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Saturday, March 31, 2018

RMA: Harpies

Despite their mythological pedigree, harpies are not a common occurence in games I've played or run. Which is odd, because their fit the bill for so many things I find compelling in an old-school monster encounter:

1) They're stats allow for use in low level games, but their abilities make them interesting even for more powerful characters.

2) Their magical abilities are scary, but not insta-TPK.

3) The fact they can fly adds a fun tactical twist to encounters.

4) They are intelligent enough (INT 7, according to the Rules Cyclopedia) that communication and varying response are possible.

So, let's take a look at these feathered fiends.

Harpy (from Moldvay)
AC: 7
HD: 3*
Move: 60' (20')
Fly: 150' (50')
Att: 2 claws/1 weapon + special
Damage: 1d4/1d4/1d6 + special
# App.: 1d6 (1d8)
Save: F3 (+2)
Morale: 7

First off, it may (or may not) be worth pointing out that Gygax & co. sort of mashed together two mythological critters into the D&D harpy. Harpies were bird women that stole and killed. Sirens were bird women that sang and charmed victims. Easy enough to confuse or conflate, but I just thought I'd mention that the harpies of myth were not typically portrayed as hypnotic singers.

Anyway, the harpy is said to be part giant eagle, part hideous woman. As there is no "Eagle, Giant" in BX, let's go with the giant hawk. It's pretty close HD-wise to the harpy and is described as the size of a large dog or small pony. So that sounds like it could be the creature's lower half. A giant hawk can carry away small targets like halflings, so right there you can have some fun. Imagine a charmed hobbit letting himself literally get carried away!

Harpies have lousy morale, so they are likely to flee at any fierce resistance. Harpies aren't smart, but the aren't mindless animals either. The description says a successful save lets a character resist the song for the rest of the encounter. Meaning if the ladybirds show back up later that day, it's time to roll again! They could harry a party striving to lure at least one PC away with their song. Perhaps enticing him to walk off a cliff! Then the PCs would have to find a way to reach the body while the harpies simply fly down and feast. Treasure type C is no great shakes, but lends me to think the harpies might carry shiny trinkets back to their eyrie even if they may leave the picked-over bones behind.

How to fight them? Well, as mentioned, they aren't particularly tough. Their morale is poor, so chasing them off is a possibility. Judicious use of a Silence 15' Radius spell could potentially render the harpies mute for the encounter, depending on how much room they have to fly around and where the cleric centers the spell.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A brief Garycon X aside

As it is BX related. I though I'd mention that I managed to get copies of my Moldvay & Cook rule books signed this year by David "Zeb" Cook and Erol Otus (his first GC). Both of them couldn't have been nicer. My only regret is that the inestimable Mr. Moldvay is no longer with us.

REF: Black Dragons?! Plural?!

Random Encounter Fun time! Where we roll up a wandering monster/encounter and try to make sense of it.

I decided to go back to the dungeon this time. I rolled a d14 (Thanks Col. Z!) to determine the party level, though I suppose I could have just rolled a d8 for the dungeon level. I got a 9, which was level 8+. So we're pretty far down in the ol' labyrinth here.

A roll of 5 on a d20 results in (drumroll)

1d4 Black Dragons (result 3)

Wait, what?

That's right, folks. We've got THREE black dragons roaming the halls here. Granted, the DM needs to make judgement calls about whether an encounter makes sense or not, but this is an exercise so we're going with it.

So obviously it's not normal for these critters to be walking down a 10' corridor. Not to mention they need some sort of access to open spaces for hunting, etc. Blacks are listed as living in swamps and marshes, so perhaps they lair in an underground lake or grotto? This is a random encounter, though, so they aren't necessarily in their lair. Further, who's to say they share a lair at all? maybe one (or more) is visiting...

It wouldn't make sense for dragons to live in the same lair. They are solitary creatures as a rule. They also don't like sharing, not to mention a single micro-environment like a dungeon would have a hard time feeding multiple dragons. But what if it was mating season?

Two male blacks have entered the dungeon seeking a female that lives in the deeper caves. The party encounters the two would-be suitors just as they have met upon each other! Reaction rolls are rolled aaand

The dragons have a 5 toward each other (Hostile, possible attack) and an 8 and a 9 toward the party (Uncertain/confused and no attack/considers offers). So the two bucks are wyrming their ways through the halls to the lower caves when they spy each other. It's obvious why each is here. Now they're circling and snarling, spoiling for a fight when the PCs stumble into the mix. Neither dragon is so stupid as to ignore a party of 9th level PCs, but the other dragon has to be its main concern. One is flummoxed by this added complication. The other is pondering if the PCs could be enticed to help him, or at least to attack his rival first. All this plus the THIRD dragon is somewhere in the dungeon, and maybe she is on her way up to see what all the Draconic trash-talk is about...

