26 March 2016

A Basic Approach to ... Casting Times & Material Spell Components 2 (of 3)

Magic-users and Elves aren't the only characters in the game who cast spells, of course, Clerics get important spell abilities when they reach 2nd level of experience. Somewhat unlike the former casters, the Cleric's spells are critical to the success of the entire party, healing and protecting the Cleric's allies when things get tough.

Since the rules are not totally clear, many players interpret them to suggest that Clerics get to choose their spells on the fly, not needing to memorize them daily like MUs do. I personally don't like this. Like the Elf, the Cleric gets spells and pretty respectable combat prowess, so why further punish the player who picks a MU by only applying the "Vancian" rule to them? Given that thought, I require Clerics to pick their spells daily just like their MU compatriots, with the caveat that, as in later versions of d20 D&D, they can swap out a prepared spell for a healing spell of equal or lesser level on the fly, provided they succeed on a wisdom check (equal or less than their WIS on a d20 roll) at the time of casting.

But, you might point out, the previous post in this series was all about getting around Vancian spellcasting! Right, and Clerics get similar options.

Clerics* who cast their spells on the fly without daily prayer and preparation suffer the same penalties to their initiative as MUs do; -1 to individual initiative per spell level of the desired spell.

Like MUs, the player may choose to use material components to remove the initiative penalty, in the exact same way as MUs. The only real difference is that in addition to the optional spell component, the Cleric must always have their holy symbol during spellcasting, or the spell fails. Of course, a lenient DM may take mercy on the Cleric whose symbol is lost or destroyed through no fault of their own, allowing them to perform a WIS check, with a +2 penalty to the roll, to cast spells without their symbol, as long as an effort is being made to replace it ASAP.

The power of Gygax compels you!

The required components for each spell are similar in nature to their MU spell counterparts, but the Cleric player who wants to swap out for non-standard components should take their particular deities dogma into account. While a god of nature and peace would be fine with a bundle of fresh herbs being used to invoke a Cure Light Wounds spell, for example, a savage god of war might prefer the heart of a freshly killed enemy. DM discretion rules the day, as usual, in regard to work works and what does not.

Here are my suggested components for the official Basic Rules 1st level cleric spells, to get your creative juices flowing:

1a Cure Light Wounds - 1 vial of holy water (considered to contain the divine essence of the patron god)
1b Cause Light Wounds - small chunk of metal, wood or stone from a broken weapon (to invoke the now inert damaging potential or bloodlust of that weapon)
2a Detect Evil - the preserved eye of an animal considered in the Cleric's culture to be friendly or "good", like a domestic breed of dog, songbird, sheep, etc (most cultures acknowledge the enhanced senses of animals)
2b Detect Good - as for Detect Evil, but from a bad or evil animal, like a snake, rat or pirahna (same as Detect Evil)
3 Detect Magic - the preserved eye of a cat, raven or crow (these animals have a strong symbolic connection to wizards and witches)
4a Light - a live or preserved firefly (a creature thought to be sent by the gods to guide their faithful in the darkness)
4b Darkness - a preserved wing (or freshly harvested one) of a bat (bats are known to "see" and fly straight in the darkness, after all)
5 Protection from Evil - 1 vial of holy water (to invoke the essence of the god for divine protection)
6 Purify Food and Water - A handful of salt (often used to preserve food, salt is thought by Clerics to have divine properties that drive off rot and decay)
7a Remove Fear - a small children's doll (to recapture soothing memories of home and security)
7b Cause Fear - the preserved head of a snake or other nasty small animal (the fact that most sane folk fear and avoid snakes leads Clerics to believe the gods mark those creatures with a fearsome aura to warn us of their danger)
8 Resist Cold - a chunk of coal or sulphur, unburnt (to invoke the latent flame spirits thought to live within)

I suggest giving Cleric players a lot of flexibility in choosing alternate materials to substitute, as long as the player is making some creative effort to play out the faith of her PC. While some MU types, though not so much Elves, consider magic to be a rather exact science, Clerics view divine magic as the malleable will of their patron god, infinitely adaptable to intent and circumstance.

With these notes and the guidelines from the MU article before them, you should be able to freely add these options to all the spellcasters in your game without too much difficulty or bogging down of play, all that is really required is a bit of creativity and some minor bookkeeping by the players.

*Clerics, in the context of this article, include Druids and Shamans, and any other variant classes (such as an OD&D paladin, perhaps) with similar divine or spiritual magical abilities.

About the only thing left to consider are the classic tools of the trade employed by spellcasters of both arcane and divine backgrounds; wands, staves, prayer beads, incense burners, etc. That will be the focus of the 3rd and final installment of this series, so I'll see you guys next time!

25 March 2016

A Basic Approach to ... Casting Times & Material Spell Components 1 (of 3)

I've been playing D&D for about 15 years now, and I've always preferred to use the BECMI rule set, but now and then in reading stuff from other editions and other games, I find bits and pieces that I want to adapt to my campaign. That's what these "A Basic Approach to" articles will be about, adapting rules options from AD&D and the newer "d20" system editions of D&D to use in a Classic D&D game.

