Monday 29 November 2010

Ephemera's Report

[This account of last week's game is penned by my wife, also known as the magic-user Ephemera. Notes from me, as GM, are in brackets.]

As every student of the arcane knows, there is a time for all things.. a time to press the attack, and a time to regroup.  The adventuring band retired to Trossley, rested a night but soon stepped up to fight once again - the horrifying not-plant, not-animal creature glimpsed beneath the millhouse was still at large. 

Fortified by a few supplies and stalwart city guards, mostly healed, but once again recklessly advancing with their divine spells expended, the party returned to the mill.  (Minus the faithless oathbreaker Lessig the Elf, who left in the night taking Ephemera's generous pay advance with him. [1])  They brought the  "lump monster" to bay and dispatched it along with a few other similarly slimy denizens; the group left full exploration of the tunnels for another day.

The party and allies took heart from this success, but all was not yet set to rights. The foul millstones remained.  After Ric son of Nic had been executed by the townspeople in the earlier incident, Trossley went to considerable effort to remove and bury the stones.. but a short while later, they had vanished from the burial site leaving only an empty hole. 

Next order of business:  resupply and continued investigation.  The party set out for the nearby city of Utherton, a very different community from Trossley - as evinced by its 3cp entry toll and thriving commerce.  The party visited Utherton's famous Street of Ranged Weapons, adding Cordoon's brother Callow to their ranks as a henchman.

Utherton's religious authorities also differed sharply from the down-home priest of Trossley.  Despite the urgency of the stones' sorcerous threat, little succor came from an interview with the sub-sub-hierarch of the Church. After some remonstration, he spoke of inquisitors of St. Damien [2] to arrive in Trossley in a matter of weeks.  The party also consulted Ephemera's arcane mentor Joia, who gave some hope of a means to investigate the party's possibly evil, possibly magical loot.  She also shared knowledge of the Dark Mother, a dark, sorcerous, chthonic being invoked by the spectacled sorcerer in his last fight and revered by earthly evildoers.

Finally, returning to Trossley the adventurers fell in with a strange traveling vendor of exotic magical wares - Motley Tom by name, looking to purvey his expensive goods in the village, little realizing how far the adventuring spirit had fallen off in recent years.  And back at the inn Lessig had returned his pay with a note of apology.. apparently his oath of loyalty sworn before St. Hermas was more than empty words in the Saint's eyes...

[1] I judged her generous offer of two weeks' pay in advance would incur a loyalty check; hirelings must be kept content but hungry .... Even with the bonuses from the Oath of St. Hermas, not much you can do against boxcars. The loyalty, reaction and morale rules are definitely earning their keep in this game.

[2] St. Damien is the patron of a secretive and itinerant group of Church exorcists, dispatched to purify people, places and things from unholy influence. Trained in White and Gray magics, they gain access to all spells of dispelling at one spell level lower. They wear black soutanes and skullcaps, and are well equipped with blessed waters, crosses, weapons and parchments. Due to their infrequent appearance and grim legendry, they are held in awe and trembling by most common folk.

Saturday 27 November 2010

Mapping Woes: Any Ideas?

My output of rules and game theory ideas has been slowing down as real life increases its demands, and Actual Play (TM) also puts requirements on my time. The hope is that the experience proves a testing ground for the theory, anyway.

One pragmatic problem that's come up is what to use for dungeon and campaign mapping - with the aim of producing not just something useable, but something that can be shared and shown out with a fair amount of pride. My original maps for the Cellars of the Castle Ruins, which I was running over the summer, were done using the freeware program AutoRealm. However, while richly supplied with graphic elements like stairs, rubble, jagged lines, and doors, AutoRealm consistently showed problems with maintaining line thickness at various resolutions. Perhaps combined with this, snapping to the graph paper grid was often a little bit off, and the map's shapes would shift around no matter how much I fiddled with it. The upshot of all this was that AR wouldn't produce a production-ready graphic that I was happy with, though the rough and ready map was fine for running sessions from.

