Monday, October 29, 2012

Spooks and spirits

 A few paranormal beasties for your Halloween enjoyment.


Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 1* to 4*
Move: 150' (50')
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1 point to 1d4
No. Appearing: 1d6 (1d6)
Save as: Magic-user:6
Morale: 5
Alignment: Neutral

In some places, the boundary between the material world and strange outer realms is compromised, either temporarily or permanently, allowing psychic and magical energies and shreds of ectoplasmic stuff to seep through from beyond.  Sometimes these energies agglomerate and attain a semi-sentient state.  The bizarre ghost-like entities that result are known as phantasms.  A phantasm may have almost any appearance imaginable.  They typically have features of humans or other "normal" creatures - eyes, noses, mouths, arms and hands, claws, etc. - but not necessarily in normal numbers or placement.  

Phantasms are incorporeal, and can pass through solid objects with ease.  They also have minor telekinetic powers which enable them to manipulate small objects at close range.  The creatures are curious and malevolently playful, and items left unattended in a phantasm-haunted area are unlikely to remain where the owner left them.  Phantasms are generally non-combatant; their "attacks" consist of colliding with a target, exerting a hard bump of psychokinetic force that leaves the target dazed and splattered with a residue of ectoplasmic slime. 

Being insubstantial, phantasms can be harmed only by magic weapons and spells.  They share the immunities of the undead to all sleep, charm, hold, and mind-affecting magic, but are not truly undead and cannot be turned by clerics.


Armor Class: 0
Hit Dice: 1/2*
Move: 300' (100')
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d2+special
No. Appearing: 1d20
Save as: Normal human
Alignment: Neutral

 These minor spirits are left behind in places where sentient creatures have died but lacked unfinished business or sheer strength of will to bind them fully to the mortal plane as ghosts or similar entities.  Instead, each creature leaves behind a "psychic smudge" of energy.  Wisps appear as faintly glowing balls or ribbons of vapor with no discernible features.  Being incorporeal and unconstrained by the laws of gravity and inertia, wisps may hover and move with startling rapidity, changing speed and direction instantaneously.

Though unintelligent, wisps can sense psychic disturbances nearby, including strong emotions such as anger and fear, and are easily agitated by them.  They attack by literally flying through their target, inflicting a numbing chill that causes 1-2 points of damage and the temporary loss of 1 point of Dexterity.  This loss lasts for one day, or until removed with a dispel evil or restoration spell.  A creature reduced to 0 Dexterity is paralyzed for the duration.

Wisps are immune to non-magical weapons and to all spells except dispel evil and those that inflict damage through raw magical power, such as magic missile.  Weapons empowered with a bless spell inflict 1 point of damage per hit.  Wisps are turned as zombies.


Armor Class:7
Hit Dice: 8**
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks: 1
Damage: Special
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Save as: Magic-user:8
Morale: 12
Alignment: Chaotic

The terrible banemage is the undead remains of a magic-user who has had his or her magical ability completely burned out.  Typically this occurs as a result of an act of great hubris, such as attempting a magic spell or ritual far beyond the caster's power.  The resulting abomination is a creature devoid of all intellect and all ambition besides an overwhelming hunger for magic to fill the burned-out void within. 

A banemage appears much as it did in life, but its skin is a sickly pale gray and its eyes are completely black.  It instinctively senses the presence of magic within 150' and will move toward it.  Within 20' of the monster, all magical effects are dispelled as the enchantment is absorbed.  Spells cast at the creature from a greater range are likewise absorbed as soon as they enter its near vicinity.  In combat, the banemage seeks to touch sources of magical power, including magic armor, weapons, and other items.  The monster prefers to target spell casters or creatures with innate magical abilities. Its touch drains the highest-level spell from a spell caster's memory, and the victim must save vs. paralysis or fall into a trance and allow the banemage to feed, losing an additional spell per round until rescued.  Once all spells are gone, the banemage feeds on the character's very life force, draining one energy level per round.  Should a magic-user be completely drained of spells and life force in this way, he or she will rise as a banemage in 1d4 hours.  Creatures with innate magic, rather than spell casting ability, are simply energy drained in the manner of a caster after his spells are gone.

