Sunday, March 23, 2014

NPC Sunday: Tathred Lame-foot, beggar

Tathred Lame-foot, beggar

Outwardly, Tathred, or just Red to the locals, is a sad story wearing a cheerful face.  The club-footed youth, blind in his right eye, can always be found plying his meager trade at the edge of town on the main thoroughfare, sitting on the ground on a threadbare wool blanket.  He's an orphan, he says, with no surviving family, unable to work due to his infirmity, and every little bit helps.  Despite his bleak circumstances, he always has a bright greeting for passers-by, smiling gratitude for all who toss him a coin, and never a bitter word for those who hurry on with a tight fist on their coppers.

That veneer has won him the sympathies of most townsfolk, but beneath it is a tale rather less heartwarming.  He claims no surname, owing to his claimed orphan status, but in truth he was born to the Fenn family, a clan of fairly prosperous tradesmen and artisans a few towns over.  His club foot is a fraud, bulky wads of rags wrapped around a perfectly good leg, but he really was born with a blind eye.  That and his family's relative affluence afforded him a sheltered and coddled childhood.  When the time came for him to begin an apprenticeship and learn a trade of his own, he balked, and the more his family pressed him, the more bitterly he resisted.  At the age of 12 he ran away and discovered a world that did not cater to his whims and struggled against it, until, cold and desperate, he turned to begging and found that he had a certain knack for playing on the sympathies of strangers. 

In the three years since, he has also found useful connections among the corrupt elements of the town guard.  From his place at the roadside, he observes almost everyone who comes into town and passes along choice information to his confederates, who use the information to shake down, blackmail, or otherwise extract wealth from adventurers and traders.  In exchange, he gets the protection of the guards and a small cut of the take, more than enough to sustain his modest lifestyle.  He has a secret hideaway somewhere in an abandoned building, unknown even to the guards, where he lives a life of relative comfort for a beggar.  Other beggars tend to keep their distance from him; some resent the ease with which he plies potential marks, while others harbour suspicions ranging from the preposterous (he's a foreign prince in hiding from a cruel father, an acolyte serving a penance, or a demon in human form for some nefarious purpose) to surprisingly near the truth. 

As much as he likes easy wealth, it's the easy part that really appeals to him; his avarice is handily trumped by his laziness.  Push comes to shove, he's content with his lax existence, letting others do the heavy lifting and living off their crumbs, and isn't keen to upset this little gravy train simply for the sake of a little more silver.

Appearance:  Tathred is about 15 years old, small and skinny.  He dresses in rags, though astute observers might notice that they're not filthy rags, just moderately dirty.  One of his eyes is blue and the other is milky white; his dirty blond hair is bound under a red scarf which serves to reinforce his nickname.  On the threshold of adulthood, he typically sports a ratty fuzz of teenage facial hair around his winning, gap-toothed smile.

Stats:  St 9 In 11 Wi 7 Dx10 (appears to be 3) Co 12 Ch 15, AC 9, hp 2, AT crutch, Dam 1d4, AL N 
  He is capable of full normal movement rate should his life legitimately be in danger, but normally affects a limp at half speed or less, in keeping with his facade of infirmity.

Campaign role:  Characters are likely to meet Tathred when first entering or leaving town (depending on where they started out.)  If they're amenable, he'll banter with them while begging for coins, all the while sizing up their wealth and toughness.  A party returning laden from the dungeon will draw special notice.  He's more than happy to listen with all the wide-eyed enthusiasm of youth as they brag about their exploits and future plans, and then turn around and report whatever information he's gleaned to his cronies.  Later, the party is likely to be shaken down by the guard on pretense of collecting various taxes and fees, real and contrived, or their items seized as contraband or evidence of some imaginary crime being investigated.  Tathred will gladly pass along any rumors he hears about caches of loot to be gained in dungeon or wilderness.  If the party tends to set out with loads of expensive equipment, he might also deliberately feed them a few false rumors, setting them up to be ambushed by off-duty guards posing as bandits.   

What his family might do if they discovered his whereabouts and shameful habits is unknown.

Friday, March 21, 2014

B/X Spell Roundup: 2nd level magic-user spells, part 1

1. Continual Light:  Yes, it is a Light spell with infinite duration, but it's also a Light spell with double the area of effect - a 60' diameter sphere of illumination as opposed to 30' for the non-permanent version.

The permanence of the spell is a concern for some, especially if the game goes beyond mere dungeon crawling.  Why, for instance, would not every settlement, from village to city, be lit by lamps of Continual Light?  It costs the caster essentially nothing, and it lasts forever.  Simplest solution: house rule that a caster may only have one Continual Light active at a time; casting another immediately extinguishes the previous one.

The reverse, Continual Darkness, is as one might expect, identical to standard Darkness but with double the area of effect and permanent duration.

2. Detect Evil: This does exactly what the 1st level cleric spell of the same name does, but with half the range (60' instead of 120') and a third the duration (2 turns instead of 6.)  In fairness, good-and-evil stuff does seem to be more up the cleric's alley than the magic-user's, but then why isn't the reverse true for Detect Magic?

3. ESP:  Does anyone else find the name of this spell odd and/or awkwardly anachronistic?  I'm not sure what would be a better name - clairsentience, maybe?  Anyway...what we have here is your basic mind-reading magic.  It lets the caster "hear" the thoughts of a creature within 60', even from behind up to 2 feet of stone.  This takes a full turn, so you're not going to outflank an enemy in combat by reading its tactical thoughts or anything like that.  What the caster "hears" is at the DM's discretion, but probably includes such information as the creature's general disposition and state of mind.  The use of the verb "hear" describing how the magic-user accesses its thoughts seems to suggest that the thoughts are "heard" as the creature thinks them, perhaps narrated in the creature's own mental voice; thus, the caster doesn't have access to all the target's knowledge and memories, but only those actively being thought about.  The caster is magically able to understand the thoughts, regardless of the creature's language (or, presumably, lack thereof in the case of animals and such.)  No saving throw is allowed, and the target creature is not made aware of the mind-reading.

