A little follow up to last week’s music post…
If the Zombies in Thief were scary, the Hammer Haunts were absolutely terrifying. The second that one of them knew where you were, many of the rest of them would know soon as well. From well over 100 feet away, a Haunt that saw you would not only know where you were but know how to get there by the shortest means. Even if you could get away, they would keep looking for you, and unless you found a really good hiding spot, there was a good chance they would still find you. If a Haunt saw you and there was nothing between him and you, you were pretty much done for – unlike many of the human guards or the rather weak Monkey Men, Haunts are far better swordsmen than Garrett; even if they don’t block your first or even second attack, they will quickly slice you pieces in a matter of seconds. There’s little worse than in Return to the Haunted Cathedral when all three of the patrolling Haunts in the main Cathedral floor are alerted to your presence and make a beeline for you, even cutting through boarded up doors to do so.
Fortunately, once you were out of the Cathedral and into the second half of the mission, you could set up a kill zone in the quad between St. Tennor’s and St. Jenel’s; after killing the first one or two with backstabs, you’d have multiple zombies, multiple haunts and a ghost all looking for you, and you’d have to carefully toss out mines and bide your time lest one of these grim dudes gets within 50 feet of you. It took about 10 minutes of patience and planning, but if you were lucky, the undead carnage on the quad would account for most of the remaining enemies in that oh-so-dreadful mission.
HD 4+2 (15HP)
Damage: 1-6 or weapon
No. Appearing: 1-4
Save As: F4
Treasure Type: Nil
Haunts are vicious and incredibly dangerous undead warriors whose fanaticism in life has carried over and beyond the grave into their unlife. Haunts are surprisingly human in their apparent behavior and may well be mistaken for the living until approached or seen head-on. As with all undead, haunts are unaffected by Sleep or Charm and are unaffected by mind control. Unlike many lesser undead, Haunts are clever hunters and can easily (4 in 6 chance when within 50’ or less) locate nearby living trespassers, including those hiding in shadows. A Haunt will pursue its prey until one or the other is vanquished. Haunts may only be turned by clerics of the gods they served in life. If taken by surprise (1 in 6 change), a Haunt may be dispatched single successful backstab.
One of the problems that D&D has, I feel, is that low level undead just aren’t all that scary. Ghouls are frightening because they have paralysis and aetherial undead are terrifying because of their level drain, but Zombies and Skeletons tend to be kind of boring mooks who are usually less threatening than encountering a group of 1st level human bandits. Besides, they can be turned! The only real ‘scary’ part is that they don’t have to make morale checks, so you have to kill all of them. As such, the only way that skeletons or zombies are a real threat is if you throw a ton of them at the party.
Thief: the Dark Project is one of the few places where small numbers of undead are truly scary – they’re very different from how your living (even monstrous living) opponents behave. While Ghosts are creepy and hard to kill, and Hammer Haunts cut you to pieces in seconds once they find you (and they WILL find you), I think that how Thief treats Zombies is particularly special. They’re always in the way, they’re always groaning loudly, and, unless you’ve got things planned just so, you can’t kill them. One zombie can be an annoyance, but two zombies can be downright deadly. Once you have 4 or more zombies on you, it’s time to hit the quickload button.
So here’s a reimagining of the B/X zombie based on those found in Thief: The Dark Project.
HD 2 + 3* (15HP)
Attacks: 1 weapon
Damage: 1-8 or weapon
No. Appearing: 2-8 (4-24)
Save As: F1
Treasure Type: Nil
Zombies are undead humans or demi-humans animated by powerful curses and evil magics that stone and steel alone cannot unmake. As all undead, they may be “Turned” by a cleric but are not affected by sleep or charm spells or any form of mind reading. They typically resemble normal rotting and bloated corpses, and when still may be indistinguishable from a normal corpse. If approached by a living creature foolish enough to linger about (3 rounds), the Zombie will rise and attack. Treat prone Zombies as having 3 HP; upon rising, a Zombie will have its full 15 HP. After receiving 12 HP of damage, a risen Zombie will fall prone and remain so until a living creature remains nearby for 3 rounds, at which time the Zombie will rise with full health. Zombies will always attack last regardless of initiative.
