“Our ______ are Different”: Liches in my low-level OSR system.

In the system I’ve written, characters only go up to Level 4, but I didn’t want that to prevent iconic monsters from sensibly working with the game.

Most monsters are going to be OSR Stat-block based, but working within this new system gives me the opportunity to creatively re-work some of my personal favorites. One example is the Lich.

Now, with Wizards capping out at Level 4, I needed to come up with a plausible explanation for the creation of Liches. They’re not going to be level 30 something and they won’t have phylacteries.

Here’s what I came up with:

MV: 90’ (30’) AC* HD 4 AT: By Weapon

Sometimes, when a powerful wizard dies surrounded by too much magical energy, that energy is able to sustain and preserve the wizard’s life force beyond death.

If a Wizard dies of natural causes or by means that do not cause extensive damage to the body (such as trauma injuries) while he or she is wearing two rings and an amulet of at least +3 enchantment each, there is a 10% chance each month, for a full year, the Wizard will arise as a Lich. If the Wizard’s body does not arise as a Lich at the end of 1 year, it will never do so.

Liches do not gain XP from treasure or adventuring, but gain 100 XP for each day they devote wholly to study and meditation. Liches do not gain levels, but may use this XP for the enchantment of magical items.
This goes hand in hand with my thoughts on Necromancy and Undead. Since there aren’t a lot of spells to create undead, yet there is a lot of undead, the creation of undead must be part of a ‘natural’ phenomenon, occuring due to an excess concentration of magic run-off.

Notably, Dwarven magic does NOT lead to the creation of undead, only Human and Elven magic (only +2 or greater items can influence a region in such a way). In the game, this is a minor mechanical point but can be extrapolated to the cultural conflicts and prejudices of the implied setting. But that’s worthy of another post entirely.

Anyway, any suggestions for a bestiary?

Vampires vs. Liches Part 1: Test Prep and B/X Liches

After doing a little homework, I’ve realized that the comparison between Liches and Vampires may be apples to oranges, at least if we’re looking at B/X.  I’ve only recently begun looking back at the D&D/OD&D rulesets.  Liches from one edition to another are VASTLY different (OH MY!).  This may throw a bit of a wrench in my plans to play out some B/X scenarios

See, I’m mostly familiar with Liches from 2nd edition AD&D.  Based on the Lich entry in the Monstrous Manual, a magic user of around 16th level or so could turn oneself into a Lich.  It took some digging, but I finally found where Liches stood in B/X (the Master set, to be exact), and it’s pretty damn near the top, suggesting a character level of between 27 and 36.  Sweet Jesus!  Fortunately, B/X Liches’ hit dice are restricted to their class, because they’re treated almost like a prestige class(!) rather than a monster.  That figures out to somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-50 HP (with a generous average of 2.5 per hd roll) for magic users and 50-60(avg. 3.5 per hd role) for clerics.  Despite being level 27-36, they’re about 10-12 Hit Dice monsters, at least in terms of HP, since Characters top out on actual dice around level 9 (I’d overlooked this initially; without using Character HD caps, they’d have around 70-100HP, putting them on par with AD&D Liches).  They do, however, have an additional 20 levels of wealth, legendary items and epic level spells.  Plus, B/X Liches can snap their fingers and have 2d4 Vampires show up. Don’t forget that even random Vampires take some storylining (kill & destroy at LEAST one coffin) to actually kill off.

It is interesting to see the difference in power between the B/X lich and his AD&D counterparts, or his 8HD (roughly 36 HP) OD&D counterpart.  Also, I think it’s important to point out that in B/X an Elf cannot be a Lich.  This means that the Vampire route is still probably the best for an Elven mage wishing to increase his powers further.  And some of the B/X Lich’s immense power might simply be from the desire to hold back some iconic monsters for the higher level sets.  But who really plays at those levels?  Even Tomb of Horrors, which features D&D’s second most famous Lich, is recommended for levels 10-14.  Yes, it’s AD&D and Acererak is a Demi-Lich, but I think the point still stands: high end of Expert set levels ought to be appropriate for Lich hunting.

It’s not atypical for parties to be fighting monsters a few hit dice above their level.  There are a number of experiments that could be set up to see how 8th-10th level B/X parties fared against a B/X Lich and a converted AD&D Lich.

I still intend to go forward playing out some scenarios, but I know now that I should probably include both an OD&D Lich AND a B/X Lich.  While a standard B/X Vampire could probably take an OD&D Lich, I seriously doubt he could hold his own against a B/X or AD&D Lich.