Obviously, ESP will tell you for certain whether there's a living creature behind that door in the dungeon (undead are immune, though, so beware!)  It's a big time ace-in-the-hole during negotiations - you can learn what the other side wants, how best to bribe/befriend/appease them, whether they're being honest or misleading you, and what their true intentions are.  Any party wishing to avoid trouble as often as possible (that's ALL the smart ones) should be ecstatic to have a magic-user with this spell in his repertoire.

One might wonder why this spell wouldn't be used in courts of law, at least in major cities and the strongholds of the nobility.  The streets may not exactly be teeming with 3rd level magic-users, but they're not that rare, either - there are bound to be at least a few within a ten-mile radius of a heavily-populated area.

4. Invisibility:  It's hard to be stealthier than when you're literally invisible, and as long as you refrain from attacking or casting further spells, you stay invisible forever.  Sneaking and spying are the most obvious uses, but the fact that it can be cast on an object instead of a creature opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities.  Since objects generally don't attack or cast spells (except perhaps in the case of traps), the logical inference is that the invisibility is simply permanent until dispelled.  The spell description offers nothing more on the subject, so questions such as how big an object may be affected are left to the DM's judgment.  The chest with the most valuable treasure in the dungeon could be hidden in plain sight this way.  A bridge over a chasm might be made invisible.  With a broad enough interpretation of "object," perhaps the water in a pool could be made invisible so that it appears to be empty.  And that merchant who cheated the party last time they bought equipment in town - he'll NEVER find that dead fish you hid in his shop.

NPC magic-users could easily cast Invisibility on their undead or construct minions; left undisturbed, those minions might sit inert for centuries, waiting for intruders.

Interestingly, Invisibility has a range of 240'.  Off the top of my head, it seems like this makes it a great "rescue" spell if a front line fighter gets himself in trouble in combat - just zap him invisible from afar and he disappears right before the enemy's eyes. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

B/X Spell Roundup: 2nd level cleric spells, part 2

 Like the first four spells, the second half of the 2nd level cleric spell list is a mix of awesome and ho-hum.

5. Resist Fire:  This is more useful than the 1st level Resist Cold spell, but it's still kind of "meh" in my book.  It affects only one creature, for only two turns.  It does confer complete immunity to normal fire, and -1 per die/+2 to saves vs. magical fire.  If you want to walk hot coals barefoot, shrug off flaming oil, retrieve a treasure chest from the bottom of a boiling hot spring, or do blacksmith work without tongs, well, here ya go.  Depending on how generous the DM is, you might be able to walk unscathed through a burning building, or you might still succumb to smoke inhalation.

6. Silence 15' Radius:  The standard use of this spell is to keep enemy spell casters from doing their thing, and it does a terrific job of that.  Even if the target makes the save and the spell doesn't "stick," it's still a globe of silence 30 feet across, and how many dungeon rooms are much bigger than that? 

But forget about spell casters for a minute.  A Silence spell can keep a leader from shouting orders to his troops.  It can also keep sentries from raising the alarm. 

Or, cast it on your plate-clad front-line fighter, and he's stealthy as a ninja!  So is everyone within 15 feet of him, and if you encounter a spell caster, the fighter just rushes forth like fighters do, and envelopes the caster in his globe of silence. 

Need to break open a stubborn door or a chest, but don't want every wandering monster in the dungeon converging on  your location?  Silence that thing! 

Silence 15' Radius is exactly what it says on the tin, which makes it wide open to player creativity.  It's also got crazy range (180') and lasts a full 12 turns. 

7. Snake Charm:  Hmmm...that's a little oddly specific.  You don't get to command the snakes, either, just "charm" them sort of like the classic guy with a turban and a flute does to the cobra in the basket.  If the DM is prone to using a lot of snakes in the game - maybe pits full of vipers or traps that release a deadly asp or something - then this spell could be helpful.  Otherwise, it's probably not worth the spell slot.  Sorry, Indy, suck it up and deal.

8. Speak With Animals:  Given that this spell allows the cleric to talk to any sort of normal or giant animal (presumably including snakes) there's even less reason to take the previous spell.  Granted, it doesn't make the animals automatically friendly or cooperative, but it opens up the possibility of negotiation.  The description indicates that the caster may communicate with one type of animal, which could mean that only one type may be chosen for the whole duration of the spell, or maybe that only one type may be spoken to at a time (i.e. something said to the dog will not be understood by the cat; you'll have to say it again in feline if you want her to understand.) 

The description specifies that animals may do small favors for the cleric if their reaction rolls are good enough and the task is within their capability.  Presumably the cleric could offer the animal something to sweeten the deal, too.  Animals would also be great sources of information.  True, they aren't likely to have the same ideas of what's important or interesting as a human adventurer would, so the cleric would have to ask just the right questions, but if you need to know something about the area or what happened or who has passed there recently, odds are there's a rat or songbird that witnessed it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

NPC Sunday: Nilsa Stowell, pawnbroker

Nilsa Stowell, pawnbroker

Despite her fierce determination, Nilsa Stowell frequently finds herself a bit out of her depth in her profession.  Being a merchant was neither her dream nor her idea, but that of her late husband.  When Olber hatched a wild scheme to salvage goods for sale from a local dungeon, only for his rat-gnawed corpse to be hauled back to town two weeks later, Nilsa found herself a 23-year-old widow with a shop and an outstanding debt to the local thieves' guild.  Four years later, she's still learning the ins and outs of business, but thus far has kept the enterprise afloat and managed to keep the guild mostly placated as well.

