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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Magic Mart: Buying/selling magic items

I am not a fan of how later D&D editions (particularly 3.X) reduced magic items to a simple commodity. I get that some of the rules about crafting costs and times were a bit subjective before, but I fall into the camp that magic should be magical. 

That being said, players will want to find ways to spend their loot and one of the most useful things for an adventurer is better gear. Once the fighter has bought plate mail and silver arrows, his upgrade options in the standard price list are a bit thin on the ground. I sometimes do have the odd item or two for sale in towns. Usually its things like potions or scrolls and other "limited" magics.

The current campaign I am running, the PCs have managed to get through two adventures, both times clearing a fair amount of coin; enough that the PCs that have survived since session one are at or near level 3 (except the elf). The nature of the adventures limited the chance to find items, though. I am thinking of giving them a chance to acquire some magical shinys. The question is how to decide what's available in such situations without being utterly arbitrary.

The idea I am currently playing with is based roughly off of the Treasure Type Tables on X43. The larger the town or city, the better the chance of any magical items for sale. Likewise, certain types of items are more often found than others. A first pass at this for a typical BX fantasy setting (not particularly high or low magic) might look something like:

Small Town or Village: 15% Any 1
Medium-sized Town: 25% Any 2 + 1 potion + 1 scroll
Large Town or Small City: 1d4 scrolls, 30% Any 3 + 1 sword, armor, or weapon
Large Metropolis: 1d4 scrolls, 2d4 potions, 35% Any 4

It's up to the individual DM to decide where a given population in his setting falls on this list. As examples, I would say a town like Threshold in Karameikos would be a medium town, whereas Specularum might be a small city. You might also tweak how you roll based on things like how much trade or traffic a location sees or if adventurers are common there.

In my campaign, the party is currently in a town of 3,000-4,000 people; what I would consider medium-sized in my setting.  But, it is also a busy river port that sees a good deal of trade and adventurer types are not uncommon here (a name-level mage has a tower just outside the town walls). Therefore, I have chosen to roll as a large town/small city.

Roll results are as follows:

1d4 Scrolls = 1. The % dice came "00"! Which is a nice treasure map to 5d6 gems and 2 magic items. Buuuut, the party is already following one map and I am trying to generate magical items here. So I re-rolled that and got a Protection from Magic scroll.

% dice for other magic = 30 exactly (!) So 3 items plus 1 arm or armor. I rolled a d3 to see which and got a 3, which is a non-sword weapon.

The percentile rolls for the specific items came up as follows:

  • A potion of Giant Control
  • +1 Spear
  • A Staff of Healing Staff of Striking (18 charges)
  • A MU/Elf spell scroll of 3 spells. This came up as one 4th, one 1st, and one 2nd level spell. I rolled randomly (d12s) and got Charm Monster, Ventriloquism, and Detect Evil.

Now this is a pretty impressive haul, and frankly a lot more magic than I like to be just lying around. If I want to let these results stand, I need to make sure these items aren't too easy to get. Namely, they need to be expensive or require the PCs do something to get them.

The protection scroll isn't limited but pretty nice, so I will peg that at 1000gp.

I decided to roll randomly for what type of giant the potion can control. There are six kinds of giants and I rolled a 4: Fire Giant. This is pretty neat, but of limited usefulness. However, commanding 1d4 fire giants even for only an hour could be pretty epic. Let's say 1000gp

The +1 spear is nice, but is just a bonus to hit and damage. 1000 gp should cover that.

The healing staff is another matter. I will invoke DM fiat and say this is too powerful to be simply bought in town, ready to go. This item allows essentially allows a cleric to cast a Cure Light Wounds once per day on each PC and uses no charges! This sort of thing would be snapped up by one to the temples in town and not readily available to wandering murder hobos. Like with the map, I re-rolled and the result was a Staff of Striking with 18 charges. This is a nice item, but limited by who can use it (clerics) and finite charges. I will judge it roughly equivalent to the spear and set its price at 1000 gp as well.

