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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Magic With A Cost

Talking before about cursed magical items, it seems obvious that the trend is to have something that looks like a nice piece of loot, but in reality is trouble. Players will immediately start looking for ways (in character and out) to get rid of the object in question. If you have an in-party cleric capable of Remove Curse, then it's almost a non-issue. 

Now, while I went on for a while about how the cursed items in the books are fun to use (and they are), I think that there are a lot of other ways to introduce a "minus" into the equation while at the same time, making the player feel like there could be reason to hang onto the bauble.

One of the easiest ways to do this is the "double-edged" item: a magic gewgaw that gives you power, but at a price. A "Berserker Sword" is an obvious example of this. The wielder gets nice bonuses in a fight, but goes into a frenzy, possibly even attacking his comrades. 

You can extend this idea to other items. For example:
  • Armor that gives bonuses to saving throws as well as AC, but weighs twice as much as the regular version.
  • A Ring of Feather Fall that temporarily polymorphs the PC into a duck. 
  • A Ring of Regeneration that has a recurring % chance of turning the wearer into a troll (perhaps 1/week, or every 10 hp regenerated).
  • Dust of Disappearance that smells delicious to predators.
  • A Staff of Healing that deals 1hp damage to the wielder with each use.

The trick here is not to go overboard, but at the same time, if there are ten "normal" versions of the item around for every "interesting" one, the PCs will never touch it. 

Cursed Magic Items

Sometimes the simple "fire & forget" spell mechanics can make magic seem a bit too reliable. Not to mention the simple bonuses and spell-like effects of most items. It's nice to inject a little unpredictability, or even fear, into dealing with magic.

Cursed items address this nicely, and are just too much fun (from a DM's perspective). Some gamers complain that a cursed item is just a "screw you" tactic, but I've come to think of them as a marvelous flavor enhancer (like garlic) for magic in general.

The secret ingredient is Evil!

It calls up images of failed attempts at crafting an enchanted ring or a botched spell scroll. It seems less likely a mage would waste the time and money making a cursed item on purpose, but maybe some trickster god likes swapping them out for the good stuff.

Now, you could make magic more unpredictable with a mess of house rules, but most of those just end up weakening the character or the loot, causing no end of player kvetching. Cursed items are a By-the-Book way to liven things up and even open up some interesting RP and story opportunities.

For nearly every type of item, there is at least one cursed version. Just going by Moldvay, we have:

  • Potions 
  • Rings 
  • Scrolls 
  • Miscellaneous Magic 
  • Weapons & Armor 
  • Wands/Staves/Rods 

Potions: Poison. That's simple enough. "Ooo! A potion! GAK!" Now, most PCs won't just slug back a random potion, but if you are using the B/X rules, you ID a potion by taking a small taste (B48). The poison, of course, is lethal at any amount. Pretty nasty, but hey, you decided to sip from a bottle of some unidentified substance you found in a cave. No one put a crossbow to your head.

Other potentially "cursed" potions might be polymorph or petrification-based. Delusion is a fun one. As is a Love Philter.

Rings: The two that B/X list are Delusion and Weakness. Like the potion, Delusion is a fun one for messing with a character's head. Weakness is straightforward enough, though it's harder to come up with a reason the PC would resist taking it off.

Scrolls: The Cursed Scroll is one of the more fun options on the list. It affects anybody who even looks at the writing (Note: it says "looked at", not "read.") The DM is given some latitude here, like with the spell, but some of the suggestions included are awesome. Re-rolling your Prime Requisite and a magic item disappearing are among the wackier.

Miscellaneous Magic: Bags of Devouring don't get used enough, IMO. And the Helm of Alignment Change is frankly more plot-based RP ammo than a DM should be allowed. To my thinking, a Mirror of Life Trapping is only semi-cursed. As it has some serious power the PCs can put to use through clever play.

Weapons & Armor: Things like a -1 sword or shield are pretty simple. I'm a big fan of things like Shields of Arrow Attraction (not a BX item), etc. I feel it's important –as with all cursed items– for the DM to emphasize that the character thinks the item is awesome, and will resist giving it up. I've found most players will embrace the RP opp.

Wands, Staves, and Rods are the notable exception with no BtB cursed versions (at least in B/X), but it's not hard to think up a few. One of my favorites is a Wand of Magic Missiles that "backfires" on the caster, although that is almost more of a trap.

So when is it a good idea to include a cursed item? Well, "Let the dice fall where they may" isn't a bad method. Sometimes stuff happens. Rationales can be applied later. Maybe the reason the evil warlord isn't carrying that magic shield is that it's CURSED. Of course, instead of throwing it out, he put it in a chest for foolish do-gooders to pick up. While I don't think a PC should be out & out killed by a cursed item (poison notwithstanding, and they get a saving throw for that), the idea that a bit of caution can save a lot of grief is a good lesson for them to learn. The downside is that it encourages paranoid play and players are unlikely to fall for it again. At that point, it's time to step it up a bit and start sprinkling a few cursed items "with a twist" into your game.

Which is what I'll talk about next time...

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Vlog. Ep.28 is up!

Talking about spell casting in classic D&D

RSA: Ventriloquism

In my experience, Ventriloquism seems to be one of the more unusual spell picks (unless you're playing in a game with illusionists). Since it's first level, low level mages with few spell slots are generally more worried about spells that will keep them alive than tricky spells. After the higher levels are reached, there are so many other options that the first level spells tend to get lost in the shuffle. I think this is a shame because "tricky" spell use is one of the more interesting aspects of the game. Seeing a spell used in a way that most people haven't considered is often a high point of the session.

Like getting free drinks and tips at the tavern.

Ventriloquism certainly fits the into "tricky" category. It's the first illusion-ish spell a wizard can get, it does no damage, and its utility is almost entirely based on the creativity of the caster.

Ventriloquism (from Moldvay)
Level: 1 (MU/Elf)
Range: 60'
Duration: 2 Turns
"This spell allows the caster to make the sound of his or her own voice come from someplace else, such as a statue, animal, and so forth."
So, a couple of things I noticed right off. The range is nice. You can easily send it down the corridor or across a room. The second thing is the duration. If you're clever, you can string some stupid guard along thinking he's eavesdropping on some mouthy PC for twenty minutes! 