For the Trossley campaign I experimented with mapping a few key sites in PowerPoint. Although it's a fairly good object-oriented program that allows a grid and approximation to graph paper, it's harder to get one's hands on the requisite shapes for mapping. I may have to hack together some stair, door and window icons for cutting and pasting. All the same, I'm confident that Powerpoint will serve my needs in the short term, even though the maps do look a little pedestrian.

What's the consensus out there - do I really need to put down cash for Campaign Cartographer or the like to get decent looking dungeon maps? Note that tile-based programs are right out for my rather geometrically convoluted architectures, though my modest need for outdoor mapping so far is handled decently by Hexographer.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

HeroQuest: Tactics and Tactiles

I played this for the first time the other night as part of our local pub boardgames night, taking the part of a dwarf in a full party through the first two scenarios. Pretty neat, very simple dungeon crawling missions from 1989 Milton Bradley with help from Games Workshop - the involvement of the hardcore hobby gaming pros definitely shows.

I think when it was released I ignored it pretty much as a "kids' game," and it certainly is that, but it teaches fun lessons. Initiative is achieved by running right at things and whacking them. The dungeon furniture is cool, though disappointingly generic in game effects. The miniatures are really well sculpted and could form a starter set for a beginning DM in a more serious game. Although the game is cooperative in theory (4 players against a game master), the lure of treasure is strong and there's room for some sharp elbows, blocking off doors to rich chambers, and the like. And eventually, in a streamlined way, the rules cover such complexities of dungeoneering as secret doors, traps, hidden treasure, wandering monsters, spells and saving throws. There's something to be said for a character sheet that only has 2 numbers on it ...

All the same, the replay value doesn't seem long on a game like this; a few more characters could have helped things out some, or some way for characters to advance beyond just accumulating more gear and loot. There were a whole bunch of expansions, too, and I suppose the basic game did its part of getting a generation of kids interested in pushing miniatures around a dungeon.

As Grognardia is talking about entry-level games, I think one plus of HeroQuest is its very tactile nature, coupled with simplicity (a lesson Fantasy Flight need to learn) and completeness of play out of the box. The need for miniatures and tactical displays certainly show that the core D&D brand has staked itself on the tactile experience as a point of sale against the computer game juggernaut.

Will that ultimately mean longer legs than the truly interactive, social and creative experience that's offered as a counterpoint to computer games by the old-school revival? Perhaps, but I know which one is more important in my games.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Crits and Fumbles

This is the the table - short, impressionistic and easy to remember - that I use for critical hits and fumbles.

I'm definitely of the "low impact" school of special combat effects. Not so much getting your eye poked out (that's a result for below 0 hit points - another table to work up) or maiming your buddy with a wild swing, but just minor effects that add flavor to the flow of a combat.

When someone rolls a natural 20 to hit in my game, I use the table to help decide what happens. The victim of the hit chooses whether to take maximum damage from the hit, or to roll the damage normally and suffer a random mishap from the table. If the mishap doesn't apply - for example, nothing is carried in a particular hand, or a creature doesn't have a head - then maximum damage has to happen.

As fumbles, the mishaps can also occur on a natural to hit roll 1, for the character who rolled it, but in that case there is no consequence if a particular mishap doesn't apply.

Click to see all
I will sometimes allow a save to avoid the effects, if conditions are particularly good to avoid them. For example, if wearing a helmet, you can make a Body save (with a constitution-based bonus) to avoid being stunned for 1 round; if not, the save avoids being stunned for 2 rounds instead of 1. If solidly positioned on good dry footing, you can make a Speed save (with dexterity-based bonus) to avoid falling. If your held item is a greatsword and the opponent's is a dagger, that's also Body to avoid dropping it. "Repositioning" covers things like charging past an opponent, or them slipping around your back.

Right now, breakage tests are ruled according to common sense, but I'm working on a system to handle quick and easy non-living object damage. That and the "death and dismemberment" table I want to use are both coming up.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Mythos Kids

Kids draw the cutest shoggoths - when egged on by David Milano.

(Note: There are some who take the Cthulhu Mythos highly seriously and recoil at the numerous attempts to make it comically cute and familiar. I'm not one of those. I'd rather people get upset about how Gojira did a face turn from terrifying apocalyptic Hiroshima allegory to campy rubber-suit monster fighting giant frankensteins.)