The spell scroll would be pretty expensive. I have previously established house rules about spell books and scrolls, so using those I can pin its price tag at 3,500gp (7 spell levels total at 500 gp per). Since they are all on one scroll, it's an all or nothing price.

Now, this is a pretty generous haul, but the rolls were with them. The odds favored 2-3 scrolls and that's it. I would also argue that it would be a while (a month or two at least) before this particular town might be "restocked." Over the course of a campaign, I would see this as balancing out. I'm not sure it's the perfect system. I still needed to intervene a little to maintain what I see as a correct balance, but isn't that what DMs are supposed to do?

Friday, September 7, 2018

REF (Random Encounter Fun): Stone Giants

Rolling on the wilderness tables (I arbitrarily chose "Mountains"), I got "Humanoid" as result (ho-hum), but the roll on the sub-table yielded "Giant, Stone." NOW we're getting somewhere!

Cook says 1d2 might appear in a random encounter and, lucky PCs, I rolled a 2. The description says they may keep cave bears as guards, but in a moment of mercy I originally decided those would be at the lair, not wandering (even though I did roll and they have 4 of them at home!). I changed my mind, however as I developed the idea for the encounter. But I only added one (see below).

The encounter distance came up as 170 yards (4d6 x 10 yards). A pretty respectable distance but giants are tall and easily seen, plus they would have a good vantage for spotting the party as well.

Stone Giants are Neutral and there's nothing in their description to indicate a natural empathy or antipathy toward people. So a reaction roll is probably in order. Unfortunately, it came up a 4, so the giants are not feeling friendly. The giants can throw stones 300', but that becomes yards in the wilderness, so they would probably lead with that. But rather than get into a specific melee, let's take a look at the encounter and try making sense of it.

The party is travelling through the mountains, yes? It's a random encounter, so they haven't met these giants before. The two groups are nearly two hundred yards apart, so it's not like the PCs could have said something to tick the giants off. What would cause such a hostile reaction? Are the giants being territorial? Did they just wake up grouchy? Or did they just want some target practice?

Maybe it's a case of mistaken identity,

Perhaps the giants had a run in with a different group of puny humans, maybe an NPC party? Giants have good treasure, so maybe, in a "My Cousin Vinny" sort of a twist, some other adventurer types tried to raid the lair for the loot. Maybe they succeeded, maybe they were chased off, but during the fracas all but one of the giants' pet bears was killed! Now the giants (the surviving ones at any rate) are angry. After scouring the mountainside all morning looking for the interlopers -using the bear to try tracking them- what should come stumbling by? A group of murder hobos just strolling along the slopes!

Now this could (likely) end up being a straight out fight to the finish, with neither side knowing the whole story. But imagine for a moment that one of the giants speaks Common and yells something mid-fight like "Now you will pay for what you did!" And the PCs retort with something better than "Huh?"

If the slaughter pauses long enough for a non combat actions to take place, maybe the party passes the bear's sniff test and the giants realize their mistake. Perhaps the giants feel guilty, or maybe they offer the PCs a bounty to hunt down the "killer NPCs." Depending upon the PCs' levels, they might decide staying on the good side of some 9HD monsters isn't the worst idea imaginable.

That sounds like a fun little twist. Or at least a potential side quest. Not to mention that, if they are sloppy in their pursuit, they could make enemies out of the NPCs.  Plot fodder for months!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Curious Objects: Medallion of ESP

3 copper pieces if you know where that image is from!

Miscellaneous magic items (MMIs) are always an interesting read, as they cover what I consider the really "magical" part of magic items. Magic weapons or armor are usually just combat boosts, and scrolls or wands are mostly more spell slots. But MMIs? The sky's the limit. They might be boots or bags, musical instruments or jewelry, who knows? And who knows what they'll do? Sometimes their powers are passive, sometimes they have only a few uses. Often their abilities come with a price or a twist.

Case in point is the Medallion of ESP. This is an especially weird entry as there are two versions of it: The 30' range one in Moldvay, and its 90' cousin in Cook. Let's start with Basic, shall we?

