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Sunday, December 23, 2018

Moldvay Musings XIII: Reactions

"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."
-Newton's Third Law                           

Sorry, Isaac. Not necessarily in D&D.

Like morale, reactions rolls have also faded from the later editions of the glorious mess that is Dungeons & Dragons. Sure, there are skills and such that allow for things like diplomacy and bluffing, but I am not a fan of too many defined skills in D&D. It's fine in games that were designed from the start for them -Runequest/BRP springs to mind- but they as much a hindrance as a benefit in old-school play (whatever that means). 

Back on topic, the encounter reaction rules in versions like BX are incredibly simple. Other than the Charisma adjustments table, they are one paragraph of text and one 2d6 table of five possible results (B24). The rules simply state that while some monsters will nearly always behave in the same way (e.g. mindless undead attacking), it is possible for some creatures' actions to vary.  

I've covered a bit about hirelings in an earlier post, so I'm mostly sticking to the encounter mechanics here. Suffice to say, the retainer reaction rolls (B21) help add a layer of detail to an integral part of the BX-style game. Adventuring parties were assumed to include meatshields and the like. Uncharismatic PCs, miserly offers of pay, or poor treatment could make life difficult for a party that needs to pad its ranks or flesh out weak spots in its lineup.

As stated in the preceding section on party actions, if they choose to talk, they might influence the monsters' (or NPCs') attitude toward the encounter and, by extension, the PCs. In my games, I interpret "talk" loosely. A common language isn't always required. An offer of food to a predator can be as effective an overture as speaking confidently and calmly to a goblin patrol in their tongue. (Side Note: This can be a case for using alignment languages and making those INT bonus language slots worth something in one's game!)

We didn't deserve you, Steve!

A couple of caveats to consider. One, the DM always has the right to veto making a reaction roll and simply decide how monsters, etc. will act. An elven patrol is unlikely to let the party go after they just burned down the Sacred Oak, no matter how charismatic the PC spokesperson is! 

Two, even is a roll is made, there could be negative modifiers. The goblins mentioned earlier might be fine with avoiding a fight under normal circumstances. However, if the PCs are there to stop their shaman from performing a blood sacrifice that will give them victory over the villagers, the patrol just might be less inclined to believe the party is "just passing through." Even unintelligent creatures can have circumstantial biases. In real life, encountering a bear in the woods will usually not result in an attack (if you aren't stupid about it, that is), but a grizzly sow with cubs can be another matter! Tossing her some iron rations is probably not going to cut it, even for evasion purposes.

I guess what bothers me about this mechanic falling by the wayside is it removed a big incentive for actual roleplay in a dungeon environment, as opposed to just chatting up the tavern wench for -ahem- "rumors." To me, the BX reaction mechanic was an elegant solution that allowed for player agency and a bit of luck.

I confess I don't know much about 5th ed. What little I've played of it didn't seem to lend itself to this, but I could be wrong. 

Friday, December 21, 2018

Moldvay Musings XII: Morale

The morale mechanic has apparently fallen out of favor in later editions of D&D. I could paw through different books and the intertubes to find the exact edition where it went away, but that's not really what I'm interested in talking about. Rather, I'd like to talk a bit about how it is employed in many classic RPGs like B/X and why, in my oh-so-humble opinion, it is a very good thing.

First off, I should mention that the morale rules in Moldvay (B27) are expressly listed as optional. The game can be played without them. In my experience,they add a level of realism and survivability to the game that makes them more than worthwhile. Let's take a quick look at the opening lines of the section:
Any creature in battle may try to run away or surrender. Characters are never forced to do this; a character always reacts in the way the player wishes. NPCs and monsters, however, may decide to run away or surrender.
Two main takeaways to consider here:

1) "Characters react in the way the player wishes." There are things like fear spells and effects (Giant Shrews, anyone?) that can effect a PC, but whether to fight on in the face of dire odds is completely in the hands of the players.

2) "Any creature in battle may try to run away or surrender." This is an element of morale that I don't always remember to apply. I usually just have a creature run away if it fails its roll. That's fine for dumb beasts, but an intelligent creature may throw in the towel (especially is escape looks unlikely).This can lead to fun RP between the victors and the vanquished, not to mention alignment considerations by the players.

Remember how a decent charisma score can be a boon not only when hiring retainers (reaction rolls) but in giving them better morale? Here's a fun one: NPCs could decide to surrender to the bad guys if the PCs are losing a fight (or look like they might lose)! They might even switch sides! Weirdly, a counter-argument for not having all the hirelings just work for the one charismatic PC. If the NPCs are loyal to different PCs, that should mean separate morale rolls, which means it's not all or nothing when checking morale. Some minions might break while others remain. 

I mentioned realism and survivability. It seems perfectly realistic than not every encounter ends up a fight to the death. Sometimes nerves fail. Even a bestial predator may decide the PCs are not such an easy meal and take to its heels. BX gets a rep for being fairly lethal. Using morale in your game means some fights end a little sooner, which means fewer to-hit rolls against the PCs, thus less damage taken and fewer casualties. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Moldvay Musings XI: Initiative

In a recent game, the PCs had a wilderness encounter with a nest of four giant scorpions. Fortunately for the characters, they were mounted and were able to turn things into a running battle where they literally ran the monsters  in circles as they peppered them with arrows. The monsters could catch up with the PCs each round, but not also attack.

