Death Crypt of the Ultralich: The Library

I didn’t write much up from the previous session, as it was mostly finalizing the exploration of the (more or less empty) 1st floor and a brief foray toward the northern sub-dungeon. That night, they almost got TPKed by a Spider Mage with a sleep scroll, but it rolled low, so the Fighter hireling was still standing while it made a run for it. They fought a handful of spiders in the gallery that led towards the library. It was a near run, but no one died–with a few characters hurt, they decided to return to town. This was good for them, since if they camped in the side room, the other Mage Spiders would’ve had them trapped and killed them all.

Last Friday’s session was an absolutely spectacular cluster-fuck worthy of note in the annals of B/X D&D.

The group essentially tried to clear out the library of Mage Spiders in one go. The library has an openish floor-plan, with two parallel halls of reading rooms running on either side of the upper and lower stacks, which meant a cascading large-scale encounter in the upper stacks. They ended up killing 20+ giant spiders and spiderlings*, a black widow, a tarantella, 3 Mage Spiders, and a Spider Archmage.

Keep in mind, too, that this party is made up entirely of Thieves, except for the hirelings, who were a fighter and a halfling.

At one point, after 2/3s of the spiderlings and both the Tarantella and the Black Widow had been killed, the Mage Spiders tried to surrender. “Stop! We’ve been minding our own business in this library for centuries! We only attacked you because you invaded our home!”

One of the PCs used this opportunity to backstab and murder the Mage Spider trying to surrender. This is about the time that the Spider Archmage has shown up to figure out what the hell is going on.

The party had been pretty torn up after the battle when the Spider Archmage showed up. Because they killed the last Mage Spider, talking’s off the table, so the Spider Archmage casts Magic Missile and hits the halfling-hireling for nearly 20 damage–the party’s best tank gets misted; gibs of halfling coat the remaining 3 PCs and one hireling. Unfortunately for the Spider Archmage, that was his ace damage spell. The players’ action economy gets the better of him, and he’s not able to get another spell off.

The surviving PCs clear out the library and find one of the alternate exits from the dungeon–a branch from which leads to the lair of an Owlbear.

The existence of the Owlbear had foreshadowed; the mage spiders would’ve hired them to drive it off if they’d made peace with them, and the PCs would’ve been paid double to deal with it, since Crazy Jim had promised 1000 gold for Owlbear meat.

The thieves listened down the tunnel; they hear a gentle hooting/cooing snore. They try to sneak up on the sleeping Owlbear, but they rolled lousy on their move silently checks. The first thief, who was going to try to throw burning oil on the sleeping Owlbear, found himself face-to-face with critter. They tie initiative–the Owlbear is set on fire just as it bats the thief across its lair, killing him with one hit.

When we roll for regular initiative, the Owlbear wins; another thief is crushed in a bear hug by a burning Owlbear. The last PC thief manages to get behind it and kill it while it’s tearing into his buddy.

After all of that, the party is down to one thief and one NPC fighter hireling who rolled lousy the entire fight. The last thief murders the NPC to claim all the treasure and 7200 XP from session for himself.

*My only note for spiderlings was that they were the same as Crab Spiders, except they used webs, were smaller, and had a paralysis bite rather than an instant death bite.


Beyond the Keep on the Borderland (Pt.3) – Clifford Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage

So, the last war between Mankind and Fey has ended, settling into an uneasy armistice. The Caves of Chaos are no longer teeming with the creatures of Fey, and the Keep on the Borderlands is no longer garrisoned, has fallen into disuse and disrepair, and only a small church remains as a reminder that this was once a forward outpost in Christendom’s endless war with soulless heathens. What becomes of the heroes of that age? The Clerics who fought against the forces of Chaos to advance and defend Civilization and ensure that Mankind’s right to rule the land God bestowed upon Adam?

“I have never been able to settle quite comfortably into the role of churchman, although I do my best. I mortify the flesh and discipline the spirit, but the hungers rage within me. Age does not seem to quench them. Much as I may frown upon the folly of what you intend to do, I find within myself the ache to go along with you. I suppose it may be this place, a place of warriors and brave deeds. Peaceful as it may seem now, for centuries it was the outpost of the empire against the peoples of the Wasteland. The tower is now half tumbled down, but once it was a great watch tower and before it ran a wall, close to the river, that has almost disappeared, its stones being carted off by the country people to construct ignoble fences, hen-houses and stables. Once men manned the tower and wall, standing as a human wall of flesh against the encroachments and the depredations of the unholy horde which dwells in the Wasteland.”

