Prelude to the Death Crypt of the Ultralich

I don’t have a better name for my current game yet, and it ultimately may not take the direction implied in the name (though the mass combat game I ran two weeks ago did serve as a “distant prologue”).

I’m experimenting with a dynamic exploration-focused dungeon, one which begins… almost empty!

The design concept ties into adventure hook that got the party there:

There’s a small town celebrating its founding day, which is normally a smaller affair, but this is the anniversary of the end of the Wizard War. There’s a stone marker outside of town on a hill, and it’s an “historical site” which Wizard War nerds might want to check out on the 500th anniversary. Between the end of the Wizard War and the founding of the town, there was a “rain of dirt” (possibly a volcano, possibly magic upheaval) that buried whatever was there. Folks didn’t want the spot to be totally forgotten, so they put up a plaque. The party found the ruin because a child playing on the hill fell down a sinkhole.

The complex is actually a small buried temple built on top of a previously buried monastery that was built over a series of crypts to seal up some of the residual evils of a Lieutenant of the Ultralich who was defeated on that spot. Below that are caverns and who knows what; I haven’t even fully keyed the crypt area.

The top level is mostly empty, stripped bare, and even the purpose is somewhat of a mystery until the players find the chapel. There are a few collapsed tunnels at the edges of the map, and a room with bats indicating that the room is near the surface of the hillside. Eventually, these tunnels may become excavated as more adventurers and possibly clergymen and historians begin to explore the upper ruins. These empty rooms will serve as future sites of minor archaeological base-camps or refuges for vagrants and bandits. But for now, the party has the ruins to themselves.

I remembered how much I hated the Bruce Heard game I was in because, despite all of the cool fair and carnival stuff around, I didn’t get a chance to interact with it, so if my players decide to do some carnival games, I’ll let them. We’re going to Millennium Fair it. I’m also allowing them to create a bit of the town themselves, picking what they need to have in the town, letting them name places and people. We’ve already ended up with an awesome tavern keeper named Crazy Jim, whose specialty is Owlbear stew. Over the course of the evening, it was established that Crazy Jim is a retired adventurer of ridiculous level.

My DM (a player in this game) is on a Delicious in Dungeon kick, and I’m happy to oblige. Turns out, the secret to making top-notch Owlbear Stew: you gotta make em good and angry. Most animals if they’re all riled up, the meat can get tough and gamey. But Owlbears are different—when an owlbear gets mad, their muscles get all loosened up, like they’ve done a bunch of stretches and then gotten a massage; makes em move all fluid-like. So, if you want the best Owlbear meat, you’ve gotta get em real good and pissed off before you kill them—the meat’ll just fall off the bones.

So, for now, my dungeon chef is contenting himself with frying up centipedes and mice with the wild green onions he’s picked.

Interestingly, my three players have all opted to run Thieves. They reason that this way they’ll always be able to be sneaky and at least one of them will always get a backstab. They have a fighter and Halfling for hirelings; we’ll see how all of this will work out. The halfling’s probably better at hiding from things than they are at this point, but there’s been very little to hide from so far.

The downside of everyone playing thieves, I can’t use this as an opportunity to really go for broke on sticking to the book on Moldvay magic rules. I went out of my way to stock the dungeon with scrolls to reward someone who picked “Read Magic” as their one first level spell. There’s an NPC elf lady whose spell is read magic, but the party didn’t pick her as a hireling, so she very well may end up as part of a rival adventuring party.

The second level of the dungeon, once they reach it, has two mini-side dungeons off of it. One is a workshop with a few high-loot-value mechanical monstrosities that are terrifyingly out of depth. The other is the original monastery’s library, which has been taken over by Aranea.

A lot of the treasure will be hidden in the crypt below the 2nd level, but opening the vault to the crypt will trigger some stuff that will turn much of level 2 “active”. This could upset anyone trying to set up shop on the first floor, definitely a corner of the 2nd floor, and maybe even the rest of the town.


Idea for a Gonzo D&D Setting Based on the Doors

But only the Doors songs that you don’t ever hear on the radio. It’s something I’ve always kind of wanted to do. I’m thinking these specifically.


