Saturday, May 30, 2015

Some half-baked ideas about spells

There are a couple schemes floating around the OSR for spells without levels, or for having every spell have a 1st-level version and boosting its range, duration, and/or damage by using higher level spell slots when casting.  That gave me a framework for some thoughts I've been mulling about making each spell an entire category or family, with the range of effects (rather than just numerical parameters) expanding according to what level of slot is used to cast it.  A family of spells must be learned in order; you can't learn the 2nd-level spell until you know the 1st-level one, and so on.  However, then you'd only have to memorize the base spell (1st level) in order to cast any spell in that family by expending a slot of the appropriate level.

As the post title says, this isn't a fully developed system yet, just some preliminary thoughts and ideas.

For instance, Feather Fall, Levitate, and Fly could form a neat little spell family.  As a first level spell, it gives you a bit of lift, but not enough to completely overcome your own weight.  You can't gain altitude, but you float gently to the ground, and you don't trigger most weight-activated traps.  At second level, you gain the ability to rise or descend vertically.  At third, you gain full three-dimensional movement.

Charms could be made to fit the pattern too, starting off allowing the caster to charm beings similar to himself (Charm Person), working up through normal animals, to monsters, to plants, to mass charms, and maybe even constructs and undead for the highest level versions of the spell.

Polymorph self?  At first level, you can change to human or humanoid forms, up to plus or minus 50% of your size.  You can't take the form of a specific individual, but you can alter your height, weight, body proportions, coloration, or apparent sex.  Second level, partial polymorph - say, change your hands to claws, grow a tail, and things of that nature.  Third level, you can change yourself into any normal animal of your level/HD or less.  Fourth, polymorph into any monster form of no greater than twice your level/HD, as per the spell in the rule book.  Fifth, polymorph self into plant forms.  Sixth, polymorph yourself into mineral or non-living matter.  Seventh, polymorph yourself into multiple creatures whose HD do not exceed twice your level/HD.  Eighth, you get the special defenses of your new form, e.g. immunity to normal weapons, immunity to fire, etc. Ninth, you get all special attack forms too, just like the Shape Change spell.

Illusions work too.  First level, you can cast an illusion that affects any one sense within a 20' cube.  Second level, you can affect two senses; the illusion still needs to fit within a 20' cube, but you can move it around within the 240' spell range.  Third level, you can affect three senses, and the illusion can fill the entire 240' range.  Fourth level, four senses, and a static illusion can be made permanent.  Fifth level, five senses, and you can program a sequence to go off under circumstances of your choosing.

I could go on, but you probably get the gist.  Of course, some spells don't lend themselves easily to a scheme like this, and others won't stretch all the way up to 9th level.  Is that a feature or a bug?  I'm not sure.  It seems like it might be a cool way to shake up the traditional spell system of D&D without warping the power curve too much.

Feel free to weigh in, or take the idea and run with it.

Dark fey: Hobgoblins

When household tools and family heirlooms go missing, the wise housewife will suspect the activity of hobgoblins.  Like a snarling, ill-tempered magpie, the hobgoblin will "collect" whatever is within his reach and tickles his inscrutable fancies.  Avarice is his hallmark; avarice, but not discernment, for he will as readily purloin horse-shoes and glass beads as gold coin and precious gems.  The enterprising adventurer who is able to claim a hobgoblin hoard has a task at once enviable and daunting before him in sifting through mounds of rubbish for the inevitable pieces of great value, but he may also earn the lasting goodwill of the local community by returning to them many long-lost belongings.

Yet despite his avarice, the hobgoblin is a creature of clannish and communal habits, gladly adding his precious baubles to the tribal hoard.  Perhaps this is for the sheer delight of seeing so great a collection amassed together.  The clan's "king" is in reality the steward of the hoard, and has few other interests than in protecting and enlarging it.  His "subjects" may freely gaze upon, or even handle, the contents of the hoard, but it is simply unthinkable to them to remove any for their personal use or enjoyment.

Between different clans, however, rivalry is prevalent, and capturing a prized trophy from another clan, by stealth or by force, is a source of great pride to king and clan.  Clans are distinguished by differences of seemingly little consequence to the human sensibility, but which are evidently of great importance to the hobgoblin: the pointedness of noses or the relative lengths of the second and third fingers, for instance.

It is perhaps because of the occasional brutality of these rivalries, and the ease with which the hobgoblin may be tempted into armed service of other races with generous payments of worthless trinkets, that he has acquired the reputation of military inclination.  While it is true that he does not blink at violence, the typical hobgoblin is chaotic and unruly, and is at best a skirmisher in an irregular division and not part of a disciplined fighting force.  In truth, except with regard to other clans of his own kind, a hobgoblin prefers to go unnoticed, and to indulge his inborn kleptomania without risking his neck, unless he clearly has the advantage over his mark.