If no spell casters or creatures with magical life force are available, the banemage targets magic iems. Its touch drains one "plus" from a magical weapon or armor, or 1d100 charges from a charged item.  Potions and scrolls are instantly destroyed.  Permanent items without pluses are deactivated for 1 day per hit; three hits renders the item forever non-magical.  Even artifacts are not immune to the monster's insatiable leeching; such powerful items are deactivated for 1 day per hit, and permanently destroyed after 10 hits. 

Banemages are immune to magical weapons of all kinds.  In fact, striking it with a magic weapon drains the weapon's enchantment exactly as if the creature had touched it with its own attack.  They are also invulnerable to most normal weapons.  Only weapons of non-enchanted silver or wood will harm it.  Banemages are turned as vampires.

The monster derives neither comfort nor sustenance from its magic-draining attacks; it is simply driven by a mindless, bottomless hunger for that which it has lost.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Free NPCs at Shortymonster!

As usual, I'm a little late to this bandwagon, but a little more than a week ago Shortymonster's blog reached 10,000 page views, and he's celebrating it by writing up a free NPC for anyone who asks.  I just snagged a good one for my Keep on the Borderlands campaign.  Sometimes a little outside input can really stir things up and get fresh ideas percolating! 

If you haven't already, go get one for yourself, and check out a few of his other posts while you're there.  (There's some really good stuff on medieval combat and horror in RPGs if you comb through the older posts.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Companions, side by side

Every gamer who cut his or her role-playing teeth on the Moldvay Basic edition of D&D knows that the promised Companion Set detailing character levels 15-36 and all the epic adventuring rules to go with them never actually materialized. Instead, the game got a reboot with the Mentzer Basic and Expert sets, which were then followed by a Companion and a Master set.  The Mentzer rules are mechanically very similar, though not quite identical, to Moldvay/Cook (or B/X), but differ considerably in the overall "feel" of the presentation.  It wasn't perfect for fans of B/X, but for a long time it was the best we had. 

Now we've got a couple more options, courtesy of the OSR, that purport to fill the niche of a Companion rules expansion.  The Companion Expansion: Characters, Spells, Monsters, and Magic Items by Barrataria Games and The B/X Companion by Jonathan Becker, a.k.a. JB of the B/X Blackrazor blog.  These two supplements, despite their similar names and some overlap, have significantly different emphasis.  I realize I'm pretty late to the party here, but I thought I'd weigh in with my assessment of the pros and cons of each, as compared to the official Mentzer edition Companion.

The official Companion Rules for D&D:  The Mentzer Companion set includes rules for advancement to level 25 for human characters (levels 26-36 were held back for the Master Rules set), several new sub-classes available to fighters and clerics at 9th level and higher, high level combat options for fighters, rules for high-experience dwarves, elves, and halflings to continue improving beyond their formal level limits, some new weapons and armor, new spells, new monsters, new magic items, a system for mass combat, a system for ruling a dominion, rules for unarmed combat, and a brief section on adventuring in other planes of existence.  Most of this is simply extrapolating from and building on the preceding rule sets.  The major exceptions to this are the War Machine mass combat rules, the unarmed combat rules, and the dominion rules, all of which (apologies to Frank Mentzer) feel wildly out of place in the classic D&D game.  In particular, the War Machine and dominion rules manage to be vastly more complex than typical for the game, yet frustratingly vague in certain key areas.  There's a tremendous amount of prep necessary to calculate the strength of forces in the War Machine, for instance, and a boatload of math to do on the fly during play, but how long is the battle represented by one roll in the War Machine rules?  The book doesn't say.  The rules for dominion accounting and confidence checks are similarly over-detailed yet nebulous in critical areas.

Companion Expansion: Characters, Spells, Monsters, and Magic Items:  Pretty much what it says on the cover.  Barrataria's Companion features tables taking the core human classes to level 36, several new classes, new spell lists, new monsters, and new magic items.  New skills are provided for high-level thieves, since their basic abilities top out at level 14 in B/X and its clones.  There are no options for demi-humans to grow beyond their formal level limits, although halflings in this supplement go to level 12 instead of the more traditional level 8.  Additional demi-human classes include gnomes, wildwood elves, half-elves, half-orcs, and half-ogres.  Added human classes include the illusionist, druid, and bard, fairly close analogs of the AD&D classes of the same names, and the scout, an approximation of AD&D's ranger.