Another fun factoid: Ventriloquism has no saving throw or "disbelieve" check. This means that the "target" always hears the voice. Now, if they are looking at the wizard locked in a cell when they hear him around the corner, they might be skeptical, but they do hear him.

Monday, February 27, 2012

vlog Ep. 27 (Armor Class) is up!

Talking about the A.C. Armor Class mechanic:

RMA: Robber Fly

The Robber Fly is an interesting critter. It's got a great "Gygaxian Naturalist" feel to it. It's got a camouflage adaptation. It's an effective predator. All good stuff.

Basically, it looks like a Giant Killer Bee. Which it hunts for food! While it's not super-tough individually, it has a few tidbits that can make it a fun low level encounter. But first, the stats:

Robber Fly (From Moldvay)

No. App: 1-6 (2-12)
HD: 2
AC: 6
Move: 90' (30')
   -Fly 180' (60')
Att: 1 bite
Dmg: 1-8
Save: F1
Morale: 8

So it's a 3' long carnivorous fly imitating a 3' long bee. Like the Cave Locust, it's another nice "Mysterious Island" vibe monster. Up to a dozen appearing is pretty respectable, though at 2 HD each they are vulnerable to Sleep spells. It's fast, and can jump 30' for a nice surprise attack. Speaking of which, they are patient, stealthy and surprise on a 1-4! They are also immune to the killer bees' stings, but that's unlikely to impact the characters situation. The fact that they can be easily confused with the GKBs (Giant Killer Bees) might make for a fun time, too.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

RSA: Hold that Door!

I've often wondered about the "door" spells: Hold Portal, Wizard Lock, and Knock. They seem so darned useful, yet players rarely take them.
I will note that one player in my group has a talent for coming up with excellent uses of atypical spells (she plays a marvelous illusionist) and used Hold Portal quite effectively in one campaign.
Others may know better than I, but I think that Hold Portal –and its older brother, Wizard Lock– is a spell with its roots in the megadungeon. When parties are several levels below ground and need to rest for the night and hole up in an empty room, being able to seal the door against intruders is a nice trick. Likewise when you open a door and see something you do NOT want to deal with on the other side, a quick slam-and-cast can give the PCs time to escape a horrible fate.

Like listening to this thing open its mouth.

"But, Big H," I hear you asking, "Why not just spike the door and save a spell slot?" 

Well, spiking a door takes time, time you probably don't have when the gnolls are about to yank the door open and cave your head in. Hold Portal and Wizard Lock can be pounded through in a round by bigger critters (3+ HD), but that's a round to run away.

There's another adventuring use for these spells as well: preventing escape. When that kobold flees to warn the tribe, you can keep it from opening the room's door. Thus giving the fighter time to cut the creature down.

Wizard Locking chests, etc. is also handy, but possibly less useful on an adventure. It might be good to use when leaving equipment unattended in town, though. 

Knock is, of course, the antithesis of the others. The fact that it's 2nd level means casters are going to start off thinking about other spells (like Invisibility), but Knock is dead handy. Portcullises, doors, chests, gates, known secret doors, etc. None of them stand up against Knock. It lasts a round with a 60' range, so the MU could sweep an area from a distance, popping every lock in one go while the party hangs back. Not too shabby, IMO. Of course, there are many doors in a dungeon, and chances are the MU (or Elf) isn't going to take the spell more than once or twice per day, but when the thief can't pick the lock, and the fighter can bend the bars, let the scrawny step up and handle it. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

RMA: Cave Locust

I gotta admit. These are one of my favorites. I even included them in a module I wrote. Nevertheless, they are not a typical encounter. I think these huge grasshoppers give off a great Jules Verne-type feel and can add to the strangeness of a place without upping the lethality of an adventure too much. Even without a high body count, Cave Locusts are not to be dismissed lightly.

Cave Locusts: (from Moldvay)

No. Appearing: 2-20 (1-10)
AC: 4
HD: 2
Move: 60' (20'), fly 180' (60')
Attacks: 1 (bite or bump or spit)
Damage: 1-2,1-4, or special
Save As: F2
Morale: 5

They look fairly wimpy individually, and they are. Their low damage and morale means they aren't going to be tearing through a party. Where the locust really shines as an encounter is in its desire not to fight.

First off it will frequently try to flee, but they are extremely clumsy jumpers/fliers. Half the time they collide with a PC, dealing 1d4 damage. If you get a swarm of a dozen or so cave locusts "retreating" at once, odds are good that someone is going to get pummeled.

Another interesting thing that the locust does is spit. A sticky, horrible gob splatters the poor victim. Since the attack is basically "touch" it's versus AC 9, usually hitting. Then the poor recipient must save vs, poison or spend 10 minutes (!) vomiting and being generally awful to be around. 

Finally, when the locusts get scared, they whine. This noise can bring down wandering monsters like nobody's business with a 20% chance per round of something showing up to check out the ruckus. 

Top this off with NO treasure, and you DMs have a marvelous object lesson for players about why sometimes it's better to leave the monsters alone.

PS - An amusing tidbit: Cave Locusts are immune to most poisons! It comes from eating yellow mold!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

RSA: (Remove) Curse

Remove Curse gets a lot of play in classic D&D games, because –like Neutralize Poison or Cure Disease– it's one of the ways you get rid of those annoying little "non-wound" things that crop up in an adventurous life. This is especially true when dealing with things like cursed magic items (swords, armor, etc.) that just make everyone miserable until a cleric can make the victim chuck it in a river or some such. As a third level spell, it's high enough level that not everyone will be able to access it immediately, but neither is it something a low level party should feel they cannot arrange.

As is frequently the case, what's particularly amusing to me is the reverse of the spell, Curse.
Tip: Do not tick crazy old gypsy ladies off in the game 
UNLESS you can kill them before they speak!

The big drawback of using the Curse spell is the range (0') this means you have to touch the victim. Not the end of the world, but a certainly a complication. I think I would allow some ranged curses with added balancing factors like voodoo dolls, etc. as the spell's focus. Properly disposing of the doll lifts the curse. Don't just chuck it in the fire, though!

