Friday, October 30, 2015

Dark fey: Shadows

I can't let Halloween go by without another entry in the Dark Fey series, can I?

(Disclaimer: This is the non-undead monster from B/X, not the AD&D undead of the same name.  I figured it fits pretty well among the dark fey.)

What's that?  You wish to hear another tale?  Not so keen to head out toward home, are you, even on such a clear crisp evening as this?  As well you might not, what with the moon at its full and the shadows reaching their long arms across the earth...No, hardly a fit night to be abroad.  Another pint, then?

Well then.  Where was I?  Ah, yes.  No, you needn't be afraid of your own shadow.  But when you finally walk home tonight, to your family and your bed, you'd best have a care that the shadow that follows you truly is your own.  There other things that cast shadows, things no longer of this realm.

Did you know that even among the fey, there are crimes too horrible to countenance?   Yes, the wild and perilous fey, to whom the snatching of babies from their cradles and blasphemy against the gods themselves are worth scarce a first thought, never mind a second!  What enormities could so horrify them?  I know not, nor do you, and pray the gods will it we never should learn!

Only the fey themselves know, and it's a dire business indeed when one of their kind should be deemed guilty of such hideous misdeeds.  And what punishment could be meted out against soulless folk, who live on and on without end, to whom neither the gallows nor the headsman's axe holds any menace?  Nothing short of eternal banishment!  Not from a village, or even a kingdom, but from the world of the living itself.  For an instant, on moonless nights, the sorcerers of the fairy court may tear back the veil between the worlds, and through that awful rent are cast the condemned, those irredeemably monstrous beings, and there they sit to brood and hate until time itself should crumble away and all barriers fail.

Yet even there, they are not wholly powerless, and from time to time they may still work their malice upon mortal and fey alike.  For theirs is a prison not of solid walls, but of silken curtains.  When and wherever light shines in our waking world, so it shines in that queer place also, and through the veil it projects the shadows of those fallen wretches.

In full darkness no shadows are cast, and in the noonday sun they are but shrinking things, huddled close about the feet of wall and tree.  In twilight, though, the shadows come into their full.  Then the shades skulk and creep, blending with the shadows of our world, stalking mortal folk.  If you're lucky, they may do no more than that, watching you with ill intent unfulfilled.  Out of the corners of your eyes, you may catch glimpses of shadows that mismatch the things which seem to cast them, or move in unnatural ways, when naught else moves to pull their strings.  And then, my friend, you would be well advised to get you at once to a place with lamps all around to disperse the shadows, or failing that to douse your light and sit huddled miserable in the darkness until the sunrise.

For if they catch you, they will reach out their long shadowy arms and touch you!  A touch from beyond this world, to chill the blood and the marrow of your bones, but more than that, to pull your soul, bit by bit, into that nether place, to sit beside the flesh and bone of that very thing which casts that dreadful shadow.  If you should manage to resist or to escape its clutches ere it takes the last, the lost bits find their way back in time, and you'll be well and whole again, and none the worse for the ordeal.

But beware!  Should the last piece of you fall into its greedy grasp, then it draws you through the barrier, body and soul, and there you shall dwell with it, forever in its thrall, your mind shattered and mad beyond redemption - casting your own terrible shadow through the veil.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Goblins & Greatswords: Abilities

As this fantasy heartbreaker project continues to evolve, I find myself re-evaluating the traditional ability scores of D&D-like games and their functions.  In the process, I've mashed a few together and pared down the list to just four: Strength and Constitution combine to form Might.  (It always seemed a little weird to me that physical strength and fitness should be wholly independent of durability and endurance.)  Intelligence and Wisdom merge to become Wit.  Dexterity and Charisma remain more or less the same, but I renamed them, because the new names fit the feel of the whole mess better.

Might is a measure of a character's muscle power, fitness, and fortitude.  It modifies combat rolls with impact weapons such as axes, clubs, and pole arms, feats of strength such as opening stuck doors, and the amount of weight a character can carry.  It also adjusts rolls for hit points to a lesser degree.

Wit represents the faculties of the character's mind, including memory, intuition, will power, reason, and understanding. It modifies the number of spells a spell-caster can memorize at once, the maximum number of languages a character may learn, and saving throws vs magic.

Agility is the character's coordination, quickness, and ease of movement. It modifies combat rolls with precise weapons such as daggers, swords, and bows, and the character's Armor Class.

