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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

RMA: Thouls

These have come up recently in a few online forums and groups, so now they are on my mind.

A memorable take on the creature by the late, great Steve Zieser!

Thouls are pretty well known among a certain segment of the old-school D&D crowd. They are definitely one of the weirder creations within the BX books. The theory behind their creation that I subscribe to is that some DM was trying to fake their players out with something that looked like a normal humanoid, but had weird abilities.

Despite the fact that they have an almost iconic status. I have rarely seen them used outside of a written encounter in the module B10: Night's Dark Terror. 

Thoul (from Moldvay):
AC: 6
HD: 3**
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 2 Claws or weapon
Damage: 1d3/1d3 or weapon
No. App: 1d6 (1d10)
Save: F3
Morale: 10
Treasure: C

Thouls are described in Moldvay as "a magical combination of a ghoul, a hobgoblin, and a troll." What this means in practice is that they look like a hobgoblin, but can paralyze you and they regenerate. They do appear as a level three wandering monster. With two potentially paralyzing attacks per round, 1d6+ of these creatures could give a low-level party a very bad time indeed. There are a couple of points to clarify, though.

  1. They do not look exactly like hobgoblins. At close range, there are visible differences. A party might be able to spot them and prepare accordingly (or flee!).
  2. Despite "ghoulish traits", they are not undead. This means that while a cleric's turning power is useless. Sleep or Charm spells can work. 
  3. Their regeneration is only 1hp/round. While it is (apparently) not stopped by fire or acid damage, it will not revive a killed thoul.
I imagine thouls as a sort of sub-race to the hobgoblins. The description says they might be found guarding a hobgoblin king. Perhaps they are viewed as useful freaks? Who knows? As a DM, I think I would likely use them mixed in with the normal hobbos, so as the PCs work their way through the foe, there are a few nasty surprises waiting in the mix. Even though a Sleep spell can work on them, if they are among a bunch of 1+1 HD hobgoblins, the lower HD critters will take the brunt of the spell's effect. Their regeneration also means a bit more book-keeping in running them, but adds tot he scariness of the encounter.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Moldvay Musings XVI, Part 2: Beat to Quarters!

The HMS Suckerfish, a small sailing warship equipped with a catapult, sets sail from her home port. The ship has a trained crew of 10 sailors, a navigator, and a full complement of 25 marines. Her destination is 450 miles away, a journey of 5 days (90 miles per day base speed) with favorable wind & weather. A roll of 2d6 is made for each day.

Day 1: Roll result = 9 A strong breeze. 120 miles covered (+1/3 move)
Day 2: Roll result = 2 Becalmed. No movement.
Day 3: Roll result = 5 Moderate breeze or broad reaching. 60 miles covered (2/3 move). 180 total miles traveled. But the Ocean wandering encounter roll came up as a 5. A d8 says its a Swimmer. A 9 on the subtable roll says its a Sea Snake. This is really a non-encounter, unless someone goes swimming/overboard. Moving on...
Day 4: Roll result = 3 Ext. light breeze or beating before the wind. Only 30 miles covered. 210 total.
Day 5: Roll result = Normal winds. Normal (90 miles) movement. 300 miles total. But another encounter. This one comes up Men. To simplify, this is our ship to ship encounter.

Normal winds will be simplified to normal weather. Visibility is 24 miles and a full crew means its reasonable that the Suckerfish had a lookout. No surprise possible under such conditions. (X64) Rolling for direction (a d6 for the hex faces) a 1 says the other ship appears off the starboard bow (ahead and to the right). It's an enemy ship! A small galley also fitted with a ram and catapult.

The Suckerfish has the weather gage (they are upwind) and the ships move at the same encounter speeds. Still, the galley has a 50% chance of staying clear (01-50 = success). An 87! The Suckerfish closes the gap and initiative is rolled. 5 for the Suckerfish, 1 for the galley.

At 300 yards, the catapult is fired with flaming pitch. Four marines man the weapon, meaning it fires every 5 rounds and attacks as a 4th level fighter (X64). The galley has AC 8 and the attack roll is a 16, so it's a hit! The flames deal 2 hull points of damage. Dropping the galley from 80 to 78, but the fire continues to burn. The sailors (10) abandon their posts to put out the flames. It will take them 2 turns to put out the fires, and flames will continue to spread and damage the ship. The galley is using the rowers anyway for the encounter, so the sailors can be spared.

