU3
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: D
Alignment: Chaotic

So this fella has lousy AC, so-so HD, and only one attack. Admittedly it can force a save or die, but still not a huge threat to an expert level party. No, what makes the Aranea so fun are the extra, not necessarily combat, tidbits.

1) They can cast spells. Each Aranea is basically a 3rd level MU. Think about that. Imagine a pony-sized spider casting Sleep on a party. Or having access to Invisibility? But let's not focus just on combat spells. What about ESPLocate Object? Or even just plain old Read Magic? This ties into the next part of the critter I liked.

2) They're intelligent. The Aranea's spellcasting ability isn't some natural talent, like a Blink Dog's teleport. They are human-level smart (Creature Catalog says INT 14). It also says "...they spend much of their time in magic research." They also have almost human-like fingers on their forelimbs, which allow them to craft and write. Which means they're GIANT SPIDERS WITH SPELL BOOKS! How cool is that?! Further, their lousy morale indicates they aren't really that interested in fighting. Possibly setting a chance to parley or negotiate? (Break out the reaction table!)

3) Bugbear Buddies. This little throwaway line in X1 tickled me to no end. "They are friendly with bugbears and often hire them to guard the forest beneath their lairs." Perhaps that's intended to only be for the Araneas on the Isle, but there are bugbears all over, so why shouldn't such a relationship be possible in other regions? I expect the bugbears would be happy with a friendly wizard living above their home and the Aranea would have more time to spend on research if it knew the territory below its home was guarded.

I can imagine a fun low-level adventure where the party must enter the bugbears' domain in order to parley with an Aranea for some valuable piece of magical knowledge or intel. Perhaps the spider sends them to retrieve some substance or grimoire in exchange for what they want? The Aranea in question could even become a recurring NPC. Their alignment is Chaotic, though. So trusting it might be another matter.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Curious Objects: Staff of Withering


There are several cursed objects in the BX magic items lists, but only a few seem to bestow curses or curse-like magic for the wielder instead of upon him. The Staff of Withering is one of them.

I've never placed this item or rolled it randomly. Nor do I recall a game where it appeared. It's strange for several reasons, so let's get to it.

First, it is a clerical item. Yet its extremely malicious nature would make it likely to only be used by chaotic types, so it seems like many PC clerics would avoid or destroy it. Sure, I can imagine scenarios where it could be helpful. e.g. A person has been cursed and turned into a baby and needs to be brought back to their correct age (or closer to it); but mostly, it's for stealing away a person's life a chunk at a time. This also lends itself to torture scenarios. A victim could be threatened with shortened lifespan unless they comply. Another decidedly un-Lawful kind of activity. I imagine many clerical types risking severe disfavor with their gods by employing this stick of incremental doom.

Secondly, there are no hard and fast rules about aging in BX. Not that I feel they are missed or needed, but this is one of the only times the issue of a PC's age comes up. There aren't even ghosts in the BX monster lists to unnaturally age a character. It's not hard to make some simple rulings about a 20-something fighter that suddenly find himself on the wrong side of 50, but as it can drastically affect the rest of the character's career (if any), it bears consideration.

One line stand out about this to me: "The effect of old age will be fatal to animals and most character classes," Now, there are two ways I can interpret this. One is the obvious, that old age kills and that the staff can –even with limited charges– age someone enough to put them in the grave. The other is that the effects of suddenly aging so much so quickly is a shock to the system and warrants a "save or die" roll. Personally, I think it's the former.

Another character aging issue is the line about elves and dwarfs ignore the effects for at least the first few hits. Demihuman lifespans vary from game to game and setting to setting, but I find the inclusion of that caveat interesting. The fact it does not affect the undead makes perfect sense, though a zombie turning into a skeleton would be a fun side effect.

Lastly, remember that as a staff it has limited charges. 3d10 in fact. That means it can steal a maximum of 300 years before it is used up. That, plus the fact it must touch the target, makes it even less of an adventuring item and for more specialized purposes.

Friday, January 26, 2018

RMA: Efreeti (Lesser)

A little while back, I talked about djinn. Specifically summoning them with a magic ring. Today I want to talk about their fiery counterparts, the Efreet.


Right off the bat, I should mention a small thing that I can't help but speculate over: both the djinn and efreet listed in the BX monsters are labeled as "Lesser" varieties of their respective types. Were Greater versions ever presented in classic D&D? Perhaps in a module? If anyone knows, I'd love to hear! I assume, since they are both elemental types, this is a callback to the differences between "staff" and "conjured" fire/air/earth/water/elementals. Perhaps a topic for another day?

Moving on, specifically about our smoldering subject, let's look at the stats.

Efreet (Lesser) from Cook:

AC: 3
HD: 10
Move: 90' (30')
Fly: 240' (80')
Att: 1
Dmg: 2d8 (+1d8 fire)
No. App: 1 (1)
Save: F15
Morale: 12
Treasure: nil
AL: C

We can see that efreeti are a bit more powerful than their airy nemeses. Better AC & HD. Better saves and damage, too. In addition to their basic stats, they have an assortment of powers.

