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Monday, July 16, 2018

RSA: Floating Disc

This is a curious one. Anyone who has played old-school D&D has at least heard of this spell. In my experience, it doesn't get used much unless magic-using characters roll their starting spell randomly. When your entire magical arsenal for the day consists of one or two first level spells, a luggage cart just isn't likely to be your first choice.

Floating Disc (from Moldvay)

Range: 6'
Duration: 6 turns

Without quoting the whole spell description, the disc of magical force appears at the caster's waist height and stays no more than 6' away from him or her as they move about. It can carry 5000 coins in weight (500 lb.) and moves at the caster's movement rate.

Because it's a utility spell with next to no combat application (not to discourage player creativity), it has a decent duration. It's not all day, but an hour from a first level spell isn't bad. Since it basically dumps what it's carrying on the ground when the spell ends, you probably aren't going to use it as a caddie.

Here's where the spell gets interesting.

Five thousand coins carrying capacity. That's more than a mule can carry! The disc floats along behind he caster at the same movement speed. That means your unarmored, unencumbered, 120' per turn magic-user can carry more than a pack animal out of the dungeon faster than the big, brawny fighter. So one tactic for recovering as much loot as possible might be to load up the wizard's disc and have him sprint for the surface, towing the treasure. He can also carry out a wounded/fallen comrade. 

Nothing in the spell indicates the caster needs to maintain the spell, so he's free to cast others if he has them, fight, talk, map, etc.  It's described as the size and shape of a small round shield, which I interpret as about 2-3' in diameter. I find that an odd size for carrying the much weight. 

I'm not saying I would want to play a 1st level MU going into the Caves of Chaos with FD as my only spell, but I wouldn't say no to a scroll for the spell. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Let D&D be D&D

I don't generally use the blog to vent or rant, but I had a conversation reently that got under my skin a little and wanted to work out some of the thoughts it generated. It is gaming-relaed, but forgive the combative tone.

I was talking with my brothers about campaign ideas I had -specifically old-school BX style D&D. We have gamed together off and on over the years since we were kids and I was thinking about trying to ramp up a regular game again.

“You have some cool ideas, but it’s still wizards and elves and fighting monsters for gold or XP. We’ve done that to death.”

Needless to say, this was a little disappointing to hear. Mostly because I recently came to realization about gaming. It's not profound or anything, but I think it has finally sunk in with me.

Don't run a game you don't love.

Whether it's a campaign, module, or system, if it doesn't get you excited to see it happen at the table, you should not be behind the screen. Game-mastering is just too much effort. Especially as adults with families, jobs, and so many demands on our time. I might sit down to an adventure or a system that isn't my favorite as a player. Maybe it's to try something new or just to be social. More likely a member of the group is the one who is excited about it and wants to run it. That's fine. But gone are the days where I choose a game to run based on whether I think it might entice others to play.

Like Joseph Campbell's advice to "Follow your bliss," this idea applies to life in general, but this is an RPG blog, so I'm confining it to the subject at hand. This brings me to the title of this post.

Let D&D be D&D.

Yes it's a game of elves, wizards, orcs, dragons, and yes dungeons too. Yes you have many artificial mechanics that attempt to represent different abstract concepts with varying degrees of elegance or success. Yes its most basic premise is to go into a cave or ruin, fight monsters, take their stuff, and try to get more powerful so you can fight other monsters.

So what?

At a minimum it's still a chance to play a game that lets you have fun with friends. At its best, the 'game' part fades into the background and the players get to tell a story that none of them -DM included- got to see coming. Can other genres and systems do that too? Absolutely. Will some people find one game more fun to play than another? Sure. No one is saying you have to play a particular edition or version of D&D, or D&D vs some other system, or even that you have to play RPGs as opposed to any other hobby. But the "Been there, done that." attitude just irked me.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

RMA: Troglodytes

Literally, a "cave-dweller," the term originally referred to hermits or peoples who lived in caves, not monsters. Over the years it came to be used when describing degenerate humans and humanoids until it became the D&D stinky lizard people.