The new spells section includes entirely new spell lists, one for illusionists, gnomes, and bards, and another for druids and wildwood elves.  Most of the new spells are simply adaptations of spells from the AD&D game.  It's still useful, in that it adds spells that actually fit the flavor of the classic (non-"Advanced") game, saving you the work of poring over spell lists and descriptions from various sources, digging out the good stuff, and compiling it in a single list.

The monsters section likewise draws heavily on AD&D, as well as creatures from classic D&D adventure modules (or perhaps the Creature Catalog.) 

I'm not so knowledgeable about AD&D magic items, but I suspect that the magic items also draw on material from that game, plus a few I recognize from The Book of Marvelous Magic.

Despite the heavy reliance on AD&D as source material, the whole thing has a pretty strong Classic D&D feel to it, and I wouldn't hesitate to use most of the material in my own game.  Since it's available as a free PDF, there's no reason not to at least check it out.

One of the appendices has an alternative combat table that slows advancement at higher levels by reducing the steps from two points at once.  The upshot is that THAC0s for all classes bottom out at 5 points higher than they would otherwise.  This is a nice addition for groups interested in high-level play but without quite so much power inflation.

B/X Companion: I could justifiably say here that I've saved the best for last.  No new character classes are included (save the optional bard class presented as an example of how to add classes to the game), but the core human classes are extended to level 36, with multiple attack rules for fighters, advanced skills for thieves, and high level spells for clerics and magic users.  Demi-humans get what amounts to a more streamlined version of Mentzer's system for continuing to improve beyond level limits.  I've always found this to be kind of a silly workaround - it would make a lot more sense in my opinion just to raise or abolish level limits - but given that JB set out to bring the B/X game to its promised pinnacle rather than to create a new system or an updated clone, it makes sense that he takes pains to avoid contradicting the canon of those earlier rule sets.

The spells chapter includes some Mentzer-edition clones and a few welcome AD&D retreads, but also has several additions that to the best of my knowledge are original to the game, including a few that are at least hinted at in the official rule sets and thus long overdue.

Monsters are a melange of AD&D adaptations and new creatures, drawing from literature (balrogs, in the guise of the Bane Lord, black orcs, the terrible Jabberwocky and its fell compatriots from the famous poem), folklore (leprechaun, wendigo, banshee) and more modern inspirations (quicksilver golem and plague zombie.)  There's also a new sub-category of monsters, the Greater Undead, which are immune to turning.  Now you can safely use an undead creature as a Big Bad in your campaign without fear that it will be anticlimactically reduced in a single round to a smear of soot on the dungeon floor because a high level cleric waved a holy symbol in its face.

There's also a goodly selection of new magical items which nicely fit the B/X feel, and random tables that integrate them with the items from the previous rules.

Where the B/X Companion really shines, though, is in the new rules for mass combat and dominion rule so essential to really epic high level play.  In sharp contrast to the baroque kludges of the official Companion Set, JB gives us a simple, abstract, and versatile mass combat resolution system that relies on existing statistics - Armor Class, Hit Dice, damage rolls, and Morale scores.  No more futzing with Basic Force Ratings and Battle Ratings and how many weeks the leader of the force has spent training with the troops.  The math is only slightly more difficult than that of normal D&D combat.  Modifiers for tactics and special battle conditions can be applied as simply as you would a situational modifier in standard combat, as a +1 or -1 to the damage rolls used to resolve each battle.  No more guessing about the time frame, either - mass combat is resolved in "Clashes" equal to 6 standard game turns.

On the dominion front, the rules for dominion population and income are extremely simple, and confidence is checked with a variation of the standard 2d6 reaction roll.  One seriously wonders how such an obvious existing mechanic was passed over in favor of the weird agglomeration featured in the Mentzer Companion.  There are even rules for how many peasants can be levied from the local population in times of need, an unfortunate omission from previous editions.

In the tradition of the previous sets, there's also a fair amount of miscellaneous advice on running the game, none particularly ground-breaking but all generally sound. 

I found the $12.99 price tag for the PDF a bit steep, but having read it now, I don't regret buying it at all.

All three books have their strengths.  For my own game, when and if it reaches those rarefied epic levels of play, I'll probably use the B/X Companion as the core, drawing on the others for additional content like monsters, spells, and additional classes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Thief skills, redux

I think I've finally got my thoughts all settled and sorted on how the skills of the thief class will work in my game.  This all started out as an effort to make low-level thieves not totally incompetent at their profession while still allowing them to benefit from gaining levels.  My aim was to utilize the existing percentage tables, but interpreted in a way that emphasizes time and risk management rather than a simple pass or fail roll that low-level thieves would fail far more often than not.  These interpretations should work with the thief skill tables of any old school D&D edition or clone.