Next the galley fires its catapult back. This time its a rock. An 18 hits handily (AC 8), dealing 11 points of (3d6) damage to the Suckerfish's hull. She is now at 69 hull points. Both ships move toward each other, even with the Suckerfish's reduction in speed (-10%) due to damage, the ships will be too close to use their catapults next round.

Initiative comes up a 2 and 2. Simultaneous actions! The galley is attempting to ram and the Suckerfish is trying to grapple. The galley needs an 11 to hit. 15! The ram deals 50 hull points (1d4+4 x 10. Rolling a 1). The galley would rather not grapple and try to evade (so as to ram again). The Suckerfish needs a 1 or 2 on a d6 to tie onto the galley. A 1! The lines snake out and the ships are grappled. At this point melee ensues. The crew and marines of the Suckerfish are at a -2 in the first round as they board the galley. After that, it's just a large combat.

In the end, assuming the Suckerfish is victorious, it still suffered 61 points of damage out of her 80 total hull points. Nearly 80%! Her speed is drastically reduced (18 miles per day instead of 90) and the best the crew can do for repairs at sea will only get the ship back to 50% for a speed of 45 mpd. Licking her wounds, she limps to the nearest friendly port of call for proper refitting.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Moldvay Musings XVI, Part 1: The Briny Deep

'The sea is an awesome place, the home of terrible monsters, the source of unpredictable currents and strange mists, and the scene of terrible storms that can smash the strongest ship to splinters. Perhaps the most deadly of the sea's hazards, however, is the lack of landmarks. Once out of sight of land, there is little to steer by. A small mistake in navigation or a sudden storm can drive a ship hopelessly off course until a familiar shore is sighted. Only the bravest and most hardy adventurers dare challenge the sea!'


I've talked a lot about aquatic encounters but so far haven't discussed water travel itself. You can find most of what you need rules-wise in Cook's section "Part 9: Special Adventures." It really could have been named "Adventures at Sea", since the only topic really covered is waterborne adventuring.

It seems that things like ocean travel are somewhat uncommon in many D&D games. Or if it does happen, it's mostly just getting from point A to B a la Isle of Dread so that the "real" adventure can start. I'm not saying it never happens, but it's far from the norm.

That's a shame, since Part 9 includes nearly everything one needs (with a little common sense interpretation) to run a full-on nautical campaign. Granted, it doesn't include "Sea Machine" style rules for huge naval battles, but that's true of BX for land battles as well. Let's take a look at what rules a DM would realistically need to have an oceangoing-based campaign, and how Moldvay/Cook addresses those needs.

It seems to me that nautically specific rules would need to include:
  • Ships and their stats: things like capacity, speed, toughness.
  • Wind and weather
  • Navigation
  • Monster/animal encounters
  • Ship to ship combat: maneuvering, attacking, and ship damage.
  • In the water: fighting, swimming, and drowning.
Rather than regurgitate every rule from the books, I'm simply going to cite the relevant sections for now. Later, we'll show some examples of the rules in action.

  1. Ship stats: This one is pretty obvious. There is a fairly comprehensive list of waterborne vehicles on page X63, from rafts to warships, along with most of the relevant figures. In addition, the purchase costs are in the equipment section on page X9. Obviously the ship names are fairly generic here, but that's a benefit really. For instance, it wouldn't take much imagination to use the river boat listing for a chinese sampan.
  2. Wind and weather: To my thinking, the weather section on X63-64 is one of the most impressive examples of BX's ability to provide detail without sacrificing brevity or clarity. In less than one column of text, it offers both "basic" and "expert" rules (see what I did there?) to choose from. A DM can use the simple rules, which address everything from being becalmed to wrecked in a storm with a roll. Or one can use the optional Weather Modification chart for more granularity while staying consistent with the original mechanic. 
  3. Navigation: Navigators are nicely covered under the specialists section of the Expert rules.  
  4. Encounters: X57's wilderness encounters charts offer options for swamps, rivers, and oceans. I use the rivers table for freshwater lakes as well.
  5. Ship combat: I confess to never having used the BX ship combat rules on X64 in play. Not because they are bad, but it simply hasn't come up. The last game I ran where a ship was attacked, a barge was attacked from the riverbank then boarded. The rules here cover visibility on clear or poor weather, surprise, evasion, and the fighting itself. There are rules for ramming, catapults, burning ships, repairing damage, grappling/boarding, and sinking. [SIDE NOTE: It always bothered me, the idea of sailing vessels having catapults. Logically the rigging (sails/ropes/masts) would interfere with the arc of the projectiles. In re-reading the section for this post, I see that this was actually taken into account. Only warships (which cost extra) can have catapults. The conceit being that their decks are modified to allow a clear field of fire.]
  6. In the water: BX keeps rules for things like swimming simple. By default, PCs know how to swim. Metal armor or heavy loads will drag you down. Fighting in the water is difficult. Pages X51 and 63 give you enough to make intelligent rulings from. 
In part two of this topic (next post), I'll put up a sample ocean voyage, complete with weather, encounters, and an enemy ship! 