"Efreet can create objects, create illusions, and turn invisible
like djinn. They are also able to create a wall of fire up to 3 times
per day. An efreeti may transform its body into a pillar of flame that
will set fire to all flammable items within 5 feet. They can retain the
flame shape for 3 rounds maximum. The fire will also do an additional
1-8 points of damage to all creatures struck by the efreet.
They may fly and carry up to 10,000 en weight while flying."

So a bigger, scarier version of a djinn, right? The wall of fire and the pillar of flame thing are impressive in a fight, but not that much more dangerous, To me, the key part of this creature lies in its description's final paragraph:

"Efreet can be summoned by high level magic-users who 
have researched the special spells required. Once summoned, 
Efreet can be forced to serve for 101 days. They are reluctant and difficult 
servants and will obey their instructions exactly, attempting to distort the 
meaning of whatever they have been told to do in order to cause trouble for 
their masters. Efreet hate Djinn and will attack them on sight."
(emphases mine)

Firstly, I really like spell research call-out. It expressly says "Sure this is possible, but it's not your run of the mill magic item or spell slot." Next, the built-in animosity of an efreet servant reminds me of spells like Contact other Plane or Spiritwrack and dealing with "allies" that are not squarely on your side. Following instructions exactly is reminiscent of wishes, too (X59).

What's interesting is that the description says that efreeti "hate" djinn and will attack on sight, but there is no mention in the djinnis' description of how they feel about efreeti. It's worth noting the alignment. Efreet are chaotic, whereas djinn are neutral. One can imagine a great deal of fodder for world-building in that. Perhaps there is some ancient hatred stemming from an interplanar war? Maybe a trip to the City of Brass would yield some answers?



Friday, January 19, 2018

RMA: Giant Beetles

Giant? Well, they were bigger than Jesus.

Giant beetles. I won't say they're unheard of in BX games I've played and run, but what I find amusing is that, even within the compactness of the Basic rules alone, we're given three varieties of them.

Beetles, Giant (from Moldvay)

Fire Oil Tiger
Armor Class: 4 4 3
Hit Dice: 1 + 2 2' 3+1
Move: 120' (40') 120' (40') 150' (50')
Attacks: 1 bite 1 bite + special 1 bite
Damage: 2-8 1-6 + special 2-12
No. Appearing: 1-8 (2-12) 1-8 (2-12) 1-6 (2-8)
Save As: Fighter: 1 Fighter: 1 Fighter: 1
Morale: 7 8 9
Treasure Type: Nil Nil U
Alignment: Neutral Neutral Neutral


So right off the bat, we can see that they are basically a Small/Medium/Large progression. Fire beetles start off at about 2' long, finishing up with the Tigers at 4'. We also seen incremental increases in toughness and lethality. Also, they each appear in similar progression on the Basic (Levels 1-3) dungeon wandering monster tables. 

The two "lesser" beetles are interesting because of their namesakes. Fire beetles -despite the scariness of the title- do not emit flames. Rather, each has three "glowing glands" that continue to emit light for up to six days after dying. It seems this critter solely exists to give low level PCs a brisk encounter and a free light source for the dungeon. Granted, 2d4 damage from its bite is a bad time for a 1st level PC, but that's what crossbows are for. Plus their morale is low.


Oil beetles spit a caustic fluid that penalizes the victim with painful blisters. It's interesting that a Cure Light Wounds spell will heal the blisters or the damage, not both.

Tiger Beetles are big, carnivorous, and dangerous. They are faster, tougher, and deal more damage (2d6!). It's also interesting that they have treasure. Type U doesn't yield much, but there's a chance of magic items!

The other tidbit about tiger beetles is that it mentions they usually eat Robber Flies. Which, as we've discussed previously, usually feed on Giant Killer Bees. One can imagine an interesting little food chain-based encounter sprouting up around this dynamic.



Friday, January 12, 2018

RMA: White Ape

No, not the Barsoomian kind:


This kind:


We touched on these simians before when discussing Neanderthals, but we didn't really get into the creatures themselves.

White Ape (from Moldvay):
AC: 6
HD: 4
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 2 claws
Damage: 1d4 each
No. App: 1d6 (2d4)
Save: F2
Morale: 7
Treasure: nil
AL: N

I won't say these creatures are unheard of in games I've played or run, but they aren't run of the mill either. Because of their previously mentioned connection to cave men, I would also lump them in under "Lost World" creatures. They can be found in dungeons and in the wild as wandering monsters (though oddly not on the Lost World encounter table). They also seem to serve as the model for any large primate encounters (gorillas, etc.) as there are no other creatures of this type listed in the BX rulebooks.

As opponents, the apes are a bad time for starting or low level PCs, but not overwhelming. Their rock-throwing (1d6) and 2 claw attacks are dangerous, and 4 HD means you aren't putting one down in a single hit. On the other hand, their AC is pretty tame and they lack any really unusual abilities.

No, the thing I like most about these creatures (apart from the inestimable Mr. Otus' illustration) is that they are a great example of a relatively "normal" animal written up right. Low morale, keeping no treasure, and described as nocturnal vegetarian gatherers who will threaten before attacking. The idea that they have lost their coloration due to subterranean life is an interesting side note, but they are otherwise, well, just apes.

Not every creature has to be utterly mundane or completely fantastic (in the original sense of the word). The white ape is a nice balance between something normal and something just a little exotic.

And I like that.