By the end,the fight had become a simple matter of tedious attrition. After the session, I thought about it and how it might have been handled differently. Not to punish the players for using tactics, but to keep it more exciting. (Though honestly, they should have just run away). I chided myself a little for not applying circumstantial modifiers for things like terrain slowing them or giving cover from missile fire to the monsters (they were in a relatively dense forest). They main thing I found though was something in the rules as written that I have always been aware of, but seem to have difficulty remembering for reasons uncertain: In BX, initiative is supposed to be re-rolled every round.

At some point in our group’s history with various editions and systems, we’ve fallen out of that habit and simply rolled for initiative at the start of an encounter. We use individual initiative as opposed to group, so at first I was thinking it was just a good way to reduce excess die rolling, but it turns out that rolling every round matter more than I first realized.

For example, in the above circumstances the kiting players wouldn’t have been able to rely on going first each round (they’d rolled well) to evade the monsters again & again. One low initiative and the scorpions would do their thing. This ties into the rules for Defensive Movement, i.e. Fighting Withdrawal and Retreat (B24). To use these types of movement, one must declare intent to do so before rolling the round’s initiative. This increases the risks, but does keep things fresher. Keep in mind the rule applies to monsters as well as PCs.

The other circumstance where an action is “pre-declared” in BX is spell casting. This one always catches me out because the rule is listed in Cook, not Moldvay. A character wishing to cast a spell that round must A) say so, and B) declare which spell before the initiative order is rolled. Again, upping the tension in the fight. I usually haven’t applied this rule in the past because I felt like it weakened already fragile spellcasters, but I am considering reintroducing it.

For a more detailed discussion on some of these and other mechanics, I highly recommend reading the “An Interpretation of Basic D&D” post over at the Basic Dungeons and Dragons blog.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

RMA: Manticore

vb Wyrde over on the MeWe OSR group asked about who had used or encountered these critters in their games and I realized I had never done a Random Monster Assessment on them.

These creatures appear in Cook Expert. This makes sense as they would be a handful for Basic level PCs and they are more suited to wilderness encounters (they do appear on the random monsters for dungeon levels 8+). They are on the flyer table for Mountain and Desert terrain, which also makes sense given their origin in persian mythology. 

Manticore (from Cook)
AC: 4
HD: 6+1
Move: 120' (40'), Fly 180' (60')
Att: 2 claws/1bite or spikes
Dmg: 1d4/1d4/2d8 or special
No. App: 1d2 (1d4)
Save: F6
Morale: 9
Treasure: D

So stat-wise, the manticore is pretty tough, but not unstoppable. Its AC is so-so for a 6 hit die creature. It has poor morale, too. What makes this fella formidable is a combination of factors. This makes a little work for the DM to keep them all in mind, but the result can be a pretty memorable encounter.

  1. It can fly. I know that's hardly unique, but it does add a wrinkle to facing one (or more) of them. 
  2. It has ranged and melee attacks. In both cases it is potentially striking multiple times per round. 
  3. The melee attacks (claws/bite) are not automatic kills, but if all three hit a single target, you're looking at up to 16 points of damage per round. A perfectly respectable number.
  4. The spike attack is nasty. Granted the manticore only has four of them before his tail is empty, but each round that it uses it can mean up to 36 points of damage dealt out. And this is a ranged attack. 
  5. "The manticore's favorite food is man." (X35) These things seek out people and eat them. They are not just dangerous, they actively hunt humans. Their chaotic alignment also points to them not feeling too terrible about it either.
  6. "They will frequently track parties with humans, ambushing with spike attacks when the party stops to rest." It's interesting to note that it specifically says "with humans." One reading of that could be distinguishing them from demihumans. So a party with a mix of races could see the humans specifically targeted. 
  7. As a 6+ HD monster, it is capable of flying off carrying a man. Or, say, flying up 100' or so and dropping him on some rocks. 
Treasure Type D is pretty respectable, so I could see PC parties being foolish and greedy enough to seek out a manticore lair for the loot. Perhaps in a desert, where the creature(s) have made a den in an old pyramid tomb full of the gold of a lost king?

If I was a player facing such an encounter, I would work hard to find a way to ground it (perhaps a Web spell?) then close to melee so it couldn't shoot me with those 6 x 1d6 spikes. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

RSA: Silence 15' Radius

Would you believe a FIVE foot radius?

One of the big benefits of clerical magic is the ability to change out spells each day. This gives the cleric some nice flexibility in their magic as well as allowing the player to try out different spells more easily than with an elf or magic-user character. As a result, I think I would have seen even less of this spell in use if it had been an "arcane" offering instead of divine; even though it is only 2nd level. If I had to guess, Bless and Hold Person are probably most people's go-to 2nd level clerical spells. While I have seen Silence used, it's not really that common.