Presence is a character's personal bearing, charm, and magnetism. It affects the reactions of monsters and NPCs, the maximum number of retainers and henchmen a character may employ, and their morale.  For spell-casters, it also negatively modifies a target's saving throws vs. spells.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Interlude: Disarming the combat magic-user

A frequent commenter has asked why I would want to take away spells which cause direct damage.  It's a good question, and one about which others might be curious too, so I thought I'd blog my thoughts on that subject.

So, why do I want to take away the magic-user's potency in deadly combat?

1) I want something that better matches the wizardly archetype in literature and folklore.  Outside of D&D, how many wizards are incinerating foes in battle?  Barring the obvious example of Tim the enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I can't think of many.  Merlin's magic is extremely subtle.  He doesn't blast Arthur's enemies with lightning, but he is nonetheless an important figure in those tales.  Gandalf knows spells for light and opening and sealing doors, and he's been seen to set pine cones aflame and hurl them at goblins and wolves.  Most of his magic is much less flashy.  Even in the wizarding world of the Harry Potter books, where wizards throw around spells with no discernible limits to how many or how often they can cast, stunning, paralyzing, and disarming spells are used a lot more often than spells that cause bodily harm.

The wizards, witches, and sorcerers of literature and lore aren't nearly so direct as a fireball in your face.  They're subtle, guileful, mystical, and uncanny.  They influence and manipulate, enlighten and deceive.  Make them angry, and they might turn you into a toad or give you the evil eye.  They don't blow stuff up.

2) D&D is about a lot more than fighting, and fighting is about more than just inflicting points of damage.  I think the impulse to ensure that every class is effective at dealing damage is misguided.  There is already a class that specializes in dealing damage: the fighter.  Other classes can do it too, but are less capable, just as the fighter is relatively less capable at sneaking, healing, gathering information, and so on.  Every class can contribute to almost every situation, but not every class has to be equally useful in every situation.  If a character wants to contribute to a situation that isn't his specialty, he can do so through creative use of abilities, whether we're talking about the fighter helping out in negotiations by being intimidating or the mage flinging utility spells to give the party an edge on the battlefield.

There's a lot that a spell caster can do.  Besides their usefulness in non-combat situations such as exploration, information gathering, and negotiation, there are many ways for a spell caster to contribute to success in battle without directly dealing damage.  Without an arsenal of magic missiles and lightning bolts, what's a wizard to do?  Quite a lot, actually:  Terrify and confuse the enemy with illusions.  Beguile it with charms.  Rescue the fighter in trouble by casting invisibility on him from a distance.  Protect your allies with defensive and misdirecting magic.  Polymorph the black knight's sword into a bratwurst.  Hex foes with bad luck.  Turn them against each other with a spell of confusion.  With a little imagination and a decent selection of spells, the possibilities are vast -- so much so that to me, spells which simply do points of damage seem a bit lazy.

3) Some spells can potentially deal damage when used cleverly in the right circumstances - for instance, a spell to manipulate fire.  What's the difference between that and just allowing fireball spells?  A fireball does one thing, it does it automatically regardless of almost any other circumstances, and the only real limitation on it is that you don't want to catch you friends in the area of effect.  Other than that consideration, you just say, "I cast fireball!" and boom, 1d6 damage per caster level in a 20' radius, any time, anywhere.

Contrast this with a manipulate fire spell.  Let's say that this spell allows the mage to cause fire to spread by x amount per round in whatever direction the caster desires, provided that there is fuel for it to burn, and also to make it explode, throwing burning embers over all within the radius of the burst.  How much damage and how big the burst is depends on how big the source flame is. 

You can't just break down the door and incinerate the orcs at will, unless they're gathered around a sizeable fire.  However, if they have a torch, or you have an ally with a lit flask of oil ready to throw, you might be able to pull it off.  You might also have to take a few rounds to spread a small fire into a bigger fire to make a bigger burst.  Either way, this spell is going to be a lot more effective in a room full of straw than in a bare stone chamber.

At once, you have a spell that is more versatile -- it could conceivably be used for non-combat purposes -- and requires certain circumstances and time to be optimally useful in combat.  In a way, it's like the thief's backstab ability - only situationally useful, but still quite worthwhile in those situations.  It encourages the player of a magic-user not merely to throw the biggest damage spell at the enemy, but to think creatively within the parameters of immediate circumstances and resource management.  It doesn't just give you what you want; you have to figure out how to get the result you want from it.  Not simply, "Boom!  Fireball!" but, "How can I most effectively weaponize my manipulate fire spell?"