One part of playing a spellcaster in AD&D, either 1st or 2nd edition, that I've always found fun is the use of material components for casting a spell. For those unfamiliar with the idea, it basically means that most spells require a little bit of some physical material that is used to harness and focus the magic required to cast the spell. The components are usually figuratively or metaphorically (and often somewhat humorously) connected to the spell being casting, so the Identify spell to determine the nature of a magic item requires a pearl (pearls of wisdom), and a fireball needs a pinch of bat droppings (as anyone who's had bats in their attic knows, the stuff is highly flammable when it dries out). I tinkered with different ways to use the idea in a Basic game without overly complicating things, and here's what I've settled on. We'll start with Magic-Users and similar classes today, and get back to actual material components in a minute, first we need to talk about casting times for spells, another AD&D mechanic I borrow to balance the use of components.

Spell Casting Times:
Usually in Classic D&D, when a spellcaster wants to cast a spell she has memorized, the player just announces that intent and when their turn comes up in initiative, the spell is cast and takes affect.

This optional system does not change that at all, spells memorized for the day according to the rules are cast normally, and 'go off' right when they are cast on the caster's initiative segment.

However, to give the players of spellcasters a little more flexibility in choosing spells for the day, the DM may allow the use of casting times, whereby the player may choose any spell known to the caster as long as they have an unspent spell 'slot' of that level available for the day. In this case, where spells are chosen on the fly instead of selected and prepared in the morning, an initiative penalty of -1 per spell level of the desired spell, to reflect the additional time required to recall and cast the spell, which was only briefly reviewed that morning. If standard group initiative for the party is used, the penalty applies only to the caster, not her allies.

Example: Luna wants to cast a lightning bolt against her enemies this round. The DM rolls initiative for the monsters on a d6, as normal, resulting in a 4. The party rolls a 5 for their group initiative, but Luna is casting an unmemorized 3rd level spell, so she gets a penalty of -3 to her individual initiative, so while the party wins initiative and goes first on a 5, Luna goes on 2, after the monsters.
Since the DM is probably choosing the spells for NPC casters on the fly anyway, this procedure is not used for NPC or monster casters. It is intended solely as a cheat for the players who don't want to be restrained by picking their daily spells before the day begins.

Material Spell Components
Now, what if you want the flexibility of casting on the fly, but don't want to suffer those nasty initiative penalties, which essentially guarantee that higher level magic users casting 5th or 6th level spells will always lose initiative? That's where material components (MCs) come in.

An MC is a small bit of material that serves two purposes in spellcasting. First of all, the metaphorical relation to the nature of the spell being cast helps jog the caster's memory and focus his thoughts on channeling the spell. Second, because of that same figurative relationship to the spell's intended effect, the presence of the material substance helps the caster more quickly gather and focus the magical energy to power the spell.

If the Magic-User* possesses the required material component and uses it to empower the spell, the spell's casting time is negated, allowing the spell to go off on the caster's unmodified initiative segment. The component is 'spent' in the process, and though it may still physically remain in the caster's hand, it is forever drained of its innate magical potency and is unusable as a future material component.

For now I'm only going to suggest specific MCs for the standard 1st level spells in the Basic rules, to give you an idea of the possibilities to guide you in assigning MCs for other spells.

SPELL - SUGGESTED COMPONENT (Metaphorical Meaning)
1. Charm Person - A 4 to 6 inch piece of olive tree branch (symbolic of peace or friendship)
2. Detect Magic - An owl's Feather (symbolic of wisdom and insight)
3. Floating disk - A marble sized chunk of Lodestone or Magnetized Metal (symbolic of the property of magnets to repel other magnets with the same charge), allowing one to 'float' above the other if carefully positioned)4. Hold Portal - A large nail or small spike forged of iron or steel (symbolic of literally spiking a door shut)
5. Light - The intact body (dead or alive) of a firefly (repesentative of the ability to create light)
6. Magic Missile - An arrowhead previously used in battle (representative of the arrow's potential to strike and wound)
7. Protection from Evil - A miniature carved copy of the holy symbol of a lawful or goodly god (symbolic of a god's power to protect his followers)
8. Read Languages - A lense from a monocle or spectacles (symbolic of aiding the ability to read)
9. Read Magic - A scrap of parchment, vellum or paper once part of a spell scroll or spellbook page (representative of magical writing)
10. Shield - A scrap piece of metal from a suit of armor (representative of armor's protective qualities)
11. Sleep - a scrap of cloth from a child's blanket (representative of peaceful 'babylike' sleep)
12. Ventriloquism - A 2 or 3 inch diameter carved or sewn dolls head (representative of a ventriloquists dummy)

MCs for 1st level spells should generally cost no more than 1gp, and if the PC is unable or unwilling to forage for them in the field, can be purchased in most general stores or apothecaries in towns or cities, or from fellow magic-users, though these folks may insist on barter or trade instead of coin.