The medallion has no charges or limited uses per day. It merely requires a round of concentration and limits what the wearer can do while concentrating (no fight, no spells). One need not be a spell-caster to use it, either. It should be mentioned that its effective range is shorter than the spell's, but its duration is limited solely by concentration.

This item's fun tidbit is that it malfunctions 1 in 6 times, causing the reverse effect and broadcasts the wearer's thoughts to everyone within 30'! I find that very funny and with great plot twist potential. This also ties in neatly with my ideas on magic having a cost.

The Expert rules add a second version of the medallion. This one with a 90' range. It's description is also somewhat different. This one merely mimics the 2nd magic user spell with the slightly farther range (90 vs 60'). This is interesting for two reasons. One, it's not only replicating a spell, it's improving upon it. Secondly, it puts me in mind that the basic version could be seen as a sort of a "flawed prototype" with less power and with some bugs in the system. I don't know why, but that just seems very "BX" to me.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Moldvay Musings IX: Pursuit and Evasion

Looking over some of the response to the last post, where I talked a bit about wandering int he wilderness, it seems that people find explaining some of the rules useful. So I thought I'd take a whack at a couple of BX rules that seems to generate a little confusion for some: Pursuit and Evasion.

In Basic, the pursuit rules are simply what happens when one side of a (potential) fight runs and the other gives chase in a dungeon. Obviously if the PCs are one of the sides, and the faster of the two, chances are what happens is whatever the PCs want to happen (they catch up, they let them go, etc.). 

Here's a basic scenario for pursuit and how it would break down. Unlike the last time, I've already rolled it out and know what happened, so I can provide step by step maps.

Dungeon Chase-

The Setup: A band of brave(ish?) adventurers have entered a dungeon. They open a door and step into the room to discover a pack of orcs. 

Round 1: Surprise rolls are made and both sides roll 2s. The PCs and orcs stare stupidly at one another for a moment.

Round 2: Initiative is rolled. The orcs get a 5 and the PCs a 6. The orcs' reaction roll is a 5 indicating they are hostile and will probably attack.

The party doesn't like the look of all those snarling tusks and decides to beat a hasty retreat. They use their running speed for movement, which is 60', which gets them to the corner turn in the hallway.

The orcs take off after them. The monsters have a move of 120' so they can catch the PCs if they want, but the magic-user cleverly tossed a pouch of coins on the ground behind him as the party fled. There is a 50% chance the orcs will stop for the loot and it turns out they do (I rolled a d6. Odds they ignored it, evens they stopped. I rolled a 4).

Round 3: The PCs move another 60' and reach the outside and daylight. The DM rules that since the wizard dropped the whole pouch and didn't scatter the coins, it only took the one round for the orcs to retrieve it. They run down the hall and see the PCs out in the sunshine. The DM rules that the orcs don't like the idea of fighting in the daylight and break off pursuit.

Now, there were a lot of things that could have happened differently there, but that gives you a short & sweet version of it. If it had been an unintelligent creature, like a giant lizard or some such, the party might have dropped food instead of treasure to distract it.  

Wilderness Pursuit-

The scale of wilderness pursuits makes mapping it less useful. The rules themselves favor a more abstract method as well. In a nutshell, if one group is surprised and the other is not, the latter may automatically avoid the encounter: remember the wilderness random encounter distances are 40-240 yards! If a group that did not surprise the other wants to avoid an encounter, and the second group isn't having any of that nonsense, then the Evasion Table on X23 is used. The DM is encouraged to make ad hoc rulings for factors like terrain, speed, or whatever is deemed relevant.


A group of four PCs and their three hirelings are traveling in the forest when they spot a group of 10 gnolls though the trees. The DM rolls for encounter distance and gets 100 yards as a result. Neither side is surprised (they spot one another simultaneously) and the gnolls seems hungry. The party decides this is a fight they'd rather avoid and flee deeper into the foliage. 