I sort of imagine it being like a steam-punk mash-up of Zootopia and A Scanner Darkly, but with swords.

Mass Combat System Play Analysis

So, Friday before last, I got to test run my mass combat system. Essentially, I tricked my players into playing a hex & chit wargame with my by disguising it as Dungeons & Dragons, but it actually went really well! Much better than I expected, in fact.

The sides were comprised of about 40k humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings and just over 100k (mostly low-level) undead. The PC factions were led by 20th level Humans and max-level demihumans, while the undead were led by 9HD vampires and a level 30 MU lich.

Most undead units were 5k in size, each taking up 2 hexes. Smaller units (1000 or less) took up 1 hex and ignored facing rules, and a pair of 10k strong human infantry took up 3 hexes.

The undead’s objectives were to a)Cross the map with one of a various combination of units or b)kill a certain number of the PC heroes. The PC’s objectives were to either a)eliminate 6 units, b) destroy the lich’s siege engines, or c) force the lich to use half of his spells.

While I gave my players a few options of how they could set-up (envelopment, one-sided flanks, meeting engagement, or a prepared defense), they opted to run a prepared line defense in the middle, with cavalry on the flanks.

In about 11 turns over the course of 5 hours, the PC’s pulled off a stunning upset victory against the Lich.

Here’s why:

  • I forgot to put Permanent Fly on the Lich; I wasn’t going to pull a fast one after I’d already showed everyone the ins and outs of what I’d be running. This deprived him of his ability to do ranged spell damage as often as he should’ve been able to.
  • I allowed some of the smaller “special” units of undead to count towards the 6 unit count; I also forgot that I shouldn’t have allowed wights to take casualties from normal units.
  • The lich had no missile troops. My players did pretty well with their archers and skirmishers. While I did manage to collapse their left flank, many of my troops did so right into clerics who could blow up the weaker skellies.
  • Vampires are too weak to go up against the PC party I’d created pre-gens for; I should’ve used much more powerful undead, but I wanted to keep things simple.
  • Magic Missile was broken; I’ll fix it when I rewrite the rules; it should’ve been a fixed amount of damage based on the unit size (perhaps in relation to the target unit’s average HD) rather than multiplied by the die-roll. The elves were doing maybe 1/3 to half a brigade worth of damage per round.
  • Because I did not want to deal with 3 full levels of spells I didn’t have physical books for, the Lich didn’t have a number of abilities and additional reality-shaping spells that would’ve made this a cakewalk. As such, while he did death-touch a 20th level fighter at one point and began to rout PC units just by wading into the fray himself, he couldn’t have held his own if the PCs ganged up on him, in large part because of an absence of “contingencies”.

Here’s what worked:

  • The combat damage system. Once everyone wrapped their head around how easy it was to figure 10% of the highest two digits, calculating damage was a breeze. The rolls to hit and against armor class were simple enough that the players figured out how the system worked pretty quickly.
  • Leader Combat. Well, okay, it kind of worked. It needs to be improved maybe, or maybe implementing it on a smaller scale would work better. Really, the PCs cleaved through the Vampire colonels like butter; the unit regulars could only hit PCs on 20 and even the Vampires had a tough job of landing a blow on the heavily armored PCs.
  • Cavalry are weak in numbers but can do massive damage. They do the most damage with charges. It made me smile when the players came to the realization on their own that they were using their cavalry wrong; they realized what they SHOULD have been doing was, instead of leaving their cavalry in melee, withdrawing after a charge, regrouping far enough away that they couldn’t be attacked by a charging unit, then charge again from a flank to get the charge damage bonus.
  • Turning worked almost just as planned. 2d6 x 10% of a cleric unit divided by the defending unit’s hit dice. I required that the unit the clerics were attempting to turn must have line of sight on the cleric unit. This meant that cleric units staying behind other units, performing first aid, couldn’t turn; they had to come out where the undead could see them.
  • Giving the cleric units a 3 shot ability to prevent ½ damage to an adjacent unit, up to the total number of clerics in the unit, worked pretty well.