“Your grace,” said Snively, far too gently, “your history, despite the centuries, is too recent. There was a day when the humans and the Brotherhood lived as neighbors and in fellowship. It was not until the humans began chopping down the forest, failing to spare the sacred trees and the enchanted glens, not until they began building roads and cities, that there was animosity. You cannot, with clear conscience, talk of encroachments and depredations, for it was the humans—“

“Man had the right to do what he wished with the land,” the bishop said. “He had the holy right to put it to best use. Ungodly creatures such as—“

“Not ungodly,” said Snively. “We had our sacred groves until you cut them down, the fairies had their dancing greens until you turned them into fields. Even such simple little things as fairies…”

This clash between clergy and demi-humans comes from the completely alien and antithetical worldviews each has. Mankind vs. Fey is older than Elf vs. Dwarf, though some of the reasoning and cruft is similar. Elves don’t like Dwarves because Dwarves cut down trees and pursue wealth; Dwarves don’t like Elves, because Elves are haughty and aloof. In the case of Mankind vs. Fey, Fey don’t like mankind because men encroach on their borders, and Mankind doesn’t like Fey because their existence is blasphemous.

So, strange must be the circumstances that a Elf, a Dwarf, or a Halfling would join with Men, especially Men of the cloth, to assist in pushing back that boundary of Elfland for the benefit of Man and Civilization.

Beyond the Keep on the Borderland (Pt.2) – Clifford Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage

The Keep on the Borderlands module is the subject of much debate and discussion. Isolated from the greater Known World setting into which it was eventually folded, you have a very simple dichotomy from which a world may be extrapolated–Law vs. Chaos, Civilization vs. the Wild, Christendom vs. Fey… and between the two are the Borderlands.

Now, with what information is given regarding the Caves of Chaos and the Keep on the Borderlands, there are a few things that we can assume:

Beyond the Keep, there is Civilization, and that Civilization is moving towards the wilds, rather than away from it.

Beyond the Caves of Chaos, there is simply more wilds. There is some migration towards the caves from these wilds, but caves are not unified nor are they a hard target. A dedicated push from Civilization could clear out the caves, but if all of Elfland were brought to bare against the Keep, it might topple one outpost at great cost yet it could not ultimately stop the advance of Civilization and man.

Most pre-genre fantasy depicts an Elfland in decline, slowly or rapidly withdrawing its borders to protect what little magic it has left. Determined individuals are sometimes able to find it, but finding it often means that the magic will be extinguished by the institutions of Man.

So, when there’s no push to cleanse the Caves of Chaos or there’s no Keep on the Borderlands to extend the shadow of civilization into Elfland, what is the Borderland and what lies beyond it? How do the demi-humans in the region live?

Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage seeks to answer just that:

“Do you know what the Wasteland is?”

“It’s enchanted ground,” said Gib.

“It is,” said Snively, “the last stronghold of the Brotherhood….”

“But you—“

“Yes, we are of the Brotherhood. We get along all right because this is the Borderland. There are humans, certainly, but individual humans—millers, woodcutters, charcoal burners, small farmers, moonshiners. The human institutions, government and church, do not impinge on us. You have never seen the lands to the south and east?”

Gib shook his head.

“There,” said Snively, “you would find few of us. Some in hiding, perhaps, but not living openly as we do. Those who once lived there have been driven out. They have retreated to the Wasteland. As you may suspect, they hold a hatred for all humankind. In the Wasteland are those who have been driven back to it and those who never left, the ones who had stayed there and hung on grimly to the olden ways of life.”

“But you left.”

“Centuries ago,” said Snively, “a group of prospecting gnomes found the ore deposit that underlies these hills. For uncounted millennia the gnomes have been smiths and miners. So we moved here, this small group of us. We have no complaint. But if the so-called human civilization ever moved in full force into the Borderland, we would be driven out.”

Fey is always in a precarious position with mankind nearby, because the institutions of man, particularly the Church, are inimical to them. Land is developed, with towns, roads, and agriculture changing the character of the land, and the bells of the Church and prayers of good Christian men and women drive the elves further back beyond their ancient borders.