I won't say I've never seen trogs used in play, but they are oddly uncommon. I suppose that's not so strange when you think about how many options a DM has when it comes to humanoid foes a party might encounter underground, but troglodytes are more distinctive than most, so I would think they'd get more table time than they seem to. Stat-wise, they give a respectable -though not amazing- showing

Troglodyte (from Moldvay):

AC: 5
HD: 2*
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 2 claws/1 bite
DMG: 1d4 each
No. App: 1d8 (5d8)
Save: F2
Morale: 9

So to start off, a couple of notes from the description. They are called out specifically as "intelligent." Most other humanoid creatures don't get a mention of this. It may be reading into things too much, but it makes me think troglodytes should be run as at least human-level smart. Troglodyte is not listed as a language in Basic, but I imagine it exists. The book also states they use their hands "as well as humans." Despite the claw damage in the stats, I think Bill W's picture (above) has the right of it: trogs would craft and carry weapons as well. 

"They hate most other creatures, and will try to kill anyone they meet."  Ouch. That Chaotic alignment is really coming through there. Also, that's cuing me as the DM to probably not bother with reaction rolls.

The other fun tidbits about troglodytes are their camouflage and their "stench attack." They can color change to hide and so they can surprise on a 1-4. Also,"They secrete an oil which produces a stench that will nauseate humans and demihumans unless the victims save vs. Poison." Failure means -2 to rolls while in melee with ol' scale & stink. I may be playing a bit fast & loose with my interpretation here but because they can surprise so effectively, I would argue that troglodytes aren't continuously secreting the oil, so the smell is not always there.

Their morale is not terribly high, but given their hostile attitude and stealth abilities, I would think they might flee a stand up fight that was not going their way only to ambush the foe later.

The really interesting part to me is their treasure. "A" is a pretty generous category with high percentage chances for gold, platinum, gems/jewelry, and magic. I can totally see a party putting up with the stink to try and find the troglodyte lair. As a DM, I would play these creatures smart and mean to make the players earn such a haul from fighting 2HD monsters.

Monday, July 2, 2018

REF: Noble

Time to go back to the dungeon for another random encounter! Picking randomly, we end up on level 2 of the crawl. Rolling for our encounter, we get a 12, which is a Noble (2-12 appearing).


Like the Traders in an earlier post, a noble doesn't sound like someone you'd bump into as you are working your way through a dungeon. Going back to the monster listings, it describes a noble as "the lord of a castle and any of his or her relatives." In Basic, the encounter will be with a 3rd level fighter by default, but can be any class or level. The standard encounter will be the noble (F3), his squire (F2), and possibly 1d10 retainers (F1s). That's potentially quite a crowd! Not to mention the possibility of noncombatant attendants, like torchbearers or porters.

So let's dive in and see what we can make of this.

Since the lord of a castle is usually 9th level or more, I'm going to say this is a relative. For the sake of building a narrative, we'll say the baron won't let their heir go off adventuring, so this is a younger child/nephew/niece. Let's go with niece, just to break the stereotype.

This young lady thinks her cousin is a twit and doesn't deserve the title or estate. She goes off and becomes a tough adventuring type, making it to 3rd level. She hears a rumor of some item or treasure that might help her in some plot to discredit her cousin and put her in a position to be named the baron's heir instead. She gathers a few loyal troops and her squire (the d10 results in four 1st level fighters with her) , then heads to the dungeon seeking the object of her quest. While the PCs are working their way through the same crawl, the two groups run into each other.

The noble could be hostile or friendly. Perhaps she would consider joining forces or hiring the PCs to help. Things might get dicey if she decides that she was sole claim to whatever she's after, while the PCs see it as party loot. If the PCs refused to join or work for her, she might decide hey need eliminating. Fighting a half dozen fighters of 1st - 3rd level sounds like no picnic. What's worse, what if the PCs win and kill her? What if word gets back to the baron that his niece wasn't killed by monsters, but slaughtered by a group of local murder hobos?