As the level of the spells increase, the DM is free to limit availability of components to reflect the rarity of more potent substances and items, and the average price/value of the MC will go up, generally as follows:

Spell Level - Suggested Average Price/Value
1 - 1gp
2 - 5gp
3 - 10gp 
4 - 25gp
5 - 50gp
6 - 100gp
7 - 200gp
8 - 350gp
9 - 500gp

Improvising Spell Components

Sometimes a specific component may be unavailable, or a creative player may suggest an alternative component from items they find or have on hand. I'm all for this as long as there is a bit of thought and creativity behind the suggestion. A PC could suggest using a stirge's beak instead of an arrowhead for the Magic Missile spell, or a handful of phosphorescent moss instead of the firefly for a Light spell, for example. You should always reward imagination and creative problem solving in the game, so this kind of thing is perfectly fine. I simply require the Magic-User succeed on a simple INT ability check (a roll of equal or less than their INT score on a d20) when casting the spell with the alternate component for it to operate as intended. If the ability check fails, the spell still works, but the normal initiative penalty described above applies. 

as used in this article, include the Elf class and Wicca/Wokani class option for non-standard 'monster' classes. Other classes with similar spell casting ability may qualify as well with the DMs approval.
That's about it for Magic-Users. There's another option involving using wands, staves or other magical paraphernalia in lieu of components, but that will be covered in part three of this material. First we need to look at the MC options for Clerics and Druids, so stay tuned for part 2!

23 March 2016

Minor Magics of Mystara 1

After a while, the limited lists of magic items in the BECMI rulebooks can get a little boring, and I often end up creating new things to amuse the players. I've found that when you're giving out mysterious, unique things, they usually don't have to be super powerful to catch the interest of the PCs, and minor magics can be just as fun and interesting as relics and artifacts, without the risk of unbalancing a campaign.

So this will be the first in a series of articles featuring some new magic items of low to medium power to spice up the treasures found by PCs in a Mystara game.

Kala Chalk
Now and then, traders returning from the mysterious Honor Island, in the island Kingdom of Ierendi, tell tales of the strange and wondrous magics known to the reclusive magic users there. Less often, those traders have a trinket or two from those mages for the curious buyer with coin to spare.

Kala Chalk is one such item that turns up in the markets of port towns from the Shires to Alphatia once in a while, or in the pocket or pack of some rare traveler. Crafted from a slightly oily powder made from stones found on Mt. Kala on Honor Island, the magic users there (and the opportunistic merchant trying to sell the unique item) claim that it harnesses the power of the volcano in order to protect a person from all enemies!

As any seasoned adventurer in the Known World can attest, "all enemies" can be quite a subjective idea, and those who know the mages of Honor Island will understand that the actual power of the chalk is not what the average folk of the mainland might expect. You see, the folk of Honor Island are notoriously chaotic, and given to mingling and working with creatures considered monsters elsewhere...

Kala Chalk appears to be a 3 or 4 inch stick of 1/2 chalk with a reddish tint and a slightly greasy feel to it. Its power is invoked by drawing a circle on the ground, which then protects those within the circle from aggression by lawful creatures. Those protected gain a bonus of +2 to their AC and Saving Throws against attacks by such creatures, and lawful creatures who enter the circle suffer 1 point of damage each round that they remain within. Creatures forced into the circle against their will gain a saving throw vs. death magic to avoid the damage. The protection granted by the chalk circle lasts for 1d6+3 rounds, or until dispelled.

One stick of Kala Chalk is enough to draw a circle or circles to protect 8 creatures, either all at once or in multiple smaller groups.

Archer's Salve
This thick oily substance is said to be created by elusive elven clerics of the immortal Mealiden in Alfheim, to aid that nation's archers in hunting and battle. It is never sold to non-elves, but turns up once in a while in neighboring nations and can be used by any creature normally allowed to use a bow (but it grants no bonus to crossbow bolts.)

The salve is used by rubbing it into the shaft and fletching of a normal arrow, a process that takes 1d2 rounds to properly complete. Once coated, that arrow is imbued with a bonus of +1 to hit, until used successfully (it can be used again if it misses a target but is retrieved). The arrow also qualifies to hit creatures normally immune to non-magical or non-silver weapons. If not used successfully before the dawn of the next day, the salve's magic fades.

Avrine's New Moon Makeup
Avrine Nimblefoot was Hin "thief" known throughout the lands of Karameikos and the Shires for her daring and good-natured spirit. Hin storytellers who extol her adventures often quip that she was the greatest sneak of all the ages, and when she wanted to remain hidden, even the eyes of the Immortals couldn't spy upon her.

What most Hin don't know, or choose not to mention when telling their tales, is that Avrine had a small but potent arsenal of enchanted items to aid in her exploits. One such go to items in her career was a unique type of stage make up, the recipe for which was developed by the diminutive adventurer herself, with the aid of some forgotten Glantrian alchemist*. Thieves and roguish Hin have since copied the formula for Avrine's make up, and it's not all that uncommon in the realms of Karameikos, Ierendi and the Shires to this day.

Each jar of Avrine's New Moon Makeup contains 1d3 applications, which must be applied over the user's entire face to activate. The sticky, slightly sweet smelling goo is utter black, and once applied it bestows a dark, shadowy countenance to the wearer's entire body. When worn by a Halfling, the makeup raises the chance of hiding outdoors to 20% and hiding indoors to 1-3 on a d6 check. Human thieves (and other, nonstandard classes with similar abilities) may use the makeup, with a lessened effect, gaining a bonus of +5% to their Hide in Shadows checks.

New Moon Makeup is spoiled by exposure to bright light, losing it's magic as soon as the wearer is exposed to sunlight or magical light such as a Light spell.

*Oddly enough, in stories about her, the names of Avrine's collaborators and conspirators are always "forgotten".