Here’s what was a little iffy:

  • The Combat Order in general worked just fine, and I’m still sold on doing initiative per melee, though the players did say that it slowed things down a bit. BUT if you weren’t using initiative per melee, I’d probably go with the following order within the combat phase:
    • Declare unit combat pairings and splits
    • Unpaired attackers do their damage first
    • Paired/split attackers do damage simultaneously (i.e. use the unit sizes of all units at the beginning of combat to calculate damage, rather initiative-loser potentially takes losses and inflicts fewer casualties)Now what’s with split attacks? When units were being attacked by more than one unit, I allowed the defending unit to make attacks against all attackers, splitting damage proportionally.
  • Magic. Some of the spells worked out, others didn’t. The biggest problem was that I used 1d6+1 x 10% of the casting unit calculate damage for Magic Missile. While it was fine for the 500 strong MU unit, it made the 3500 strong elf unit a murder machine. Additionally, there are just some spells that either don’t really work for mass combat or would require some additional development

Here’s what could stand some further development:

  • Accounting for hit die differences. This isn’t something I did, in part because a) I didn’t have time and b) it would’ve bogged down an initial test more than I wanted. I DID have one unit of 100 bone golems where I had their HP as the true unit strength, and, because they were a small unit, each individual could inflict a kill. So, with 4 attacks, the unit could theoretically kill 400 per round while they had an effective HP of 2400 instead of 100.I treated the PC units as “elites”, using the 2nd column of the to-hit and saves, and the ability to cast spells as a 5th level MU x3. This didn’t mean that everyone in the unit was 5th level, just that the average quality of the troop was such that it had a to hit bonus and a save bonus. This wasn’t reflected in unit strength/hit dice.

    The starkest difference was between skeletons and zombies, 1 hit die monsters vs. 2 hit die monsters; in theory, the zombies should be twice as hard to kill. I didn’t treat it that way (except for Turn results). You could do some tweaks to kills, where there’s a base 10% damage then reduce it proportionally by the number of hit dice. For monsters with more than 3 hit die, I think it makes sense to treat them like I did the Bone Golems (a large group of individuals attacking and simultaneously, while tracking the collective HP, but not treating them truly as a regular unit per the system). Because really, when the bone golems attacked, I was rolling 4 attacks for each one once rather than 100 times, and therefore assumed that those attacks all succeeded against individuals in the defending units rather than an attack against the unit itself using unit to unit resolution. This may actually be the best fix, as it can account for smaller numbers of large monsters (ogres, owl bears, whatever) fighting against mass combat scale units. The entire unit may not be attacking monsters, but all of the monsters are attacking someone in the unit.

  • Morale. The morale mechanics ended up not being used or tested, in part because I didn’t really write them down, so meh. Also, being undead, the Lich’s units weren’t subject to morale per-se. The players didn’t quite figure out just HOW killing the Vampire colonels affected the undead units. Being undead, they didn’t break and flee; they kept fighting, though they didn’t pull back or move further. I noted each time a vampire colonel was defeated that they dropped a sword that glowed black. These were +1 swords of control undead; if any PC had picked one up, they could either command or dispel the brigade the Vampire had been leading, but no players bothered.
  • Fleshing out the system for purposes of accounting, to better tie it to your B/X game. There are book prices for mercenaries but I think it would be worth crunching the numbers for custom equipping units, as well as figuring what “elite” means for both cost and ability (especially for casters).

I really think that there’s some potential to this system. It would absolutely work great with fewer units and at lower levels, I think, but hey, we wanted a stupid-high level battle against a lich.

Some More on Barbarian Rage

Last week GitaBushi tried to troll PCBushi and me into getting into another lengthy discussion on the origins of Barbarian Rage in Dungeons & Dragons.

Fortunately, I saved us all a lot of time and trouble by finding this, which has some great answers on the subject.

If you recall from a couple weeks ago, I’d found that yes, there was a possible “ur example” of Rage in Moldvay’s stats for Stark, but it was not a feature of Gygax’s original Barbarian class, which was more an outdoorsy fighter (really more akin to a high-HP Ranger than what most folks think of as a D&D Barbarian today).

