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Grumpy, yet verbose.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Curious Objects: Amulet vs Crystal Balls and ESP


Nothing to see here!
In my experience the go-to anti-scry device in BX doesn't see a lot of love, and I can sort of understand that. Like all "misc. magic" it's not a super likely item to come up randomly. The "Miscellaneous" items' table is never specifically tagged in the treasure types' table, so there is only a 5% chance of rolling on the table at all IF you even successfully roll that there are even magic items in the loot! (Here's a pro-tip: If you really want to find magic items, your best odds are to go kill or rob dwarfs.) Another issue with the item's rarity is that I don't think it gets placed deliberately very often. I think the likeliest scenarios are ones where some plotting NPC has one to stop people from scrying their nefarious schemes. 
I would've gotten away with it, too! If it weren't for those meddling scryers!
The description of the amulet is so brief that it's simplest just to repeat it here in its entirety:
Amulet vs. Crystal Balls & ESP: The wearer of this item is automatically protected from being spied on by someone using a crystal ball or any type of ESP.

A few quick things to note.

  • Protection is "automatic." Not a bonus to a save, not a contested roll. Not "when activated." Automatic. Which is par for the course with these types of items, but useful to keep in mind.
  • Works vs. "any type" of ESP. This includes spells, items, and magical abilities. 

Does "any type" of ESP include clairvoyance? Telepathy? That's probably a DM call.I would be inclined to say yes, but other DMs might feel differently.

Keep in mind that the amulet protects the wearer from this type of magical surveillance, but not the rest of the party. If the wearer is telling a party member the Big Plan, the other character's thoughts are ripe pickings. 

Like a lot of miscellaneous magic items, I see this one as one the PCs would need to think outside the box a bit to get more than simply keeping it on all the time just in case some seer starts crystal gazing. While its utility in the dungeon may be limited, such items in a relatively high magic world might be high demand by merchants, diplomats, and the like. Alternatively, higher level "endgame" PCs might use it themselves in such situations.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Art & Quintessence

 I don't normally blog about artwork specifically. Mostly because I am far from an expert in the matter. I can't draw, I never studied art history or composition, and I'm not a fan of brie (gallery joke). However, I do know when a piece says something to me.

Ah, Daredevil! The best of the MCU.
So I'd like to take a moment to share a picture I had bought a print of nearly ten years ago at Garycon and recently unearthed while sorting through some boxes of old comics and such. It's a limited print by Mark Allen who drew the map of Lesserton for our Faster Monkey product, Lesserton & Mor. 

Now, this is by no means a unique sort of scene in fantasy gaming art. We have a party of adventurers looting some dead orcs while trying to open a door. It's practically off the cover of the Players Handbook. What I want to focus on is how effectively this simple image captures the essence of old-school gaming for me.

First off, the setting. It's dark. I don't mean Zack Snyder dark, I mean it looks like the characters can hardly see. There are four points of light within the picture and the rest is shrouded in gloom. The first two are the lanterns, one on the floor and one held so the thief can work. The third is out of frame, just beyond the cleric who stands guard. Perhaps a light up ahead around the corner? The fourth is the eye of giant spider as it sneaks up on the dwarf. The rest of the scene is almost pitch black, with just enough details visible to let us fill in the rest. 

Next, the characters. I've already mentioned some of them, but the composition of the party is nigh-perfect for representing an old-school D&D group of adventurers. There is a Gandalf-esqe magic-user complete with staff and pointy hat. We have our hooded thief, working away at the lock, and a fighter type whom I like to imagine by his somewhat generic appearance to be a man at arms/hireling, fulfilling his role as a torchbearer. There is a stalwart templar-looking cleric with mace and mail, a dwarf with a hefty axe eyeballing the dead orcs (perhaps making sure none are still twitching), and an elven archer lifting a bauble from a corpse. There's a spill of coins on the floor as well.

Obviously, part of the picture's story is easy to see. The party had a fight with some orcs and was victorious. But why are two of the party guarding and why isn't the dwarf watching the stairs? The magic user is speaking, is he casting a spell or admonishing the thief to hurry? Perhaps the party is in a hurry to get through the door and the immediate threat would come from in front or to the right and that's why the dwarf is distracted. True to adventuring form, though, they aren't leaving without at least some of the loot.

Another viewer could be perfectly justified in reading the scene in an entirely different way, and that's fine. But like most art, that's a strength, not a weakness. When I look at this picture, I see a scene whose essence has played out thousands of times at various kitchen table and conventions over the decades. So when I think about how to sum up the core ideas of classic D&D and fantasy gaming, I believe you could do much worse than to hold up this picture and say "This. This is worth a thousand words."