Nilsa deals mostly in secondhand goods, and those mostly mundane and unremarkable things like dishes, tools, candlesticks, clothing, and such.  She's also 50% likely to have any item from the miscellaneous equipment lists, and will have 1d6-1 used weapons as well, at 50-75% of the book price.   Her real passion is for old and unique items, especially those with a history, and had Olber not perished she would gladly have spent her days in the back of the shop cataloguing and appraising while he tended to clients.  She also lends coin on pawned items, at a rate of 5-10% interest per month.  She is blunt-spoken and guileless, and has neither the knack nor the patience for the absurd dance of haggling over a deal that most traders seem to relish.  Her prices are firm but fair, and only a substantial revelation about the quality if an item will persuade her to budge.  Making lowball opening offers or dishonest assessments of an item's worth for bargaining purposes are sure ways to ignite the fuse on her temper - and it's not a very long fuse.  Forthrightness will earn her respect, while showing an interest in and knowledge of antiques and curiosities goes a long way toward winning her genuine favor. 

There's a shadier side to her business as well, one that she resents mightily.  In order to keep the thieves' guild debt collectors at bay, she reluctantly agreed to fence their stolen goods.  She has shown a surprising talent for it, but despises having to compromise her principles so, and dreams of the day when she can hand the guild a sack of gold coins and be rid of them.

Appearance: Nilsa is a bit over average height, slightly plump, round-faced and dark-eyed.  She's no great beauty, but pleasant enough.  Her hair is shoulder length sandy blonde, usually tied back in a short tail.  She dresses in dark colors which unfortunately tend to show smudges of dust. 

Stats: St 9 In 12 Wi 14 Dx 11 Co 10 Ch 9, AC 9, hp 4, AT short sword, Dam 1d6, AL L
She keeps her late husband's sword behind the counter in case of emergencies.

Campaign role: PCs are likely to hear of Nilsa before their first adventure, when they're scraping the bottoms of their purses to buy equipment, or when they return from an adventure with treasures they need to convert to cash.  She is initially unable to buy items of greater than 100 gp value, but if the PCs become regular clients, her business prospers and grows at about the same rate their adventuring careers do.  Eventually, she may be happily brokering deals worth thousands of gold pieces between the player characters and wealthy collectors.  If one or more PCs are members of the thieves' guild, they'll be referred to her by the guild.  She'll dutifully serve them, but with thinly veiled disdain and frosty efficiency.  At some point, she's going to be ready to pay off her debt and part company, and the thieves' guild won't be happy about losing such a reliable fence.  The PCs may find themselves on one side or the other of the guild's schemes to undermine her efforts in order to keep a tight rein on her services.

Friday, March 14, 2014

B/X Spell Roundup: 2nd level cleric spells, part 1

Movin' on up to 2nd level spells...starting again with the cleric list.

1. Bless:  There aren't many real stinkers in the B/X spell lists, but this spell surely is one of them.  +1 to morale (which doesn't affect player characters at all), +1 to hit (which only makes a difference on one roll in 20), and +1 to damage (slightly more impact than the other components, but pretty lame for a spell that you have to be 4th level to cast.)

The spell description states that, at the DM's discretion, it may also be used for ceremonies of blessing or cleansing.  Those aren't situations that come up frequently during adventures, in my experience, and there would have to be some in-game consequences for failing to use the spell.

The reverse of the spell, Blight, is if anything even more useless.  It imposes penalties of the same magnitude as the normal spell's bonuses.  Like the normal spell, all creatures to be affected must be within a 20' x 20' space.  At least you can get the whole party together to bless them all.  Good luck getting the enemies to cooperate and clump together to be blighted.

I have a few ideas for rehabilitating Bless into something useful, but since this series is about spells in the rules-as-written, I'll save those thoughts for another post.

2. Find Traps:  Here's a useful one.  It overlaps the thief's Find Traps ability a little, but that's really not a problem.  It reveals only the location of the trap with a blue glow for all to see, but not the type of trap or how to disarm it.  It lasts for 2 turns, so the cleric could scan about two rooms, or as much corridor as she can traverse in that time.

Despite the shared name, the spell and the thief ability are very different in key ways.  The spell requires the expenditure of a precious spell slot, but it's automatic and tells you at a glance where the traps are; the thief ability is an unlimited resource but is uncertain and takes a full turn to search.  (It's a common practice in old school games to allow anyone to detect area traps such as pits, falling blocks, or scything blades, as opposed to small traps on specific objects like the needle in the lock of a treasure chest.  Generally this still takes about a turn of game time.) 

The Find Traps spell is great when time constraints make searching for traps impractical, such as during pursuit, or when you suspect a gauntlet of traps and searching for them one at a time would be tedious and dangerous.  Although it doesn't automatically tell you the type of trap, it does highlight its location for everyone, including the party thief.  It seems reasonable that once a thief knows that there is a trap and where it is, he can probably figure out pretty quickly what type it is and either tell the party how to avoid it or attempt to disarm it without making his own roll to find it.  Thus, cleric and thief can actually work in harmony, with the cleric's spell augmenting rather than supplanting the thief's role of dealing with traps.

There is one potential point of ambiguity in the spell description.  It seems fairly safe to assume that the spell highlights the general area of a trap, not its specific parts, because that would tend to identify the type of trap.  So, especially in the case of traps in which the trigger is located at some distance from the "kill zone," which does it detect?  One or the other, or both? 

3. Know Alignment:  The relevance and usefulness of this spell depends heavily on what alignments actually mean in your campaign.  If Law and Chaos are cosmic forces that are at war with each other, then knowing which one a person or creature sides with might be of great importance.  Similarly, if Chaos generally tends toward evil and Law toward good, it's effectively a more powerful version of Detect Evil, since it doesn't depend on the target having immediate evil intentions.  On the other hand, if Law and Chaos only represent behavioral tendencies toward stability and reliability, or toward fickleness and capriciousness, it's not really telling you anything that you couldn't learn from simple observation of the creature's behavior. 