Zombies can only be killed with fire or Holy Water. Holy Water will do 3d6 damage to Zombies. Zombies that are turned do not run away but will fall prone.
I’ll probably be stating out some more monsters from Thief over the next few days, including Burricks, Hammer Haunts, Insect Beasts, Fire Spirits, Crab Men and Crab Beasts, and Monkey Men. I’ll be working on a few base assumptions, including d6 hit dice and Garrett as a d4 thief of around 4th level; I may even stat him.
Over the weekend I was introduced to Star Frontiers, TSR’s old pulp sci-fi adventure game. My AD&D group has gotten back together and started this to try something new and different for a while. I’m pretty excited to be playing something that is rather different.
Something that was remarked upon when we did our sample combat was how different it played out from Dungeons & Dragons. But was it really that different? Sides roll initiative, and the side that loses moves while the side that wins gets to make ranged attacks; after ranged attacks are made, the winning side can move while the survivors on the losing side get to make ranged attacks in response; finally, the survivors of the side who won initiative get to make their melee attacks, followed by the survivors of the losing side making theirs. That constitutes one round of combat.
Now, let’s look at how combat is supposed to play out in D&D:
A. Each side rolls for initiative (Id6).
B. The side that wins the initiative acts first (if simultaneous all actions are performed by each side at the same time):
- Morale checks, if needed (page B27).
- Movement per round, meleed opponents may only move defensively (spell casters may not move and cast spells).
- Missile fire combat:
- choose targets
- roll ld20 to hit; adjust result by Dexterity adjustment, range, cover, and magic
- DM rolls damage*
- Magic spells (roll saving throws, as needed: ld20).
- Melee or hand-to-hand combat:
- choose (or be attacked by) opponents
- roll ld20 to hit; adjust result by Strength adjustment and magic weapons
- DM rolls damage; adjust result by Strength adjustment and magic weapons
C. The side with the next highest initiative acts second, and so on using the order given above, until all sides have completed melee.
D. The DM handles any surrenders, retreats, etc. as they occur.
So, the only real change here is the pre-emptive missile/ranged fire, which is pretty neat. Interestingly, the way it feels in play is that the winning side gets to ‘hold their action’ as is frequently employed in D&D, using that held action to lay down suppressive or covering fire; you have the advantage of knowing the enemy’s tactical placement and maneuvering before choosing how to respond. The difference is, it’s built directly into the combat order.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this system will work out. It uses percentile dice for just about everything, but dice are dice and target ranges are target ranges. My human got some crappy rolls, but I’ve gotten more than used to playing characters with mediocre stats. I’m playing a stun-stick wielding combat medic; he may not have payed much attention in med school but he’s decent at cracking skulls – probably why he’s working as part of a salvage team stationed on a frontier water world rather than in a prestigious hospital somewhere.
Our DM didn’t have much prepared for us, so we just took the time to get familiar with Char-gen and did some intro stuff before moving onto a pretty nutso game of Index Card D&D.
Just some of the craziness included:
-Getting stuck in a room made of tar and being attacked by a swarm of puppets
-A 30’ chainsaw that requires a strength check to even lift, does kickback damage and AOE to the rest of the party if they fail a saving throw.
-Crashing a Zamboni into a frozen lake.
-An overpowered sword from an overpowered optional boss.
-Lars the Sword Swallower, a 7 foot showman with a taste for enchanted swords.
*:As if you could convince players these days to let you roll their damage for them behind your screen!
B4 is certainly living up to its reputation as a pyramid of blood. The party has already faced multiple PC losses as well as losses from their potential replacement pool.