Where goblins and hobgoblins share territory near human habitations, they exist in a sort of unintentional symbiosis which wreaks havoc on the human community.  The dainties one sets out to repulse goblins are readily snatched up by their grasping cousins, leaving the home unwarded against goblins and encouraging further incursions by the hobgoblins.  Some knowledgeable persons say that hobgoblins fear dogs; whether or not this is true is a contentious subject, but it is fact that the hobgoblin does not share his cousin's curious affinity for savage wolves.  Others will assert that a blessed object such as a holy text or symbol, added to a clan's hoard, will shortly disperse the entire nest of hobgoblins, and so will advocate the leaving of such items where they might readily be taken.  The efficacy, or lack thereof, of these and other remedies is left to the individual house-holder to determine through trial and error.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Dark fey: Kobolds

So, here you are, all decked out in a new suit of mail, and you think you're ready to face the worst the dungeon has to offer?  Let me tell you something, laddie, the things down there most to be feared aren't the ones lookin' to put a spear through your shiny new coat.  There're things in those dark places that'll kill you without your ever seein' 'em, or get you to kill yourself with foolish missteps and save them the bother.  Tappers, some call 'em, or knockers, or mine-haunts.  Kobolds, to the person of learnin'.

What's that?  Oh, sure, you can take them down with your axe.  Probably only take one swing, too. Good luck getting a stand-up fight out of 'em, though.  They see as well in pitch dark as you and I do in the noon sun, and they hear better too, like dogs.  Can talk back and forth 'tween each other that way, so you never know it.  Kobolds are uncanny in tunnels.  Never get lost, and sometimes they dig warrens of little passages and crawl-ways alongside the main ones to get around unseen.

Mischief is what kobolds love best, 'specially the kind that gets folks hurt or killed, and all the better if it takes a long time to do you in.  First you'll hear them tap-tap-tapping down in the dark depths, inviting you to come investigate.  They'll make other noises too, if they think it'll grab your attention, and some of 'em can mimic just about anything - a dog barking, water trickling, birds chirping.  All for the purpose of gettin' you deeper into the dungeon and lost.  They like to rub out your chalk marks on the walls, or make new ones, steal your rations and lamp oil, lock doors you already unlocked, reset the traps you disarmed.  Or they might put your prized magic ring in the thief's bag while you're asleep.  Nothing makes 'em happier than turning a party against itself.

Only way to negotiate with a kobold is to help him do mischief on somebody else.  Sometimes you can trade 'em things like chalk for writin' on the walls, or strong whiskey, which they won't drink themselves but maybe put in the next fellow's water skins.  Don't count on their favors lasting long, though - if you're lucky, they'll leave you alone just long enough for you to find your way back to sunlight and fresh air again.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dark fey: Goblins

Pity the goblin - poor wretch!  For he is a creature of envy, doomed never to know joy or contentment of his own, forever tormented by that of others.  There is no thing animate or inanimate which is not the object of his envy.  He envies his brother-goblin who found a dead rat in the tunnel; he envies the rat, for it has no more concerns to trouble it in this world; he envies his chieftain for his position of power (even as the chieftain envies him a life free of the heavy burden of dominating the rabble with the lash!)  Most of all he envies men, elves, and dwarves, for the fellowship they share between one another, for the beauty of their crafts, for the delight they take in food and drink, for the mirth of their songs.  He envies them childhood, full of wonder; he envies them the robustness of adulthood; he envies them their wise venerability.  Especially he envies that they so freely walk beneath the daylight sky which burns his pallid skin and sears his red eyes.

Yes, pity the goblin, but fear him as well!  For so great is his misery that there is no act he will not contemplate to assuage it for the briefest of moments, or to share it in as great a measure as he can.  He is not brave, or at least seldom so, but he is sly and clever, and his eyes see in the blinding darkness.  He will steal whatever he may that seems to bring enjoyment to its owner, and either hoard it away with a hundred other forgotten baubles when it disappoints him, or ruin it that it might never give another the delight it has denied him.

He will hew down your beloved apple tree, set aflame your thatched hovel, pull the guts from your old striped cat because he sees you smile at her.  He balks not at foul murder, even - especially! - of children, who laugh and love so easily.  He laughs, too, as he works his malice, all full of madness but utterly void of mirth, and thus it is a sound most horrible.

Yet, pity him, though he has none in his withered heart for you!  Cold steel may slay his body, but it is kindness which his spirit cannot abide.  Set out bowls of food and drink for him at night, and little shoes and waistcoats sized just for him, though he will leave them untouched. Only then will your home and your kin be safe from his cruel mischief.

Dark fey

One of the great strengths of early iterations of D&D like B/X is their brief treatment of monsters.  There are none of the long treatises on each creature's ecology, biology, and society (which really exploded in AD&D 2E, if I recall.)  Each entry in the monsters chapter of the rules tells you the monster's stats, what it looks like, what it can do, and where it can be found.  That's it.  The beauty of this is that it leaves all the world-specific details of creatures to the DM, instead of codifying an "official" version.

