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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

RSA: Snake Charm

While a fairly low-level spell, I don't see this one getting a lot of table time. Largely, I think, because it has a pretty narrow focus and the cleric would probably want to know in advance that it would be useful before preparing it.

Snake Charm (2nd level Clerical Spell, from Cook)

Range: 60'
Duration: Special

The cleric can charm 1HD worth of snakes per level. Given that the biggest "normal" snake in the books has 5HD (Rock Python), and the cleric needs to be at least 3rd to cast the spell, chances are he can deal with at least one reptile. The description doesn't specify whether the snakes get a saving throw vs the spell, but my assumption is that they would.

What's interesting is the nature of the "charm." The snakes won't do the cleric's bidding, they just rise up and sway, like in the movies.

Hostile (attacking) snakes will only sway for 1d4+1 rounds. Neutral ones will be "charmed" for up to 5 turns. Plenty of time to get past a nasty save or die situation.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

RMA: Insect Swarm

One of the neat things about Basic/Expert D&D is the compactness of the rules and how much material they actual contain. This entry in the basic book is a good example of that. What could be a complex and unwieldy series of entries in the monsters section is distilled to one, easily re skinned, listing.

Insect Swarm (from Moldvay)
AC: 7
HD: (2-4)
Move: 30' (10')
    Fly  60' (20')
Att: 1 swarm
Dmg: 2 pts
No. App: 1 swarm (1-3 swarms)
Save: Normal Man
Morale: 11
TT: Nil

So, stat-wise, other than a high morale score it's pretty unimpressive. Of course, that's not the point of the "creature." It's role is to represent one of the more mundane threats in the rules. It gives the DM a handy tool for representing any horde of tiny bitey/sting-y things.

As the book states, "Swarms are not single creatures, but are whole communities of tiny creatures acting together." A swarm might be defending a nest, hungry, or just investigating a curious smell. A normal-sized swarm is 10 x 30', which means more than one PC can be enveloped, and swarms can be larger or appear in greater numbers. Imagine a 30' x 90' area filled with angry bees!

There are a few other things to keep in mind that can make these clouds of critters particularly dangerous.

1) "If a character is within a swarm he or she is automatically hit by the creatures and will take 2 points of damage each round."

Two points doesn't sound like much, but a PC will have a hard time outrunning a flying swarm and a few rounds can seriously mess up a low-level character. Not to mention that unarmored types like magic users take double damage!

2) Running away still means taking a few rounds' worth of damage (albeit halved) as the insects already on the character continue to bite or sting as he swats them away.

3) If you damage the swarm, they will pursue relentlessly. Your best bet is diving in water and submerging yourself.

Now, there are several easy ways to deal with swarms. Fire and smoke are among the easiest. Just swinging a sword won't hurt it, but it will help fend it off somewhat. A sleep spell will knock the whole swarm out, but burning a spell slot to deal with normal bugs seems costly.

Despite not having used these as a challenge in my past games, I hope to spring this one on some hapless adventurers in the not too distant future.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Curious Objects: Wand of Metal Detection

This is one of those very simple magic items, but one that has such an atypical power that it makes me wonder what sorts of interesting uses one could out it to. Like most wands, it carries 2d10 charges and is usable only by MU/Elves. It has a very short description as well.
"This item will point towards any mass of metal weighing 1,000 coins or more if within 20'. The user can detect the type of metal."
 I find it a nice touch that this method of detection involves the wand physically pointing in the metal's direction. I suspect that it was originally imagined as tugging in the user's hand, but I like to picture setting on the floor and letting it spin like a compass needle.

Interestingly, the wand has a very limited range. How often is a hundred pounds of metal within half a dozen paces and you can't already see it? This is highly tailored to dungeon crawling, where the treasure may be behind a secret door or a wall or similar.

Lastly, the user knows the type of metal as well. A thousand coin worth of iron or copper? It might not be worth tracking down. Gold or platinum? That's a different story.