The Cook rules describe some possible effects of a curse, but mentions 
A) there is no real limit to the creativity of the curse, but 
B) the DM may decide an unbalanced curse (too powerful) rebounds on the caster!!

Sample curses include -2 on saves, -4 to hit, or halving the victim's prime requisite. It goes on to say you can keep piling the curses on so long as each does something different. Of course they get savng throws, but that's generally true of any spell. Curses are permanent until removed, so it's not like the victim will just camp for the night and move on in the A.M.

I think it's fair to say that a PC cleric would need to be careful about using this spell if his faith would frown on such things, but on the other hand it's a marvelous non-lethal way to mess someone up.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

RMA: Golem, Bronze

I posted about the amber golem a little while ago. There are lots of golems in classic D&D. It seems stone, iron, and flesh are the ones that see the most play, but some of the others are darned cool. And scary as all get-out.

First off, some stats (from Cook):

Bronze Golem

No. Appearing: 1
AC: 0
HD: 20
Move: 240' (80')
Att: 1 (fist)
Damage: 3-30 + special
Save: F10
Morale: 12

Well, eek.

They are described as resembling fire giants, which would put them at approximately 16' tall. 3d10 damage from a fist is bad enough, but the thing is full of liquid fire! This means it's scalding even to touch. A hit does another d10 damage from the heat alone (unless a resist fire or similar is in effect). This also means it's immune to fire-based attacks. (Some like it hot, I guess!)

Oh yes, there's one more thing I neglected to mention about this patina'd powerhouse. If you do manage hurt it with that lovely +3 longsword you're carrying, the wound sprays liquid fire on you! You can make a save to avoid it, otherwise 2d6 damage from what's basically lava spattering your face.

Moving on from the fiery aspects, did you happen to notice that movement rate? I guess being 16' tall gives it a long stride. It has AC 0, which is darned respectable, and TWENTY hit dice! Even a middle range model is sporting close to –if not over– a hundred hit points. It also means it's hitting rather often.

Like all golems, it cannot be hit be non-magical weapons. It is immune to Sleep, Hold, and Charm spells as well as poison gasses, etc. So, if you're facing one of these things, what's the plan?

I recommend panic.

Seriously, though. It only gets one attack per round, and that's melee (not ranged). Keep your distance. Resist Fire would be a handy low level spell for this situation. Ranged attacks, especially spells like Lightning Bolt. A wand of cold would be nice, too. If you have to close, blunt weapons like a cleric's  +1 mace will avoid cutting the thing's "skin." Or he might use the spell Striking on a club to let it hit. Although even without the heat/fire damage, the cleric needs to be ready with some healing!

I can imagine this thing guarding a lost temple or a wizard's prize possession. Best of all, it doubles as a furnace, keeping the place warm in winter!

Monday, February 20, 2012

RMA: Octopus, Giant

While octopuses (no, it's not "octopi") and squids feature heavily in fantasy and science fiction, the fact that they are aquatic means they aren't typical encounters. Also, once the party is on or under the waves, there are so many other more interesting creatures to toss at them: things like Sea Hydras, Dragon Turtles, Sharks, etc. Most of the octopus's appeal for a fantasy setting is its alienness. Face it, this tentacled, boneless creature swimming around is kinda creepy. But creepy is only going to get you so far. Can the octopus hold its own in a fight?

umm, yes. Yes, it can.

Let's see that stat block, shall we?: (from Cook Expert)

No. Appearing: 0 (1-2)
Move (swim): 90' (30')
HD: 8
AC: 7
Attacks: 9 (8 tentacles/1bite)
Damage: 1-3 (x8)/1-6
Save As: F4
Morale: 7

OK. First off, if you're like me what jumps out at you is the attacks entry. NINE ATTACKS PER FREAKIN' ROUND! Now, that's pretty scary. But wait! There's more!

Once it hits with a tentacle, then it does automatic constriction for the above 1d3 every round per tentacle.  Also, for each one of those you have wrapped around you, there's a cumulative -1 to hit penalty.  So, to do the math: An 8HD creature has a decent THAC0, so if it hits a character with even half its tentacles, then its dealing 4-12 points per round (without having to roll to hit). It can also keep biting for an additional 1d6, and wrapping any of the 4 other tentacles that aren't busy (yet). Meanwhile, you are at -4 to fight back.

Things the characters might have going for them: the G.O. has lousy AC and is skittish (low morale), so it's possible it might flee before finishing off a victim. Octopuses are smart,  though. It will probably take each case as it comes.

While not stated in the book, octopuses can blend like a chameleon, which would make it much easier to surprise a foe. Also, depending on exactly how a character has come to be underwater with this thing, they might be at a severe disadvantage because of the environment (lack of air, etc.). I typically only allow a PC to hold their breath for CON x rounds, they receive no DEX bonus to AC,  movement is slowed, and encumbrance or metal armor can drag a person down. All these factor make the prospect of this thing's embrace very scary indeed.

RSA: Cure (Cause) Disease

Cure Disease does not tend to be one of the more obscure spells. It's 3rd level, so it's not being used a lot at beginning play, unless the party has access to a friendly NPC cleric; but between green slime, giant rats, mummies, and werewolves, CD is definitely on the characters' radars.

Our group periodically discusses various magic in the game and how, in a sane world which had access to 5th+ level clerics, the powers that be would have them casting spells like this assembly-line fashion. What I wanted to talk about is the reverse of the spell (Cause Disease), which tends to be more unusual in games, and much more interesting to me.

Obviously you don't see it quite so much because PCs would probably be unlikely to cast it, since most (certainly not all) PC clerics tend toward the good/lawful end of the alignment spectrum. This is a nasty, nasty spell. Have you looked at its effects?

Not quite this...
...More like this!

 According to Cook, it inflicts "a hideous wasting disease". The victim gets a Save vs. Spell, of course. If he fails, this infection inflicts -2 to ALL rolls. That's pretty bad, but here's the real meat of it. Any wounds cannot be healed magically and the natural healing rate is halved. Oh, not to mention he will die in 2-24 days. The only way to get rid of this is –of course– Cure Disease.