EDIT: It should also be mentioned that the two visiting dragons wouldn't have any treasure, as they are not in their lairs. Talk about a lousy risk/reward ratio!

Monday, March 19, 2018

RSA/RMA: Invisible Stalker

It's a spell! No, it's a monster! No, it's a spell and a monster! It's the Invisible Stalker! It's a Random Spell + Monster Assessment!

This one has been around for nearly every edition of D&D that I know of, yet it seldom comes up in play. The BX version of the creature only appears if summoned via the 6th level MU spell of the same name, which may be unique for a creature listed in the monsters section; unless you include elementals, which can be summoned in three different ways (staff, device, or spell).

Invisible Stalker (from Cook)

AC: 3
HD: 8*
Move: 120' (40')
Att: 1
Dmg: 4d4
No. App: 1
Save: F8
Morale: 12
Treasure: Nil

Since it's summoned via a 6th level spell, it makes sense that this is a fairly tough creature: good AC, high HD, respectable damage, and infallible morale score are enough to make a bad time for anyone the stalker is sent after or who gets in its way.

The stalker is summoned via spell to perform some task for the magic-user. It could be to kill someone, but it might be an entirely different objective. Unlike automatons like zombies or golems, the stalker is 'very intelligent.' So much so that it may try to subvert the spirit of the command while obeying the letter of it because it resents being summoned (much like an Efreet).

Other factors that make the stalker so dangerous is its innate invisibility. While BX does not go into detail, other editions describe the ability as persisting even if the creature attacks and not being affected by dispel magic. Further, it surprises on a 1-5 (thanks to the invisibility) and is described as a "faultless tracker" (similar to an Amber Golem).

There is no duration to the spell. The Invisible Stalker remains until its task is complete, it's slain, or the 5th level clerical spell dispel evil banishes it. A scenario that requires the presence of fairly powerful characters: a 7th level cleric for banishing and/or an 11th level MU for summoning. This implies that the creature really shouldn't be too common before PCs have a few levels under their belts. ISs do not appear randomly; in the wilderness or in dungeons. They should be placed deliberately if they show up at all (unless summoned by a PC).

As a DM, I can imagine scenarios where an NPC wizard summons an IS and sends it on a mission that conflicts in some way with the PCs' goals. It isn't sent specifically to kill the party, but it will eliminate obstacles as necessary. Remember that stalkers are intelligent, they will solve problems creatively.

Likewise, I expect a scroll or other non-permanent item that allows summoning an Invisible Stalker falling into the party's hands could cause a good deal of plot-fodder. If they aren't careful, they may find that they don't quite get the results they hoped for.

Friday, March 16, 2018

RMA: Giant Ferrets

I mentioned these very briefly when talking about gnomes, but didn't go into any detail. Never seen one in a BX game. There was a 3e campaign where a gnome illusionist had one as a familiar, but other than that...

Ferret, Giant (from Moldvay)

AC: 5
HD: 1+1
Move: 150' (50')
Att: 1 (bite)
Damage: 1d8
No. App: 1d8 (1d12)
Save: F1
Morale: 8
Treasure: Nil

Unlike the weasel version, giant ferrets are "only" three feet long and just over 1HD. In terms of randomly encountering them, they only show up in grasslands and -interestingly enough- inhabited lands. They never appear randomly in dungeons.

They aren't really that impressive in a fight. With their low hit dice, skittish morale, and single simple attack, they should be fairly easy to deal with. What's most interesting about these are two tidbits from the description.

"They hunt giant rats underground and are sometimes trained for this purpose."

This ties in nicely with them appearing randomly in inhabited areas. One could see folks not particularly interested in tangling with giant rats, so they send in these tubes with teeth to deal with it. Which brings us to the next point.

"Unfortunately, their tempers are highly unpredictable, and they have been known to attack their trainers and other humans."

This isn't anything earth-shaking, but it's yet another example of the plot-rich material just lying there in the text of Moldvay & Cook.

I can imagine a town mini-adventure involving some irksome giant rats, the ferrets that were supposed to take them out, and the rat-catchers that "trained" said ferrets and then lost control of them. The ferrets are wreaking havoc, as they have found there way into several homes and stolen people's valuables  (ferrets will steal almost anything, especially shinies). The rats are still a problem (perhaps spreading disease), and the rat-catchers are desperate to clean up the mess. Enter our brave, low-level heroes who must now make a foray into the sewers to rout out the offending rodents and mustelids, possibly encountering something more sinister in the process.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

RMA: Aranea

While the Aranea isn't from the rulebooks' monster listings, it is in the classic module X1: Isle of Dread by Moldvay & Cook, so I feel it qualifies as a BX critter. It's probably not fair to say it's obscure, since so many people have played X1 over the years. The Aranea also was included in BECMI's Creature Catalog (AC9) and even later editions of the game, so it has some staying power.

