24 September 2017

House Rules - Ability Score modifiers variant from Tom Moldvay

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

What do you guys think of Tom's ideas for more "advanced" characters?

Campaign Mood - Making Monsters Interesting, Ideas from the Monsters! Monsters! RPG

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. Continuing with my read through, 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.

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