Though I’m sure it’s familiar with our player who’s been with us since we’d used LotFP, the DCC players who were not with us in the funnel are a bit taken aback by how lethal B/X is, especially when allowing players to roll for their HP at 1st level. Like the DCC funnel, I’ve given everyone multiple characters, allowing them either to roll up their own or use the pre-gens that come with the module. Unlike the DCC funnel, everyone doesn’t magically jump a level because they survived the first session; of course this assumes that reaching level 1 is ‘leveling up’; here, you’ve already got all of your classes with their perks – what you don’t get is that extra HP from having 1d4 at level 0 and the extra boost from being based on d8 rather than d6 hit dice.
One of the complaints some players had in DCC was how little XP they felt they received. Though the numbers in B/X are going to be higher, I don’t know if players who are focused on the desire to level up will be any more satisfied getting 200-300 XP vs. 4-5 XP, given that it still may take several weeks to reach the next level. I think that once the party thins a bit and XP will not be split as many ways folks will be a bit more satisfied with their XP hauls, but we’ll see. The party technically missed out on some free XP they could’ve gotten by signing up with the Brotherhood of Gorm, and still may be able to get that payout if they get those sweet gold masks. Depending on how they do, though, I think that the party should be able to finish the top half of the pyramid finishing out between levels 3-4 depending on their class. Once folks reach level 2, I may introduce Death and Dismemberment, particularly if the pool of fresh PCs runs dry.
So, how am I playing my game?
Players have a pool of 24 potential characters who were part of the caravan. PCs are rolled up out of this pool. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. A few died in the night because the party opted to rest a day after fighting the firebeetles rather than press on and find food and water. There are about 8 non PC members of that party left. Each player got 3 characters to start, as we only had a few folks show up at first, but as latecomers arrived and we suffered some PC deaths, we settled on 2 per player.
I’m trying to do combat simultaneously with shared initiative. I’m using some inversion of weapon speed or weapon reach so that two handed weapons strike first in combat. So what it’s been looking like is the guy with a two handed sword swings, I’d go around the table and everyone else would make their attacks, and if the monsters hit, I’d tell folks who they hit and what damage they did. I may tweak this a bit, but it has been working out fine so far. In the cramped corridors of the pyramid, there isn’t much in the way of moving around or complex tactics beyond “fighters, plug this hole”.
I’m going with the shield option I described the other day, but I have warned my players that I may revoke it if they start abusing it by just lugging dozens of shields with them everywhere they go. I may restrict it to once per combat or somesuch.
Magic users start with 4 random spells, including read magic. Holmes memorization from scrolls/dungeon book rules apply.
I’m nominally using encumbrance, but I’m going to leave my players to keep track of their own. I don’t know that I’ll be particularly tough on this excepting when finding treasure hoards. When the players found some gems and asked about cashing them in, I recommended they hold onto them, as it would be much easier to hang onto a couple gems in the dungeon than it would be a chest with nearly 2000 coins.
So how did my players fare in the dungeon?
They were careful enough in the entryway, but forgot to bother checking the cylinder doors for traps. A falling block (I misread a trap on the fly) killed a fighter, and no one bothered to spike the door, so when the top room filled with poison gas, it killed a 1 HP fighter and nearly killed a couple others who derped around until I pretty much asked “are you going to open the door?” One player’s characters actually hid in the cylinder, escaping poison gas, and jumped down and fought the fire beetles. Amazingly, the fire beetles didn’t kill anyone!
The party decided to wait and rest and doing so, lost 4 from their replacement pool from thirst and hunger. Back in the pyramid, the party ran into a wandering group of goblins looking for food for Zargon. The goblins rolled remarkably high on their reaction – which is good for me, because I love RPing goblin encounters – and told the party about hunting and how they could help by killing a few of the white beardy men for food, thus pointing them in the direction of the first faction they were to encounter. Though it quickly became obvious the ‘white beardy men’ were humans, the party briefly considered cannibalism in their desperation.
The fight with giant geckos was a fright, but amazingly no one died. Drawn by the noise, the white beardy men, aka the Brotherhood of Gorm, showed up to investigate, ultimately offering the party refreshments.