Thursday, February 11, 2021

REF: Old McHydra had a Farm

I'm trying to keep the posting momentum going. so now it's time for some randomized encounter hijinks! For this entry, I chose the wilderness tables and randomly picked the terrain type and got "Inhabited." For creature type, the dice sent me to the Dragon subtable (eek!) and we ended up with an eight-headed Hydra!

Now, the term inhabited can mean a lot of different things. As this is a "wilderness" encounter, I chose not to go with an actual village or town. I decided I liked the idea of open farmland. Still rural, but with a population around. Now, if we're basing things on a medieval style world, a lot of farming lands were surrounded by much denser wilderness. People worked fields that had been cleared from deep forests and the like. 

So in this scenario, rather than the hydra just roaming around open ground stomping farmhouses "Dunwich Horror" style, I'm imagining that it originated from a deeper, darker part of the adjacent forest. Perhaps it had hatched there some time ago and had been growing in size. At first, the young creature could find enough to eat on the smaller animals that lived in the woods with it: birds, rabbits, maybe even the occasional deer. Now, however, it has grown too large and its appetite too great for such fare. The scent of nearby livestock has drawn it out of concealment.

Maybe traveling PCs are sleeping in a farm's hayloft one night when it attacks the barn, seeking a fat cow for dinner. Or maybe the party is traveling on horseback when the hydra charges out of the trees after one of their mounts. This could lead to a fast one-and-done encounter with the creature, or it could lead the party to a more involved adventure. How did the hydra come to be in the woods when the locals had never seen one around those parts before? Maybe, somewhere deep in the trees there is the body of some adventurous type who had acquired the egg but died in the wilderness. The hydra has treasure type B, so perhaps the loot is on the body? Tracking it back to its lair could be profitable.

Monday, February 8, 2021

RMA: Giant...Fish?

Now this is an interesting one. Well, several really. I've talked before about aquatic encounters of various types, but it seems that whole topic is incomplete without discussing this listing. 

Giant fish covers unusually large versions of more or less real-world fish; including piranha, rockfish, catfish, and sturgeon. When the books says "giant", it means it! These are some big guppies! Unsurprisingly, none of these are found wandering in dungeons, they are either wilderness or placed encounters only.

Let's put the stat table up for a peek, shall we?

Giant Fish (from Cook)

Just looking at things like AC, HD, and damage, these are not trivial encounters. Especially when the added challenge of most such confrontations would be in or under the water.

Giant Piranha: Let's just take a moment to appreciate the fact that the "wimpy" one on this list is a GIANT PIRANHA which, by the by, are five feet long! Growing up in the 70s, I was personally convinced the three most likely ways nature would take me out would be: Shark, Piranha, or Killer Bees. And those piranha were less than a foot long! Moving on, these monsters aren't unstoppable brutes, but even 3+ HD means they aren't something you just one-hit away. Couple that with their morale-less frenzy and up to eight of them on a single target dealing 1d8 each, that's a bad time for their fella that gets ganged up on. 

Giant Spiny Rockfish: While the listing doesn't specify how big this fish is, given that it has more HD than the piranha and is sometimes mistaken for boulders, at least 6' seems not unreasonable. It's size isn't really the issue. The fact that one might not recognize it and get to close is the problem. Not only does it have a poison attack, it had FOUR of these per round! The spines do 1d4 regardless, so up to 16 damage is still a cause for concern. The spines are melee only, but if you don't realize what your dealing with there in the shallows and actually step on or grab hold of that "rock", the fish automatically hits all four times! And yes, that means FOUR save or die rolls. It's also worth noting that the poison gives no "time until effect" meaning an insta-kill. It's AC isn't great, though, so it's not exactly unkillable. It also has a skittish morale, as befits a creature that relies on camouflage. What's odd about the listing in Cook is that it has no asterisk next to the HD denoting bonus XP for extra abilities. 4 attacks with poison would seem to merit that in my opinion.

Giant Catfish: Now things are getting serious. Fifteen feet long! Eight-plus hit dice! 2d8 bite damage! The giant cat's big guns are its feelers, though. Those bring it up to FIVE attacks and up to 32hp damage dealt in one round! Again, not a great morale score, but a markedly better AC than the earlier entries.

Giant Sturgeon: Oof! This thing approaches dragon levels of difficulty. 30' long, 10+ HD, and AC 0! What's more, they swallow whole 10% of the time and the victim stands a fair chance of being immobilized while taking 2d6 damage per round in the fish's gullet. And that's after taking 2d10 damage from the bite! 