Even though these things were lacking in the actual rule books, I absorbed a great deal of what monsters were "supposed" to be like from adventure modules, most especially The Keep on the Borderlands.  Gygax portrayed the humanoids as essentially evil, ugly, savage humans.  Sure, they looked different, and they hated "real" humans, but they had all the same basic needs and motivations.  They ate, drank, slept, reproduced, and reared young.  Other modules and supplements that I read and played pretty much followed Gary's lead, and the paradigm of goblins as reskinned barbaric humans became lodged in my mind.

These days, I want something a little more fantastic.  I want goblins and kobolds that are radically different from humans and demi-humans, despite their superficial physical resemblance.  (I also would like to avoid "orc babies" moral dilemmas, because I really don't find them fun or entertaining.) I'm thinking of something like the dark fey creatures depicted in so many tales.  Without further ado, here's the direction I'm leaning...

In addition to humans and demi-humans, the world is populated by fey beings - elemental spirits of nature spawned by the earth itself.  Thus, woodlands give rise to treants and dryads, flowers and mushrooms birth pixies and sprites, streams and springs spawn nixies and naiads.  But even nature itself is not incorruptible.

There are places where the trees, the waters, even the very hills themselves have grown hateful.  They may seem at a glance little different from more wholesome locales, but always they seethe with invisible malice that troubles the hearts of good creatures who venture near.  From the detritus of these places - the stinking mud and the mouldering leaves, the rotten hearts of diseased trees and deadly toadstools, the festering darkness within the fouled earth itself - spring the dark fey: Goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, bugbears, trolls, ogres, and others even more grotesque.

The dark fey, as their less-loathsome kin, are ageless beings, untouched by the ravages of time, although they often are haggard and gnarled in aspect suggestive of ruinous age.  Some may take the forms of male or female, but without the functions: they are not born, but generated spontaneously from places of malevolence and corruption, and they know not what it is to be young or old.  They need no food to sustain them, but hunger gnaws them nonetheless; eating assuages their hunger for a time but gives them no true pleasure, and what they cannot devour they will spoil so that no mortal may have the enjoyment of it.  They likewise do not need sleep.  Some partake of it anyway out of sheer sloth, but others despise it and never close their bloodshot eyes.  Long years of wakefulness may add the gift of stark madness to their vicious natures.

Dark fey are normally closely bound to the sites of their genesis, and cannot stray more than a few miles without weakening.  If forcibly removed, their life force dissipates, and their bodies, bereft of the animating spirit, revert to the stuff of their making: mud, sticks, decaying leaves, slime, mold, and shadows.  The corrupted woods and hills which spawn dark fey inevitably produce more to replace any who are slain; they are not quite genius loci, but perhaps more akin to a fungal mass from which sprout an inexhaustible number of mushrooms.  Thus the numbers of dark fey tend to remain constant, despite the best efforts of adventurers and mercenaries charged with their extermination.  In some cases, it may be possible to purge such a site of its evil influence, but a different method is required for each, and discovering and implementing it is likely to prove an arduous and expensive endeavor.  Worse still, sometimes the evil spreads like rot, expanding outward to engulf a larger area.  Many a human village has succumbed to the creeping terror of a bugbear-haunted forest on its borders, or a dwarven stronghold overrun by the taint of goblin-earth spreading from a mountain's black heart.

These things the dark fey have in common, yet they are also diverse, with each race distinct from its awful brethren.  In our next installment, we will begin the tour through the ranks of these spirits of  malice, beginning with the goblin.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


So.  I didn't think I'd ever be back here, but I am.  Tentatively.

I did not intend to be dramatic.  I didn't do it for sympathy or attention.  I boarded up the doors and windows back in February because at that point I sincerely could not imagine having anything worthwhile to post ever again.  Depression is a cruel bitch.

I'm sure I'm not the only RPG enthusiast to suffer from bouts of depression, so I trust that at least a few people who read my ramblings here have some firsthand understanding of how it feels when it hits.  This one just hit especially hard.  I soldiered on for a few posts ("fake it 'til you make it," as they say,) and then I hit the wall hard, the bottom fell out, the wheels fell off, or whatever other metaphor you like to use for a mental breakdown.  I don't think anything really changed over the next few months, except that the black cloud just slowly lifted.  They always do, I guess; it just doesn't feel like it will when you're in the middle of a particularly dark one.

I haven't run my usual game since last November, and I'm not sure of its status.  I haven't played in a game in more than ten years.  Despite all that, D&D is bubbling up in my brain again, and it needs an outlet.  Perhaps I'll try to suck up my social anxiety (and my aversion to newer editions) and find a local game store and see if I can worm my way into a game or two.  B/X is my first love, but maybe any D&D is better than none at all?  Maybe I'll find out.  Meanwhile, I guess there's no good reason not to write some new posts about some of these ideas that are cropping up.

Welcome back to the Flagon.  Pardon the dust and the cobwebs.  Hopefully things will be back to normal soon.

(Comments are turned off, because, as I said, I'm really not fishing for sympathy.  Comments will be re-enabled for the first new game-related post.)