All that is pretty terrible, even if it isn't going to take a powerful foe right out of a combat. Another fun tidbit is the range of the spell. Unlike Cure Light Wounds, which is a "touch" spell, CD lets you cast it on someone up to 30' away. Which means someone zapping a PC (or NPC) at a discreet distance (possibly hidden behind a tapestry or from the next room). You can also have various magical items, traps, or creatures that create the same effect.

Since there is a relatively readily available counter to this spell, it's unlikely that a PC getting infected will be unable to acquire a cure under most circumstances. If their party cleric can't cast it, though, being infected far from civilization can mean trouble. Even in town, a little GM creativity can go a long way. In fact, this gives me a great idea for an adventure! (I'll post more about that as I flesh it out a bit.)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Friday, February 17, 2012

RSA: Reincarnation

This is one my favorite spells I've never seen used. I've heard campaign stories involving it, but I've never had it come up in a game I've run or played in. I think part of the problem comes from the fact that it's a high enough level spell (6th+) that a party that's powerful enough to be casting or paying for such spells will just go for Raise Dead or Resurrection instead of the far chancier Reincarnation to restore a dead comrade.

It's a shame, though. Despite some of the silliness –or perhaps because of it– Reincarnation is just riddled with possibilities. Before we get into it, here's some crunch:

In BX, it's a 6th level MU spell (I like how it's not divine/clerical in nature). In LL's AEC, Druids can cast it too.

Basically, what happens is that the spell "grows" the departed a whole new adult body. The exact nature of the body is random, though. Rather than try formatting the table here, I'll just provide an image of it from Cook Expert.

Now, as you can see, the odds favor coming back as some sort of PC, though not necessarily what the character was to start with (although you have a 30% chance of it). Since it doesn't state either way explicitly, the GM might have you keep your scores or re-roll. Frankly, I'd opt for the latter and maybe even roll for gender, but YMMV. You can't start higher than 6th level (d6), and your previous level can cap it before that. It's a little odd how a newly formed person can just "become" a class like cleric, but hey, it's MAGIC! The real fun begins when you roll a 10, however.

Monsters don't gain XP or levels, so if you end up a Lizard Man, you're stuck as a 2HD critter. That's kind of harsh, but the rules at that point didn't really have rules for monstrous PCs and a GM can tweak his game as he will.

While results like Ogre, Minotaur, "Weres", or Centaur might catch some eyes, the ones that I find particularly amusing include Ape, Roc, Blink Dog, and Neanderthal. The idea of a party with a sentient giant bird as a member, or a cave man, brings a smile to my face. Just think about the sheer level of roleplaying fun that could occur because of this.

As I said before, I think Reincarnation is unlikely to be a party's first choice for bringing back the dead. I do not think, however, that's the only way to introduce the spell into a campaign. Perhaps a curse that causes a character to never "die" but if he is killed, he is instantly reincarnated (preventing Resurrection and other spells from being used) into some other form? Maybe a magical trap that reincarnates those who are killed by it? Or a mad wizard who reincarnates PC(s) that he slew, as part of some bizarre plan?

I think a GM would want to be careful here. You don't want to make it into an excuse to screw over a player, but –assuming whatever got them into that mess was at least partly due to PC choice– then it's all good!

RMA: Bandits & Brigands

Okay, this isn't a really uncommon "monster." In fact, in many games, they are almost as much a staple as orcs. Bandits (Or "Brigands" in Labyrinth Lord) are a classic low level encounter. What prompted me to post on this was looking at some of the descriptive text listed in LL and BX.

First off the basic stat-block: (This one is from BX, but the LL one is very similar)

No. App: 1-8 (3-30)
AL: C or N
Move: 120' (40')
AC: 6
HD: 1
Att: 1
Dmg: 1d6 or weapon type
Save: Th1
Morale: 8

So what you've got is basically a normal guy with a weapon and maybe some leather armor. Nothing too wacky, there. Where I think things get more fun is in the number appearing. You can get quite a few of these clowns hanging around their lair. 

Now, in the Moldvay description, there is this brief passage about things like bandit leaders:
 "...Bandits may have an NPC leader of any class, fighter, magic-user, thief, or cleric, who is of an experience level higher than the bandits."

Labyrinth Lord goes into a bit more detail (it also raises the number in lair considerably), but the essence is the same :
"...Half of all brigands encountered are armed with a short sword and short bow, and wear leather armor and a shield. The other half is better equipped with long swords, chain mail, a shield, and will have riding horses.
There is one fighter of 2nd level per 20 brigands. There is one fighter of 4th level per 40 brigands. These leaders are equipped with long swords, lances, plate armor, and mounted on war horses equipped with barding.
Bandit camps will have 5d6x10 inhabitants. They will have a fighter of 9th level as a leader, and there will be a fighter of 5th level per 50 men. An 8th level cleric may be present in a camp (1-3 on 1d10). There is also a probability that a magic-user of 8+1d2 level will be present (roll 1-5 on 1d10)."
That's not a few ruffians waylaying travelers. That's a small ARMY! An average roll will yield over a hundred of these guys hanging around. Did I mention the fact they're led by up to three 8th-10th level NPCs!? Let's break this down, shall we?

Average roll on a d6 = 3 or 4 (3.5). x 5 = 17.5. x 10 = 175. Let's make the math simpler and say we rolled 200.
That means 10 of them are 2nd level fighters and 4 of them are 5th level fighters. So:

186 x 1HD
10 x 2HD
4 x 5HD
= 200 men

Now there is the leader, too : a 9th level fighter. 30% of the time, he's got an eighth level "Friar Tuck" that can cast up to 4th level clerical spells, and half the time he's also got a 9th to 10th level wizard with him! That's fifth level spells, pal.  Can you say Animate Dead, Cloudkill, or Conjure Elemental?

So your "inner council" here adds another 26 or so HD to the mix. (≈250HD total) This is a fiefdom, people. There must be servants, artisans, etc. supporting this group, not to mention some sort of fortifications. They'd have to be levying food and supplies (basically tribute/taxes) from the countryside. Just robbing wealthy coaches and hunting te occasional deer ain't gonna cut it.