Friday, June 29, 2018

Reverse Engineering

This is the section from Cook Expert (X11) about reversible spells. I’ve read this before, but hadn’t thought about all the ways it can open up amusing plot fodder.
“Clerics can reverse a spell simply by reversing the required words and hand gestures. However, using reversed spells is looked upon with disfavor by the powers the cleric serves, and may result in penalties (or even an alignment change) if overused. Lawful clerics use the normal form of the spell and should use the reversed form only in life-or-death situations. Chaotic clerics normally use the reversed forms and will only use the normal forms to benefit those of the same alignment or those directly serving the same power. Neutral clerics will have either the normal or the reversed form available, depending on the nature of the power they serve. No cleric should have both forms available.”
Let’s look at each of these points in turn:

  • “Clerics can reverse a spell simply by reversing the required words and hand gestures.” Unlike magic-users, they don’t need to decide ahead of time which version they will prepare, which makes sense when you look at the next parts.
  • “...using reversed spells is looked upon with disfavor by the powers the cleric serves, and may result in penalties (or even an alignment change) if overused.” This is the sort of thing that has been bandied about my games over the years but has rarely been explored as an actual consequence. Granted, I haven’t seen a lot of reversed casting, but it has happened occasionally. I could see a great deal of playing material generated from a cleric switching from L to C and having to find a new divine power to follow. Either that, or some sort of atonement/penance. Not to mention the potential difficulties of the next part with “good guy” party members.
  • “Chaotic clerics normally use the reversed forms and will only use the normal forms to benefit those of the same alignment or those directly serving the same power.“ So if a party’s lawful cleric suddenly finds himself chaotic, he’s not supposed to cast things like Cure Light Wounds except on other chaotics and the like.
  • “Neutral clerics will have either the normal or the reversed form available, depending on the nature of the power they serve.” Now this is very interesting. To me, it assumes a level of detail about clerics and religion that is not really spelled out in BX. I’ve seen campaigns where clerics are simply described as followers of Law or Chaos and are played accordingly. But when you start talking about different powers a cleric may serve within Neutrality, then your cosmology gets more complex.
  • Lastly, “No cleric should have both forms available.” I interpret this as simply underscoring what was said before. Not that the opposite versions are unavailable, but that using them should not happen without consideration and consequence.

By using these guidelines for clerics’ spell availability, the DM could also nudge a party to seek out different temples or priestly types. Your go-to NPC may be fine for you quick healings, but maybe he’s not so comfortable with casting some spells that are restricted by his faith.

Granted, this may not come up all that often. After all, when we look at the clerical spell list, there are a total of 34 spells, of which only ten are reversible:

  1. Cure Light Wounds
  2. Light
  3. Remove Fear
  4. Bless
  5. Continual Light
  6. Cure Disease
  7. Remove Curse
  8. Cure Serious Wounds
  9. Quest
  10. Raise Dead

For some of these, the alignment caveats make more sense to me than others: Reversed castings like Finger of Death or Cause Disease are pretty nasty magic! But others seem fairly tame in terms of reversals. Sure, casting Darkness isn’t sunshine and puppies, but it’s not like it’s actually dealing damage or anything. In the case of Remove Quest, you could actually be helping someone enchanted by a chaotic cleric. DM judgement applies as always, I should think.

Monday, June 25, 2018

House Rules for Thief Skills

There have been many posts and discussions about how low level thieves are not particularly good at their jobs. By that I mean their percentages in their class skills are nearly all pretty low. They even appear worse at hearing noises than non-thieves until they gain a few levels.

Along with this criticism has come many attempts to correct this, up to and including new skills tables, new mechanics, or even the whole class being scrapped. So I am suggesting possible ways to address this in my games. Feel free to use or ignore them.

Many of the thief skills are things that any person could reasonable attempt. Anyone can try to move quietly or climb something or hide in the shadows. The rules even allow non-thieves to check for traps and listen for noises. For my games, the only skills and abilities that are reserved as “thief only” are Open Lock, Pick Pocket, and Backstab. The rest allow for at least some chance of success to the non-thief, but thieves do have an edge when attempting them.