It can also tell you the alignment of an enchanted item or area, such as a sword or a temple.  What exactly it means for a non-sentient entity to have an alignment is less clear, and probably something for the DM to determine in his or her campaign.

4. Hold Person:  This is one of those spells that can change the entire complexion of an encounter in one fell swoop.  It has a range of 180', at least as good as most missile weapons, so you can potentially strike down opponents long before they can engage the caster in melee. With a duration of 9 turns you don't have to worry about the affected creatures for a good long while.  It can be cast at a group, affecting 1d4 creatures at normal chances to save, or focused on a single target for a saving throw penalty of -2.  That's a meaningful tactical choice; neither option is obviously superior in most situations, let alone in every situation.  You could cast it at a group and only affect one creature anyway.  You could cast it at a single opponent and it makes its save despite the penalty. 

The spell description specifies that it only affects humans, demihumans, and humanoid creatures, and also that it doesn't affect undead or creatures larger than an ogre (thus giants and trolls are immune.)  The restriction based directly on physical size rather than using HD as a rough proxy for size leaves no question that human and demihuman PCs and NPCs of all levels are vulnerable.  Since saving throws improve much more slowly than hp totals, this is a good spell to neutralize tough human and demihuman opponents quickly.  Almost needless to say, it's non-lethal, so it's perfect for pacificst or semi-pacifist clerics, and for any time the party wants to take its opponents alive.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

NPC Sunday: Garvellyn the Spattered, apothecary

Well-defined NPCs are always useful in a D&D campaign.  With that in mind, I thought I'd start a new feature here at the Flagon: NPC Sunday.  I want to maintain a focus primarily on the sort of zero- and low-level folk with whom PCs might interact.  That's not to say higher-level characters will never be featured, but it's the ordinary sort that seem to be in shortest supply.  So, without further ado, my first entry in the series:

Garvellyn the Spattered, apothecary

Garvellyn, known as "the Spattered" for the usual condition of his brown woolen robes, is an apothecary who plies his trade from a dusty, cramped, back-alley shop under a faded but ornately lettered sign: Elixirs, Tonics, and Herbal Preparations

Though Garvellyn is a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner of the arts of herbalism and medicine, he will just as happily deal in folk remedies of dubious efficacy, or even in complete hokum, if his clients are particularly gullible.  Reagents for real elixirs are expensive, after all, and preparing them takes time that's too valuable to waste on rubes who can't tell the difference anyway.  He isn't really a malicious sort; he just believes that a fool is going to part himself from his coin one way or another, and he might as well be on the receiving end of the equation. Toward that purpose, he cultivates a tone of earnestness in his dealings.  If pressed on the potency of a concoction, he will point out that some of the effects can be "subtle" and that individuals respond differently to them.  He'll then offer an alternative remedy, but never a refund.  To claim unconditional effectiveness is the mark of a charlatan, after all.  Despite his cynicism, Garvellyn has a soft spot for children and cats, and will sell a good tonic at a loss rather than push a sham remedy for a profit when the health of either is at stake.  He has no living family, at least none of whom he will speak.

Garvellyn lacks the skills of a true alchemist, so he cannot brew real magic potions, but he does make several genuinely useful preparations.  These include a revitalizing tonic (heals 1d4 hp, but second and subsequent doses taken by the same character in one day are ineffective,) insect and vermin repellents, an antitoxin serum (allows a second saving throw vs. poison, but causes paralysis for 1d4 turns,) and various brews to alleviate symptoms of disease and sometimes prevent death from otherwise lethal ailments (unique formula for each disease.)  He is also able to produce potent toxins, but sells only to those for whom he has developed a strong trust - he has no desire to be brought before an inquiry or to the gallows should a poison be used for nefarious purposes and traced back to him.  Though he can't produce magic potions of his own, he's become adept at identifying them, requiring 1d4 days and 100 gp per potion for the service.  Among his less useful products are love potions, beauty creams, herbal blends for the enhancement of various physical attributes, and hair restorers.

Appearance: Garvellyn is a thin fellow of average height in his late 30s or early 40s.  His lean, tapering face sports bushy brows over piercing eyes and a drooping mustache that hangs well below the point of his clean-shaven chin.  His drab robes smell strongly of herbs and smoke, and are mottled with stains of varying ages from all manner of chemicals, oils, and extracts.

Stats: St 8 In 15 Wi 12 Dx 11 Co 8 Ch 13, AC 9, hp 3, AT dagger, Dam 1d4, AL N
Knows and reads the Common tongue plus one ancient language appropriate to the campaign setting, which he learned in order to decipher tomes of old herb-lore.  Carries a potion of gaseous form, received in payment of a client's debt, for emergencies. 

Campaign role: PCs are likely to encounter Garvellyn when they are in search of healing potions early in their careers.  If they demonstrate intelligence and good sense in their dealings with him, they'll earn his respect and he'll treat with them in good faith.  Should they behave like fools or boors, he'll hide his contempt behind a practiced mask of sincerity while selling them snake oil and misinformation.  Garvellyn may seek out adventurers should he require particularly rare or difficult-to-obtain ingredients.  He also pays good coin for interesting flasks, bottles, and other containers for his preparations. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

B/X Spell Roundup: 1st level magic-user spells, part 3

Due to a numbering error, I apparently did five spells in the last post.  D'oh!  I suppose that's what I get for trying to cobble these things together during lulls at work.  Anyway, that leaves us with three more spells to round out the list of a dozen.

10. Shield:  This is a pretty potent defensive spell, particularly at low levels.  It's as good as mail and shield against melee attacks, and plate and shield against missiles.  Since it lasts a full 2 turns, it could be cast in advance of an anticipated combat encounter.  As effective as it is, though, I don't think I'd want it as my character's only memorized spell at level 1, because all it does is make the magic-user a little better able to engage in mundane combat.  Cast Shield, stand back and throw daggers, or if you've got more guts than brains, rush into melee.  Yeah, it increases survivability a bit, but it's not bringing anything to the party that fighters, dwarves, and clerics don't already do better.  I like it a lot better as a secondary or tertiary spell, to keep the magic-user safe while he casts other spells or uses magic items.