Can you say "Robber Baron"? If this "Bandit King" is not the official local ruler, he ought to be (or may well be de facto).

The politics of gaming

Well, JEEZ!

Here I just went on about how cool Darva's blog is and now she's shutting it down (or at least ceasing updates). Why? Because apparently some folks in the gaming community had issues with some of her personal views.

I'm not arguing the merits of either side of the issues involved. If anything, it reinforces my belief to keep such topics out of my gaming posts, etc. I am sad for Darva, not only because I feel she's been hassled unfairly, even though posting about topics like Planned Parenthood on the internet is considered an invitation for conflict; but also because I really enjoy the gaming material she's posted and her thoughts on the hobby.

I hope she resumes posting at some point, and I'm keeping the link to her blog up, but I also hope that she'd be made to feel welcome.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mystaran Bloggyness

For those of you who haven't seen it, you should check out Stocking the Dungeon by Darva Shriver. It's a great blog full of classic D&D and Mystaran goodness.

RSA (Random Spell Assessment): Read Languages

This is a great spell. Seriously, can you imagine this spell in real life? Archaeologists, students, even tourists would love this spell! It's not quite the world changer continual light or cure light wounds would be, but it's still darned cool. However, in D&D it seems to be among the less popular low-level spells.

I think there are a couple of related reasons for this. First off, virtually every PC and NPC speaks "Common." There's no need to worry about the idea that your character is Thyatian and you're in Glantri. If there is something written in another language, you just ask a native to translate. Even if you're talking to a dwarf or elf, they know Common, too. Not to mention all the bonus languages demi-humans get. A high INT mage has a couple spare languages under his belt as well.

Another thing is that DMs frequently don't bother to worry about working these details into a game. Other than things like orcs that only speak Orcish, it's often seen as just a way to hassle the PCs. I disagree, but that's a topic for another time. 

Apart from reading the menu at a Minrothad tavern, there's things like ancient writings carved on tomb walls, etc. to be dealt with. Remember, kids: Dead languages can be fun! 

(and SEX-AY!)

This should be a standard spell for dungeon crawling/exploration, IMO. If your game allows for PC scroll creation, one with R.L. in reserve would be a nice way for a low level MU to have it handy without using up a daily spell slot. Even with only 20 minutes (2 turns), you can read a lot of text in that time. Maybe not a whole book, but certainly enough time to translate the riddle that tells you how to keep the iron golem in the next room from ripping your heads off.

Idea: Magical lenses, similar to Eyes of the Eagle, that grants the wearer the Read Languages ability X times per day. I would think some scholar would pay a pretty copper for that. 

Dreams in the Lich House

A big(hara) thank you to Beedo over at Dreams in the Lich House for his link and kind words. (back atcha)

RMA: Ear Seeker

This is one of those "Screw the PCs!" monsters IMO. While it's more of a 1st edition monster, it does appear in the retro-clone Labyrinth Lord's Advanced Edition Companion. So here we go.

Ear Seeker (From AEC)

No. Enc.: 1d4 (1d4)
Move: 10' (3')
AC: 9
HD: 1hp
Attacks/Damage: Special
Save: F1
Morale: NA

For those of you not familiar with this critter, how on earth did you end up reading this blog??

Basically, it's a little bug that burrows in wood, but looks for a nice warm body to lay its eggs in. The classic trope is a wooden door in a dungeon. When some hapless PC listens at the door (like ya do), The little bug crawls into the comfy ear and gets to work. When the eggs hatch, you've got 1d8+8 hungry larvae. Guess what THEY like to eat? (Hint: It's not strained beets.) Brains and flesh, basically.

Remember Wrath of Khan?
Yup. Basically that.

The book says 4d6 hours until they hatch and then it's 90% fatal. That's right, a percentile roll, NOT a saving throw. Cure Disease  handles the problem nicely, but the wording of the monster description is unclear how obvious it is to the victim that anything is wrong, or how long after the eggs hatch that the PC may die.  In real life, people get infected with parasites all the time without knowing it. I think, to be fair, I would give the PC a window to notice some extreme discomfort for a bit before they keel over (maybe a couple of hours). That would give a cleric a chance to effect a cure.

I say "fair", but the very nature of this monster is somewhat unfair. Or at least, it would need some setup to make it more reasonable to throw at a group. It's tailor-made to punish players for exercising caution in the dungeon.

PS: It occurs to me that a paranoid noble might deliberately place the creatures in his doors to punish eavesdropping or to catch/identify a spy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

RMA: T-Rex

Okay, be honest, outside of X1: Isle of Dread, who has ever used a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a D&D adventure? Or any dinosaur, for that matter? Maybe this puts me in the minority, but I honestly cannot recall a single time, myself.

There are probably two main reasons for this: One, in a world with dragons, it sort of seems superfluous to include these ancient reptiles, and the "Lost World" motif just hasn't come up (my players have never made it to the Hollow World in Mystara). Secondly, dinosaurs in general –and T Rex in particular– are UNBELIEVABLY NASTY! Check these stats out:

Tyrannosaurus Rex (LL/Cook)
No. Enc.: 0
Alignment: N
Movement: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 3
Hit Dice: 20
Attacks: 1 (bite)
Damage: 6d6
Save: F10
Morale: 11

(Do I really even need to break this down?) 20 hit dice! Twenty! That's 2-0! Easily into triple digit hit points. AC 3: That's plate w/no shield. Saves as a TENTH level fighter! 6-36 damage! And it outruns a typical armored adventurer-type. At an 11 morale, it's not running away any time soon either (would you??). 

The T-Rex's main weaknesses (if any) are

A) There's only one of them at a time (small mercies)
B) Halflings. Yes, hobbitses are T-Rex kryptonite.

Well, maybe not quite kryptonite, but a T-Rex BtB (by the book), ignores halfling-sized prey or smaller. Couple that with the little guy's hiding ability, excellent missile proficiency, and general combat studliness (uses Fighter to hits) means he can potentially whittle this monstrosity down a bit without becoming a primary target. Now, if Brodo decides to stand toe-to-toe with ol' Rex and swing away, Mr. Scaly may sit up and take notice, deciding upon a furry-footed appetizer. 