The party has 7 people total, the gnolls 10. This gives a 70% base chance of losing their pursuers. The DM also rules that the tree cover is thick enough to grant a +10% bonus (it would have been higher, but the gnolls' are keen-nosed). This gives the party an 80% chance of success. The dice are rolled and come up 44! The party spends a tense several minutes fleeing into cover and waiting for the gnolls to lose interest. 

If the odds weren't as favorable, the party could have upped their chances by splitting up, as smaller groups are more likely to evade bigger ones.

Had the party failed the roll, the gnolls would have closed the distance and -if faster than the PCs- had a 50% chance to force an encounter (using the PCs from the dungeon example, the gnolls are faster with 90'). If the gnolls fail to force the encounter, the party could attempt to evade again, but their direction is random and they cannot map. This process continues until:
  1. The party successfully evades or stops trying to run.
  2. The gnolls successfully catches them.
  3. The gnolls give up the chase.
There are no specific rules for time increments in a wilderness pursuit, though the text mentions the possibility of a chase continuing for "several days." I feel like there must be something in the books (there usually is), but I don't see it. If I were to run such a situation, I would say each evasion attempt takes an hour, giving the abstract nature of moving through terrain, hiding, looking for signs of one's quarry, etc.

So the next time your group decides to exercise the better part of valor and skedaddle from certain doom, or decides to chase down those wascally kobolds, hopefully this will help clarify a few things. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Moldvay Musings VIII: Into the Wild

I had written a longer, more rambling post that bounced between general thoughts on resource management to critiquing how such rules are often applied in-game. After looking over that train wreck of text, I opted to delete most of it and start over with a simple walkthrough of overland travel rules as sort of a Random Encounter Fun (REF) entry, but with a little more focus on rules instead of a specific critter.

A lot of players (and more than a few DMs) complain that tracking every little thing can be tedious. I find the main issue players have is that they fail to plan well before the actual adventuring begins, and DMs fail to take some of the factors that will matter into account when they plan the session.

There is a terrific example of an expert level party preparing for an overland journey on page X19. If the players know that you (the DM) will be having them track resources consistently, and you as DM are keeping track of time, then it can all flow fairly smoothly. It's really just a question of organization and some minimal prep.

Here's an example of what I mean by minimal. This is a map I made in about 5 minutes on the computer. It's all I need to run an overland adventure with the rules in the book. I've set no fixed encounters. If I wanted, I could include several days' worth of weather for added detail. All rolls in this example will be recorded as they happen. As of writing these words, I don't know how this will play out.

The premise? A party of four PCs start in the village. They have heard rumors that the wizard Examplo the Mad is likely dead and his evil tower to the Northeast is ripe for the pickings. To get there, they must traverse the Spooky Forest and the Haunted Hills. They know it's about 40-50 miles.

There is no road, which means A) slower travel times, and B) they would be wise to seek out a map or guide. Sadly, our heroes are more bold than wise and decide they merely need to steer NE and they'll get there eventually. They do have enough sense to buy rations for two weeks apiece (x 4  = 56 days) plus bedrolls, tents, and a mule to carry most of the extra gear. Under these conditions, the PCs can travel 12 miles per day on open ground (Their slowest member moves at 60'). The DM also decides to only roll for encounters once per day and once per evening's rest. 

Day 1: The land outside the village is open grasslands with trails made by trappers and woodcutters leading to the woods. The DM rules no problem, the path negates the chance of getting lost. The PCs camp that night just inside the forest. There are no grassland or forest encounters (52 days' of food left).

Day 2: The trails don't go far into the forest, so now the PCs (lacking a map, guide, or personal knowledge of the terrain) need to rely on their own senses of direction. They are also moving slower (2/3 normal rate for wooded terrain = 8 miles a day). For simplicity, we'll call it (very) roughly 1.5 hexes. 