11. Sleep:  This is, hands down, the "nuclear option" of 1st-level spells.  2d8 hit dice of creatures, right out of the fight just like that, no save.  The range is a whopping 240', which is farther than characters can even see in most dungeons, and beyond the range of all but the most powerful missile weapons.

Unfortunately there's a lot of ambiguity in the spell description.  It specifies that lower HD creatures are affected first, and in the example of combat elsewhere in the rules, the characters make a point of staying out of the affected area, heavily implying that it does not discriminate between friend and enemy.  That seems reasonable, since it would be contradictory that the caster should be able to choose between friend or foe but not between weaker or stronger targets.  This is never stated explicitly in the spell description, nor is there any area of effect given.  So, let us turn to the Mentzer rules, which give an area of effect of 40' square.  We have an area of effect 40' square, which may be cast up to 240' away, in which the lowest HD creatures, whether friend or foe, are affected first.  That sounds workable.

A thornier issue is how to account for character levels when calculating how many HD of creatures are put to sleep.  Neither Moldvay nor Mentzer has anything to say about whether or how character levels equate to monster Hit Dice.  Here, I have to look all the way to the AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook, which states that "The number of creatures that can be affected is a function of Hit Dice or levels."  Not entirely satisfying to have characters become immune to the spell at 5th level, but I don't have any better ideas.

At low levels, Sleep, with its lack of a saving throw to avoid the effect, is probably the spell most likely to result in a TPK when used by enemy casters.  The average HD affected is 7, which is enough to knock out an average party of 1st level characters, and with a lucky roll a lowly 1st level enemy magic-user could wipe out a party of up to eight 2nd level PCs, or even four 4th level ones. (At 4+1 HD, only one creature is affected, but below that, the roll of 2d8 applies - another oddity of the spell description.)

12. Ventriloquism:  This is one of the shortest spell descriptions in the rules, and I like it that way.  No variables, no situational modifiers, not really even any game mechanics to describe the effect beyond range and duration.  It makes the caster's voice come from somewhere else within 60', and the rest is up to the DM and players.  Presumably the sound can be any noise the caster can make with his own unaided voice, from clear words to animal noises, from a whisper to a shout.  Also, there is nothing that says the location from which the voice is to emanate must be visible and accessible. 

Besides all of the possibilities for diversions, misdirection, fake hauntings, talking animals, giving orders to the villain's goons right from the villain's mouth, disrupting speeches from pompous nobles, delivering messages from "the gods" to the gullible, and other zany hijinks, you could also use it to convey a message to someone trapped in a room or cell (though not receive a reply) or to whisper a secret in the ear of someone 60' away.  With the spell's sparse mechanics, there's no other limits but imagination and common sense.  It's up to the DM to decide how creatures react, which can make it a fun spell from that side of the screen too.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

B/X Spell Roundup: 1st level magic-user spells, part 2

Moving on to the middle of the 1st level magic-user spell lists...
(Edited to correct a numbering error.)

5. Light:  This is mostly identical to the cleric spell of the same name, except that the duration varies by level.  Instead of the flat 12 turns of the cleric version, the magic-user's Light spell lasts 6 turns +1 turn per level of the caster, so at low levels the cleric is the superior light-bearer. 

Just like the cleric version, the spell can be used for a blinding attack, with a strong chance to take an opponent out of a fight in one shot.  It also has all the same advantages over conventional light sources underwater, in damp conditions, when characters need their hands free, and when lanterns or torches might be targets for dark-dwelling creatures. 

The reverse, Darkness, works for blinding, and for concealment.

6. Magic Missile:  It seems like every magic-user that's ever been in a game I've run has lusted after this spell, but it's really not the be-all-end-all of low-level attack spells.  Charm Person and Light are much more effective against most opponents.  You can't take an ogre right out of the fight with a magic missile.  Magic missile is good when you need to land an unerring blow to take down an opponent that's on its last legs, or against opponents that are immune to the effects of Light and Charm.  It may also lend some valuable support against creatures that are immune to normal weapons if the party is short on magic weapons, but it's probably not enough to defeat them on its own.

Higher level casters get more missiles to fire, two more for every five levels gained. In B/X play, that seems to mean three missiles at level 6, and five at level 11.  (Or maybe level 5 and level 10.  Anyway, maximum of five under the B/X rules.  If you get the B/X Companion or use the Mentzer rules or some other rule set that goes to level 36, you're looking at 15 missiles at level 36.)  The Moldvay Basic rules give a duration of 1 turn for the spell, which seems to imply that you can cast it in advance, so long as you fire the missiles within that 1 turn time frame.  The spell description is silent about how many of them may be fired at once.  The most logical way, to my mind, is to allow one per round.

7. Protection From Evil:  Except for the fact that it's only half the duration (6 turns vs. 12) this spell is functionally exactly the same as the cleric version.  Cheesy buff to add +1 to saves and -1 to the attack rolls of creatures of differing alignment, and enchanted creatures can't touch you.  Nothing makes an unarmored magic-user with 3 hit points feel like a badass quite like walking across a room full of angry gargoyles to grab some loot.

8. Read Languages: Under the right circumstances, this spell could be one of the most useful of any level.  At least in our real world, cultures that had a written language at all tended to liberally salt their dwellings and other buildings with inscriptions, signs, and other writings.  It seems reasonable to assume that the same would be true of habitations, current or abandoned, of fantasy races as well.  Read Languages allows the caster to read, but not speak, any non-magical written language, including codes and ciphers.  The information so gathered by use of this spell could literally mean the difference between success and failure of a dungeon expedition, pointing the party toward treasure, warning them of deadly hazards, while providing tons of exposition about the origin and history of the dungeon.