Included are optional ability score modifications to the skill roll, which apply a +5% bonus (or -5% penalty) for each point of the standard ability modifier for the given score, i.e. -15% for an ability modifier of -3 to +15% for a modifier of +3.  Also included are suggestions for non-thief characters to attempt some of the functions and activities normally considered to be the province of thieves alone.  (Optional modifiers should apply only for actual thief characters, not to non-thieves attempting thiefly skills.)

Open Locks:  A thief is not limited to one attempt per lock.  The first attempt is to pick the lock in one round.  Failing that, the thief may make a second attempt at picking it in one minute.  If that fails too, then each additional attempt takes one full turn.  Any roll of 00 jams the lock in some way - something inside the lock breaks, or a pick snaps off, and no further attempts may be made. The higher a thief's level, the more likely that he or she can spring a lock quickly and cleanly, but any thief can open just about any lock, given enough time.

Optional modification: Dexterity

For non-thieves:  A character of any other class may make a one-time attempt with a 5% chance of success to pick a lock in 1d4 turns.  The lock is jammed on a roll of 75 or higher.  Any character may attempt to break open a lock by force.  This is noisy, destroys the lock, and may, depending on circumstances, damage the contents of a locked container.

Find Traps: Area traps are resolved through player-referee dialog and don't require the specialized skills of the thief.  Traps on doors and containers are resolved using the thief's percentages.  Find Traps may be attempted as many times as desired, at a cost of one turn per attempt, rolled secretly by the referee.  A container or door may be trapped multiple times, each requiring a successful roll to find.

Optional modification: Intelligence

 For non-thieves:  As mentioned above, area traps can be detected by anyone.  Even chest and door traps may have clues that a non-thief can detect and interpret - a skeleton sprawled in front of the chest, a dart stuck in the wall opposite the door, etc.  Otherwise, any character specifically looking for traps has a 5% chance to notice them.  The attempt may be repeated if desired.

Remove Traps: A thief may make more than one attempt at removing a trap, but at increased risk.  The first attempt triggers the trap only on a roll of 00.  If the thief tries again, it represents pressing his/her luck and fingers-crossed guesswork (e.g. "Do I cut the red wire or the blue one?") The trap is triggered on a roll greater than twice the chance of success, or a roll of 95 or greater.  Third and subsequent attempts set off the trap on any failed roll.  Each attempt is considered to take one turn.

Optional modification: Dexterity

For non-thieves: Removing traps by an untrained person is a dangerous and foolhardy endeavor; the chance of success is the same as a first level thief, but failing by 10 or more triggers the trap, even on the first roll.  Second and subsequent attempts trigger the trap on any failed roll.

Pick Pockets: This skill works without modification from Moldvay/Cook Basic; i.e. the chance is modified by -5% for each level of the target above 5th, and on a roll greater than twice the adjusted chance of success the attempt is noticed by the victim. 

Optional modification: Dexterity

For non-thieves:  A base 10% chance of success, modified by the target's level as normal, with the usual chance of detection.  Clearly risky business for the unskilled!

Climb Walls: A thief may remain on a wall (whether actively climbing or simply holding on) for one round per level before a check need be made; in other words, no roll is needed to attempt a climb, only to continue it or maintain position over time.  Climbing is at the rate of 5' to 20' per round, depending on the difficulty of the wall, at the referee's discretion; the player should be informed of this prior to beginning the climb.  A failed climbing roll results in a fall from the character's elevation at the time of the failed check.  For each successive period of climbing or clinging to the wall, the check is made at a cumulative -10% penalty.  For example, a 3rd level thief would make an unmodified check after 3 rounds, a roll at -10% at 6 rounds, -20% at 9 rounds, and so on.

Optional modification: Strength

For non-thieves: A non-thief character not wearing metal armor must roll under his or her Dexterity score on 1d20, to begin the climb.  Thereafter, the character may remain on the wall for a number of rounds equal to half his or her level, rounded up, before another check must be made.  Each subsequent check is made with a cumulative +2 penalty.  A character with 18 Dexterity is thus slightly inferior to a 1st level thief.  Climbing of this sort cannot be attempted while heavily encumbered.