The Millhouse Burns

Tonight was the climax of the Millhouse Saga. Rushing to the porch of the white house, the adventurers found flames all around, the guardsman they'd posted there beating out his burning clothing (miraculously, he survived), and the Orange Goblin and a hooded figure high-tailing it out of the compound - the Goblin weighed down by a medium-sized chest he was toting on his crooked back.

The party at first decided to let them go, but after extinguishing the flames and fending off the ivy tendrils that still danced to the arrhythmic grinding of the millstones, decided to give chase. Doing a foot chase betwen two parties of equal speed is a tough job. I ended up rolling DEX checks for the fastest runner, the NPC woodsman Burnsteen, being helmed by the player of the militant who got KO'd and ear-gouged by the Orange Goblin, and giving him an extra d6 roll against his wilderness skill - each passed check meant a 10 foot gain. Meanwhile the other two were rolling DEX as well. After some six rounds of this I also started rolling STR checks for stamina. It was fun, especially when the hooded figure turned around to cast Gust of Wind and Force Shield spells to try to confound pursuit, but it was all ultimately preordained as the law of large numbers caught up to the villains.

(If anyone has a better or more conclusive chase procedure than the one I winged up please let me know!)

The sorcerer threw back his hood and sneered defiantly - it was the spectacled figure who'd instigated the whole bone meal plot. The Goblin, who'd dropped the chest a long time ago, turned to fight as well. After a short combat with better party rolling than the previous two debacles, it was all over for the bad guys. A search of the sorcerer revealed some jewelry, a dagger of virtuous steel, and a fearsome black book. The dropped chest was looted of coins, and it was back to the millhouse to try and stop the grinding stones.

The door to the millstone room was open, and a horrific sight within - the rotating stones engraved with silver-chased runes of ominous portent, and smeared with a foul-smelling slurry of blood, bone fragments and chunks. Fortunately, Grumpka the dwarf did extremely well figuring out the mechanism, and a well-placed spear shut down the grinding. A hole in the wooden floor revealed a cellar with something amorphous, neither plant nor animal, covered with tentacles, mouths and eyes; it scuttled away from the torchlight and nobody seemed up for descending. In the next room over was a pillar-like statue of a dense and unfamiliar black wood carved with sinister braids and half-tortured, half-laughing faces, next to a strangely hypnotic rug. Searching the other buildings revealed various mundane treasures, and a rotten top floor that sent Grumpka plunging to land among (luckily, not on) the wounded in the room below.

It was then decided to stop messing around, and gather kindling for a torching of the accursed millhouse, pyre also for the bodies of sorcerer and goblins. In trying to appropriate a barrel for fire control, Grumpka (like everyone else, down to a last few HP) and the captain of the guard came face to, um, eye with a barrel beast courtesy of my Varlets & Vermin selection. Fortunately, the thing was quickly enough put down and the house burned down to blackened timbers in hours. With a mighty crash the demonic millstones fell into the cellar - but ominously, the pillar still stood, unharmed by the fire.

This was the first really successful session, with nobody KO'd, foes defeated, and a decent if not spectacular haul of treasure. Party members are at about 500 xp - we'll have to see if I stick to 2000 as a level-up figure or show some mercy. They could really use the insurance of another hit die ... but good things don't come easy!

Also, props to my wife for surprising me with a custom Roles, Rules & Rolls DM screen for my upcoming birthday! Photos soon.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Mittellus: Religion

Some notes on the religious history of the world, Mittellus, that houses the Trossley campaign.

The Old Way has always been the way of man: gods that were their domains, harvest and springing stag, rills and mountain peaks, served by shamans, Druach votaries, goat-leapers and wind-witches. Cut down time and again by the empires of men, the ancient rites find accommodation, and spring back when empires fall. But this time, they have competition: the Church.