The DM rolls a d6. On a 1-2, the party takes a wrong turn. Uh-oh, a 2! Rolling again, the die comes up a 4, so the party heads NW, all the while THINKING they're heading NE. The trouble is already beginning! They camp again. Luckily, the encounter gods are with them yet again. They have no trouble that day or that night. (48 days' food remaining)

Day 3: Another roll vs getting lost. A 3 means they stay on course. Mind you, they still think NW is NE. Since they are still deep in the Spooky Forest, they have no landmarks to set them aright. More bad news as an encounter comes up for the their night's rest. A 2 (flyer) and an 11 for woodland encounters means sprites! The DM rules that the quiet little clearing where the PCs have unknowingly bivouacked is quite near the lair of 22 sprites. A reaction roll of 9 lists as "leaves or considers offer." Now normally I'd say that would be the end of it, but sprites love their pranks so I don't think they'd let the PCs go scot free. The DM decides that the little jokers pull the mule's picket and then spook the poor beast.  While the PCs chase it down, the sprites steal 11 days worth of food (one half per sprite) from the saddlebags. The PCs eat their dinner and try to rest (33 days' left, leaving a week for each of them).

Day 4: Another travel roll yields a 1. Lost again! Direction roll is a 3. Two wrongs make a right and they're back on track, heading NE again! Their luck doesn't hold though. A wandering encounter roll during their days' travel comes up an 8: Dragon! "Luckily" it's not a REAL dragon, just a puny ELEVEN-HEADED HYDRA!

plus four more heads

Now, I'm not going to roll out a whole combat here, but it's probably not unfair to say that there are pretty good odds of four measly PCs getting their collective lunches handed to them here. And so, our noble heroes meet their fates in the Spooky Forest, never reaching the wizard's tower. If they had only had a guide or map, they might have avoided such a fate. Or not, random encounters be nasty!

There, now. That wasn't so hard, was it?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Curious Objects: Big Magic

When one thinks about finding magic loot in D&D, images spring to mind of glowing swords, magic potions, powerful rings, sorcerous wands, and enchanted armor. The real fun begins in the Miscellaneous Magic tables, though. Crystal balls, bags of holding, magical amulets, and magical cloaks are all classic finds in a dungeon or lair.

All of the above share one similar characteristic: portability. Even a flying carpet, which can seat up to three people and is hardly small, is still by its nature easily moved. There are, however, a few items which -while not immobile- can't be so easily transported.

Bowl of Commanding Water Elementals
This is the largest of the elemental summoning items (X50). It's described as a 3' diameter bowl. I imagine it as a birdbath-like stone basin, but I suppose it could be metal (or an enormous seashell!). Whichever way you imagine it, a 3' bowl is not something one stuffs in a knapsack (weight/encumbrance aside). It only works 1/day and takes 1 turn to prepare. Also, the caster cannot move or cast other spells while controlling the elemental. None of this lends itself to the bowl being moved around a lot. I can even imagine it being a fixture in a wizard's tower, as part of its defenses. This would work especially well if the structure was located near a coastline, river or similar where the elemental can operate easily on or in the water. 

Brazier of Commanding Fire Elementals

The brazier is the next largest elemental based item after the bowl. Braziers are defined as a pan for holding burning coals, usually for cooking and typically with a stand or legs. Braziers are designed to be portable for things like camping, but certainly not carried while lit! Cook's Expert doesn't give an exact size, but a foot or more in diameter and height isn't unreasonable. As a DM, I would interpret this item's 1 turn preparation to include lighting a fire for the elemental to "ignite" from. It also carries the same restrictions about the caster moving about or performing other actions while concentrating on controlling the elemental.

Efreet Bottle 

"This item is a large, heavy, sealed jug about 3' high." (X50). Now, unlike the elemental items, nothing in the bottle's description says one needs to have the bottle once the efreet is bound to the one who freed it, but it could be fun to require it. Perhaps it retreats to the bottle each day after it's completed the task required by its master. The possessor of the bottle must pop the cork each time he wants the efreet to do something. Remember that "[Efreet] are reluctant and difficult servants and will obey their instructions exactly, attempting to distort the meaning of whatever they have been told to do in order to cause trouble for their masters." (X31) So why would it make things easy for the clown summoning it over and over for 101 days? Making the PC drag around a Nebuchadnezzar full of surly smoky servant would probably amuse it.