Move Silently: On a successful roll, the thief is moving with absolute silence, making no noise discernible to human or demi-human ears, and will automatically surprise anyone not looking in his or her direction.  On a failed roll, the thief is still moving quietly, gaining +1 to surprise opponents.  All attempts at silent movement are at half normal movement rate; a thief who desires only quiet movement may do so automatically at full movement. 

Optional modification: Dexterity

For non-thieves: Non-thieves may not move silently, but move quietly on a roll of 1-4 on 1d6, modified by the character's Dexterity bonus or penalty, with an additional penalty of +1 for wearing metal armor (but never greater than a 5 in 6 chance nor less than 1 in 6.)  Quiet movement is at half normal movement rate.  Moving quietly improves the odds of surprising opponents and reduces the chances of being surprised by 1 in 6, and may also reduce wandering monster checks at the referee's discretion.

Hide in Shadows: On a successful roll, the thief manages to conceal him- or herself in a patch of darkness.  This can be attempted only when shadows are present, and is automatically unsuccessful with regard to anyone actually looking at the thief when the attempt is made.  The thief must remain motionless in order to remain hidden.  The thief may break from cover and attempt a backstab attack on any creature unaware of his or her presence and passing within 10' with automatic surprise.  Note that this skill may be used in combat, provided the thief is not engaged in melee, and that all enemies are at least potentially distracted in the chaos of battle and unable to keep an eye on the thief.

Optional modification: Wisdom

For non-thieves: Hiding in shadows is simply not possible for non-thieves.  Hiding in the ordinary sense is accomplished by dialog between player and referee.  A character who successfully hides may ambush others, gaining a +2 bonus to surprise.

Hear Noise: This skill applies to listening for and discerning sounds which would otherwise go either completely unheard or fail to register in the awareness of an untrained person.  No roll is needed for something that, in the referee's judgment, would be audible to anyone, such as a conversation at normal speaking volume behind an ordinary door.  At the referee's option, a check may enable the thief to discern the actual content of such a conversation, though, provided the thief understands the language being spoken.

Optional modification: Wisdom

For non-thieves: The rules provide for a 1 in 6 chance for non-thief humans, and 2 in 6 for demi-humans, to detect noise as a thief character does.

Read Languages: Rather than gaining a flat 80% at 4th level, this skill follows the same progression as Open Locks.

Optional modification: Intelligence

For non-thieves: Not applicable.  Learn the language or use magic.

Previous posts on related topics:
Picking the lock
Thief dilemma: traps
Stealth and surprise

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Of the unquiet dead and things that go bump in the night

It's that time of year, when all things eerie, paranormal, and macabre have their day in the, flickering torchlight, so I thought I'd muse for a bit on the undead as represented in old school D&D.

When I was new to D&D, and perusing the bestiary section of the rules, the very idea of undead monsters was chilling, creepy, fascinating.  These were things that existed outside the laws that govern living creatures. Except, of course, in the rules they really weren't.  They had Armor Classes and Hit Dice and Morale scores just like every other monster, and over time the veneer of wonder wore away and they started to feel like just another hit point total to whittle down in armed combat.

If you're lucky enough to have relatively new and inexperienced players, or at least some who haven't read and internalized the monster descriptions and stats from the rules, this may not even be an issue.  That actually is the case for me right now.  I could drop a wight or a wraith into a dungeon room, and when the PCs blundered into that room they'd be freaked out, just as my original group was at the first appearance of the wight in the crypt in the Caves of Chaos.  But if I did that, they'd eventually become jaded too, and since I'd prefer to forestall that and preserve as much of the mysterious creepy-weird-scary vibe of the undead as possible, I'd prefer to avoid portraying undead as just so much sword-fodder.  Here are a few things I can think of to make encounters with undead unique and compelling.

Description:  The appearance of undead monsters is as diverse as that of the humans and demi-humans from which they arise.  Giving them unique descriptions where appropriate helps make them more than just bundles of stats.  What do they wear?  Are they male or female or too far gone to even tell?  Are they skinny, emaciated, fat, muscular and hulking?  Do they have hair, facial hair, or other features that would have distinguished them in life?  How do they move?  Shambling like Hollywood zombies, on all fours like feral things, crouching and leaping, gliding...?  Don't forget the other senses besides sight.  Do they moan, gurgle, snarl, scream, hiss, mutter incoherently?  Undead with a rotting physical body might well smell like a charnel pit, but even incorporeal wraiths, specters, and ghosts might have a particular scent that betrays their presence, whether that be wood smoke, a salty sea breeze, whiskey, roses, or something else associated with the life or death of the creature's former living self.