Silence, 15' Radius (Cleric 2)
Range: 180'
Duration: 12 Turns

I always used to think of this spell as something the caster would use on themselves or their own party to aid in stealth as opposed to offensively against someone. While both applications are valid, the description focuses more on the latter.

Briefly put, the spell renders anyone or anything inside the area of effect silent. Spells can't be cast, giving verbal orders or conversing normally is impossible and so forth. The effect is normally stationary as well, though it can be cast on an individual so it will move with them. This can be resisted with a saving throw, but even if the target succeeds, the spell will still take effect in stationary form.

For a second level spell, the thing has pretty decent range and duration. Enough so that I could see it being used tactically in a battlefield situation. Not just to mute enemy mages, but to silence a commander trying to order his troops' movements.

Using it to make your party sneakier has the advantage that those inside the effect can still hear what's going on outside the spell's area. DMs would be wise to limit table chatter or players' ability to act upon others' suggestions while the spell is running. If you use command words for certain magical items, it can further limit their options.

Another use for the spell could be for traps or ambushes. Dropping the spell ahead of time in a likely spot, or targeting the PC mage, or a permanent spell effect along a stretch of corridor  could make the party very vulnerable in certain situations.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Moldvay Musings X: We have liftoff!

I've talked about flying in D&D before, but I wanted to briefly touch upon a nugget of wisdom in Cook that I recently re-read.

In the section on Traveling by Air (X20), it actually gives guidelines for how big (in HD) a creature needs to be to pick up or carry a person. This is useful not only for transport, but for whether a monster can snatch up a PC and carry him off into the air. For example, 3+ HD is required to lift a halfling or smaller. Therefore, technically, a cockatrice could carry a halfling or gnome off. Weird!

This information is incredibly handy, IMO, as it gives me as a DM a quick reference to decide about the tactics of aerial encounters, which can be complex enough as it is. For example, my group recently fought some harpies. While there were no hobbit-sized PCs or NPCs, it would have been nice to know ahead of time that they could have been carried off. (The idea of a charmed halfling just holding out his arms and being flown to the nest for devouring makes me laugh.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

RMA: Ghost

More Halloween fun!

While not part of the core BX roster of monsters, ghosts are in the Moldvay/Wells Basic series module Palace of the Silver Princess. You can also find a version in the Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion,  but that always struck me as more of a 1st editon version ported over, so I'm sticking with the B3 version (I'm working from a pdf of the orange cover, if they are markedly different in the green cover version, please let me know).

Ghost (from B3)

AC: 1
HD: 5
Move: 150' (50')
Att: 1 + Aging
Dmg: 1d6
No. App: 1d4
Save: F5
Morale: 12

Ghosts are (obviously) a type of undead, and can be turned as wights. Their attacks have a 50% chance of aging the target by 1d8 years due to fright. What's odd is that -while described as translucent- there is no mention of them being incorporeal or requiring any special weapons (i.e. magic or silver) to strike them. I assume the standard undead immunities, such as charm and hold spells, are still in effect. 

Overall I am unimpressed by this listing. Other than some mention of them haunting certain types of locales and the idea that rich and powerful people become "powerful" ghosts in the afterlife (whatever that means!), it's basically a GINO (Ghost In Name Only). The Rules Cyclopedia's "Haunt" offers some more flavor, but it's still basically more monsters.

I am record saying that the undead's scariness should be more psychic than physical. I don't feel that the classic D&D Ghost delivers on this one. I do feel that it has a lot of potential, though. 

For example, the aging effect is a nice twist, but it's a pity that there is so little in the rules to make this really matter to the PCs. Sure the DM can make a ruling, but it's unlikely to make much difference unless a PC gets hit several times. This is certainly possible, but in practice how does the DM decide when the unlucky character has burned through his mortal coil? Or aged enough to affect scores, etc.? An on the fly ruling here can feel a bit arbitrary to the player if it's his PC on the line. I know that other editions do cover this, but it's still a weak link for the BX version IMO. 

Instead of just aging, what if there was some other effect? Maybe the PC literally dies of fright or "System Shock" from aging several years in an instant? Save vs. Death Ray/Poison or your heart fails.

I would keep the notion of ghosts being tied to something in the material world. It may be a place, or an object, or their own remains. It may even be their descendants (or those of their killer's!). 

Of course, the lack of "incorporeality" may just be a typo or oversight in the listing. Let's just put that back in, shall we? Like spectres, they have no solid bodies. I might also suggest that they have a higher chance of surprise (1-4?), due to popping out walls and such. Magic or silver to hit them seems appropriate as well. I would also give it the ability to turn invisible so it can toss things about poltergeist-style.

Finally, it may make sense to abandon the idea of the ghost as a "monster" altogether and think of it like a trap or puzzle. It is an anguished soul seeking release. The PCs could vanquish the spirit by laying it to rest. Maybe they need to bury its remains in consecrated ground or bring its killer to justice. Who knows? But it seems a heck of lot more spooky than some glow in the dark cookie cutter stat block.