Although the barbarian was introduced in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st edition) in the Unearthed Arcana supplement, they were tribal wilderness warriors more akin to rangers, and didn’t have anything resembling the rage ability. It wasn’t until Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition that barbarians appeared with an ability with the actual name “Rage.” However, there were earlier versions of the Rage ability that just had different names.

In The Complete Barbarian’s Handbook (AD&D 2nd edition) there is the Brute class kit which provides a barbarian with the “Wild Brawl” special ability, which is introduced with, “When fighting without weapons, the Brute can propel himself into a berserk frenzy.” However, “Wild Brawl” is mechanically entirely unrelated to Rage.

In the same book, the Ravager class kit provided the barbarian with the “Become Enraged” special ability, with which the “Ravager may work himself into a fighting frenzy, increasing his effectiveness in combat.” Mechanically, an enraged Ravager hits easier and does more damage, is hit easier, is harder to damage, and is harder to charm.

Also in AD&D 2nd edition there is a Warrior class kit exclusive to dwarves in The Complete Book of Dwarves called the Battlerager, which is “a fearless warrior, able to create an insane rage within himself which increases his fighting ability and distorts his physical features,” and therefore a dwarven barbarian in all but name. A Battlerager in “the Killing Rage” receives bonus hit points, bonuses to attack and damage, and an AC bonus, as well as being immune to charm-like effects, but may not stop fighting until there are no more enemies standing.

Similar to the Battlerager is the is the Berserker class kit for fighters in The Complete Fighter’s Handbook (AD&D 2nd edition). A Berserker takes a long time to “Go Berserk”, but once Berserk gains similar benefits and also can’t stop fighting until every enemy is down. Notably, a Berserker isn’t allowed to know their own hit points while Berserk!

The Complete Book of Dwarves was published in 1991, four years before The Complete Barbarian’s Handbook; but The Complete Fighter’s Handbook was published two years earlier in 1989, making the Berserker the first barbarian-like† character with an ability that is recognisable as a “rage” ability.

†Bear in mind that before D&D3, the actual barbarian class was restricted to humans, so fighter class variants like the Berserker and Battlerager was the official way of playing a non-human character that fulfilled the same class role despite not bearing the name “barbarian.”


Mass Combat Rules Alpha

Given a week and a bad idea, this is what I came up with and will be testing out later tonight. There may still be some things that will get handled on the fly as they come up, but I feel comfortable handing this off to my players who are asking “what the heck are we doing?”

The scenario involves 11 Lvl 20 (or demi-human max) PCs leading “Elite” units (second column Saves & Thaco). 40k “good guys” vs. an army of just shy of 100k undead. Undead army is led by 30th level Lich, and his forces are broken into 16 brigades of vampire-led skeletons & zombies, plus a few regiments of wights, ghouls and thouls, plus a battalion of bone golems acting as his elite guard.

Note that these rules don’t constitute the “system”, are scenario specific, and leave out a lot of details that are included on the “character” and “unit” sheets which I won’t be posting.

Turn Order:

  1. Roll Initiative: Side with higher initiative goes first.
  2. Declare Casting
  3. Winning side’s Archers
    1. Archer may not move and fire
    2. Halfling skirmishers may move and fire, fire then move, or move, fire, then move again
  4. Winning side Movement
  5. Charge Combats are resolved
  6. Losing side Archers
  7. Losing side movement
  8. Non-Charge Melees are resolved individually, with individual initiative rolls per encounter.
    1. Damage is calculated simultaneously if initiative is tied.
  9. Winning side’s spells are resolved
  10. Losing side’s spells are resolved

(AOE damage spells in melee affect 50/50, unless casters have LOS on flank or rear of a Division/Brigade)

Movement is written on bottom of pieces; it’s based on unit’s equipment.