The description also describes the detected metals as "a mass." This could be interpreted to exempt things like a scattering of miscellaneous metal objects like rusted weapons lying about a room or even a man in a suit of plate armor with shield and weapons (and maybe 100 gp or so in a pouch to round it off).

It's a pity thieves can't use the wand, it would be a great tool for a cat burglar searching a room for the hidden loot.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

REF (Random Encounter Fun): Prairie Petrification!

Time for another round of random encounter rolls! Last time, we had multiple dragons in dungeon, so this time let's return to the great outdoors.

Rolling randomly, our terrain is grasslands. I rolled "Unusual" for the encounter type (uh-oh). The result was Gorgons! Fortunately for our hypothetical party, they only meet one; just one measly, little, armor-plated bull with a petrification attack.

Encounter distance come up at 40 yards. Given that this boulder-making bovine can cover that in a single round, that's pretty close. Let's assume the PCs came over a hill and there it was on the opposite side; maybe just down the slope?

Next up, since there isn't anything in particular in the gorgon's description to indicate a default reaction, and it's of animal intelligence, let's make a reaction roll. An 8 indicates uncertainty and no immediate attack. If the players don't rush it, they might be able to just back away and avoid the fight. Let's assume they try to calm the beast with soothing noises and move around it. A second reaction roll gives us an 11! Since there was no offer to consider, it's fair to say the beast wanders off. Crisis averted.

Or was it?

One of the issues with random encounters like that is if you meet the monster away from its lair, then you're a lot less likely to see any treasure. A gorgon has type E treasure, and since it's a beast, it's not carrying its loot around with it. Greedy players might decide to follow the gorgon and see if it leads them to its lair. Rolling for the Number Appearing in lair (1d4), I got a 2; which means another one (its mate?) is back at the old homestead.

Let's assume the fight occurs and the PCs win (at least some of them). That's not so crazy. Heck, if they can down one of them, maybe the other fails its lousy morale. So what was their fabulous reward? Well, TT: E is listed with an average value of 2,500gp (B45), but we're doing random here! So I rolled for it. Turns out, the PCs did pretty well for themselves.

  • 1,000gp in gold coin/buillion
  • 9 gems (!), totaling 2,400gpv (including one 1,000 gpv stone)
  • 7 pcs of jewelry (!!), totaling 7,500gpv. The highest value piece rolled at 1,500gpv alone.

This give a grand total of 10,900gp worth of loot!

Defeating the gorgons is worth 2,400xp (8HD + special each). So the party could walk away from that with over 13K xp to split amongst them.

This is why PCs sometimes foolishly pursue risky encounters unnecessarily. Sometimes, just sometimes, it can pay off.

Now, that's the bones of the encounter. Let's put some meat on it.

I don't think we need to do much to explain the gorgons' presence. They are listed as living in grasslands, so that's just their habitat. How they heck did they get all that swag though?

Since as treasures go this has got a pretty high value-to-size ratio and is almost all in gems/jewels, it seems more likely to have come from one place than have been collected from many sources. Who has such things? Nobles do, but it seems odd for them to have been out on the prairie dripping in pearls. That doesn't explain the loose stones or the gold coin, either. So here's my idea:

Years ago (how long is up to the DM), a young gentlewoman was promised in marriage to some horrible old nobleman, but she was in love with a poor commoner-type. She decides to flee in the night, taking enough easily portable wealth for her and her paramour to start anew. Galloping madly cross country to meet him in the next town, she accidentally stumbled across the pair of gorgons. Her horse shied and threw her as it bolted, causing her to drop the bag of treasure. Thus, when the startled monsters breathed their petrifying fog, only she was turned to stone, not the gold, etc.

When her father's men searched for her, the fleeing horse's tracks led them off in the wrong direction. The stone figure of the girl and the small leather bag lying in the tall grass were all but invisible to searchers. The gorgons had wandered off but eventually returned to their preferred resting spot. Over the years, the gorgons and their kin have made the area around this hollow their home.