9. Read Magic:  By the rules, a magic-user can't read spell scrolls or another caster's spell book without this spell.  It could also be useful if the dungeon contains magical inscriptions that can't be read with Read Languages, and for reading command words inscribed on magical treasures. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

B/X Spell Roundup: 1st level magic-user spells, part 1

The B/X magic-user spell lists are 12 spells per level, and considerably more diverse than the cleric spells.  For the purpose of these posts, I'll continue breaking the lists into tasty bite-sized chunks of four spells each.

1. Charm Person: This is one of the most powerful and useful spells a magic-user can have at low levels.  Not only does it stand an excellent chance of taking an opponent out of a fight with a single roll, if it works you also have a loyal hench-creature, at least for a while.  It isn't quite mind control; the description states that the creature will treat the caster like its best friend, protecting him from harm and generally obeying orders that don't contradict its nature too strongly and aren't obviously suicidal.  These are important points.  A charmed ogre or kobold or evil priest is not going to stop acting like an ogre or kobold or evil priest; they're just going to be eager to please the spell caster.

As the party reaches higher levels, the types of non-human creatures that can be charmed become less useful as combat allies, and the NPCs that would be useful get better at making saving throws.  Even so, charming a low-level enemy isn't necessarily a waste.  A charmed creature is a great source of information - there's very little it wouldn't tell its "best friend," after all.  If it isn't brought along with the party, it could be released and allowed to go back to its own kind, effectively giving the magic-user a mole in the enemy camp for as long as the charm lasts.  Naturally, Charm Person also has big potential in town phases of adventures when NPCs aren't as cooperative as the players might like.

The rules don't specify any limit to the number of creatures a caster can have under charm at once, so it's theoretically possible to accumulate a mob of goblin minions, or to have an entire hamlet under one's spell.  Also unspecified is precisely what happens when a charm wears off.  Does the creature immediately realize it's been had, or is it more of a head-shaking "What was I thinking?" moment?  Either possibility has interesting implications.

2. Detect Magic:  (Since this spell is identical to the cleric version, my thoughts here are just a direct copy/paste of what I wrote for that iteration of the spell, repeated here for convenience.) 
Not a lot needs to be said about this one.  Like Detect Evil, it causes targets detected by it to glow; thus that information is available to anyone with eyes to see it, not just the caster.  With a range of 60' and duration of 2 turns, a sizeable area can be scanned, and it might prove useful to cast it before a major confrontation in order to know which opponents are bearing enchanted equipment or magical enhancements of some sort.  Of course, clever opponents might deduce that the party's own equipment that glows is magical too...

3. Floating Disc:  Kind of a schizophrenic spell, a Floating Disc looks like the perfect way to haul around 500 pounds of loot, until you realize that it lasts a mere 6 turns (1 hour.)  Perhaps you could get a heavy load of treasure from a single hoard to the dungeon entrance and arrange for it to be carted away from there, but it's not much good for walking around and gathering things bit by bit.  It's good for carrying paralyzed or otherwise incapacitated characters around when there's no time to let the effect wear off.  Combine it with a ring of water walking, and the magic-user becomes an instant ferry service.  The disc might also serve as a platform for another character to stand on in order to reach some high spot.  A magic-user could use it to help a heavily-laden fighter in an evasion-and-pursuit scenario - just have the fighter hop on the disc and let the unarmored magic-user run like hell at full movement rate with the fighter in tow.  Come to think of it, having a companion on a floating disc would allow that character to face backward, firing missiles or slinging flaming oil to cover the party's escape without having to slow down. 

More imaginative uses of the spell hinge on interpretation of a vague clause in the description:  "The floating disc will be created at the height of the caster's waist, and will remain at that height..."  Does the disc remain at the level at which it was created, or does it remain at the height of the caster's waist as the caster gains or loses altitude?  The former severely constrains its usefulness even for the limited task of carrying heavy loot.  What happens if the caster goes up or down stairs or a slope?  Will the disc end up running aground when the caster ascends, or high above his head when he descends?  It seems better (and more fun) to choose the latter interpretation, that the disc changes altitude to remain at the level of the caster's waist.  Then, a magic-user who has access to levitation magic can function as an arcane elevator operator.  Or, cast a Fly spell and take a buddy cloud surfing!

4. Hold Portal:  Yes, it's kind of a one-trick pony, but it's a pretty useful trick when you need to shake pursuit, hole up in a room for a while, or keep a creature that you've chosen to release for whatever reason off your case until you're long gone.  The duration is variable, at 2d6 turns, so you might get two hours or you might only get 20 minutes.  Even the low end gives enough time to search a room, and ample time for putting some distance between you and the horde of screaming goblindom outraged that you just killed their king and looted his throne room.  Creatures 3 or more HD above the caster's level can break through in one round, but a one round head start can still make all the difference between eluding a pursuer and getting caught.

Monday, March 3, 2014

B/X Spell Roundup: 1st level cleric spells, part 2

Continuing with the second half of the level 1 cleric spell list.

5. Protection From Evil:  At first blush, this spell, granting +1 to saving throws and -1 to attack rolls against attacks from creatures of an alignment different from the cleric's, looks basically like a buff spell, and a pretty cheesy one at that.  If that were all that it did, it would be a near-total waste of a spell slot.  The spell's real power lies in the second effect listed: It completely blocks "enchanted" creatures from attacking the caster in melee.  The Mentzer rules offer further clarification of the "enchanted" qualifier: any magically summoned, animated, or controlled creature, and any creature that can only be hit by magic weapons.  That means all golems, living statues, gargoyles, and other magical constructs, conjured elementals, invisible stalkers, zombies and skeletons, charmed and geased creatures, spectres, vampires, and shadows.  A good many of those creatures don't even have any non-melee attack forms.  A cleric could literally wade through a pit full of them in perfect safety, or interpose himself between hostile enchanted creatures and a vulernable companion.  The cleric may use spells, turning, and missile attacks without breaking the protection.  And it lasts a full 12 turns! 