Beyond X1 or a lost world game, I see the chances to use such a creature as being somewhat limited. I can think of a few evil ways to spring one on the PCs, though. For example:
  • A tribe of lizardfolk have bred these things as warbeasts (like their version of oliphaunts).
  • The bones of one are found and delivered to some school or library. An unscrupulous fella concocts some way to resurrect the remains and enslave it.
Frankly, a party running across one of these is probably a party that needs to ask itself, "How badly did we REALLY need to go this way??"

And hamstring one of the pack mules before fleeing.

RSA (Random Spell Assessment): Sticks to Snakes

So in true random form, I rolled on the Labyrinth Lord treasure tables for spell scrolls to arrive at today's spell. There's only a 25% chance of a clerical spell popping up, but I got the 4 on the d4. A % roll of 76 meant a 4th level spell. Finally, an 8 on a d8 while referring to the spell lists brought us to Sticks to Snakes.

(Moses was at least 7th level)

Now, that's not bad, changing kindling into a cobra. But let's look at the spell as listed in Labyrinth Lord and Cook Expert.

First off, you aren't changing one stick with the spell, you're changing 2d8 sticks. That's a lot of reptiles suddenly popping up. 

Also, you can change sticks over a hundred feet away! (120') In the wilderness, that changes to over a hundred YARDS! Frankly, I find that pretty cool. Imagine flinging this spell into the firewood pile in the middle of some enemy camp. That's a pretty nice diversion right there.

There's only a 50% chance that the snakes are venomous, but unless they've got a ranger or druid handy, are the targets really going to test that out? I suppose a rat bastard GM might roll for each individual snake, but that might be a headache to track.

Did I mention the cleric can give the snakes orders?? Snakes are deaf! I guess that means he doesn't have to be within earshot, then! Not to mention that the spell lasts over half an hour, so unless they are killed, these serpents are hanging around for a fair bit.

The snakes themselves are relatively wimpy (1HD, bite for 1d4 damage, AC 6) much like the spitting cobra. But the spell's effectiveness is in its distraction and surprise value, more than its combat power.

When you look at the other "go-to" 4th level clerical spells, you usually see things like Cure Serious Wounds and Neutralize Poison. These are great spells, to be sure, but I think a cleric PC (or NPC) might get serious mileage out of the old "S2S" under a lot of circumstances.

Monday, February 13, 2012

RSAs (Random Spell Assessments) & Wizard Eye

Well, I've run through quite a few monsters in my RMAs over the last couple of weeks. While I will probably revisit the subject again, I thought I'd branch out a little.

It seems that most spellcasting PCs tend toward several "staple" spells. Things like Sleep, Cure Light Wounds, etc. are extremely common in games where spells are not assigned randomly. This is with good reason, as they are remarkably useful in typical dungeon crawl-style play. Still, even in the "non-Advanced" versions of the game, there are oodles of interesting spells out there, many of which I can honestly say I've never seen used at the table. Submitted, then, for your consideration: some lesser-used spells and my thoughts about their usefulness. Our first entry is:

Wizard Eye ("Arcane Eye" in LL)
Level: 4 
Duration: 6 turns 
Range: 240'

I gotta admit, I picked this one because of the above Jeff Dee illustration from Cook's Expert book. I just love the "Whoa!" reaction of the vampire.

So, first off a few stats: the "eye" has 60' infravision and can move 120' per round. "Solid barriers block its passage, but it can pass through a hole or space as small as 1 inch in diameter." Which is a nice touch, I think. It also requires concentration by the MU. Its duration (over half an hour) means a lot of scouting can be managed in that time.

Now, this may be reading into a simple pic too much (and the 1st edition version says its invisible), but the graphic above leads me to think there is an actual, visible, eyeball-like thing floating along. This would mean, IMO, monsters have a chance of noticing it.

(Okay, maybe not quite THAT noticeable, but you know what I mean.)

There are several things I really like about this spell. 
  1. It reinforces the magic-user's role as a source of information, not artillery. 
  2. It allows a more powerful party to map an area quickly, bypassing some of the mundanities of a crawl.
  3. Related to #2, it doesn't check for traps or secret doors while flitting about, so PCs still need to sweat that. 
  4. It's usefulness extends far beyond the dungeon: outdoor, town, and military style campaigns would find this spell a huge asset. 
  5. Also related to #2, it's a high enough level spell that it wouldn't unbalance a low level party by stepping on a thief's toes, or removing the "fun" of carefully scouting and searching. At the same time, it's not so high a level that you'd never see it used in play.*
  6. The need to concentrate means the MU isn't using the eye for things like long distance targeting, but he could use it to study an area carefully before teleporting there. Also, if a fight breaks out and the mage has to defend himself, the spell is lost. This can help keep it from being overused. 
*A magic item allowing this ability, perhaps a wand or potion with only a few charges/doses, could be a nice find for a group.

RMA: Caecilia (Gray Worm)

I sometimes think this monster was added just to have a less scary version of the Purple Worm. It's smaller, less fewer hit dice, and no poison stinger. All that said, my initial reaction at 1d3 school bus-sized worms bursting out of the ground isn't likely to be, "Phew! Thank goodness they aren't the BIG kind!"

Caecilia (known as "Gray Worm" in LL)

No. Enc.: 1d3 (1d3)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 60' (20')
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 6
Attacks: 1 (bite)
Damage: 1d8
Save: F3
Morale: 9

In Cook Expert, Caecilias have a reasonable representation on the dungeon wandering monster charts (levels 4-7), and the are a possible jungle encounter in LL. Still, not SUPER common.