In the dark years after the breaking of the Millennial Empire, it was commanded that three prophets receive the Revelation that there is but one God: Odaus, the sage of the East; Invictus, the young soldier of the West; and Amalthea, aristocrat of the ravaged Millennial homelands. Spreading the word and the blessings of holy miracles, the three found each other within a decade, and the Church was formed. Then, on a mission to convert a King of the North, Odaus betrayed the Lady Amalthea to the barbarians to save his own skin, a despicable act for which his followers in the East blamed Invictus. So was born the schism of the churches, West against East, with Amalthea as martyr.

Folk-saints Phoebe and Mitras counsel King Thonar

It has been five hundred years since then. Kings and pontifices of the West have waged near-constant war, against priest-emperors of the East and eruptions of barbarians and worse from the edges of the world. Trossley sits in a landlocked area of the Northern Continent Alatoria, within the sphere of the Western Church, but here the reach of the Sacred Seat is tenuous. Mitras, Hermas, Froellia, Uncumber, Eracle and other folk-saints are much honored hereabouts. Priests are trained and knowledge concentrated in fortified phalansteries, and it seems every town of some standing is trying to build a church to rival its neighbors.

Enemies of the Church are many. The benighted Eastern followers of Odaus, even more infuriating for their claim to the true Revelation; the Anti-God or Devil known from the Revelation, a subtle fellow with many secret worshippers and guises; the Powers of Beyond, demons of utmost Chaos who enter the world through the gates of human desire; and those who cling to the Old Way, although these are the least of the Church's worries and are even somewhat tolerated in the Alatorian hinterland.

Silvanian mendicant friars
Against these stand the Church hierarchy and the holy Orders. The unforgiving black-robed followers of St. Hieracon are charged with maintaining doctrinal purity and order among the Church and her faithful. The brown-robed hermits and peaceful wanderers of St. Silvain are popular with the common folk but suspected to be soft on the Old Way. The main Militant orders are three: the Order of Valentia, the Order of the Tower, and the wandering Peregrines. Holy Sequina, the Divine Wisdom, shelters mystics and intellectuals alike in her white-robed Order.

Raise, then, the equal-armed Cross and let the banners of the Church advance! But make sure that the Cross you raise has the horizontal bar over the vertical - the Western church's Hilt of Invictus - and not the vertical over the horizontal - sign of the Devil's own heresy, the Staff of Odaus, sacred to the Anti-Church of the East.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Encounter Reaction/Morale Table

Monsters (including NPCs) without a scenario-specified reaction, and with at least animal intelligence, may react at random, according to their Hostility Rating (from 2-12, average 7) and Morale Rating (also 2-12, average 7). Hostility is their likelihood of a hostile reaction to a group of humans and demi-humans. Morale is their will to assert themselves when confronted with a group of roughly equal strength.

Examples: Kobolds have Hostility 8 and Morale 6. Hobgoblins have Hostility 9 and Morale 8. Dwarves found in the dungeon may have Hostility 5 and Morale 8. A hungry wolf may have Hostility 7 and Morale 9. A hill giant will likely have Hostility 8 and Morale 6 (he is big, yes, but he is a coward when dealing with things his own size).

The DM can simply roll 2d6 twice on an initial encounter, where a result equal to or lower than Hostility indicates a hostile reaction, and a result equal to or lower than Morale indicates self-assertion (attack or bargaining) rather than retreat. Or the more complicated table and procedure below can be used.

Click to enlarge

Attack: Monsters advance and attack the party
Stand: Monsters hold ground, fight if attacked
Retreat: Monsters make orderly withdrawal
Flee: Monsters run away headlong

In quotes: “Result only if party and monsters can communicate”

“Offer Service”: Monsters offer to help the party or fight with them a short while
“Offer Peace”: Monsters offer a longer-term truce
“Offer Alliance”:  Monsters propose an alliance to achieve a mutual goal
“Ask for Service”: Monsters demand the party assist them, will turn neutral if refused
“Ask for Peace”: Monsters demand a truce and will impose other conditions
“Beg”: Monsters grovel and will offer all they have to escape attack
“Bargain”: Monsters parley, but will pay a high price to escape attack
“Parley”: Monsters negotiate a mutually acceptable truce
“Intimidate”: Monsters negotiate but will expect payment or other advantage
“Command”: Monsters demand a payment, bribe, or other service in exchange for truce