6. Purify Food and Water:  This is one of those spells that requires the DM to apply and keep track of factors for which there are no clear rules provided in order to be useful.  Rations and skins of water must be tracked closely, so that characters face a potential need for provisions found in the field, which may not be suitable for consumption in their present state.  There must be penalties imposed for going without food and water, and for ingesting spoiled or tainted food and drink.  Either that, or you need players who are firmly committed to role-playing the effects of thirst, hunger, and food poisoning despite there being no mechanical incentive for them to do so.  Most players in my experience aren't that dedicated.  Nonetheless, with a little effort on the part of the DM, this spell could play an interesting role in the resource management aspect of the game.  If resource management doesn't add to the game's fun for you, this spell probably doesn't belong in it either.

7. Remove Fear*: There aren't a whole lot of things in B/X D&D that cause fear that has actual game effects.  In a party of all PCs, its only real use is as a counter to its own reversed version.  It might be useful when mounts, animal companions, or NPC henchmen fail a morale check, though.  It would be nice if the spell gave a bonus to, or even automatic success with, tasks that are difficult mainly because they're frightening - walking across a narrow plank over a bottomless chasm, for instance. Adding other save-or-fear effects to the game would also make the spell more useful.  A serious drawback is that the range is 0 (touch), so if a creature is already running scared, the cleric better be prepared to chase and intercept it.  Also, a creature under a magical fear effect only receives a second saving throw (with a bonus equal to the cleric's level) so it may fail anyway.

The reversed spell, Cause Fear, causes the target to flee in fear if a saving throw vs. spells is failed.  Unlike the standard version, Cause Fear has a range of 120', so no need to be in melee range to use it.  It affects only one target, but Spells is generally the hardest category of saving throws, so the odds are pretty good that it will take that target out of a fight.  Successully using it on an enemy leader might well break the morale of his troops, too, and save the entire party some fighting.  That's a lot more bang for the spell slot than, say, Cause Light Wounds.

8. Resist Cold:   There's not really a lot in the rules-as-written to make this spell attractive.  White dragon breath and the Wall of Ice spell are really the only things it's useful against, and the saving throw bonus and damage reduction are fairly trivial.  I guess that's not too unreasonable for a 1st level spell, but that narrow range of utility makes it hardly worth expending a spell slot.  Theoretically it makes the subject completely immune to non-magical cold too, but the game provides no rules for harm from non-magical frigid conditions.  House rules for those conditions, or just ad hoc situations on a dungeon or wilderness key that provide instances of harmful cold, could make it a worthwhile spell. 

And that's it for 1st level cleric spells.  Next up, I'll jump over to the magic-user spell list.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

B/X Spell Roundup: 1st level cleric spells, part 1

Spells in B/X tend to be pretty simple, but even simple spell descriptions can imply some interesting things about how a spell might work in play, including unconventional uses. In the next several posts, I'm going to be analyzing the spells of B/X, at least up to level 3, for both clerics and magic-users.

1. Cure Light Wounds*:  This spell is the foundation of magical healing in D&D.  It's often claimed that, because it's exclusive to the cleric class, it virtually necessitates that every adventuring party have at least one cleric in its ranks.  In B/X, however, a first-level cleric receives no spells at all, so I'm highly skeptical that magical healing was ever meant to be an absolute necessity.  A beginning party must make due without it, unless they find healing potions, and unless the party has multiple clerics, they're severely limited in the amount of healing they have at their disposal.  At 3rd level, a cleric can cast a maximum of two healing spells per day, and doesn't get any more until she gains access to the 4th-level Cure Serious Wounds spell.  (Bizarrely, the cleric spell tables in the Cook Expert rules jump from 2/2 at 5th level to 2/2/1/1 at 6th - gaining access to 3rd and 4th level spells at once!  Mentzer Expert more sensibly has 3rd level spells at 6th level, and 4th at level 8.  But I digress.)  A B/X cleric just can't provide enough healing for a typical adventuring party to get torn up in a fight every couple turns.  (This is yet another strong hint that the game is meant to be primarily about exploration, wit, and guile, and that combat is to be avoided whenever possible.)

The reverse of the spell, Cause Light Wounds, inflicts the same amount of damage that the normal spell cures, 1d6+1 points.  There is literally no reason why a cleric would ever use this in combat, because it does scarcely more damage than a mace or hammer, and it still requires a normal attack roll.  I suppose it might be used for some sort of dark ceremonial purposes, but in battle, it's utterly useless.

2. Detect Evil:  At first glance, this spell seems like a total spoiler for adventures with a strong investigation or social conflict element.  A careful reading of the description shows that the spell doesn't detect inherent evil in creatures, but evil intent.  A goblin or bandit, or the king's scheming vizier, only registers as "evil" if they're actively contemplating an evil act at the time.  The definition of "evil" is left to the DM's discretion.  It also detects "evilly enchanted objects," though again this isn't really defined.  It doesn't say, for instance, whether curses are evil.  It's possible to interpret a cursed item as merely defective rather than malicious, so I suppose leaving each individual case to the DM's judgment makes sense, though it would have been nice to have some of these cases stated more explicitly.  Also of note is that the spell has a range of 120' and lasts for 6 turns - that's one full hour of in-game time - which means it can potentially remain active for a good bit of exploration.  It makes all "evil" targets glow, which would tip off anyone in the area that a spell has been cast, including the creatures detected by it. 

3. Detect Magic:  Not a lot needs to be said about this one.  Like Detect Evil, it causes targets detected by it to glow; thus that information is available to anyone with eyes to see it, not just the caster.  With a range of 60' and duration of 2 turns, a sizeable area can be scanned, and it might prove useful to cast it before a major confrontation in order to know which opponents are bearing enchanted equipment or magical enhancements of some sort.  Of course, clever opponents might deduce that the party's own equipment that glows is magical too...