I'm not trying to tell anyone that they're having fun wrong if they love their magic missiles and fireballs.  Games with magic-users as heavy artillery can be a lot of fun, but I think a game in which magic is less about shredding bodies and more about guile and subtlety would be a lot of fun too, and in no way would a magic-user in such a game be useless or helpless simply because he can't nuke opponents for 1d6 damage per level.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Goblins & Greatswords: 1st Order Spells of Mind

One of the parts of my fantasy heartbreaker that I'm most excited about is the selection of spells for magic-user and cleric characters.  As stated before, I'm creating lists for four different types of spells: Mind, Matter, Divine, and Nature.  One of my design goals is to make these spells interesting and useful while abolishing, or at least vastly reducing, the role of magic as combat damage dealer.

These spells should be easily transplantable into B/X or another old school D&D or retroclone game, either as replacements for the by-the-book spell lists or as supplemental material.

Naturally, some spells are nearly identical to long-familiar ones.  Most have been tweaked at least a little, and some are heavily altered or entirely new.  Without further ado, here are the list and descriptions for the Spells of Mind of the first order.

  1. Charm Person
  2. Decipher*
  3. Endure
  4. Figment
  5. Glamour
  6. Minor Transposition
  7. Sleep*
  8. Thought Projection
  9. Unseen Servant
  10. Vocal Projection
Charm Person

Range: 60'       Duration: Special

This spell causes the target to view the caster as its best friend if a saving throw vs. spells is failed. A charmed creature will seek to protect the caster from harm and will obey most commands if they are given in a language it can understand. It will resist commands to do things which are against its nature. For instance, a very peaceful person or creature won't be eager to harm others even if its “friend” tells it to, and may argue with the caster, though it would fight to protect the caster from imminent harm. A creature will also generally resist harming any of its real friends and allies. Just because the caster is its new best friend doesn't mean it immediately forgets its previous loyalties. Forcing a charmed creature to act against its nature or conscience grants it another saving throw to escape the effect.

Remember also that charmed creatures don't change their personalities. A charmed ogre is still an uncouth brute and a charmed evil priest is still cruel and devoted to his evil god. They also will not necessarily like the caster's other companions, though they will grudgingly coexist and cooperate with them if the caster so orders.


Range: Caster only      Duration: 2 turns

This spell enables the caster to read unfamiliar languages, codes, and ciphers.  Each turn, the caster may read about 10 pages or skim as many as 30.

The reversed spell, Encrypt, makes a single written work appear to be unintelligible gibberish for a duration of 1 day.


Range: Caster only      Duration: 6 turns

With this spell, the caster becomes resistant to pain and discomfort. Damage from all attacks is reduced by 1 point. Ongoing effects, such as being exposed to open flames, are reduced by 1 point per round. The caster is still aware of sensations which would otherwise be painful, but is not distracted by them. While under the effect, the caster's spells may not be disrupted by attacks.


Range: 60'      Duration: Concentration

This spell creates an illusion affecting one of the five primary senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch. The illusion must fit within a 20' x 20' x 20' cube entirely within the spell's range. The spell cannot cause illusory harm or damage.


Range: Touch      Duration: 6 turns

The caster may change his or her own appearance or that of a creature touched, including all equipment carried. The new appearance must be of the same general shape, but up to 50% larger or smaller. The appearance of a specific individual may not be taken. Thus, a human could appear to be a dwarf or an orc, a horse may appear to be a bear or a deer, an unarmored mage could look like a warrior in plate or vice versa. Note that actual size and shape do not change, only the perceptions of observers, and that the target's voice, scent, and other non-visual details are not altered. An unwilling target is not affected.

Minor Transposition

Range: 60'      Duration: Instantaneous

With this spell, an item in the caster's possession instantly trades places with a chosen item within range. The items to be affected must be approximately the same weight, up to a maximum of 10 pounds. If the item to be swapped is held or worn by another person or creature, a saving throw vs. spells is allowed to resist the effect.