Monday, April 1, 2019

REF: With a left and a left and a left and a left and a right and a...

Random Encounter Fun time!

So we're going back to the dungeon this time and it looks like we're doing level 3. A roll of 18 on the chart reveals our encounter is with... TARANTELLA!

That's right! A troupe of italian folk dancers spring out of an alcove and...

April Fools! 

Not that tarantella, no I'm referring to the horrid pun in Moldvay that is the tarantella. (Get it? 'Cuz it sounds like 'Tarantula'? Oh my sides.)

Despite the whimsical nature of the creature's creation, this can be a pretty challenging encounter.

It says 1d3 appearing. Rolling a 5 on a d6 gives us 3 of the critters. 

So three giant spiders attack a party of let's say four 3rd level PCs. Now, unlike other giant spiders, the tarantella's venom is not directly lethal (though a save vs. poison is still required). Instead, it causes "painful spasms which resemble a frantic dance." This gives the victim a -4 to attacks and foes gain a +4 to hit. The spiders have 4HD apiece, so they're hitting relatively often vs. a party that probably doesn't have much in the way of magical protection yet (THACO 16). Further, they have AC5 and enough hit points (15-20 on average) that they can withstand some damage before getting killed.

So the nutty(er) part about the tarantella's attack is that the dance has a "magical effect" and anyone seeing the victim dancing must save (vs Spells this time) or start dancing themselves! This means one hit and failed initial save could lead to the entire party succumbing to the effects on the following round. Victims will eventually (5 turns) collapse exhausted (defenseless). Where I assume the spiders can go about enjoying their meal(s).  

Now, a couple notes, some to do with rules details, some more personal interpretation. First off, those fighting the spiders will need not only save vs poison every time they are hit, but vs spells every time a comrade starts to cha-cha, At least vs the initial victim of a bite. Truly harsh DMs could make PCs save not only against seeing the bitten PC's dance, but against each new "infected" dancer's gyrations. Given that 3rd level PCs are failing such saves at least half the time, this doesn't bode too well for them.

Next. Remember that each bite also deals 1d8 plain old damage. Even if the spiders don't leave the "dance party" alone to exhaust themselves, they are getting +4 to hit on those who are dancing. It wouldn't take long to just kill the PCs that way either. 

Neutralize Poison and Dispel Magic will stop the beat, but that's usually beyond the ability of 3rd level PCs. I would also question (and this is one of those interpretations I mentioned) whether an infected MU or cleric could even cast a spell while dancing. That may make such a fight too dangerous for a random encounter by some standards.

So. On to the encounter itself. This could be a simple as the PCs disturbing a nest of these horrid arachnids and paying the price. For a little more fun, what if said spiders were not just looking for a meal? What if they were charmed watchdogs? They bite interlopers, let them dance themselves to the point of collapse, and then haul them back to... who? Or maybe they are the pets of some tribe of humanoids who have an immunity. Once the PCs are exhausted. The owners come out, loot them and dump them in a hole or leave them naked in the dungeon to be killed by some other nasty random encounter. 

Friday, March 22, 2019

RMA: Medusa

Monsters with petrification attacks are not new fodder for this blog, and this Greek classic has been mentioned in those conversations, but I haven't done a full write-up on her before. She is a rather interesting monster for a few reasons, so let's get to it, shall we?

First off, I'm going to mention the pedantic issue of the name and then drop the issue. I know that in mythology Medusa was the individual character's name, not a race. I'm not sure of why D&D handles the name this way - perhaps because of the other D&D Gorgon - but for whatever reason, like the Pegasus, Medusa has become synonymous with the creature type.

Secondly, you know I loves me some Harryhausen, but just to be clear, he completely made up* the whole "half snake, half woman" design for 1981's Clash of the Titans. The original creature was a woman with snake hair and a face that would make a train take a dirt road.