One of the many tough bits about Lost City is that while you have factions, only the Priests of Zargon have a clear motivation – feed people to Zargon; the other three factions all want to ‘restore Cynidicea’, but there’s no real explanation for what that means nor is there any indication of the factions differing strategies in accomplishing that goal. In the couple days I had to go over the module, I hadn’t really assigned any modus operandi to the top level factions, nor had I developed them beyond their personality quirks. Once the party met the Brotherhood of Gorm, the Brotherhood didn’t have much for them to do yet other than offer a bounty on wandering greenskins. This week, I’ll be fleshing out what each faction wants – each will want something the other has. I also need to figure out what each faction can offer in terms of a solution to their city’s problem. Probably each will specify some thing on level 5 of the dungeon that they think will help restore the sanity of their people, or at least further their cause and put them on top.
After a rambling explanation of what was going on with Cynidicea from Grandmaster Kanadius and a Gormless joke that went over my players’ heads, the party set out to explore and maybe meet some other factions. The party was put off a bit by the Brotherhood’s chauvinism, which was to be expected. I doubt they’ll find the other factions to be entirely to their liking either, but that’s kind of the point – hedge your bets and side with the least odious option.
They met the sprites, got some fireworks, ran into the weird buzzard undertakers, found the dead hobgoblin, were forced to pay the undertakers to haul off the hobgoblin, ran into a weird bird-masked lady who gave them a pouch of sweet smelling powder and found the treasure cache in the secret room full of stirges. The party did decently against the stirges, but the two-handed sword wielding warrior maiden was sucked dry by one. Damn shame, as she would’ve been a great addition to the Sisterhood of Madarua.
I’ve been having fun with this one so far, and I think my players are too, though some of them are a little taken aback by how quickly you can die in B/X. I also think it’s easy to take for granted how much additional prep work B4 demands of you compared to the previous Basic modules. It’s meant specifically to bridge the gap between running a Basic game and an Expert game and hopes to teach budding DMs more nuanced faction interaction, but it doesn’t hold your hand; just as it expects you to come up with a lot of details of bottom half of the pyramid and the city itself, it’s up to you to figure out what makes each faction different and special and how they should interact. I was able to wing it, but I think my game would’ve been better for it if I had actually sat down and took the time to plan out faction interactions rather than refresh myself on room keys for levels the players certainly would not have reached in the first session.
Where do I keep getting these assumptions about how magic works in D&D?
I was brushing up, looking at the Magic Users class section in Blueholme, a Holmes clone, when I realized I had it wrong again. I cannot be possibly be trusted to know what I’m talking about in matters of mechanics in B/X apparently.
“A magic-user is not necessarily able to learn and transcribe all spells of that level into his book. This is determined by the magic-user’s Intelligence score, as detailed in the table below. A magic-user only gets one chance to figure out each spell; if he cannot learn it then, he never will.
“Minimum denotes the fewest spells a magic-user will know for that level. Before the player makes any of the d% rolls for “chance to learn”, the referee will randomly choose this many spells from the spell list for that level and inform the player that his character already knows those spells.
“Every time a new level of spells is acquired, and after the referee has picked the minimum spells, the player should roll a d% for each remaining spell of that level; if he rolls equal to or less than the chance listed, then his character has that spell in his magic book.” – Blueholme Prentice, pg 11
Yeah, I totally remember the whole “start with a minimum # of spells in your spellbook at level 1 and then roll for the rest of them” part. What I did not remember was repeating the process every time you unlocked a new tier of spells. You hit level 3, you suddenly know as many as a dozen level 2 spells without ever having to find them. W… T… F!?
Where do your new spells come from? Certainly not from finding scrolls and stealing spellbooks! God, now I need to start digging through OSRIC to figure out where I came up with this idea.
“Magic users do not gain bonus spells for high intelligence scores; intelligence does determine which spells they can understand and how many spells they may learn for each spell level.
Magic users are dependent upon their spell books, and normally may only cast spell they have learned from these books (exception: magic users may cast spells from arcane magical scrolls). Mages may not cast spells from divine, druidic or phantasmal magic scrolls. The acquisition of a new spell is difficult and demanding and must normally be accomplished through adventuring, although the mage will automatically receive one new spell of the highest spell level that he or she may cast upon acquiring a new level of experience.