  • Regular movement costs 1 per hex
  • Rotating/pivoting a large unit costs 1 per 15 minutes (any point of axis)
    • “Facing” only matters for Brigades/Divisions (2-3 hex units)
    • A unit may do an “about face” for 1 movement point
    • Units may rotate/pivot or about face on the same turn they charge, but must use the charge movement to move in a straight line.
  • Leaders may double move, though this may mean they leave their units. Units without their leaders do not get the CHA bonus to hit.
  • Charge: units may move double their normal movement – this constitutes a charge
    • The additional movement from the charge MUST be in a straight line.
    • Unit with long weapons win first initiative over short, regardless of who charges
      • Unless defending unit is flanked or engaged in melee with another unit
    • If a unit charges and does not engage in melee, it misses its next movement
      • Missile/magic troops that miss their movement in this manner MAY fire on their next turn.
    • Leaving Melee – a unit may voluntarily leave melee in either of the following methods, or must in the 2nd method if a leader flees/is killed
      • On unit’s melee init; may not attack; costs 2 movement; retreating player chooses facing; does not provoke an attack


  • On unit’s melee init; may not attack; costs 1 movement; unit faces direction it moved; provokes an attack.


Normal units do 10% of their strength in damage/kills. +10% per bonus for special.

Cavalry units do 50% of their strength on their initial charge, plus an additional attack. (This is noted on the cavalry character sheets, for a total of 4 attacks)

Magic units

  • Targeted/multi-target spells – 1 damage = 1 kill x10% unit str
  • AOE spells – 1 damage = 1 kill x 10% unit str

Magic User (individual)

  • Targeted spell – 1 kill
  • Multi-target spell – 1 kill per die
  • AOE spells – 1 damage = 1 kill

Turning – 2d6 x 10% of a cleric’s unit strength, adjusted by undead type.

Split Melee – if a unit is in melee with 2 units, it may make 2 attacks, halving any damage dealt.

Leaders – Leaders may fight with their troops. This provokes 3 individual monster attacks per round. Doing so, they will have a 1-6 chance per round of confronting an enemy unit leader. Both leaders may seek one another out, rolling on their initiative.

  • +1 leader is mounted with a foot unit.
  • -1 leader is hiding

Leaders may also leave their units and fight alone. Attacking alone provokes 1d4+4 monster attacks on an individual per round. Unmounted leader may not leave combat when attacked by a unit, unless a friendly unit engages the enemy unit in melee, allowing them to “escape”.

Lich Rule – Human/demihuman units may not voluntarily move within 6 hexes of the Lich. Units MUST attempt to maintain this distance, moving away from the Lich during their movement phase, even if it means breaking melee (see leaving melee). Heroes must fight the Lich alone; soldiers’ weapons cannot harm him.

(Scenario) Siege Engines – it takes a unit 1 round to destroy one point of siege engine. Certain damage spells such as fireballs may also destroy them.

  • XX – Division
  • X – Brigade
  • III – Regiment
  • II – Battalion

Errata (Halfling sling range 40/80/160); all Human and Elf PCs may have Standard War Mounts (15 HP AC15 (1d6/1d6; AB: 3)); Cleric units adjacent to units in melee may reduce that unit’s losses by 50%. They may use this ability up to 3 times, including on themselves.


Skeletons Need to REEEEEEEE!

I feel like skeletons have kinda lost their luster in a lot of games, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. They’re often used as obvious tableau monsters–skeletons at a table playing cards? They’ll get up and attack you; skeletons laying down in beds? They’ll get up and attack you. At one hit die and easily turned by priests, they just never seem like that big a threat unless they can get economy of action on you. And even then, they’re often mundane mooks; players aren’t really scared of them. Then I remembered…

Skeletons are supposed to REEEEEEEEEEEE!

Skeleon Reeee

None of the games I’ve been in have done this, and I’ll admit I’ve failed to include it myself. But when skeletons attack, they are supposed to shriek for up to three rounds. And during each of those three rounds, there’s a 50/50 chance that a wandering monster will come check out what the hell is going on.

So, you go from a blah encounter with a few skellies that the clerics turn and the fighters hack to bits to a cascading nightmare as the dungeon’s alarm system has just alerted half the dungeon to your presence.

Edit: Oops! Looks like I screwed this up! The picture for skeletons are under the entry for Shriekers. No wonder! But hell, why not have skeleton shriekers?