In square brackets: [Result only if monsters are cornered or outrun]

Surrender: Monsters throw down arms and beg for mercy
Berserk: Monsters fight without mercy in a last-ditch stand
Fight: Monsters fight, subject to morale checks

In angle brackets: Result only if party flees or retreats

Stay: Monsters do not chase
Pursue: Monsters give chase
No Quarter: Monsters will not accept party surrender, fighting to the death

Monster Hostility Roll (2d6):
-3 to roll if poorly disposed (evil monsters on raid, party invades monsters’ home or attacks them by surprise);
+0 normally (monsters on patrol);
+3 to roll if well disposed (allies meeting in a war)

Once established, a hostility result usually stands, unless the party does something to test or radically improve relations (offering a large bribe, demanding a large favour) which may force a re-roll. Situational bonuses can range up to +/-2: for example, offering food to a hungry animal might give a +2, while an encounter between uneasy allies such as dwarves and elves might give -1. Charisma bonuses to hostility rating only apply to beings of similar species (humans, demi-humans, and creatures with human-like motives) and compatible alignment.

Deception: Creatures of low intelligence or higher who can parley or otherwise represent themselves as friendly will attempt to deceive the party upon a Hostile or Mortal Foe result of 1 in 6 times; average intelligence, 2 in 6; higher intelligence, 3 in 6. Roll a separate d6 for this.

Monster Morale Roll (2d6):
-3 if monsters think they are outclassed by 2:1 (effective hit dice vs. levels) or more;
+3 if monsters think they outclass party by 2:1 or more

Once morale is established, a group rerolls morale when 1/3 or more of its members are incapacitated; again at 2/3; when a leader falls; and when the situation changes dramatically (such as reinforcements arriving). An individual who has lost 50% or more hit points must also check morale. The subjective odds might change as well, and this is reflected in the number of dice rolled at any point. 

Situational bonuses can range up to +/-2: for example, a menacing attitude might give -1 to enemy morale (but -2 to reactions), while being outflanked from opposite sides might give -2. Charisma bonuses to morale only apply to beings of similar species (humans, demi-humans, and creatures with human-like motives) where the high Charisma figure is a leader of the others. Monsters may also have leaders who give morale bonuses but risk morale checks if they themselves fall.

Monsters of low intelligence figure subjective odds on pure numbers, also figuring in size and perhaps counting particularly well-armed individuals as double. Monsters of average intelligence have a more sophisticated idea of approximate levels and fighting capacity, while monsters of high intelligence are able to spot subtleties such as the existence of a magic-user.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Fatal Hatchet of the Orange Goblin

The Trossley adventurers healed and rested overnight. Going down to the common room of the Duck and Whistle, they found the Mayor, captain of the guard, and the village priest in conference with Burnsteen the Warden of the Wood, who had converted an inn table into a tactical display with the aid of crumbs and straw. The plan was for an assault on the cursed millhouse to begin immediately - the captain and four men taking the expected route by the road to the north of the mill, while Burnsteen and the adventurers carried out the "renowned Wood Warden flanking maneuver", crossing the river south of the mill.

Before leaving town, the adventurers - including the wounded henchman Cordoon, who had refused healing from the village priest on account of his own pagan religion and the priest's insinuation that conversion might be the price of health - decided to stop briefly in to the Temple of St. Hermas and swear an adventuring oath on the vaunted altar there. Because of this show of piety, I was resolved to yield mercy in whatever mishaps might befall - this one time!

As they entered the woods, an unnatural stillness echoed in their ears. The birds were silent, and as they approached they felt a low unease that resolved itself into the hideous, otherworldly grinding of the mill stones! At that point Burnsteen loped through the woods, the party following behind. When they reached the lower part of the river, it was flowing more strongly - the water gate had been opened, apparently. They forded without incident and marched north through a forest where the new-sprouted leaves and buds were rustling and twitching, though no wind could be felt.