Drums of Panic

This item is described as "large kettle drums" (plural). It's even in the name: it's not "DRUM of Panic" after all. Now, timpani come in different sizes, but the large ones are about 30" in diameter. Not something one just totes along through the dungeon. Of course the drums' function is better suited to a battlefield situation. It's interesting to note that the save vs magical fear is replaced when the "optional" morale rules are used with a simple -2 modifier. Again, this is an item I see used as a defensive measure for a castle or keep, but you'd have to work out the logistics of not affecting friendlies who are farther than 10' away when the drumroll starts.

Of course nothing says the DM can make other interesting magic less of a snatchable bauble and more of a fixture or even occasionally left at home. It may make the players have to think a little harder about how to take advantage of "big magic" in the game. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Moldvay Musings VII: Retainers, Mercenaries, and Specialists

A recurring idea in classic D&D that seems to be often overlooked by players is the option of hiring retainers and the like. When one looks at things like older modules, it's obvious that it was expected for the group to bolster their ranks a bit. It's a shame that too often today's players ignore the option. Whether it's a fear of book-keeping, or desire to keep the most treasure and XP for themselves, it often shortchanges the party's odds of survival and let them really get the most out of an expedition. I won't say I've never seen a group use hirelings of some sort or another, but it's far from the norm. 

As I am in the process of trying to start a new BX campaign (or at least run a few adventures), I've been thinking about ways to make features like this easier to introduce and handle at the table.


Retainers are first brought up in Basic (B21), so we'll start here. The idea behind a retainer is that they are an NPC (with a character class) of equal or lower level than the hiring PC. They ostensibly work for an individual PC, or at least that's who hires them. This is where those Charisma modifiers start coming into play. Most people think of sellswords/meatshields as your typical retainer, which is perfectly fair. But think of a spare magic user. Especially if people are low enough level that even one more spell is a significant boost. In a game where starting spells are determined randomly, imagine the demand for that apprentice who lucked out with Sleep. Of course, if one uses house rules like I recently described, unseemly types might see to it that such retainers have a lot of "accidents" and acquire new spells from their grimoires. But that's the sort of thing that would get the party a bad reputation re: hireling survival rates and the well may soon run dry. 

Another possibility with retainers in the party is the idea of instant replacement PCs. If the "main" PC is killed, the player can take over a retainer and still finish the adventure. Once "back in town," they can decide whether to keep playing the retainer or make a new PC. Of course the retainer will have earned some XP already, as opposed to totally new character. 

To make this easier for the players, I plan on A) having a ready stack of NPC characters pregenerated. There is a great BX character generator online one can use. B) I have incorporated locales in the "starter town" with reputations for being good places to find such people for hire. My hope is that once the players have been gently led to the well, they can find their way back as play progresses.


Mercenaries come up in the Expert rules (X22) with the focus being mainly on larger, more military roles. ie "Mercenaries are usually hired to guard a stronghold or castle."

While I see no reason that such "troops" couldn't be hired in small numbers for dungeon crawling, their inclusion in the rules seems to be more about the "endgame" where name level characters are manning keeps and fighting battles.

Side Note: 0 level noncombatants (torchbearers, porters, etc.) aren't really discussed in BX, but Barrowmaze's MEATSHIELDS is a nice NPC generator for their basic stats, etc. (LL-based, but quite compatible)

Honestly. What other image did you expect here?

Specialists, as per the Expert rules (X21) are generally hired for tasks, rather than to go on an adventure. Alchemists, Sages, Engineers, and Spies will often have missions or assignments that they complete for a fee. 

The thing I like most about specialists is the idea that there are non-adventurers in the world with sought after skills. It somehow fleshes the world out a little more to know that there are people who can command high fees for their services but may have never fought an orc or robbed a tomb. It sort of defines the adventurers as part of a larger setting. Even specialists like sailors (Seamen) and armorers have distinct skills that sets them apart from a common laborer as well as the sword-wielding warrior.