Note: In my games, the mundane buying and selling of magical items is extremely rare, but for those who want them, here are the suggested retail values of each of the items featured here:

Kala Chalk, 1 stick: 500gp (The seller will usually be very vague about the specific nature of the item's magic and will emphasize the rarity and difficulty of obtaining the chalk, which is more of a factor in the price than the actual effectiveness of the item.
Archer's Salve, 1 vial: 100gp (75gp to an elf buying from an NPC elf) 
Avrine's New Moon Makeup: 300gp (on the black market only, the stuff is illegal in most civilized places)

21 March 2016

Magic Items of the Druids of the Known World

In Classic D&D, and pre-AD&D Mystara, druids are powerful clerics, given to the protection of the natural world. Unlike druids in other incarnations of the game, Known World druids have a respectable career as a cleric already behind them, and should be capable of great works of faith-magic. Sadly, the material for the setting reveals few examples of this, leaving druid magic as an afterthought unless a PC decides to take that path as their cleric rises in level.

With that in mind, I decided to share a couple examples of druid magic from my home game, in the form of magic items so they can be used by lower level PCs, or in campaigns where the druid class isn't used.

Laoreigh's Brooch
A few centuries ago, before the explorations of Karameikos by the Thyatians began, the area had grown wild and untamed after long years of Traladaran collapse. Many of the small bands of humans struggling to survive in the wilderlands looked to their druids as protection from the dangers of the woodlands, and the farmers subsisting on the shores of Lake Windrush, in the shadow of the ruins of Castle Gygar were no exception, often seeking the aid and counsel of the cicle of druids who lived in the hills near modern Eltan's Spring.

One of druids, a kindly old woman named Laoreigh had quite a reputation in the area for being a master of plant lore and was esteemed for her skill in healing the unfortunate souls who fell victim to rashes or illnesses from contact with some of the nastier flowers and herbs found around the lake. Laoreigh was no glory hound, and demanded no payment or honors from her neighbors for her aid, and having no skilled student to carry on her work, she crafted the magical brooch that bears her name in hopes that it would be used to soothe the suffering of future peaceful folks.

In the time since, the druids of the Eltan's Spring circle, created a few copies of Laoreigh's brooch, one of which is kept by the druid Bertrak, the soul remaining druid of the Eltan's Spring circle. If the party participates in the adventure "The Sound of Madness" from the Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure box set, or in some other way performs noble deeds in the service or alliance of Bertrak, he may bestow the brooch upon one of them as a reward. The other brooches, including the original, have faded into the fog of history, and their current whereabouts are unknown.

Laoreigh's Brooch is made of brass in the shape of a fan of three leaves of the pixie's tear, a rare herb sometimes found in the wooded hills around lake windrush.The trinket is about an inch tall and an inch and a half wide, with a thickness of about a quarter inch. The replicas are sometime made of bronze or copper, but are otherwise identical and bear the same magic.

When pinned to the wearer's clothing, the brooch provides protection the dangerous plants of the world, offering a +2 bonus to saving throws vs poison from plants and plant based monsters, and a bonus of -1 AC against attacks from plants and plant based monsters.

Those of neutral alignment who wear the brooch displayed openly are entitled to a +1 bonus to reaction checks when encountering druids, this bonus increases to +2 if the wearer has the original item and not a replica.

Bertrak does not know the process for creating these items, but a PC druid who earns his trust and access to the hidden "vault" (actually just a well concealed cave near his grove) where he has stashed most of the relics and records of his circle will be able to do so given 1d4 months of study and creation time.

Rod of the Windrush
In the dry summer months of north-eastern Karameikos, wildfires are a constant danger, threatening the farms and homes of the folk who live there. In the infamous summer of AC 873 in fact, the town of Threshold was nearly wiped from the world when a savage fire roared down from the hills to the east and engulfed the town, destroying most of the buildings and claiming hundreds of lives.

During the rebuilding effort, Flindemar, then leader of the Eltan's Spring druid circle, who had all assisted in the doomed effort to fight the fire, presented the mayor of the town with a bundle of Windrushes, the the ubiquitous reed that grows along the shores of the lake and gives it its name, woven into the shape of a stout rod and magically preserved and hardened to a stone like strength. Flindemar promised that the rod would ba a great boon to fighting future fires. The mayor and his successors treasured the rod, and kept it safely in the town's vaults when it wasn't needed.

Sadly though, when the town came, albeit peacefully, to be under the rule of the Karameikos dukes, a wave of crime temporarily swept through Threshold, and even the old city vaults were plundered at least three times. During one of these raids, the rod vanished, and its current owner and whereabouts are unknown.

The Rod of the Windrush may be used by any druid, or a cleric of L or N alignment, presumably to aid in fighting fires, but in actuality any time its power may be useful.

Once per day, the Rod may duplicate the Create Water spell as a 14th level cleric with the exception that the water source may be created floating in the air and has a range of up to 100 feet from the caster instead of the normal parameters.

In addition, up to three times per day, it may also protect the bearer according to the Resist Fire spell.