Magic users may memorise and cast arcane spells in accordance with the tables provided below. A beginning magic user character will know four spells. One of these will automatically be Read Magic. The second spell should be chosen by the player from the list of first level spells, and the last two should be determined randomly from the list of first level spells.” – OSRIC Page 16
Huh! Okay, so I’m not totally crazy and that IS a thing in a version of Dungeons & Dragons somewhere! So, all this time, I’d been conflating multiple rule sets in my mind based on a combination of half-remembered 1e games from highschool, video games and context of ‘how it ought to be’ via on my understanding of Vance. Yet even here in OSRIC, it does not explicitly state that MUs can acquire spells by copying scrolls into their spellbooks. The only place I am 100% certain that this was the case was in that crappy Neverwinter Nights compy game from over a decade ago.
Apparently, I’ve been using Holmes’ spell book (the physical item, that is) and scroll rules, smeared with some Moldvay (I typically gave 1st level MUs 2 spells, including Read Magic), but used a half-assed version (no need to roll % chance) of AD&D’s rules for learning new spells from scrolls & other spell books with some minute differences.
At some point, I may need to do an in-depth look at Read Magic and its implications across all editions!
Things I’ll need to address tonight in running B-4: the Lost City.
-Character pool: B/X is a high mortality system, and B-4 is very sink or swim (find food and water within a day or two or die) and opens with some pretty dastardly traps and an encounter that may be out of depth for 0 xp characters. My thought for this is have a group of characters who stay outside of the pyramid and keep watch while the others investigate. This also puts some additional pressure on finding food and water to bring back to their friends and may strain potential faction relations. Alternatively, other members of the missing caravan may straggle in later. The big problem with this setup is that there’s a decent chance that the original characters will all die off and have no one to replace them but Cynidiceans.
-Again, the high mortality of B/X. While I like this aspect of the game, Lost City’s setup makes it challenging, especially even getting inside, as the only way into the pyramid is right into the middle of a nest of fire beetles. I hate how shields work in D&D (literally every fighting style that makes use of shields, the shield makes up the lion’s share of your defense, not the measly +1 bonus to your worn armor), so I’m using an optional shield rule that will allow characters to sacrifice a shield to soak any one attack; that will at least keep folks alive long enough to get out of the 1st room of tier 2.
-Lost City is balanced for 6-10 characters, while I may have 4 players tonight. I’ll probably give everybody two characters, maybe 3, borrowing from the DCC funnel. Seriously, the fire beetles will probably take out two characters at least; even though they’re only 6 HP each, they do 2d4 damage and have AC 4, meaning they won’t be super easy to hit and will probably kill one character per hit, especially if I make people roll for their level 1 hit dice.
-Deciding whether the the Cynidiceans speak a language that the player characters can understand. If the weird people in masks are speaking gibberish until characters can pick up the language, it changes a lot of the underlying expectations and concepts explored in the module.
-Keeping factions straight. This shouldn’t be too big of a problem since there are only 3 factions that the party will certainly have to deal with, and it will be a lot of fun – I actually really enjoy roleplaying NPC characters. The big challenge here will be trying not to have the followers of Gorm constantly snarking about how Gormless their rivals are.
-Figure out an end-game. Where does this go? No matter what happens, what the players accomplish, how much loot they managed to scrounge, they’re still stuck out in the desert. I won’t have to come up with this for awhile, but at some point there needs to be a way to leave if the party doesn’t want to just settle down and become Cynidiceans. When I’d fused this with Tower of Zenopus, I’d addressed this by setting Cynidicea below the port town at the bottom of a series of caverns off the eastern ghoul tunnels, making it the “lost city” rumored to be deep beneath the ruins of Zenopus’ Tower. Of course, I don’t know that I want to run through Tower of Zenopus as a prologue for this. If one of my players wasn’t someone from my Zenopus game last year and this weren’t planned to be something of a short term game, that would absolutely be the direction I’d go, but I may just stick some sort of magic exit creating swizzlestick somewhere in the city.