Perhaps the story of the lass and the treasure is a local legend. Maybe the lad was found out and it was assumed he killed her for the loot. Maybe he's been executed and he haunts the girl's family to this day. If the PCs find the petrified girl when they find the loot, a whole new adventure arc could spawn from a simple random encounter.

Assuming the PCs don't go full murder-hobo and just leave the girl as a rock and take the loot. Those Stone to Flesh scrolls ain't cheap!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Curious Objects: Helm of Teleportation

I mentioned in my earlier post about communication that the Helm of Teleportation is a bit, well, odd. I thought I would talk a little about that today.

As non-combat oriented items go, it's pretty powerful. It emulates a fifth level spell up to once per round! Albeit with a few caveats.

First off, it's a piece of armor that only magic-users or elves can use. That's not such a big deal. Elves can wear armor, and I usually picture items like this as more decorative than protective. Secondly, the helm is a one-time item when you first find it. To quote the description:
"This item may only be used once by a magic-user or elf. It will have no further effect until a teleport spell is cast on it"

So think about that for a moment. You find this bad boy and it will let you teleport ONE time. Then you need to cast the fifth level spell on it to reset it. After that, you can pop around all you want, UNLESS:
"The user may try to teleport another creature or item; an unwilling victim may avoid the effect by making a saving throw vs. Spells. If used to teleport an unwilling creature the helmet will only work once, and the helm must thereafter be recharged with another teleport spell before again becoming useful."
So if, for instance, your party is fighting some big, bad nasty and you decide the best course of action is to teleport it far away, fine. But then your helmet is out of gas until a new teleport spell is cast on it. Note that its magic is only dissipated if the target is unwilling. If you use it to teleport someone that wants to go, there's no problem.

The whole idea that to make this thing useful requires access to a 9th level arcane caster who already has the spell amuses me. I suppose a scroll would do as well. Remember too that Teleport is a spell fraught with its own risks: There is a not-insignificant chance of instant death when being teleported.


All this makes me think about how I mentioned using this spell or item as a communication tool in the previous post. I think it might be even rarer given the chance of failure. Keep in mind that the spell as written only teleports the caster or another creature. Not an object. You can't just send the letter, someone has to carry it.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Getting the Word Out: Communication in a BX World.

For a radical change of pace, I was looking at the Moldvay/Cook rules and noticed something that I found interesting: I've always assumed that a society with access to relatively reliable magic would be able to use it to communicate over long distances. e.g. relaying messages across hundreds of miles in moments instead of days, telepathic communication, etc. This came up as I was noodling with an idea for an adventure: A nobleman dies in the capital, and the PCs must get word to his heir out at the distant estate. Why, I thought, would the PCs need to be sent? Can't the people involved just magically notify the heir?

...or send a raven?

Turns out, not so much.

The fastest way to magically send a message, BtB, is the teleport spell. That's right. You need to zap someone from point A to point B via a 5th level MU spell. That means a name level wizard (or elf), a pricey scroll, or a Helm of Teleportation (a seriously odd item in its own right)  is involved. Things like a Crystal Ball allow for observing, but not sending to, distant locations. If one went full palantir, there could be a network of such items where the operators could check in at preplanned times and literally read the writing on the wall left for them to see, but multiple crystal balls quickly becomes an expensive proposition.

Every method in the BX rules that lets a PC communicate over long distances actually requires that the distance itself be traversed (even if instantaneously). Of course this led me to think of flying carpets and winged mounts like griffons or pterippi (look it up).

What if a country's ruler kept a small "fleet" of winged messengers for the most critical of missives? Sure it's way faster than a man on a horse, but it's not instant. The message can still be intercepted. Mounts must rest, and carpets carrying more than one person aren't terribly fast, so the rider probably needs to stop to sleep, so people wanting to literally kill the messenger would probably get at least one opportunity. The fact is, most long distance communication would be written on sealed letters and delivered by horse or ship and take some time. This would also have the effect of driving up the value of things like griffon eggs or similar. Likewise successful research into a long-distance sending spell.

I don't know why, exactly. But that makes me smile.

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.


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 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.