14 March 2016

Old School Options:Monster odds and ends from Monsters! Monsters! RPG (1976) part 2

Continuing with my read through of Ken St. Andre's Monsters! Monsters! RPG from last time, I found myself really enjoying the section of the book called the "Monster Glossary", contributed by Jim Peters, with "additions by Ken" though no details are provided, as is usual in older RPGs. Anyway, this section is somewhat similar to the monster quirks I discussed last time, but it covers a lot more creatures, and tends to just be brief notes on the myth, folklore and literary sources of the beasts, along with some rules-lights suggestions for playing them.

This kind of material is something I do appreciate in the Monster Manual type books from newer editions of D&D, as opposed to the bare bones notes in the BECM rulebooks. While the generic approach has the benefit of allowing the DM room to customize monsters for use in her game , when confronted by a creature from a vague source, or one that is unique to D&D entirely, sometimes the spark of imagination is a little slow in presenting itself. That's why I like these short, and sometimes silly notes on using the creatures.

To demonstrate the style and scope of the information Jim and Ken provide, and a look at their sense of humor with the material, I'll provide a couple examples straight from them, then we'll pick a few more to add my own notes to, more geared toward using the creatures in a D&D game, instead of the M!M! scenario of playing the monsters to make life hell for the poor humans of the countryside.


"For those of you who were raised in a barrel and only just released, the dragon is a large lizard, usually with batlike wings, and possessed of 2, 4 or 6 sets of claws. Some have long necks; others resemble alligators. They breathe fire and are nearly indestructible, save for one vulnerable spot. Dragons are extremely intelligent, almost always evil, have a great love for treasure and human virgins, and are immune to spells cast by anyone with an IQ lower than their own."

"If you want an army of monsters, orcs are the customary cannon-fodder. They were best described by Tolkien as the troops of Mordor. They prefer long, cruelly-curved scimitars. Sunlight hurts and blinds them, but they function well on cloudy days. They often wear armor and rarely use magic."

Nothing really groundbreaking or rules-changing here, but you get a brief imagination kickstarter to build upon when thinking about how to use specific monsters in a game. I think these kind of short descriptions can add a lot to a campaign's flavor, especially if you add in your own tweaks or adapt some unusual alternate version you've encountered somewhere. For this article though, I'll stick to the material from Classic D&D and the Monsters! Monsters! glossary entries, leaving my own ideas for some other type for the most part.

Trolls are the 8 foot tall, usually thin incarnation of evil earth spirits with voracious appetites. They prefer the taste of long pig (human or demi-human flesh) to any other food, but will sometimes consume cows or sheep if the former is unavailable. Trolls are very strong, and though they are proficient in the use of most arms, they prefer smashing weapons like clubs, hammers and maces, and also possess vicious claws and teeth to attack with if unarmed.

Trolls are notorious for being able to regenerate damage almost as fast as it is dealt to them, unless those attacks are fire or acid based. Trolls avoid sunlight at all costs, as exposure to it will turn them to stone, though if not smashed to rubble before the next tolling of midnight, they will return to flesh form and life again.

That last bit about the need to smash a troll's stone form before midnight or risk it coming back to life is from M!M! and would certainly be a nasty surprise to any PCs who lure the beast into the sunlight to defeat it and then decide to make camp near their new troll statue.

Beings with the body of a horse below the torso, head and arms of a human, centaurs are passionate, generally good natured folk, though overfond of alcohol and merriment. When sober, centaurs have an innate gift of healing, treat as a cure light wounds spell once per day, but otherwise they don't make much use of magic.

These notes don't apply to the Centaur PC class found in the Tall Tales of the Wee Folk sourcebook, but the healing power of a sober centaur could be a major benefit to a party that's been out in the woods a little too long.

Basilisks, magical lizards hatched by evil magicians in the eggs of chickens, are extremely poisonous, and even piercing or slashing attacks against them cause blood to splatter on the attacker, causing paralysis (if the poison save is failed) that the basilisk will use to its advantage in either eating the foe or using its gaze attack to petrify the creature.

An extremely lucky creature who is able to carefully look upon the creature before it sees them will cause it to enter an excited rage in which it might petrify itself!

Basilisks are dangerous opponents, so that last part may make things a little less lethal for low level parties who stumble upon one. In order for the creature to turn itself to stone, the PCs must have surprise for the encounter, and the basilisk must fail its petrification saving throw, which it gains a +2 bonus to.

Those examples should be enough to get your creative gears turning. Simply by altering descriptions, and tactics or tweaking an attack or defense form, you can add a lot of unique flavor to your campaign setting, or simply throw a curveball at jaded players who think they've seen and done it all when it comes to the game's monsters.

11 March 2016

Old School Options: Some odds and ends from Monsters! Monsters! RPG (1976) part 1

A couple years back, I was rummaging through the old school stuff at the dealer's room in one of the smaller Florida cons, avoiding the temptation to buy even more copies of Classic D&D rulebooks and modules I already own when I came across a neat old game called Monsters! Monsters! (Metagaming Concepts, 1976) by Ken St. Andre.

Honestly, it was the beautiful cover art by Liz Danforth that caught my eye since I'm a huge fan of her work, but after reading the book, I've had a lingering desire to adopt a few things from it to my D&D game.

M!M! is admittedly a fairly obscure title, even among old school players, so I'll give a thumbnail idea of what it's about.