Find Trap: Everyone can try to spot simple traps (a trip-wire or snare, a covered pit, etc.). Only thieves can spot complex traps like tiny holes in the wall that shoot darts or vent gas. Thieves can also detect traps of a magical nature if there is something tangible to detect. e.g. a Thief might spot magical runes on a door (even if he can’t tell what they do), but he might not be able to tell there is a spell in effect inside a room.

Remove Trap: While non-thieves might be able to disarm simple devices by a player describing their actions and making a DEX check, like cutting a trip-wire, but a thief can disable a trap without destroying it. He can also disarm more complex traps like poison dart locks on treasure chests.

Move Silently: This isn’t a complicated one. As long as he isn’t wearing heavier than leather armor, any character can attempt to move silently at the same skill level as a 1st level thief. Non-thieves never improve beyond this ability.

Hide in Shadows: Like moving silently, the non-thief gets a base chance equal to a 1st level thief, but does not improve over time.

Climbing Sheer Surfaces: Anyone can climb “normal” surfaces like a steep hill, tree, or a rope. Thieves are the only ones trained in climbing nearly vertical surfaces like walls. In my game, thieves tools include things like “climbing claws” and shoe spikes. If a fighter wants up a cliff, he needs to get someone to lower a rope or find a ladder.

Hear Noise: This one is more about careful reading of the rules as written. Everyone can roll to listen for noise behind a door (as per the rules on B21), and so can the thief. But the thief can hear noises in other circumstances -like something slithering up behind them.

I haven’t put these house rules into practice in a game as yet, but they seemed a less invasive way to address low-level thieves lousy odds at success and the idea that other characters can try their hands at being “thiefy.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

REF: Castle Encounters

Castle encounters is an interesting subsection of the wilderness encounter tables. Despite the name, it’s not for encounter within a keep or castle, it’s for when the PCs stumble through the woods into the territory of the local lord and one of their patrols. It’s another example of how misleadingly compact the Moldvay/Cook rules are to include such a nifty bit of detail.

As the description states, “When characters discover a castle in the wilderness they will be unsure of the type of reception they will receive.” [X59] The encounter assumes A) the DM doesn’t have an attitude/reaction planned for the patrol and B) “the party does nothing either to arouse suspicion or inspire trust.”

The nature of the patrol (heavy or medium horse) depends upon the type of ruler (NPC class), but that’s a minor detail. Although I love the fact that it states “Note that the men listed are only part of the castle owner's forces. The rest of the force should include men and might even include special creatures such as trolls, or combinations such as superheroes mounted on griffons.”

I get chills.

The meat of this section are the possible reactions. Rather than the full monster reaction table, there are three basic possibilities: Pursue, Ignore, or Friendly. There is no CHA modifier (these are professionals), though I would probably allow a re-roll if the players showed some good role-playing.

Pursue: This isn’t necessarily a chase (though it could be). It could be a toll charged. Refusal can result in a fight or arrest.

Ignore: Just as it says. They pretty much give the PCs a “Move along.” It’s important to remember the ‘nothing to arouse suspicion’ caveat earlier here. PCs can act and look pretty suspicious sometimes without really trying!

Friendly: An invite of the keep’s hospitality. A fun tidbit: This can be offered by bad guys “for evil purposes” (!) Awesome.

A final note regarding demi-humans mentions “Elves, dwarves, and halflings are not given on this list, as their strongholds are special cases.” and suggests they would avoid contact. Fair enough, but that might vary from setting to setting.

So imagine the scenario of the PCs cutting cross-country, entering the territory of a 13th level wizard’s tower. It’s late afternoon and a patrol of a half dozen heavy horsemen appear. They are not hostile and even suggest the PCs might wish to shelter at the tower for the evening. The magus is always happy for guests. If they accept, maybe they come to the tower to find a bugbear mounted on a manticore is guarding the gate and lets them and the patrol enter without fuss.

Is the wizard evil? Are the PCs in for a really bad time? What would happen if they refused the offer? Maybe the mage is benign and he could even become an ally or resource for the party. All because they took a wrong turn at that gully and went one hex off-course.

Man, I love this game!