Range: 120'     Duration: 2 turns

When this spell is cast, 2d8 Hit Dice of creatures with 4 HD or less in a 20' square area are put to sleep. Only base Hit Dice are counted; pluses or minuses are not. The spell affects creatures with the lowest Hit Dice first. Sleeping creatures may only be awakened by physical force, such as a slap or kick; loud noises or cold water will not wake them. A sleeping creature may be automatically slain by a blow from any weapon.

If the spell is cast on creatures in combat or otherwise highly alert, a saving throw vs. spells may be made to resist. Otherwise, no save is allowed.

The reversed spell, Awaken, causes any and all sleeping creatures within the 20' square area of effect to wake in 1 round from natural or magical sleep.

Thought Projection

Range: 120'      Duration: 1 turn

With this spell, the caster may project thoughts directly into the mind of another creature within range. The creature will hear the thoughts in the caster's voice, even if it has never heard him or her speak before, but always in a language the creature understands. This communication is one-way only; the creature may not send responses. The spell does not compel the creature to act in any way; it simply conveys messages.

The recipient of the message must be a living creature able to understand verbal communication. Constructs, the undead, and most plants and animals are unaffected.

Unseen Servant

Range: 30'       Duration: 6 turns

This spell creates a weak telekinetic force within the spell's range which may be used to manipulate small objects weighing no more than 10 pounds. The caster may consciously direct the force, or may set it to perform a simple repetitive action such as stirring or sweeping. Very rapid actions such as fighting with a weapon, and those requiring delicate touch such as writing with a quill or picking a lock with thieves' tools, are beyond the capability of the spell, even if the caster possesses the expertise to perform them with his or her own hands.

Vocal Projection

Range: 120'      Duration: 2 turns

By means of this spell, the caster may cause his or her voice to emanate from any point within range. Any sound which the caster could normally make with his or her mouth and vocal cords may be projected, including speech, singing, whistles, humming, growling, grunting, whispers, shouts, etc. 

Notes on Illusions

Some spells of Mind create illusions which affect one or more senses. Most illusions have a visual component, but some may be entirely of sound, smell, or touch (including sensations of heat or cold.)

Illusions may not be disbelieved simply because a player says so or expresses skepticism. Instead, the character must interact with the illusion as if he or she disbelieves it, and bear the consequences if he or she is mistaken. For instance, a character who disbelieves the illusion of an angry dragon might walk up and touch it. One who disbelieves an illusion of a bottomless pit may step into it. Clever players may ask questions of the GM about an illusion to discover evidence of its unreality. Often an illusion will lack one or more of the basic senses, such as sound, smell, or touch. A suspicious player might ask, for example, if there is any smell accompanying an illusionary monster. It is always up to the player to decide how to act on that information, however.

Some illusions simulate creatures, traps, or other things which would cause injury or death. If an illusionary monster is created, it has an Armor Class of 10, and makes combat rolls as if it had a Combat Rating equal to the caster's level and inflicts illusionary damage with the same limit as a real creature of the same type. A character “attacked” by such an illusion may make a save vs. spells to realize that it is not real. If the save is failed, the character will believe that he or she has been hurt or killed, but the effects disappear in 1d4 turns.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Alternative to 3d6 in order

Here's an idea that popped into my head today.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with traditional 3d6 in order ability scores, but if you want to give players a little more say in how a character turns out and don't mind a little extra time in character creation, this method might work.

Roll 2d6 in order for each ability and record the scores in pencil or on scratch paper.

Then, roll 1d6, one at a time.  The player gets to choose to which score to add each result.  The choice must be made in order, before the next die is rolled.  One die is added to each score in this way, so that each totals 3d6. 

Do you shore up a low score to avoid a terrible penalty, or go for a bonus on one of your better ones?  If you roll a 5 on your third die, do you add it to the 12 you got the first time around for a 17, or stick it somewhere else and hope for a 6 to come up later? 

While there's a lot of chance involved, it's less likely that a character will have an extremely low score, unless the player actively chooses not to bolster them with good rolls from the second phase of dice-rolling.  If you have an ability that you really hate to have a low score, you have some power to mitigate it - you may end up only average in it, but at least you're not dismal. 

Of course, neglecting those low scores gives a little better chance of getting a very high score. 

It's pretty easy to get a very average character this way.  There's still a fair bit of luck involved, but deviations, either high or low, are to some extent the result of player choice rather than pure random chance.  That might be a good thing.  Sometimes it's more satisfying to know that your character's strengths and weaknesses are at least partly the result of your own choices.