Specialists also fulfill a purpose for the game in giving the party (and the DM) ways to advance the character's knowledge when they can't answer a question or complete a task on their own. Getting a sage to look over an ancient map or an alchemist to analyze a poison might help further the plot if the players are drawing a blank. It's also a mean by which to drain some funds from the party coffers!

In my starter town, I've placed a few specialists including a an alchemist and a sage, I plan to make them known to the party very early on. Even if they have no need (or funds) to hire them, they'll at least know they're about. 

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that these rules are well worth the time to integrate into one's BX game. They can add a lot of depth with not a lot of heavy lifting on the DMs part and continue to demonstrate the reasons I find this system so engaging. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

RMA: Blink Dogs

I always think of these as an AD&D creature. Partially because of the quirky 1e monster manual Tom Wham illustration, but mostly because that's what we were playing when I first encountered the creature. They are however, also in the BX rules as well as their nemeses, the displacer beasts.

What is up with that tail?

I think these are an unusual encounter because of their lawful alignment (not generally hostile) and running the mechanics of their short-range teleport ability can be complicated.

Blink Dog (from Cook)
AC: 5
HD: 4*
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 1 bite
Damage: 1d6
No. App.: 1d6 (1d6)
Save: F4

One thing that jumps out at me from the stats is that these are pretty tough dogs. They're roughly on par with a dire wolf (B44) in terms of raw fighting ability (a bit less damage on the bite). Despite that, they are skittish (low morale). This probably stems from their lawful alignment and the fact that they are "highly intelligent." It's worth noting that  the 1st edition Monster Manual lists them as of "average" INT (human level) and possessing a "fairly complex language consisting of barks, yaps, whines, and growls." (MM10) Whether a DM wants to bring that to his or her BX game is another question, but I personally like the idea of a PC learning the language and having to bark and growl to make themselves understood.

The intelligence level means 1) the dogs can be clever in their tactics, and 2) they may choose to not fight (eg low morale). If you allow for the idea that blink dogs have a language, it's also possible that they could know "PC" languages like Common, Elvish, Lawful, etc. which means parley is possible with good reaction rolls.

Moving on to the blink part of blink dog, these canines can "bamf" in and out during a fight. They do so without error and at random distances (1d4 x 10 feet).

Couldn't write this one without a shout-out to Kurt!

Blinking has two main effects during an encounter. 1) if they have the initiative, the dogs can attack someone and then blink away without allowing for a melee counter attack. 2) the constant shifting of position makes fighting or targeting them very difficult. They also can just "blink out" when/if they decide to flee a fight. They have OK treasure in their lairs, but given that they can teleport away, you might have a hard time tracking them there if randomly encountered.

The exception to their skittishness are displacer beasts. They "always attack" them and they are considered natural enemies. This is less a consideration for typical encounters and more of a delightful bit of flavor that could be mined for plot hooks. I like to imagine that the two creatures' were both initially from some other plane and arrived in the world via some sort of accident or freak occurrence. Both exist partially out of phase with the material world, but it manifests differently for each. Maybe they had some sort of Autobot/Decepticon thing going on. Displacer beasts are semi-intelligent, and they "hate and fear" blink dogs. So the antipathy could be baed upon something more than just competing for space in an ecosystem. Food for thought anyway.

More than meets the eye!

Monday, August 13, 2018

Spell Caster House Rules

I had posted this idea a while back in the BX G+ community, but thought I would add it to the blog as that's where I have similar ideas for house rules. The idea is to make the acquiring of spells a bigger part of adventuring as well as giving spell casters a little more magical power by allowing for scroll creation.