Motives:  Undead aren't necessarily motivated by the same things that mortal men and beasts are, or perhaps more accurately, they often are but in twisted and distorted ways.  Often, undead have one all-consuming motivation.  Unlike living creatures, they have no biological needs.  They are never distracted by the demands of mere survival, either as individuals or species.  They do not need food, drink, or shelter, and they have no biological drive to reproduce.  That means that, whatever it is that does drive them, they may pursue it with a single-mindedness (or single-mindlessness) far beyond the most powerful mortal obsession.  Ghouls are consumed by a desire to feed on flesh.  Malice toward the living is a common motive, as is guarding some place, object, or person.  Sure, those are classics, but why limit yourself?  Why couldn't an undead creature be driven by a primal need to create more of its own kind - to reproduce, as it were?  How about other human motivations, taken to extremes, like self-preservation (maybe the creature isn't even aware that it's dead!), companionship, knowledge, greed, envy, vanity, lust, longing for something lost, compassion, religious fervor, bigotry...Play it straight up, or subvert it in ironic and disturbing ways.

Powers:  The stock powers of undead by the book aren't all that scary if only described in game terms.  You're paralyzed.  You're diseased.  You lose a level.  At the very least, they should get colorful, unsettling descriptions in-game.  What does being energy drained feel like?  Does it chill you to the bone or create a temporary link between you and the undead, flooding your mind with the monster's ghastly tormented thoughts?

Change up powers, if you think of something more suitable to a particular monster, that really fits its history and motives.  You can also add side effects to powers, things that have trivial or no mechanical effects, but that unnerve the players.  Residual dreams or visions, phobias, minor disfigurements like white hair or ashen skin, inexplicable cravings for raw meat, chills, and other effects can be either temporary or permanent while imposing no mechanical hindrances on a character.

Tactics:  How many scary stories have the heroes simply slugging it out toe-to-toe with a supernatural adversary immediately upon encountering it?  Not many.  In most cases, spooks and spirits are elusive and devious opponents.  Often the undead don't engage in direct combat at all, but entice or frighten their victims into stumbling into other hazards.  Even when they do directly attack characters, it shouldn't feel as if the PCs are just fighting another warrior who happens to be rotting or translucent.  There should be something uncanny about the way the creature fights, and it should use its powers - including things that aren't actually listed as powers, such as being incorporeal or impervious to pain - to maximum effect, even if that effect is only descriptive rather than mechanical.  A zombie fights relentlessly, and couldn't care less about being menaced, or even stabbed, with a sword.  A wraith or spectre is the ultimate hit-and-run attacker, being able to pass through solid matter with absolute silence to surprise its foes and then quickly retreating through walls or into solid ground where the PCs can't follow, only to strike again at a time of its choosing.  A pack of ghouls might share a telepathic link that enables them to utilize tactics seemingly beyond their simple feral intellects.