Eventually they reached sight of the southern white-painted house of the mill complex, part hidden behind some mounds of earth that had been there for some time. According to plans, they waited there until they heard yelling from the north over the maddening grinding of the wheels and the creaking of branches overhead. Then they advanced quickly past the house, with its wall on the left and a long and thorny hedge on their right. In the midst of this, the hedge lashed out at Burnsteen in the front with thorny tendrils, rolling a 1. How does a hedge fumble, you might ask? I was stumped, but my wife provided the answer - two tendrils had both reached for the woodsman and gotten tangled in each other. At the same time, a tree in the rear went for Lesseig, scratching the elf hireling slightly, and the party ran ahead madly, rounding a corner.

It was then that the keen-sensed Burnsteen saw the two goblins, one orange and one yellow. They had meant to rush out the front of the white house but were, shall we say, distracted by the thrashing vines of ivy that were lashing out from under the porch. Drawing a bead, the NPC woodsman hurled one of his signature throwing daggers, scoring a crit and catching the yellow goblin in the throat. (I'm ruling that crits either have a detrimental effect on their victim or score maximum damage, at the victim's choice usually; but since this was a surprise situation I gave Burnsteen the choice, and players voted to score damage.) Meanwhile, Boniface the militant, followed by the hireling Balm, rushed the porch, and the orange goblin fled within. As Boniface hacked at the ivy, Balm impetuously rushed into the house.

Now what? As my wife pointed out, the party faced a dilemma. They had just sworn an oath of mutual aid, henchmen and hirelings included, so they couldn't just leave the reckless Balm to face the house of horrors alone. Loyalty works both ways! But they were also on a military operation, and the sounds from the north were not encouraging, what with the captain yelling "Cowards!" and "Come back!" and loud, bestial growls from the same quarter. The fateful decision to split the party was made. Boniface would follow Balm, trailed by a hastily conjured unseen servant with orders to report back if any trouble arose. The rest would head north and reinforce the guardsmen.

Balm and Boniface followed the orange goblin to the kitchen of the house, whereupon, with bad luck "to hit" and exceptional damage from the goblin's hand axe, both of them fell at negative hit points. Meanwhile, the rest of the party ran into a wounded bugbear that was retreating, and wounded it some more; Ephemera the magic-user finally slept it after it swung at her and - very fortunately - rolled minimum damage.

At the unseen servant's bidding, the rest of the party rushed back to the house, to find Balm lying on the ground dazed, bleeding and with his helmet split in two, and Boniface with his ear cut off, unconscious, losing even more blood from a horrible jagged wound and in shock. (The result of rolls on trollsmyth's merciful Death and Dismemberment table and the good graces of St. Hermas and the dice. I may use a more lethal table next session.) The orange goblin was nowhere to be seen, having evidently thought better of administering the, um, coup de grace.

While the guards posted watch, the party searched the kitchen and dining room and found some quite modest treasures - a set of nice plates here, some rather unusual cooking ingredients there. And then, a tap on Ephemera's shoulder from the unseen servant who had been charged with patrolling the grounds ... a gurgling scream ... and the smell of smoke from the front of the house ...

A nice enough cliffhanger for the next session.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Morale and Reactions

What are the two things that are most important to know about a stranger? Or a group of strangers?

Social psychologists know. But so did the early authors of D&D.

The stereotype content model, elaborated by Susan Fiske and other social psychologists, describes how we organize beliefs about other people and social groups - traits and stereotypes. Over the past 20 years, dozens of studies have supported the idea that two key traits, warmth and competence, are major players in our attitudes and behaviors toward other groups.

Warmth is how cooperative the group appears to us. Competence is how strong - how able to do meaningful things - they look. So, jolly halflings might be seen as high in warmth but low in competence. Dour dwarves are the other way around, not very warm but very good at what they do. Kobolds, maybe, are low in both.

When two groups meet in an adventure, the rules of most early forms of D&D have them sizing up each other precisely on these two dimensions.

The reaction roll is the warmth check. That's fairly easy to see. Do they see you as cooperative and will they be likely to cooperate in turn?