Medusas (Medusae?) have a reputation for being TPK material, which may be why I have not seen them used much. Granted there is one in B2's Caves of Chaos, but other than that I personally haven't run into them much. When you look at the stats, though, they have some weaknesses along with their obviously strengths.

Medusa (from Moldvay)

AC: 8
HD: 4**
Move: 90' (30')
Att: 1 snakebite + special
Damage: 1d6 + poison
No. App. 1d3 (1d4)
Save: F4
Morale: 8
Treasure: F

NOTE: For convenience I'm going to refer to the medusa as "she/her" instead of "it", even though the Medusa isn't really human (I'm not going to even get into the idea of an all-female species!)

With her poor AC and so-so hit dice and low morale, its obvious she isn't a combat powerhouse. We'll get to her petrification ability in a moment, but first I want to talk about the snakes. Despite having a head full of them, she only gets the one 1d6 bite per round. Sure it's save or die. But it's death in one turn, which gives the afflicted character a chance to keep fighting, or get a Neutralize Poison cast on him before keeling over. Beyond that, she has no other attack.

"But wait!" You say. "Her gaze is an attack!"


The description is quite clear. It is the act of looking at the medusa's face that petrifies its victims, not her looking at you. She can (and often does) try to find ways to trick people into looking at her face (she's Chaotic, after all), but Flesh to Stone beams don't shoot out of her peepers. Some petrifying creatures, like the Gorgon and Cockatrice, attack to "stone" their victims. Not so the medusa.

That being said, it's still a dangerous ability. Typically, she will trick a party into looking her while covered with a hood or veil or some such. Then, WHAMMO! A few bad saves and she has a new statue garden. PCs that avoid getting stoned are left either hamstringing themselves by shutting their eyes or trying to mess with a mirror. On top of all this, the medusa is getting a fat +2 to saves against any incoming spells.

It's interesting to note that by strict interpretation, even though multiple medusae can appear in an encounter, each one is only vulnerable to seeing its own face (not the others').

Given its tactics described on B39 and in The Keep, it's fair to assume a medusa has human level intelligence. This begs the question "What does it want?" I expect a lot of good RP fodder and plot hooks could be found here. Obviously if she had or knew something important to the PCs, she might ask a favor in return, as she certainly can't easily move about in normal society to get what she wants or needs.

* “Every statue I’d seen [Medusa] was just a woman with a pretty face and had snakes in her hair. Well, that wasn’t very dramatic, so I gave her a rather demonic look. We gave her a rattlesnake’s tail, so that she could be a menace from the sound effect point-of-view. It was a shock to see her come out from behind the wall crawling on her hands because that was the only way she could propel herself.” 
- Ray Harryhausen

Monday, March 18, 2019

Moldvay Musings XV: I Do Declare!

In an earlier post, I touched on situations that require "pre-declaring" actions in BX. That is to say, before initiative is rolled. This is an interesting artifact of older D&D, as I do not think it is used much in "modern" RPGs. Honestly, we've hardly used it ourselves in my group and I don't even recall using it back in the day. Maybe as my beard grays my gray matter is getting a bit tired.

There are a couple of reasons I think this idea has fallen out of favor. For one, it feels a bit more like a legacy mechanic from D&D's wargame roots than something that was consciously added to the early game; kind of like the whole idea of phases to one's actions (Melee, Ranged, etc.). Newer editions by contrast simply tell the player how much of which kinds of actions they can complete on their turn.

The second reason is that pre-declaring can feel like it is making it harder for players to react tactically in an encounter. If I already declared I was casting Bless, then does that mean I can't switch to Cure Light Wounds when I see our fighter get wounded?

These are valid concerns and they do affect the nature of game play, but before dismissing them out of hand, let's look at some of the benefits of this rule.