Some examples

  • A wraith child, with large tearful eyes, who is horribly lonely and desperately wants companionship.  She does not attack at first, but plays on the party's sympathy, desperately trying to hold hands or embrace one of them.  Her touch inflicts a chilling energy drain.  When the victim recoils from her, she cries pitifully and "attacks," seeking to reestablish physical contact.
  • A spectre who was once a reclusive scholar, and now haunts the ruins of his library.  He jealously guards his collected knowledge, and still thirsts for more.  His touch inflicts the usual double energy drain, by actually siphoning off the victim's knowledge; after a battle, he attempts to transcribe this newly acquired knowledge into books, though in his undead state it produces only bizarre scribblings intelligible only to him.  If presented with a book or other source of written information, and not currently threatened, he will at once immerse himself in it for 2d4 turns, to the point of being oblivious to all else but a direct attack against him.
  • A wight who was once a painter is now driven to gather models so that he may continue his artistic pursuits.  He targets particularly attractive women; those he successfully drains become his companions and subjects.  When encountered, they may be nude or dressed in some tattered finery.  He still "paints," smearing blood, mud, and ashes on stone walls or scraps of canvas; the results are grotesque and frightening parodies of life and beauty.
  • A revenant, formerly a soldier and battlefield medic driven to madness and suicide by the suffering he witnessed.  He ignores healthy folk, but can sense pain within 100 yards, whether from injury or illness, and is driven to end the misery of those poor suffering individuals - even those who are certain to recover if left alone.  He attacks with a poisonous touch that also causes numbness, paradoxically speaking words of soothing comfort as he does so.
  • A wraith, a coward in life, still exists in terror of pain and death.  When encountered, he warns the characters to stay back and leave him alone, becoming more hysterical the longer they remain.  If anyone advances toward him, no matter how non-threateningly, he attacks with the desperate fury of a cornered animal.  Unaware of his true condition, he is still desperately afraid of weapons, even those that can't actually harm his insubstantial form.  If struck by a weapon that can't hurt him, he is only 25% likely to notice (he can't feel pain), but if he does, he screams, "I'm hit!  I'm hit!" and flees immediately.  A hit from a weapon that can harm him automatically causes him to flee.
  • A ghost, wraith, or specter driven by a desire for vengeance against its murderer.  Those who survive its attack are thereafter afflicted with nightmares of the creature's last moments of life.  A dispel evil spell will remove the effect; otherwise only revenge against the murderer will end the nightmares.  The dreams contain clues to the killer's identity, perhaps as obvious as a clear view of his face, or perhaps more subtle.  The spirit may desire the killer's death, or may be appeased by exposing and disgracing the murderer (especially if the killer is himself deceased.)
  • A pack of ghouls, the remnants of a notorious band of highwaymen.  Despite their ghoulish need to feed on human flesh, they still instinctively prefer to attack wealthy-looking individuals or parties, ignoring the destitute and impoverished.  Curiously, they have no actual interest in the treasure of their victims, only in their meat and the marrow in their bones.  Travelers are warned to let these abandoned troves lie, for the ghouls may still be nearby, and anyone picking up the loot may become their next target.  In an area where the rich gain their wealth by oppressing the lower classes, these ghouls might even gain a reputation as ghastly champions of the common folk - undead Robin Hoods.

Non-human undead

Sometimes using undead that aren't, or weren't, human can evoke horror and revulsion when players might be accustomed to the human variety.  Consider a horde of zombie halflings, or dwarf-wraiths who perished in a mining accident, still guarding the vein of ore.  How shocked might the players be to come upon an ogre, its back toward them, hunched over a meal, only to have it turn and reveal a face like one of the walkers from The Walking Dead, rotten teeth dripping with gore?  Would the gaze of a ghost-medusa still petrify, or would it take on new powers?  If ghouls hunt in packs, why not a pack of ghoul-wolves?  There are even things like undead dragons to be found in the pages of official rules and supplements.

The rules specifically mention making zombies and skeletons of dead things other than humans.  (See animate dead spell description.)  Other standard undead can be modified as well, perhaps adding a Hit Die or two to corporeal forms to represent the fact that their nerves and vital organs are no longer functional or vulnerable.  Incorporeal ones could either use the standard stats for the undead form (bulk makes little difference when you no longer have a body!) or the Hit Dice of its original form (maybe that represented its strength of spirit as well as physical endurance, and so still applies in ethereal undeath.)  Whether you allow bugbear wights or grizzly bear spectres might depend on the underpinnings and assumptions of your campaign setting, e.g. whether those creatures have "souls" that can live on after death, or whether their corpses can be animated.

The goal here is not to simply make bigger undead with more HD and higher damage potential, but to horrify the players with things outside their experience and expectations.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Hex crawl hazards

One of the shortcomings of classic D&D is the relative dearth of guidance and tools it provides for running wilderness adventures vs. dungeon crawls.  In the dungeon, not only do we have random encounter tables, but rules and guidelines for stocking each room.  There are tables for determining the contents of rooms - Empty, monster, trap, special, and/or treasure - and explanations and examples of each.  There are wandering monster tables, which can be used not only for determining wandering monsters during play, but for stocking the dungeon during the referee's design/prep phase.  There are keys of map symbols to inspire creative dungeon design, and pretty much every symbol represents something relatively small and discrete, with which the characters can interact - a statue, a pit, a secret door, a rock formation, a fireplace, etc.