The main thing about this creature is its swallow whole ability. Granted, it only happens 10% of the time, but there's no save and GULP! They are tough enough to last several rounds and –if you are dealing with more than one– the odds of that 19 or 20 swallow happening keeps climbing. Once inside its gullet, it's 1d8 damage per round (not including the 1d8 you took from the initial bite) until the worm is dead. If you're on the inside, you can only use a dagger to attack, and you're at -4. If your GM is an SOB (like me), you'll need a round just to take the dagger out (if not already in hand). Also, while it's not really discussed in the text, I assume these things burrow like purple worms. This can be a huge tactical consideration, since they basically can close instantly. At the least they will severely limit your chances to harry them with ranged attacks before they can start chomping. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

RMA: Cobra, Spitting

I'm usually hesitant to throw a lot of monsters with "Save or Die" attacks at a party until they are higher level. Most such creatures are fairly big and/or tough, so are generally better for mid-level or more. This little fella, though –despite its modest stats– is doubly nasty.

Spitting Cobra 
(stats are from LL, but are the same as Moldvay)

No. Enc.: 1d6 (1d6)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 90' (30')
Armor Class: 7
Hit Dice: 1
Attacks: 1 (bite or spit)
Damage: 1d3, poison
Save: F1
Morale: 7

Let's break it down, shall we? This sucker isn't magical. It isn't gigantic. It's a snake. What's more, this thing really exists, pretty much as depicted in the stats. If you are using Moldvay Basic, it's a level one wandering monster. It also pops up in Cook's jungle wilderness encounters. Not a LOT, mind you, but it's there. One good smack is probably going to kill it, and its AC is no great shakes either. It also has a low morale, so it's as likely to flee as to fight. So what's the big deal?

Well, there are two tidbits to keep in mind. One, this crazy reptile can bite you with "Save or Die" neurotoxin that kills in 1d10 turns. That's less than an hour on average, and less than two hours max. Secondly, it can also spray this venom with remarkable accuracy into your face up to 6' away. A hit means it's struck the eyes and you must make a save or be permanently blinded! Of course Cure Blindness will fix things, but that's a 3rd level spell, so you'll be needing a 5th level cleric for that. So the low-level party that stumbled upon a nest with 1d6 of these poison ropes may well have a long slog back to civilization with one (or more) party members effectively incapacitated (if not dead).

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

RMA: Giant Weasel

Seriously? A weasel? One of these cute little fellas?

More like this, actually:

Only, you know, GIANT (9' long).

Weasel, Giant (once again, stats from LL, but the Cook Expert stats are basically the same.)

No. Enc.: 1d4 (1d6)
Alignment: N
Movement: 150' (50')
Armor Class: 7
Hit Dice: 4+4
Attacks: 1 (bite)
Damage: 2d4
Save: F3
Morale: 8

You'd think a 9' long weasel would be unusual, but they really aren't. They appear on dungeon and wilderness encounter tables, including inhabited regions! Most people who are familiar with members of the Mustelidae family know that they tend to be aggressive little SOBs. Wolverines, minks, badgers, etc.; these are not cuddly critters. So now you're dealing with up to six of these beasties, only gator-sized!

They are described in the monster listings as "fierce hunters." Swell. That means they'll happily bring the fight to you. The 4+4 HD means a decent to-hit (THACO 15) and no Sleep spell for them. They're fast, but the 8 morale means they're (somewhat) skittish.

2d4 damage is fairly impressive, but that's not the evil part. Check this little passage out: "when they successfully attack with their bite they cling to the victim, sucking blood for 2d4 hit points of damage each round. They cannot be removed, and will cling until either the victim dies or the weasel has been killed." 

Cannot be removed! Talk about lockjaw!

Toss in their 30' infravision and tracking by scent, you've got packs of giant vampire tube rats slinking around sucking people dry. Eek! Actually, I imagine a wilderness encounter with these things involving something like horses or sentries bled dry in the night. In a crawl, they might have narrow tunnels burrowed into walls and such, zipping out to attack stragglers by surprise. Another excellent choice for an animal companion, if one can manage it. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

RMA (Random Monster Assessment): Amber Golem

Now I don't really know how this one slipped past me, because it is just too cool!

Golem, Amber (from LL 79)
No. Enc.:  1 (1)
Alignment:  Neutral
Movement:  180' (60')
Armor Class:  6
Hit Dice:  10
Attacks:  3 (2 claws, bite)
Damage:  2d6/2d6/2d10
Save:  F5
Morale:  12

Description: These golems are made of petrified tree sap, and this golden stone is commonly formed into the shape of dire wolves or large cats. They have the ability to detect invisibility to a range of 60', and are able to track any being.

Also, "all golems are unaffected by ordinary weapons. In addition, golems have no true intelligence, and are thus unaffected by hold, charm, or sleep spells. Since they are not truly alive, they are unaffected by poison or gases."

So check this bad boy out. It's faster than a human being, heck it's faster than a warhorse. A riding horse will outpace it, but the A.G. can track any being and doesn't have to rest. At AC6, 10HD, and unaffected by nonmagical weapons, it is not easy to put down. A 10HD critter has a THACO of 11, so it is hitting most of the time with its THREE attacks per round!! Not to mention the insane amount of damage it's dealing with those attacks. (An average of ≈25 points per round!) 

The detect invisible is a nice touch as well. This thing is like an magical terminator. It doesn't think, it doesn't feel, it doesn't eat, and it doesn't sleep. You can't hide from it. It just relentlessly tracks down its target and WHAMMO! I can easily envision scenarios where a ticked off NPC with resources commissions one of these suckers to hunt down an adventuring party that had crossed him.

Monday, February 6, 2012

RMA (Random Monster Assessment): Salamanders, Fire & Ice

I thought I'd move away from the more "normal" critters and take one of my favorites that you don't see so often in games. At least, I've only seen them a few times in play, and one of those times was in a module I wrote (so I'm thinking that one doesn't count so much).

Let's talk salamanders!

No, not these:


Salamander      Flame            Frost
No. Enc:          1d4+1 (2d4)  1d3 (1d3)
AL:                  N                  C
Move:             120' (40')        120' (40')
AC:                 2                     3
HD:                 8                    12
Attacks:           3                     5
                          (2claws/bite)   (4claws/bite)
Dmg:               1d4/1d4/1d8   1d6 (each claw)/2d6
Save:               F8                   F12
Morale:            8                     9

Flame: 12'-16' intelligent lizard-like elemental with four limbs. Scorching heat deals 1d8 damage per round (within 20'). Sleep & Charm do not work. Fire-based and non-magical weapons do not work.