The game is basically a variant of Tunnels & Trolls, the premise being that instead of playing brave heroes ridding dungeons and ruins of the monsters that live there, you are the monsters, ready and willing to ransack the towns, farms and other places the poor humans live. The game is fairly tongue in cheek and a fair bit silly, but there's some interesting bits here and there.

One of the ideas that struck me as useful is the inclusion of notes on the various monster types intended to make them more true to their mythological or literary source material. I've picked a few of my favorites and converted them to quick, unscientific D&D rules for use in a game.

Every dragon or dragon-type beast must have at least one soft spot somewhere on its external body. (Remember, Smaug, from The Hobbit, had that once scale missing on his breast.) Any dragon struck by a weapon on its soft spot dies.

The game goes on to explain that for every 100 weapons directed at the dragon, he must make a 'saving roll' to see if anyone in that mob hit his soft spot.

To adopt this to D&D without making dragons too easy to defeat, I suggest giving any character a 1% chance (a natural 01 result on a percentage dice roll) on their first, and only their first, successful attack on that dragon to hit his weak spot. Subsequent attacks do not get this chance, since once combat is in full swing, it is assumed that the dragon will protect his weak spot from hack and slashers. Optionally, a character who has researched or happened upon information that points out the possible weak spot (like Bard using Bilbos recon report to slay Smaug) may add 1 to 4 percentile points to the success range of that roll, either DM's caveat based on the quality of the information, or the result of a d4 roll, generating a 2% to 5% chance of success on that first attack roll.

If a successful attack roll is followed by a successful percent roll to hit the dragon's weak spot, the dragon must succeed on a Save vs. Death or be slain instantly. If the dragon makes the save, it still suffers maximum damage from the attack, negating the need for the attacker to roll for damage.

The Sphinx has a very high IQ, but is vulnerable to riddles, and will stop to engage in a riddling contest with any human or monster brave enough to attempt it. If the Sphinx loses, it must do the will (one time only) of whoever out-riddled it. If the Sphinx wins, the other is at its mercy.

There's not a lot of conversion needed here. If a Sphinx is encountered and combat has not begun, a PC may challenge it to a riddle contest. I strongly suggest playing the contest out through actual riddles between players and DM, but if you prefer, I'd roll 1d6 to see how many "rounds" the contest lasts, then having each side roll that number of either INT or WIS (player's choice) checks, keeping track of success (a d20 roll of equal to or less than the ability score being a success). The DM should do the same for the Sphinx, calculating its ability score as 1d4+14. The winner is the one with the most successes on the checks. In event of a tie, repeat for one more round of riddles. The winner is then owed a favor by the loser, as negotiated between DM and player, but as noted, Sphinxes are not merciful when they win, and their favor should be dangerous or otherwise annoying to the player.

Ghosts are non-material and are not vulnerable to material weapons. They are, however, susceptible to magic, and are likely to be magic users themselves. Humans who meet ghosts must make their saving roll to avoid panic , which reduces both IQ and Dex by half for the rest of the encounter.

This one could be fun and useful in illustrating fear when encountering the undead. Any time a character first encounters a specific type of undead of greater HD than their character level, they must make a save vs paralysis. Success on the saving throw means they grit their teeth and face their fear without any real hesitation, but failing the save results in panic, which results in a -4 penalty to all
die rolls until the undead creature is destroyed, turned or the character flees the encounter area for 1d4 rounds. Returning to fight that creature again requires another saving throw, as do future encounters with that type of undead until a success is rolled on the saving throw.  Once the character has successfully overcome the fear of a certain type of undead, she can fight those creatures in the future without hesitation. I added the note about greater than the PCs hit dice to prevent 1st level PCs from freaking out and fleeing every time a skeleton or zombie shows up, we'll just assume they've heard enough horror stories and wife's tales that the minor undead, while repulsive, are no longer panic inducing to a fledgling adventurer.

That about wraps it up for the basic monster quirks stuff. Stay tuned next time for some bits regarding the "ecologies" and placement of some of the ubiquitous monsters of fantasy.

As always, please feel free to comment, including any similar quirks or house rules you use to spice up the monsters in your game.

09 March 2016

Old School Options: Ability Score Bonuses from Tom Moldvay's Challenges RPG (1986)

One of my more recent old school acquisitions was a stapled photocopy (stuck inside a stack of old Space Gamer magazines, not sure if the guy I bought them from knew it was there or not) of the 1986 Challenges RPG, by Tom Moldvay. I'd never heard of, much less read this classic, so it went to the top of my reading pile.

Challenges (Challenges International, Inc. 1986)describes itself as an "Easy-to-Play Game System for Fantasy Roleplaying, but in reality it is more of a slimmed down, modified version of D&D/AD&D. Tom's system mostly covers character creation, which is very similar to AD&D, along with some spells and brief notes on how to interpret monster write ups in "any of the various fantasy roleplaying adventure modules published by Challenges International, Inc". As far as I can tell, CI only ever released one adventure, Seren Ironhand, though the notes in the rules can apply to any D&D or AD&D adventure with little modification.

It's Tom's modifications to character generation that interested me most, and that's what I'll be addressing here.

Most of the material here would be familiar to any AD&D player, but since Tom is also more notably the co-creator of the BX edition of the D&D Basic rules along with Dave "Zeb" Cook, I got to thinking about applying the modifications in Challenges to that, and other, incarnations of Classic D&D.