In the wilderness, things aren't so simple.  There are keys of map symbols, but they're mainly of the general terrain type, not specific, discrete features.  You could interact with an individual tree in concrete, easily comprehensible terms, but how does one interact with the abstraction of a forest?  You could key specific encounters, but even a relatively small hex scale, say 1 mile, covers a lot of territory, and an encounter keyed to a specific hex isn't necessarily "right there" in front of the characters when they enter the hex, as a dungeon encounter would be when they enter a new room.  There are rules for getting lost, but being lost only really matters when you have somewhere specific you want to go.  There are rules for foraging, which can affect the resource management aspects of the game.  And of course there are the random encounter tables.

Conceptually, there's a lot that I like about the wilderness encounter tables in (take your pick) B/X and BECMI D&D.  The nested tables - roll 1d8 to determine monster type, and 1d12 for the specific creature - is simple, allowing for more possible monster types without resorting to percentile dice or bell curves.  The major problem with the charts is that it's all monsters, all the time.

In the dungeon, that's not a problem at all.  All the other terrain and special features are included in the map and key, and you know exactly where they are.  Wandering monsters just add an element of uncertainty and a cost for squandering the precious resource of time.  In the wilderness, where there's very, very little detail relative to the size of the area, having only monsters in the random encounter charts can make wilderness adventuring seem like little more than roaming about aimlessly, looking for meaningless fights.

I'm sure that there are DMs out there who can consistently spin gold out of this random monster straw, and make the encounters generated with those tables interesting and meaningful.  I confess that I'm not one of them.  Random monster encounters get old really fast, and it's hard to think of fresh reasons and new twists while on the hot seat at the game table.  True, there should be a lot more out in the fantasy wilderness than just this roiling soup of monsters waiting to bump into the PCs and rumble, but without random tables, those sorts of things either have to be placed in advance in each hex, which would be a ton of prep work, or else created on the spot at the referee's whim, which has far too much of a Quantum Ogre vibe for my taste.  The party has to deal with that ravine, or thunderstorm, or haunted battlefield solely because of pure DM fiat:  for whatever reason, you want them to face that particular situation, and shazam! there it is.

Alright, getting to the point at last.  I want wilderness encounter tables that are more than just monsters.  Other things that should be there:

Terrain features.  Streams, springs, waterfalls, gullies, ravines, box canyons, sinkholes, mesas, cliffs, glaciers, ponds, small lakes, caves, quicksand, quaking bogs, fire-scarred land, oases, a hill in the middle of a grassland, a clearing in the woods, etc.  Terrain can be a hazard to be avoided or overcome, a place where certain resources like food, water, or shelter might be found, an interesting backdrop to a monster encounter, or just descriptive detail to a wilderness trek.  Spells and Steel has some tables for terrain that could either be used as-is or expanded to include more features.

Weather events.  Thunderstorms, cloudbursts, sandstorms, blizzards, torrential rains, gales, tornadoes, unseasonable heat or cold.  Hazards in their own right, or complications to another type of encounter.

Special.  This could be just about anything you care to put on a line in a table.  Ruins, statues, magical springs, enchanted apple trees, ancient battlefields, dead magic zones, petrified trolls, fairy rings, standing stones, dimensional vortexes, burial mounds, wishing wells...These could be helpful, dangerous, or just curiosities.

Some of these features lend themselves well to possible dungeon adventures, e.g. ruins and caves, not to mention the lairs of those randomly-rolled monsters.  Many DMs will keep a supply of small dungeon maps at the ready for just such an occasion, and drop them seamlessly into the proceedings.

The question burning in my mind right now is whether some or all of these things should have their own tables, to be rolled separately, or whether the first tier of the wilderness encounter charts should be expanded to include "Terrain," "Weather," and "Special" entries in addition to the usual "Men," "Humanoid," "Dragon," and so on, and then appropriate subtables for each of those new categories added for each terrain type.  I'm leaning toward the latter, with a couple of "Roll again twice" lines, so that you might get combinations.  Say, a monster and a terrain feature - all kinds of tactical possibilities there.  Or a monster and a special - Is the basilisk guarding the healing spring?  Or two different monster types - Are the giant and the orcs allies, or in the middle of a fight, or negotiating over something when the PCs intrude?

Yes, I think I'll go with that all-encompassing chart model, despite the fact that it could conceivably produce awkward results like two terrains at once, or two weather events at the same time.  Re-rolling inappropriate results is inelegant at best, but my feeling is that it's outweighed by the simplicity of having everything in the same hierarchy of tables.