Frost: Same as above except SIX limbs and cold-based.

(stats are LL based, but comparable to Cook Expert)

Now, unlike some previous entries, I don't think I need explain how these fellas are badass. I mean, come ON! Look at those hit dice! Look at that AC! Multiple attacks! You take 1d8 damage per round just for being within 20' of the thing! (That wimpy clerical resist fire or resist cold is looking pretty nice right now, huh?) They're intelligent, which means they can devise tactics and adapt to situations. Not to mention that you're always going to encounter at least two of the fire version BtB.

The fire-based ones are bad news, but that frost one? That's just NASTY!

It's worth noting that, according to some interpretations, protection from evil spells should keep the creatures from touching you (as "summoned"/extraplanar creatures), but that has no effect on the 1d8/round < 20' effect.

I think these things would actually make a great "boss" monster or final fight for a 4th-6th level party. That 5th level MU who's been so cocky since he got fireball is in for a nasty surprise!  

Friday, February 3, 2012

RMA (Random Monster Assessment): Hawk, Giant (by land or sea)

Today's installment is "Hawk, Giant." The Roc and the Giant Eagle get a lot more play in folklore, fiction, and gaming; but the giant hawk is an interesting critter. In Labyrinth Lord, the only places you'll encounter one of these guys randomly are the desert or the sea (they are slightly more common in B/X). While these things sound contradictory, consider that both terrain types share a couple similarities.

1) They give a flyer lots of room to maneuver.
2) Likewise, there aren't a lot of places for prey to hide.

Personally, I find the idea of giant hawks dive bombing some merchant ship or fishing vessel that strays too close to a seaside eyrie fraught with potential. Let's look at the stat block, shall we? (LL81)

Hawk, Giant

No. Enc.: 0 (1d3)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement, flying: 450' (150') 
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 3+3
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d6
Save: F2
Morale: 8

Well, right off the bat, did you SEE that movement rate?? One hundred fifty feet per round! And you thought centaurs were fast! Basically, a character is going to get one shot at these suckers before the range penalties kick in (if the birds aren't out of missile or spell range entirely). 

A normal encounter is 1d3 giant hawks together. Probably all riding the same thermals. They might not work together, but birds are greedy, and if one goes after a potential meal, the others will try for it too (or try to take it away from the first bird). Their morale is low enough that they might get scared away, but they might carry something (or someone) off with them. While they cannot carry off a full-sized man, gnomes and hobbits should beware. 

The birds' HD and AC aren't superb, and neither are their attacks/damage, but in the aforementioned sea encounter, their mobility is that much more useful when characters are confined to a ship. If a character is struck by one of these raptors as it dives, and he is up in the rigging or near the side of the ship when it hits, any GM worth his d12 should force a saving throw or ability check to avoid being knocked off. (Sure hope he wasn't wearing plate when he fell in!) If the character is hobbit or gnome sized, a hit should allow for the bird to fly off with him. Personally, if the bird still had movement left that round I'd let him get airborne with his prize (but I'm kind of an SOB). The victim, if still alive, can certainly try to fight the bird off while in its clutches, and the hawk might make a morale check or saving throw to hold onto something that's really hurting it. However, consider that if the hawk has more than a round to get altitude, do you want it to drop you?

I mentioned being stuck on the boat while this is happening. Wizards should note that flinging are of effect spells like Fireball at these creature might cause some nasty collateral damage. (Burning pitch-soaked timbers, anyone?) A circumstantial cover bonus to the flyers is also probably in order for any masts, sails, and rigging between them and any archers on deck.

For the desert encounter, look to your camels. Even if the hawk can't carry it off, most raptors would be fine with killing the beast  and then tearing off a hunk of meat to take with. If a pack animal is laden with provisions, a saving throw might be in order to see if those nasty talons have torn up your waterskins. (see "SOB", above) 

Lastly, I should mention that these are not supernatural creatures, but big animals. They don't attack out of malice, but hunger or self-preservation. Conversely, a mage with Charm Monster or a druid with Animal Companion/Friendship could play merry hob with a few of these following his orders. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

RMA (Random Monster Assessment): Centaurs

Looking at Underworld Cleaning Service's post on PC Centaurs made me think about centaur encounters.

CENTAUR (stats from Labyrinth Lord)
No. Enc.: 0 (2d10)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 180' (60')
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 4
Attacks: 3
Damage: (2 hooves, weapon)1d6/1d6, weapon
Save: F4
Morale: 8

Well, let's take a look here, shall we? Centaurs are described as reclusive beings who avoid combat when possible, but –if they have to fight– are unlikely to surrender.

Reclusive: Centaurs appear not at all on the random encounter tables for LL or Moldvay Basic (see the "0" under No. Appearing), and they only appear one time in twelve on the "Unusual" encounter subtable in Cook Expert. Yeah, I'd say that's pretty reclusive.

Assuming a party does encounter these creatures, it's probably on or near the herd's home ground. So 2d10 gives us an average of 11 of these critters. Reading the text, I am assuming that's 11 male "protectors", not the noncombatant females or young. If the herd is directly threatened, I expect that's one of those "willing to fight and not surrender" situations.

Centaurs are actually pretty scary. That 60' move is going to eat up the ground closing to melee (or retreating to missile distance). The 4HD is going to hit pretty often (THACO 16) especially when you consider he's going to usually be making three attack rolls each round; it also means he's tough enough you're unlikely to drop him in a single attack (or even two). Even though they are susceptible to Sleep spells, at most you are affecting four of them (2d8 HD). His AC is equivalent to chainmail (sans shield) (nothing says he can't improve that by wearing barding + armor). A centaur charging with a lance/spear for double damage then smacking you with two hooves? Ow.

I could also see the centaur carrying bows or javelins, harrying a party at range and keeping clear by  simply outrunning them. Or some combination thereof. Several javelins plus a long spear. Attack at range for a round or two, then charge into melee with couched spear, followed by hooves to their opponents' skulls.

Did I mention they are usually around eleven of them?