Tom's method for generating ability scores is interesting, if a little overpowered for my taste. He suggests rolling 2d6+6 nine time and choosing the best 6 results, which are then assigned to the abilities as the player wishes. Obviously this will create characters who are a likely to be more powerful than their standard D&D peers, but the option is there if you like it.

Next we get to the suggested Ability Score Adjustments; that is, the game effects for having a high or low score in each ability.

At first glimpse, you'll notice that some of the standard D&D terms are changed, probably to play nice with TSR. Reading into the text though, these changes are common sense.
Warrior = Fighter
Sorcerer = Magic User
Muscle = Strength
Will = Intelligence
Stamina = Constitution

I included the chart for reference, but it is obviously formatted for AD&D, with percentile ability scores. I don't intend to bother adapting that AD&Dism to my Classic game, but the notes below the table are interesting, and could be applied to Classic D&D characters in order to reward high prime requisite scores without unduly harming game balance too much.

In all cases, these bonus adjustments are in addition to those those listed in the Basic Rules, so yes, a fighter with 18 STR gets +4 to hit and +5 to damage, total, but he's a fighter and has no other special abilities, so is it really that outrageous to ensure he has a slight edge over the lucky Cleric of Thief who rolled an 18 for STR also?

If you intend to use this chart, I'd ignore the Basic rules-as-written, and grant these to hit and damage modifiers only to fighters (Warriors), including Dwarves and Halflings, but not Elves. This actually appeals to me because it gives fighters a noticeable advantage in combat over the other classes.

Magic Users (Sorcerers) would instead get a couple bonus spells per day added to their arsenal, thanks to a high Intelligence (Will) score, which can give them a little better chance of survival at low level, and since they only include 1st and 2nd level spells, the long term game balance isn't really impacted too much. To give the Magic User some advantage over the Elf, I'd restrict this ability to Magic Users only. Note: A Magic User still can't cast 2nd level or 3rd level spells until normally allowed to through level advancement.

Alternately, if the Elf players complain too much, you could allow them to choose one of the two bonuses, either STR or INT to use, but not both. This actually has some precedent going back to the Original D&D rules, where the Elf player had to choose between the Magic User or Fighter class, but not both, for each session of game play.

Likewise, Clerics can pick up an added spell or two per day if they have a high Wisdom score, which usually ends up benefiting the entire party in the form of extra healing, so I don't see a major downside. A Cleric still can't cast 2nd or 3rd level spells until normally allowed by class level, but the decision of whether to grant a 1st level cleric access to her bonus first level spell is up to the DM. I allow, since, like I said before, it tends to help the entire party, but I can see how some rules purists would prefer the Cleric wait until 2nd level to cast any spells, as Classic D&D says.

The Thief options require a little definition:
Skill Bonus applies to Open Locks, Find Traps, Remove Traps, Pick Pockets and Climb
Stealth Bonus applies to Move Silently and Hide in Shadows

We've only been using these ideas in my game for two sessions now, but so far so good. I'll report back if anything unexpected comes up, but in the meantime, what do you guys think of Tom's ideas for more "advanced" characters?


05 March 2016

The Mind of the Mule (or, The Wise Ass of Eltan's Spring)

Since the next season of HBO's Game of Thrones is still a month away, I don't watch a lot of TV, but one show I like to have on for background noise is Travel Channel's Mysteries at the Museum, a random collection of interesting stories connected to obscure items from the artifact collections of different museums. The other night I was working on reports for work while a 'marathon' of reruns played in the background, and one fun story caught my attention.

Lady Wonder, the mind reading mare of Richmond, Va. tells the story of horse whose seeming ability to not only understand and communicate with humans but also possess prophetic psychic abilities enthralled 1920s Virginia. Although supposedly debunked by scientists of the time, the story got me thinking about how to use the idea in my game. Here's what I came up with.

The Mind of the Mule
While resting at the Crock & Goblet tavern in Eltan's Spring, or even one of Threshold's alehouses, the PCs hear strange rumors of Juliana Ironshoes, a Hin mule breeder who has a small ranch north of Eltan's Spring near the woodbridge, where she and her sons raise mules to sell to folk around Lake Windrush. The Ironshoes mules are known as sturdy and reliable, though unremarkable in intelligence, but recently visitors to the ranch tell wild tales of Miss Petunia, a young molly (female mule) who can tell the future!

As the stories go, the molly is kept in a comfortable barn on the ranch, where gammer Juliana charges visitors a Royal (1gp) to see her and ask her a question. Petunia then scratches her answer in the dust of the barn's floor, using the old Traladaran runes, which the eldest Ironshoes son, Lorello, then translates for the patron.

Lorello Ironshoes & "Miss Petunia"

PCs who investigate the matter discover that the stories are absolutely true! Upon visiting the Ironshoes ranch and inquiring, Juliana leads the party to a small but sturdy barn among the oak trees near where the woodbridge crosses the small river. The double doors on the front of the barn each bear a bright, cheerfully painted symbol, one of the Immortal Faunus, patron of Centaurs and equine creatures, the other of the Church of Karameikos. Juliana then requests a donation of one Royal (1gp) from each visitor to help with Petunia's upkeep, since she feels it wwould be an affront to Lord Faunus to sell the blessed beast like the other mules she breeds. If pressured on this matter, she explains that she also donates half of the coins donated to Petunia to Patriarch Sherlane at the Church in Threshold, to help with "feedin' and learnin' the poor orphan chillun' of that burg". If the PCs get overly rude or violent, Juliana whistles loudly, summoning a number (equal to the number of PCs + 2) of her hired hands (treat as normal Halfling 'monsters' per the Basic rulebook to calm things down.