On Eric John Stark and the D&D Barbarian Class Part 2 – Civilization and Barbarism

The other day, during the discussion about Stark and Barbarians, I noted that Stark does NOT come from the template of European Barbarians, and would be more akin to an African warrior or Indian wild-boy. Cirsova contributor Jon M. Weichsel (whose story “Going Native” will appear in our Summer issue) jumped in, and we drilled down a bit on the nature of “barbarians”, though it’s a digression that took us fairly far from the original topic of Dungeons & Dragons.


Gitabushi: I still think y’all are overthinking this. Appendix N is supposed to be inspiration, not source documents. The authors draw upon Euro-American legend to make stories, just like the game does. Europeans were barbarians to the Greco-Romans, but the Norse were barbarians to Euros. Hence, barbarians are norse/scandi berserkers. And Brackett, REH, et al, drew upon the *Euro* legend to make their barbarian characters.

Cirsova: Except that’s not the case for Stark, at all. He’s closer to either Mowgli or a sub-saharan african.

JonWeichsel: Yes. Stark is closer to Mowgli or Tarzan than Conan. He was an orphan raised by savage aliens on Mercury and was then rescued and civilized by a human but still carries some of the savage ways he was brought up with. I wouldn’t call him a barbarian.

Bushi: I think there’s an argument for that. There’s also an argument that Mowgli and Tarzan would be barbarians, too. Comparing Conan and Stark in text, they’re both uncivilized men who can function in society but still hold it in contempt.

JonWeichsel: But Conan is a foreigner who adheres to a Barbarian code despite the pressures of civilization. With Stark/Tarzan/other feral children there is an internal conflict between their wild upbringing and their humanity.

Bushi: I understand the distinction as you are laying it out, but I don’t get how they can’t all fall under the barbarian umbrella.

Cirsova: Well, in part because we need to define what we mean by “Barbarian” mechanically. If we mean “Barbarian” in the 1e mechanical sense, Conan’s a Barbarian, Stark is not. If we mean “Barbarian” in the trope as it was understood during the 70s S&S revival, then yes [Stark is]. Also worth noting, in 1e, there’s no restriction on a Barbarian’s armor, so yes, your Conan-esque barbarian could be wearing full plate.

Bushi: I mean a barbarian can mean a tribesman, sure. But it can also just mean a savage, uncivilized person, no?

JonWeichsel: Stark does combine the feral child and barbarian tropes, but as far as literature goes, I’d say barbarian is a social class while feral child is a condition of being. Like, if you found some guy living in the woods who had been raised by wolves, would you call him a barbarian?

Bushi: I probably wouldn’t reject the classification, but it’s possible that [I] don’t have an accurate conception of “barbarian.” As I suggested, I’ve always just kind of thought “one who is apart from civilization; a savage.” I’m sure it’s a useful distinction, just not one I’ve drawn (though perhaps I should?)  Following that line of thought, it’s maybe barbarian vs wild man.

Cirsova: It’s a one-way window. The Civilized person can observe and perceive the Barbarism of another, but to the Barbarian, he simply sees himself and his way of life, not any barbarity. It’s a false/illusory binary. Because Conan and Stark and Tarzan have come to the other side, they can see their own Barbarism from the perspective of civilization, and they are analytical of their past and/or present condition.

Bushi: So would you class Stark, Conan, Tarzan the same?

Cirsova: We’re getting into philosophical stuff that doesn’t reflect at all on D&D’s mechanics, but they all existed in a condition that the civilized man would call “Barbarity”, they all move to a place where they could observe and reflect that Barbarity from a civilized perspective, and they all took very different things from their self-reflection on what the conditions of Barbarity meant and how they contrast for better and worse with a “Civilized” state. The reason it is a false/illusory binary is that the “Barbarian’s” state may also be one of Civilization and a Civilization’s may appear to another as a state of “Barbarity”. Barbarity is not an absence of civilization but a one-sided perceived drastic imbalance between them. Tarzan and Stark were born into more savage (less civilized) circumstances than Kull or Conan, but even Tarzan’s upbringing among the apes was not anarchic.

Bushi: Ok well. I am going to make the great leap and say that absent other evidence barbarian rage comes from Stark. Because it will help me sleep tonight.