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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

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

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

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.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Typing Treasure

One my favorite quirky bits of old-school D&D is Treasure Type. Cross-referencing the letter code to the table and rolling each category to see what goodies the monster has is great fun (to me). Thumbing through, as I glanced at TTs N and O. I was struck with how specific they are:  No coins of any denomination, no gems or jewels, but N gives a 40% chance of 2-8 potions, whereas O has a 50% chance of 1-4 scrolls; and only those items! What's more, no creature in the BX rulebooks has either of these listed TTs. The only creature I did find? The Kopru, from X1's Isle of Dread, and it has TT: I + N

Another Otus gem!

"I" is another interesting Type, by the way. In the core books, it only appears with Rocs. It emphasizes platinum and gems with a slight chance of one magic item. I guess when you can eat elephants, you can be picky about the shiny objects that litter your nest.

But back to N & O, I wonder what creature(s) the gang at TSR were thinking of when creating those listings. Someone (something) that had ready access to potions or scrolls, obviously. Perhaps alchemical-inclined or spellcasting monsters of some sort?