Once inside the barn, the PCs meet Lorello, a tanned and healthy looking Hin teen in clothing typical of a farmer, brushing and feed fresh hay to a young molly with pink and green ribbons in her mane. A few coins and minor knick knacks (valuing 1d6gp total) are scattered among the hay at the mule's feet. Lorello instructs each party member with a question to politely and clearly ask Petunia their question, upon which the mule scratches her hoof in the dust and hay, clearly spelling out old Traladaran runes. If noone in the party reads that forgotten script, Lorello translates.

Petunia's answers are generally correct, Roll 1d6:
The base chance for a false answer is 2 in 6, so if a 1 or 2 is rolled, the answer given in incorrect. The DM should roll this secretly, neither Lorello or the PC asking the question will immediately know the nature of the answer.
For characters who are either Centaurs*, Neutral or worshippers of Faunus, the chance for a false answer drops to 1 in 6. A character who qualifies as all three of those options has no chance for a false answer.
In either case, true or false, Petunia's answers are fairly vague and open to interpretation, unless the die roll results in a natural 6, in which case the answer is fairly clear and direct. For all results, the wording and accuracy of the answer is left to the DM's discretion to suit the campaign story.

Adventure Hook: The Mule Thief!

As one might expect, rumors of a magical fortune telling mule are bound to attract nefarious persons wishing to control the beast's power. Bradenial of Darokin (Chaotic human Merchant, level APL*+2) is no exception. Outcast by his Darokini peers for dishonest business practices, Bradenial has taken up residence in Threshold for now, where he conducts shady and even outright illegal business as a fence and agent for clients too disreputable to show themselves in public at the Gold Dragon Inn, a popular gathering place for adventurers in the city. Bradenial dreams of the deal that will restore his reputation and allow him to return to his comfortable life in Darokin, and a magical prophetic mule to amuse his peers seems like the perfect score.

Bradenial visited the Ironshoes ranch, perhaps the same day as the PCs to allow them to make the association between him and the coming crime, where he was escorted away by Juliana's hands after refusing to pay the donation and threatening her. After returning to Threshold with a growing grudge, he hired a band of brigands he'd contracted for some minor "legbreaking" and other intimidation jobs in the past. Last night, under the cover of a strong, cold rain, Bradenial's thugs broke into Petunia's barn and absconded with her, causing an uproar in Eltan's Spring, where the PCs are when Lorello contacts them at the Crock & Goblet Tavern in a panic, begging them to help rescue the mule before she comes to harm, which he says is inevitable.

Lorello explains that for reasons known only to Lord Faunus, Petunia's gift works only in her barn, where she was born and raised, being too small and frail for the normal training given the other mules. Lorello fears, correctly, that the thugs will become enraged when they discover that Petunia's gift is "gone" (though it will return if she's brought home to her barn) and kill the poor molly, who is useless as a mount or pack animal. On behalf of his mother, he offers the party 150 Royals, the amount of coins in Petunia's stash not set aside for Baron Sherlane. If the PCs are hesitant or ask for more, Lorello reluectantly offers them all 300gp, as long as the "swear solemn-like to make right with the Church" later. Either way, Lorello only has 1d4 x 10 gp on him at the time to offer up front, the rest will be paid upon Petunia's return.

If the DM feels the party could use another swordarm, Lorello's younger brother Stevan (Normal Halfling 'monster', short sword, short bow) comes into the negotiations and offers his service, free of charge.

Tracking and overtaking the thugs is rather easy, since they are dragging a scared and angry mule along with them. They offer to betray their employer for the amount of 500 Royals, twice what he is paying them to deliver the mule. If that is refused they attempt to continue along the road, fighting only if blocked or threatened. There are a number of Brigands (as the 'monster') equal to the PCs, including Stevan if he's there, plus 1d4.

If successful in saving Petunia, the party is paid, and earns the friendship and hospitality of the Ironshoes, their hired hands, and the folk of Eltan's Spring. Bradenial is another story, after 1d8 days have passed, he will confront them in Eltan's Spring or Threshold. If he feels he has a reasonable chance of defeating the party and taking their valuables, he will attack them immediately, using his Merchant magic in whatever way seems best. If the DM prefers, he may simply curse and threaten the party, slinking off to return at some point later to harass them.

*Centaur PCs are explained in the Creature Crucible: Tall Tales of the Wee Folk sourcebook.
*APL refers to average party level, just add up the total levels of all PCs and NPCs (discarding minor nocombatant hirelings) and divide by the number of PCs for a rough measure of their 'total hit dice' for assigning monsters to challenge them.

If the party looks into it, perhaps by asking Petunia herself, her gift is a result of being an equine born in that barn, which was unknowingly built upon the ancient, forgotten burial site of a Traladaran Cleric of Faunus, who simply communes with the world through Petunia in order to aid good intentioned individuals in the quests and toils.