What's the worst thing about all of these encounters, you ask? It's not the damage per round, or the fact that you're probably fighting them in their element (and out of yours), it's the treasure! Rather, the lack thereof. Imagine having to battle your way clear from a school of piranha, or kill a rockfish after it poisoned a party member, or gut a PC's corpse out of a sturgeon gut, only to get not a single copper piece from the monster toward the raise dead fund! talk about a poor ROI.

Looking at these creatures less as monstrous foes and more like dangerous, fantastic animals that are part of your game-world probably casts them in a more accurate light for the PCs. It's like encountering a bear in the woods. Chances are, he's not why you're there. Be careful, keep your distance, and things will probably be fine. Act recklessly or be inattentive, and there could be consequences.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Curious Objects: Mighty Thews! Gauntlets of Ogre Power, Girdles and Potions of Giant Strength

Super-strength is a staple of fantasy and sci-fi. Whether it's superheroes, power armor, or magic items. It is literally a power fantasy. There's a reason Shazam/Captain Marvel was more a more popular title than Superman back in the early days of both comics. Billy Batson was a normal kid who got superpowers. Clark was born with them and had always had them. If you weren't the last son of a dying planet, you were out of luck on wearing a big "S" on your chest.

In BX, there are three main ways a character boosts their strength via magic (other than Wish spells or the like).

First we'll look at the one I've probably seen most often in play: The Gauntlets of Ogre Power. At first glance, it seems quite simple. It boosts you to an 18 strength. Closer reading shows it's a little bit more than that. First off, instead of the normal unarmed attack damage of 1d2 + STR adjustments, the wearer deals 1d4 with a +3 to hit only (not damage). It's an interesting choice by Moldvay and I assume a game balancing one. 1-4 damage vs 4-5 seems reasonable enough.

The other difference between the wearer and a character with a natural 18 strength is encumbrance. By the book, there is no strength-based adjustment to how much weight a character can carry. The wearer of the gauntlets gets +1000cn ENC "without being encumbered." (B50) That's a pretty sweet deal if the encumbrance rules are being used. It basically means they can lug an extra 100 pounds of gear or treasure without being additionally slowed. 

Next up we have the Girdle of Giant Strength. Very probably inspired by Megingjörð, Thor's mythological belt of strength. In some ways the girdle is simpler than the gauntlets. It lets the wearer attack as a Hill Giant, a 8HD creature (unless they're already better at combat than that) and do 2d8 damage, unless variable weapon damage is used (which, honestly, is probably 90% of the time), then damage is simply doubled. There are no rules for increased strength bonuses or carrying capacity, just potentially better to-hits and double damage. DMs are free to tweak this, of course.


Last we have the Potion of Giant Strength. Which is very similar to the belt, except it is temporary and boosts the imbiber to Frost Giant levels. This translates to chunking small boulders up to 200' and dealing 3d6 damage with them (not too shabby!) and also doing x2 damage in melee. The potion specifically states it will not combine effects with the gauntlets or the girdle. I could see drinking the potion during a siege and hurling boulders at the attacking forces, or at the parapets if I were outside the walls!

I've mostly seen the gauntlets show up in games. The last homebrew campaign that I ran, a bugbear chieftain had a pair and gave the party a fairly hard time before finally dropping. The melee fighter was beyond thrilled to discover the gloves. He and the cleric wrangled occasionally about who should wear them. Fun times! I would also offer some latitude on how the strength effects could manifest by using the ability check system (roll under your score on a d20) to let the fighter show off a little. But beyond that, he was just a strong human with a slightly tougher punch and more encumbrance.

I honestly don't see the "giant strength" items being too unbalancing in play, either. The potion wears off and the girdle is for the most part, simple combat buffs. Though I wouldn't let a normal person win an arm-wrestling contest against the character!

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Last in Line: Initiative Optional rules

 Hello Again!

Sorry I haven't been posting a lot lately. Is it sufficient to just say "2020" as a reason? I think that's fair.

We've already discussed different aspects of BX's initiative system, but I wanted to talk a bit about a couple of related optional rules.

The first is the rule about pole arms going last in initiative order. Now, this is originally presented in Moldvay as part of the variable weapon damage rules on B27, which are themselves optional. The default rule is that all PCs' weapons do 1d6 damage (B25). Several items on the chart are marked as two-handed which means A) no shield, and B) automatically losing initiative.