What caught my eye about this monster wasn't its stats or its prowess in battle, but how the creature was fleshed out in quasi-gygaxian naturalism. Let us explore. First (as always) the stats:

Aranea (from X1)

Armor Class: 7
No. Appearing: 1-3 (1-6)
Hit Dice: 3**
Move:60' (20')
     -In web: 120' (40')
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d6 + poison
Save As: MU3
Morale: 7
Treasure Type: D
Alignment: Chaotic

So this fella has lousy AC, so-so HD, and only one attack. Admittedly it can force a save or die, but still not a huge threat to an expert level party. No, what makes the Aranea so fun are the extra, not necessarily combat, tidbits.

1) They can cast spells. Each Aranea is basically a 3rd level MU. Think about that. Imagine a pony-sized spider casting Sleep on a party. Or having access to Invisibility? But let's not focus just on combat spells. What about ESPLocate Object? Or even just plain old Read Magic? This ties into the next part of the critter I liked.

2) They're intelligent. The Aranea's spellcasting ability isn't some natural talent, like a Blink Dog's teleport. They are human-level smart (Creature Catalog says INT 14). It also says "...they spend much of their time in magic research." They also have almost human-like fingers on their forelimbs, which allow them to craft and write. Which means they're GIANT SPIDERS WITH SPELL BOOKS! How cool is that?! Further, their lousy morale indicates they aren't really that interested in fighting. Possibly setting a chance to parley or negotiate? (Break out the reaction table!)

3) Bugbear Buddies. This little throwaway line in X1 tickled me to no end. "They are friendly with bugbears and often hire them to guard the forest beneath their lairs." Perhaps that's intended to only be for the Araneas on the Isle, but there are bugbears all over, so why shouldn't such a relationship be possible in other regions? I expect the bugbears would be happy with a friendly wizard living above their home and the Aranea would have more time to spend on research if it knew the territory below its home was guarded.

I can imagine a fun low-level adventure where the party must enter the bugbears' domain in order to parley with an Aranea for some valuable piece of magical knowledge or intel. Perhaps the spider sends them to retrieve some substance or grimoire in exchange for what they want? The Aranea in question could even become a recurring NPC. Their alignment is Chaotic, though. So trusting it might be another matter.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Curious Objects: Staff of Withering

There are several cursed objects in the BX magic items lists, but only a few seem to bestow curses or curse-like magic for the wielder instead of upon him. The Staff of Withering is one of them.

I've never placed this item or rolled it randomly. Nor do I recall a game where it appeared. It's strange for several reasons, so let's get to it.

First, it is a clerical item. Yet its extremely malicious nature would make it likely to only be used by chaotic types, so it seems like many PC clerics would avoid or destroy it. Sure, I can imagine scenarios where it could be helpful. e.g. A person has been cursed and turned into a baby and needs to be brought back to their correct age (or closer to it); but mostly, it's for stealing away a person's life a chunk at a time. This also lends itself to torture scenarios. A victim could be threatened with shortened lifespan unless they comply. Another decidedly un-Lawful kind of activity. I imagine many clerical types risking severe disfavor with their gods by employing this stick of incremental doom.

Secondly, there are no hard and fast rules about aging in BX. Not that I feel they are missed or needed, but this is one of the only times the issue of a PC's age comes up. There aren't even ghosts in the BX monster lists to unnaturally age a character. It's not hard to make some simple rulings about a 20-something fighter that suddenly find himself on the wrong side of 50, but as it can drastically affect the rest of the character's career (if any), it bears consideration.

One line stand out about this to me: "The effect of old age will be fatal to animals and most character classes," Now, there are two ways I can interpret this. One is the obvious, that old age kills and that the staff can –even with limited charges– age someone enough to put them in the grave. The other is that the effects of suddenly aging so much so quickly is a shock to the system and warrants a "save or die" roll. Personally, I think it's the former.

Another character aging issue is the line about elves and dwarfs ignore the effects for at least the first few hits. Demihuman lifespans vary from game to game and setting to setting, but I find the inclusion of that caveat interesting. The fact it does not affect the undead makes perfect sense, though a zombie turning into a skeleton would be a fun side effect.

Lastly, remember that as a staff it has limited charges. 3d10 in fact. That means it can steal a maximum of 300 years before it is used up. That, plus the fact it must touch the target, makes it even less of an adventuring item and for more specialized purposes.