  • All magic-users and elves have a grimoire. This can be a your classic spell book, a long scroll, a tattooed pelt, scrimshawed bones, or any other means of recording written spells. Casting Detect Magic will distinguish a grimoire from a normal book or object.
  • 1st level MU/Elves start with the following spells: Detect Magic, Read Magic, a 1st level spell of their choice, and one random 2nd level spell (a gift from their teacher for when the character is advanced enough to use it.)
  • Clerics must choose a designated time of day (or night) in which they pray for their spells. Magic-users and Elves can only replenish a spent spell slot once per day and after a full night's worth of sleep (8 hours+). Unused spells are retained until cast or "traded out" for different ones.
  • As the caster goes up in level, spells are not learned automatically. They must be found to add to one's grimoire. Spells can be gained by three methods: spell research (X51), scrolls, another casters’ grimoire
  • Copying spells (from another grimoire or scroll) to one’s own grimoire requires use of the Read Magic spell. Once the caster can read the new spell, he must spend the time and purchase special materials to add it to his personal grimoire. The original of the spell is consumed in the process. (This is why wizards typically don’t let other wizards copy directly from their grimoires!) It takes one full day’s work and 100 gp per level of the spell to transcribe it. This requires the caster’s full attention for the duration of the process.
  • A magic-user or elf may create a magical scroll from a spell in his grimoire without destroying the original copy. (This is how spells are typically shared.) It takes one day and 500 gp per spell level to create a scroll. The scroll can be used to cast the spell or copy it, but it is consumed in either case. 
  • A cleric may create spell scrolls for the same costs in time and money as magic-users or elves, but must prepare -but not cast- the spell for each day he is scribing the scroll.
  • If a caster is desperate, he can cast an unprepared spell directly out his grimoire like a scroll, but the copy of the spell is destroyed in the process. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

RMA: Giant Toad


While not exactly rare, giant toads aren't particularly common either (at least in my games). It only shows up randomly on the wilderness tables and there only at rivers. I think this is because it is a relatively low level monster that doesn't make its appearance until the Expert rules. The river table appearance is somewhat limiting when one considers that real-life toads are often found well away from large bodies of water. Nevertheless, Mr. Toad is here and we shall investigate him before he drives off.

Toad, Giant (from Cook)

AC: 7
HD: 2+2
MV: 90' (30')
ATT: 1
DMG: 1d4+1
# APP: 1d4 (1d4)
TT: Nil

GTs are described as 150-250 pounds ("the size of a very large dog") and capable of changing the skin color. This chameleon effect increases their surprise chance slightly (1-3). Their hit dice and AC are no great shakes and they are hardly the bravest creatures when it comes to morale. Not to mention no real loot to speak of.

The two things that make the giant toad interesting are its ranged tongue attack (15') and the chance of swallowing a target whole. Only "small" (the text implies dwarf-sized or smaller) targets can be swallowed, and only then on a natural 20 attack roll. A swallowed target takes 1d6 damage per round while in the amphibian's gullet.

I think the reason this didn't get included in Moldvay was A) space limitations and/or B) the creature's wilderness aspect. It is after all just a big animal. The Expert rules opened up the wider (and wilder) world beyond the dungeon to the players & DM, so it seems -aheh- natural that some less powerful yet monstrous wildlife was introduced. 

As far as running an adventure with these creatures, I would happily place a few near a river or swamp and have them squat silently like a stone as the party travel through. Then THWIP! A sudden lashing out of a tongue at the halfling or dwarf PC to drag them in for a bite and if lucky, GULP! The emphasis (for me) would be to underscore the fantastic elements of a BX world rather than as a major encounter or challenge.

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 that 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 recently that got under my skin a little and wanted to work out some of the thoughts it generated. It is gaming-relaetd, 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 has the 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: 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 than an actual house rule. 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; eg 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!

Monday, June 11, 2018

New BX Screen

I bought one of Hammerdog Games' landscape "World's Greatest Screens" a while back with the idea of designing a new one for my classic games. This is the result.

 The only tables on the player side are equipment costs, cleric turning, and thief skills.

Closer view of the custom art panel I made:

This was all done with open-source software. I copied the data for the tables into LibreOffice and then laid out the pages in Scribus. I exported the whole thing to PDF for printing. The images were tweaked a bit in GIMP. 

I'm not 100% sure about the readability of the tables' sizes, so I may lose the notes panel to allow for bigger table text.

EDIT: As per requests, here is a link to the pdf on my Google docs.