  1. What's good for the goose. Enemy/NPC/Monster spell casters should need to declare as well. Perhaps as a DM you don't want to tell the party exactly which spell is being flung at them, but the PCs should at least be able to see that the pesky goblin shaman is starting to chant and wave his arms around. This lets the characters A) know who the enemy spell casters are, and B) plan accordingly.
  2. Spell interruption as a tactic. It's true that would royally suck as a low level magic user if your only spell of the day got fizzled because some kobold scored one lousy point of damage from a sling stone. Of course, as mentioned in the first point, that means the PCs can do the same thing to the bad guys (assuming the initiative die is behaving). This can give weaker PCs the opportunity to have a greater effect on the combat, especially if they have a good DEX or other initiative bonuses (like halflings). Also, it gives the aforementioned MU that's tapped out on spells something to do: Just chuck a dagger at any enemy casters and Presto! Old School Counterspell! This also gives players a chance to do something about that incoming Fireball before they're stuck saving for half damage. 
  3. Making magic more than artillery. If your spell casters are vulnerable in this way, it makes the successful use of any spell more useful. When you look at the spell lists in BX, not that many spells are really designed for use in the middle of the fight. Even with a very generous interpretation of what constitutes a "combat" spell (eg healing magic, protection spells, etc.), it only works out to approximately 50%. If a magic-user or cleric's spells aren't as "useful" in a fight, then it gives the players (and the DM) the opportunity to explore some of the other cool magical stuff these characters can do. (For ideas, might I recommend perusing the series of Random Spell Assessments on this very blog!). This also plays into what I've described as a more BX feel to magic, with a more distinctive "flavor" to magic and spell casting.
Personally, I could see going either way with this rule (ignoring or implementing). On the one hand, I know that players generally are loathe to be limited by arbitrary mechanics, but on the other, I do think that this could bring an interesting wrinkle to the game. Some house rules I might consider if I were to try it could include things like: 
  • An ability check (WIS for clerics, INT for MU/Elves) to retain the failed spell. ie it fails, but you don't forget the spell for the day.
  • Letting PCs or monsters shield their side's spell caster to grant them an AC/cover bonus until the spell goes off.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Moldvay Musings XIV, Part B: Item Creation

The second part of this section has to do with making physical magic items. Either reproducing one listed in the books or making a brand-new one. A few guidelines are given but, even more so than with spell research, DM discretion is involved.

Unlike new spells, making a magic item requires a caster of name level. MUs, Elves, and Clerics can all create items, but clerics are somewhat more limited than the others. They can only make items that they themselves could use. Note that this is not the same as cleric-only items. Magic armor would be one example that comes to mind.

It's also worth noting that nothing says the caster has to be the only person involved in the item's creation. Perhaps a jeweler crafts the actual ring or medallion that is to be enchanted to the wizard's specifications.

Another thing to keep in mind is that acquiring the materials required are potential adventures in and of themselves. Minotaur bones, meteoric iron, or a mirror that's held a medusa's reflection are not things one can buy in town.

"These items should be difficult to obtain, and the spell caster will often have to adventure to acquire the items, for there are no magic stores."
-X51 (emphasis mine)

Side Note: I don't know that this line was intended to populate over into all facets of a BX setting, but the idea that a place to buy magic items is by default nonexistent is an interesting one. I know that I have ignored this quite frequently in order to give the players more options when it came to what to spend their money on. I am led to ponder a bit about the scope of the game and what the original intentions were, but that's a much larger topic than the one in front of us. Another time, perhaps.

Back on topic, without getting into the specifics of costs and crafting times it's important to look at them in terms of the investment they represent to the PC spellcaster. This includes money and time.

PCs creating items are going to be out of the normal day to day of the campaign for a while. They aren't going to be dungeon crawling while creating a carpet of flying or a ring of spell storing, but they may need to go on adventures ahead of time to get what they need for the task. Alternately, they may hire lower level PCs (or send apprentices) to get the goods. In fact, that is a great way to run a multi-tiered campaign: where the lower level PCs are in the employ of the higher leveled ones. Or as hooks for low level parties working for a high level NPC.

The investment of money is another factor to consider. Magic items can cost tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of gold pieces to make. The crafting PC would likely need at least one of the following ways to raise the necessary capital:

  1. Have saved a lot of cash from earlier adventures.
  2. Work for a wealthy patron. Possibly royalty or rich merchants.
  3. Plan on selling the item and/or take commissions.
It's also important to note that in both spell research and item creation, there is a 15% chance of failure. This is rolled after the time and money are spent! So the PC's investment is gone either way. An important factor when weighing the costs and benefits.

Finally, it's worth looking at a brief passage on X52:
A spell caster may want to use magic in a way not covered by spells or production: cleansing a defiled temple, opening a gate to another world, setting magical traps, and so on.
This opens up a whole wealth of opportunities within a campaign. Perhaps that party wants to time travel back to when a lich was still a living mortal? Or travel to another plane (not something expressly covered in BX)?  DMs and players alike should see this as a great opportunity to get creative and really give a campaign a distinct flavor beyond "We kill it and take its stuff!"