Beyond the Keep on the Borderland (Pt.1) – Clifford Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage

Over the weekend, I started reading Clifford D. Simak’s Enchanted Pilgrimage. It’s one of his later works (mid-70s), and while it hasn’t been as wild and action-packed as his pulp short I reviewed awhile back, it’s been an interesting read for several reasons.

The mid 70s were a time of tumultuous sea-change in Fantasy. There was a pulp sword & sorcery revival going on in the early part of the decade, but Lord of the Rings was booming and Tolkienian primacy was on the horizon. Dungeons & Dragons and Shannara were about to change everything.

Enchanted Pilgrimage is a party-centric quest-fantasy, but the fantasy is still pre-genre, pre-Tolkienian. While the story isn’t particularly Dunsanian, the setting is, and the portrayal of fey is still on the far side of weird. What Enchanted Pilgrimage does best, though, is illustrate what a demi-human-centric adventuring party would be like.

A scholar finds an original manuscript hidden in the binding of a copy of a travelogue written by someone who traveled to the Wasteland (Elfland); an Inquisitor from the church is trying to hunt him down. The scholar goes on a quest to investigate the truth of the manuscript with the help of some goblins, gnomes, and swamp elves with the Inquisitor on his trail.

The setting is rather nebulous, but a war between fey and Christendom ended a generation before, leaving the Borderlands, co-inhabited by men and fey, between Civilization and the Wasteland.

The quest of the story kicks off in two parts: in civilization, the scholar finds the manuscript about a journey to Elfland; in the wild, a young… something (it’s not clear what the Marsh People are, other than that they’re furry almost-humans) pays visit to an elderly Christian hermit who has a final request for him. Simak very subtly highlights the uncanny nature of fey and the uneasiness that exist between them, even in the relatively peaceful Borderlands.

Gib, the young Marsh Man, is visiting a gnome, who has just finished a new ax-head for him, on his way to see the hermit.

“I only called on the hermit once. A neighborly act, I thought. I took him, as a gift, a fine pair of silver candlesticks. I never went again. I fear that I embarrassed him. I felt an unease in him. He said nothing, of course….”

“He wouldn’t,” said Gib. “He is a kindly man.”

“I shouldn’t have done it,” said the gnome. “It came from living so long in the land of humans and dealing so much with them that I began to lose the distinction between myself and man. But to the hermit, and I suppose many other men, I am a reminder of that other world in which I properly belong, against which men still must have a sense of loathing and disgust, and I suppose for a reason. For ages man and the many people of my world fought very hard and viciously against one another, with no mercy, and I suppose, at most times, without a sense of honor. In consequence of this, the hermit,  who is, as you say, the kindliest of men, did not quite know how to handle me. He must have known that I was harmless and carried no threat to him or any of his race, and yet he was uneasy. If I had been a devil, say, or any sort of demon, he would have known how to act. Out with the holy water and the sacred spells. But I wasn’t a devil, and yet in some obscure way I was somehow connected with the idea of the devil. All these years I have regretted that I called on him.”

“And yet he took the candlesticks.”

“Yes, he did. Most graciously, and he thanked me kindly for them. He was too much a gentleman to throw them back in my face. He gave me, in return, a length of cloth of gold. Someone, I suppose, perhaps some noble visitor, had given it to him, for the hermit would have had no money to buy so princely a gift. I have often thought, however, that he should have kept it and given me a much more lowly gift. I’ve wondered all these years what I possibly could do with a length of cloth of gold. I keep it in a chest and I take it out now and then and have a look at it, but that is all I ever do with it. I suppose I could trade it off for something more utilitarian, but I hesitate to do that, for it was the hermit’s gift and for that reason seems to me to have a certain sentimental value. One does not sell gifts, particularly a gift from so good a man.”

“I think,” said Gib, “that you must imagine much of this—the hermit’s embarrassment, I mean. I for example, have no such feeling toward you. Although, in fairness, I must admit that I am not a human.”

“Much closer than I am,” said the gnome, “and therein may lie a difference.”

Something to think about in your game–humans and demi-humans, even when not directly at odds, may always have a sense of unease about one another on a deep, spiritual level, and the unease will be mutual. These aren’t just people from different races, but beings from different worlds!


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.

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.