No shield seems reasonable, but always going last? This can seem a bit harsh, but it makes a measure of sense within the abstract nature of BX combat. Weapons like two-handed swords or polearms are unwieldy and take an extra moment or two to bring to bear. Sure, an initiative penalty could work as well, but also remember that the default rule is one initiative roll for each side of the fight (not paired/individual initiative), so simply having the guy with the halberd go last is a simple conceit for smoother play. But keep in mind that he doesn't go at the end of his side's turn, he "loses" the initiative, meaning at the end of the round. Except if fighting zombies, of course! (B44)

The other optional rule is regarding crossbows. In addition to going at the end of the round (2H), Cook (X4) presents the rule that they fire only every other round. That may seem quite slow, but speaking as someone who owns a modern crossbow, every other round is actually pretty generous. I imagine even more so for a medieval tech-level example of the weapon.

So why would anyone ever use these weapons if they carry all these penalties? Well, mechanically, they generally do more damage than other weapons, or in the crossbow's case, have greater range. Spears and pole arms can also be set vs a charge (X27) for x2 damage. There are also a host of potential house-rules that can make such items more appealing. Some example include giving certain weapons "reach" to attack from more than 5' away, or letting a crossbow be carried loaded & nocked so that the first shot gets an initiative bonus.

There can also be in-gameworld reasons for using some items over others. Historically, a sword would have cost a LOT more than a poleaxe. Not to mention whether there are local weaponsmiths capable of forging particular armaments. Certain weapons might be restricted to certain social castes. Maybe the characters' culture simply never developed certain weapons? Maybe certain classes. The list goes on.

I don't expect my observations to result in too many fighter PCs giving up "sword & board" for a glaive, but I do hope it helps make some sense of these rules. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Homebrew Hag for Halloween

Here's something a little different today. I was thinking about an adventure I had worked on years ago involving a hag killing a village and that got me looking at various versions of these uber-witches in D&D. None of the versions I found quite worked for what I had in mind, so I cobbled this one together from a few sources. It's got a bit of the BECMI rules' version, as well as some Castles & Crusades inspiration. Anyway, here it is in case anyone has some use for it. There's a link to a pdf version below.

AC: 4 (silver or magic to hit)
HD: 8-12*******
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 2 claws or spell
Damage: 2d4/2d4 + STR drain
No. App: 1 (1)
Save: D10
Morale: 12
AL: Chaotic

Night hags appear as tall (7'), ugly, female humanoids. They are typically dressed in ragged clothes and have jet-black skin that always glistens as if wet. They have lank, tangled hair, jagged teeth and jaundiced eyes. Their fingers have long, iron-like nails. They smell of decay and death.

Night hags are evil creatures from another plane of existence. As such, spells like Protection from Evil will keep them at bay physically, but will not stop their spells or magical powers.

Mundane attacks and weapons have no effect on the night hag. Even non-magical fire will not burn them. Silver and magic will affect them normally. Hags are also immune to charm and hold spells as well as poison and the effects of undead such as energy drain, ghoul paralysis, or mummy rot.

Strength Drain:
The claws of the hag are supernaturally cold and if she strikes a victim successfully, they must save vs spells or lose 1 point of Strength permanently. Slaying the hag will restore the Strength score at the rate of 1 point/day. A character reaching 0 STR dies.

Night hags cast spells as a cleric of the same level as their hit dice. They normally choose spells for destructive and harmful purposes, only using healing on themselves. They also have the following innate, spell-like abilities 1/day:

-Animate Dead
-Dark Sleep
(Similar to the Sleep spell, but it affects 2d4 individuals, each equal to or less than the hag's own HD.)

Dark Haunting:
If a character is put into the Dark Sleep (see above), the hag can forge a magical bond with the victim. The PC must save vs. spells or for every night afterwards, the hag fills their dreams with horrid nightmares. The dreams install evil thoughts into the minds of the victims and they find that the only way to quiet them enough to sleep at all is acting upon these evil impulses in their waking hours. Each day they fail their save (see below), their willpower is too weak to resist and they must commit an evil act that causes actual physical harm to at least one person. The DM might have the victim enter a "fugue state" and be unaware of their actions until after the deed is done (coming to over a beggar's corpse with a bloody knife in your hand, etc.).

The victim of the haunting must save vs poison each day or lose 1 CON permanently. When their CON reaches 0, they fall into a final coma and just before death, the hag appears in their dreams and rips their soul from their bodies, carting it off to the dark plane she originates from. Victims who die in such a way are beyond the power of spells like Raise Dead or Reincarnation to bring back to life. Even Speak with Dead will not work, for their soul is unreachable in the hag's realm. Only a Wish or direct divine intervention can restore a victim to life.

There is no cure for the dark haunting other than the death of the hag that caused it.

Dark Company:
Hags attract evil to them. Night hags are found with 3d6 evil creatures in their thrall. These typically include lesser undead, giant spiders or scorpions, trolls, and sometimes goblinoids. These creatures will fight to the death for the hag (no morale checks).

 Night Hag for BX pdf