But what about the competence check? Well, competence in the dungeon is largely a matter of fighting. If I see you as better at fighting than me, I might run if things seem hostile. If I see myself as better and I don't like you, I might attack. In other words - competence is morale.

Each early edition of D&D has its own way to handle morale checks, but in general morale is tested mainly after taking some amount of casualties in combat. This reflects the origins of the game in tabletop wargaming, where it was assumed that units started the battle with enough courage to approach each other.

And never mind courage. Even rationally, by Sun Tzu's time-tested maxim, an inferior force should not approach a superior. So, in the probing and testing before battle, if any, is joined - that is when the first morale check, off-table, should happen. (Coincidence that this fog of war is exactly the reason for the position of wargame referee, which evolves into Dungeon Master?)

This all suggests that the first encounter between two forces should include not just a reaction roll from the non-players, but a morale check, to see which side they esteem as the more powerful. This will determine, for example, whether their response upon a negative reaction (from either side) is to attack or retreat.

And on the other hand, because both rolls are on 2d6, I'm tempted to make the reaction roll a "reaction check" - with an unfriendly attitude if rolled over the creature's rating, and both of these checks having greater effects if made or failed by a certain margin.

Next post: The combined reaction/morale chart.

Friday 5 November 2010

The Justice Beast

Yeah, I had to change the zorbo a lot for it to make any kind of sense.

Justice Beast

Hit Dice: 2 or more
Size: S (1-2 HD)/M (3-5 HD)/L (6 HD)
Move: 6
Armor Class: 5 (descending)/14 (ascending); Armor 0/Agility 2/Magic 2
Attacks: Bite 1 + 1d6/4 HD
Special abilities: Grows with enemies
Intelligence: Animal
Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Reaction: 8 (positive)
Morale: 9 (brave)
XP Basis: As Hit Dice when slain

The appearance of this creature? Variously claimed to be a small, fluffy bear-like thing; a white woodland rabbit; a curiously rounded and serene monkey. It is only allegory, of course, yet some insist that the Gods of Reciprocity gave this thing their powers and loosed it on the earth to teach men the consequences of their acts.

Assume for a moment it exists. Its placid demeanor turns to a growling when approached with the intent to capture or harm. Instantly the creature grows; starting from one hit die, it adds one hit die for each level or hit die of creatures within 60 feet who have hostile intent toward it. For every four hit dice it possesses, it rolls 1d6 for damage, adding to this total the 1 hp of its normal attack. Its vigorous defense will end only in its death, or in its shrinkage back to original form, as foes are laid low or routed off.

Flandys the sea captain, they say, once treated such a beast very well. After one short battle, the pirates of her particular coast knew to leave her well alone. In time she came to see the beast as very useful indeed; when it tried to wander off, she had it restrained. For the end of her own tale - used, betrayed and fettered in chains - only the Gods of Reciprocity are to blame.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

The Next-to-Last Shall Be Worst

My vote for the worst monster in all of AD&D goes to the one they saved for next-to-last in Monster Manual II.

Somehow it survived into 2nd edition.
Let's see ...

Silly Monster Chassis. The Zorbo is a ferocious, flesh-eating .... koala bear. Now Aussies doubtless know that the koala is a nasty little nipper, but for the rest of us, it's not a creature that exudes any kind of menace. Not scary enough for weird fantasy, not medieval enough for medieval fantasy.

Stupid Ability.  The Zorbo's main ability is the ability to absorb the toughness of its surroundings. Yes, its AC and damage get better when it stands on stone, as opposed to say, earth or grass. This leads to the interesting tactical challenge of defeating it by convincing it to stand on a feather mattress. I'm not sure what is dumber, too: absorbing the hardness of stone without looking any different, or turning into a granite-skinned koala.

Player-Hating Ability. Another characteristic of many bad monsters is that they serve the whim of sadistic DMs with a tacked-on ability that screws players over. The zorbo is no different; his absorption extends to opponents and his touch, unoriginally, makes their armor dry up and blow away. For the rare zorbo who treads on soft earth by choice, doing this might actually improve his AC, but the real reason is to throw the exact same "gotcha!" at players who know to run from a rust monster.