4. Light:  Just about every gamer knows the combat use of the light spell, casting it at an opponent's eyes to blind it.  A saving throw is allowed, but anything that saves as a 9th level fighter or worse is more likely than not to be taken right out of the fight in one fell swoop.  It's almost a shame that light is such a potent attack spell, because its more utilitarian purpose is highly underrated.  The duration of 12 turns is respectable, though not as much as a torch or lantern, but there are situations when hand-held burning lights are impractical.  Some examples include underwater or in very damp places, climbing and other activities for which both hands are needed, in places with lots of combustible materials, and in fights with intelligent subterranean creatures (a lantern has to be an attractive target for goblins, who can see just fine without it and would gain a huge advantage by snuffing the party's light source.)  It can be cast on an item, so just stick it to your helmet, and you're good for two hours.  This usefulness depends a lot on the DM applying the drawbacks of conventional light sources rather than handwaving them, though.

The reversed spell, Darkness, can be used offensively in a similar fashion to Light.  It also might be useful to conceal things.  A patch of darkness in a dungeon is a lot less conspicuous than, say, a pile of loot or a stash of rations.  A cleric might cast Darkness across the doorless entrance to a room where the party wishes to rest, thus screening them and their light sources from eyes looking at the doorway from the other side.  Darkness doesn't foil infravision, though.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Utility spells and adventure design

I was poring over the spell list in the Moldvay Basic rules, pondering a few posts, maybe a series, on under-utilized spells.  Perusing the description of the humble 1st level magic-user spell read languages, a thought struck me about the style of gaming for which those spells were originally designed. 

So, when would a player choose to prepare or cast read languages?  The obvious answer, of course, is when the DM is running the type of game in which the player stands to gain something by doing so.  I think that type of game is either a true sandbox or one with a predominance of sandboxy elements.

Consider first a fairly linear, plot-driven adventure.  Because the adventure setting and other details are probably going to be used only once, anything extraneous to the plot is likely to be pretty thin, when present at all.  Writing up descriptions for locations, dungeon rooms, NPCs, etc. that aren't related to the plot is just extra work for the sake of work.  The dungeon won't have many rooms that don't contain something important to the adventure.  Major obstacles are usually essential to the plot, choke points that must be surmounted in some prescribed fashion in order to proceed.  If there's a door marked with ancient runes or a scroll with an encoded message, it's never superfluous or tangential to the plot.  It's there to advance the PC party toward the final resolution of the quest.

For that reason, it's pretty rare that the author of such an adventure would include those things without also including the means for deciphering them.  The adventure must not hinge on the players having access to a particular spell at a particular point.  It must not come to a grinding halt, or even end in failure, for want of a magic-user who knows and has prepared read languages.  Instead, the author will generally drop in some sort of plot coupon - a Rosetta stone, a mislaid copy of the cipher, an NPC who knows the ancient language, or (completely lacking imagination) a scroll containing the spell in a chest nearby.

Savvy players will pick up on this, and realize that it's mostly pointless to prepare or cast read languages.  Search for the plot coupon, and save those precious spell slots for slinging magic missile and sleep spells during the inevitable climactic set piece battle.  It is possible, of course, that the price of winning the plot coupon is greater than a first-level spell, and it would make sense to circumvent it with a quick casting of read laguages.  Given the tendency of that type of adventure toward railroading so that No Encounter is Wasted, though, it's likely that the author will contrive some reason that read languages won't work, requiring the party to go through the encounters to get the plot coupon.  (If you really want to discourage players from preparing utility spells, make those spells useless in any situation that significantly advances the party's goals because it interferes with somebody's conception of a good story.)

Compare that to a sandbox campaign, in which a large dungeon complex or wilderness area may be the scene of multiple adventures, whether they're simple dungeon crawls ("Why?  Because it's there!") or quests to accomplish some particular goal.  There are multiple paths by which any given location may be reached, and many features that aren't essential to any plot.  They're just there to be discovered and utilized in whatever ways the players can conceive. 

In this sort of environment, players have no assurance of plot coupons to get them past obstacles without expending resources, nor do they automatically know which things they encounter are relevant to their current quest and which aren't.  If they want to read the message on that door, engraved in strange glyphs of the forgotten tongue of the Old Empire, they can search the dungeon high and low for some secret decoder ring that may or may not exist, they can make a rubbing of it and take it to a sage in town, or the party magic-user can zap it with read languages and find the answer right away, without further waste of precious time.  They can also choose to move on and forget about it.  The most important consideration is that the success or failure of the adventure doesn't hinge on their reading the message.  It's not a choke point which must be passed to advance to the next stage; it's one piece of a puzzle, and the players might still be able to make out the overall picture without any given piece.  Because the possibilities are so wide-open, there's no need to ensure that the party can read it even if they don't have a spell, and no reason to prevent the spell from working to preserve anyone's idea of how the story should progress.

Reading the message might allow the party to claim any number of advantages.  Perhaps it forewarns them of hazards, or gives access to a shortcut that bypasses those hazards.  Maybe it points to a magic sword or a potion that could be of use in this or future adventures.  Maybe it's a map of part of the dungeon, or a misdirected message that discloses parts of the villain's plans that a clever party can exploit.  Maybe there's a hook for a future adventure.  Maybe there's bonus loot to be gained.  Maybe there's something unrelated to the current mission that reveals interesting information about the dungeon or other features of the campaign setting.  Or maybe it leads to a monster or trap that deplete their resources.  There's risk involved, after all.

Of course, all of this is moot if you don't liberally salt your setting with books, scrolls, engravings, heiroglyphs, ciphers, and other written material and make at least a fair bit of it helpful and relevant to the party.