None Of It Makes Sense. As far as unrelated concepts go, "a koala bear" and "absorption of Mohs Scale rating" are definitely in the big leagues of non-sequitur-dom.

Stupid Name. Top it all off with the name Zorbo. For lo, he is ab-Zorbent.

Not Even Flamboyantly Bad. Like great trash cinema, the flamboyantly bad monsters celebrated in fandom - the flumph, tirapheg, flail snail and so forth - earn their kudos by showing a crazy, unbounded creativity at the divergent step, setting up for a more spectactular failure at the "what does it all mean" convergent step. None of this applies to the zorbo.

So, little fella, are you worth improving? I'm not sure, but next post I'm going to try.

Monday 1 November 2010

The Trianthrope

Here's my own take on the tirapheg, and also a chance to show out my new unified old school system monster listing format. Comments on both monster and format are welcome. Some explanations of the format, below the monster:


Hit Dice: 2 or more
Size: M
Move: 6
Armor Class: 9 (descending)/10 (ascending); Armor 0/Agility 0/Magic 0
Attacks: Arm bash 1d4 nonlethal; Arm bash 1d4 nonlethal; Hand (dagger) 1d4
Special abilities: Spells; 2 mind attacks (save vs. Mind/Spell or 1d6 damage to INT and WIS); saves at +4 vs. mind and illusion spells
Intelligence: Exceptional
Alignment: Neutral
Reaction: variable, from 3-8
Morale: 6
XP Basis: As Hit Dice, plus 3 major Specials

A trianthrope is the willing or unwilling result of an arcane alchemical ritual known as the Chymical Wedding, in which a living male and female body are fused together, creating a third sentience which controls its parents. The union of two bodies and their exploitation to create a third is monstrously evident in the creature's two featureless heads, handless arms, and footless legs. The third head is hairless but has a normal face, the third arm is possessed of long, supple inhuman fingers, and the third leg is wide-footed and contributes to an effective if slow means of ambulation aided by the other two stumps.

The creature communicates by direct telepathy, with no need to know the language of the being it communicates with. It may have more hit dice than two if people with class levels were used to create it. The head with a face can silently use illusion and mind-affecting spells as a magic-user with level equal to its hit dice plus one. The faceless heads each can make one mental attack per round with a range of 60 feet; the victim must save or take 1d6 temporary damage rolled separately to intelligence and wisdom, being unable to think if one ability goes below 3 and knocked out completely if at or below 0. Lost abilities are regained at 1 point per 10 minutes.

Nothing definite can be said about the disposition of this creature. Some are driven quite insane and hostile by their ordeal; others master themselves and become terrifying, if physically fragile, controllers of bodyguard creatures. A few are curious and potentially friendly to intruders.

Monster format explanations:
  • The Armor breakdown is a way to let GMs know how many points to subtract if physical armor is being ignored (as when a mere touch needs to be scored) or if agility is being ignored (as when attacked by surprise or from the back).
  • Nonlethal damage knocks out its victim if reduced to zero or lower hit points, and is regained at 1 point per minute.
  • Intelligence is classified as in AD&D, with the understanding that this is not mere book-learning ability as in some interpretations of the character ability, but how strategic and clever the beast is.
  • Reaction is rolled on two d6; in effect, it can also be expressed as a modifier by subtracting 7 from it. A roll equal to the reaction score or one below it indicates a neutral attitude, with various degrees of hostility according to the margin it failed or succeeded by.
  • Morale is also rolled on two d6, as in the Basic game. At some point in the future I'll explain further the various interactions of Reaction and Morale rolls...
  • XP basis: Old-school games vary enormously in XP granted for monsters slain or dealt with. I myself prefer 100xp/HD (the perils of fighting are its own deterrent at lower levels, and this lets me be stingier with treasure there), but the norm across S&W/OSRIC/LL is a tighter award.  The best I think I can do is indicate how much special abilities should count. In my system each major special adds 50% of the original base hit dice and each minor one 25%. Thus a 2HD tirapheg should be treated as 5HD due to its effective 3 major special abilities.