So, here are some experiments to run through:

1. A level 8-10 party against an OD&D Lich

2. A level 8-10 party against a B/X Lich

3. A level 8-10 party against a B/X Vampire

4. A level 8-10 party against an Elven B/X Vampire

5. A B/X Vampire vs an OD&D Lich

6. An Elven B/X Vampire vs an OD&D Lich

7. A B/X Vampire vs a B/X Lich (I have the feeling this will be short and brutal)

8. An Elven B/X Vampire vs a B/X Lich (This may last a bit longer, but I still feel it will be very one sided)

In doing these experiments, there are some assumptions I need to make about the mechanics of Vampires.  How many of a Vampire’s hit dice are determined by their pre-Vampire life?  Any persons killed by the Vampire may be raised as Vampires, so do we assume that even a low level character would return as at least a 7HD Vampire.  There’s nothing to indicate any relationship between a Vampire’s Hit Dice and the Hit Dice of whoever the Vampire was beforehand, other than that we’re given a range of 7-9 Hit Dice for Vampires.  Because I don’t want to turn B/X into some d20 point-buy twink BS, I’m only going to extrapolate high level Elven or magic user Vampires based on other undead who retain spellcasting abilities (such as mage wraiths).  At most, I’ll throw in an extra Hit Die.  Vampires’ abilities already put them +2 Dungeon Levels/XP tiers over normal monsters.  A normal fighter-build Vampire (7-9HD) would be Dungeon Level 9-11.  Therefore, a 10 HD Elven Vampire would be Dungeon level 13, adding an extra level for the spellcasting ability.  I think this is more than reasonable to throw against an 8th-10th level party.

I still can’t get over the stats of the OD&D Lich.  Both the OD&D Vampire and Lich are 8 HD monsters.  The Vampire has remained more or less the same (the B/X Vampire mostly just moves a bit faster), while the Lich has more than doubled in power.

Vampires are (NOT) Played Out!

Let’s face it.  With World of Darkness, Buffy, Twilight, all of the Twilight clones, Anne Rice clones, and assorted Vampire Action flicks, Vampires are pretty played out.  Except, that is, for in the world of Dungeons & Dragons style high fantasy.

If anything, the Lich has become played out in fantasy.  Don’t get me wrong, liches are my first love among the greater free willed undead, but they’re EVERYWHERE.  The pinnacle of any undead themed campaign is typically going to be some sort of mastermind lich, hiding away in his musty old tomb, hoping his centuries of planning and learning 6th-9th level spells will pay off in some way to achieve some sort of goal that involves lots of skeletons.  Liches are always going to be either wizards or clerics, and have typical wizard or cleric leitmotifs.  They can’t really go anywhere or do anything on their own, because it’ll screw up their plan to have it known that there’s a rotting wizard husk shambling about zapping stuff with a rod of ruin while collecting macguffins (except for Xykon, cuz he’s awesome).  The Vampire, on the other hand, is a far more flexible villain in any setting, but is an overlooked part of an undead themed campaign.

1. Vampires can be any class

Unless some artifact is involved, pretty much the only people who can become liches are high-level evil magic users or clerics.  The spellcasting abilities of liches reflect that they were once high-level spellcasters who gained more powers through being undead.  The innate powers of the lich, however, come from their having been spellcasters combined with immortality and some standard undead bonuses (immunity to sleep, cold, etc.).

The Vampire’s powers are derived not from their class in life, but by their vampiric nature.  However the vampiric nature should not override class.  The Vampire entry in B/X assumes the Vampire is a fighter, but we know that anyone can be turned.  The Vampire should retain any class or racial skills in addition to its innate vampiric powers.  Feel free to get creative here.

2. Vampires can travel more easily

Vampires have the advantage that they can engage in their own evildoings on a day to day basis when they can’t trust an underling to perform for them.  Being able to blend into society, more or less, gives them a huge advantage when they might need to go to a populated area to accomplish something (or simply feed).  They might also be able to create trouble for their adversaries, confronting them in person before making a speedy getaway via innate transformation abilities.

As for sunlight, there are two ways to go about it.  You can go the modern vampire route and have sunlight be an impossible obstacle for them, only able to travel during the day while in a coffin or underground/inside.  Or, for a greater threat, go oldschool.  A lot of people forget that Vampires such as Dracula or Varney used to be able to go about during the day.  They paid for this in a loss of supernatural strength and ability, but it allowed them a greater flexibility to go about their scheming.

Liches can, in theory, travel abroad.  However, being a shambling evil corpse-man greatly limits what one can accomplish in polite society. The vulnerability of the lich travelling abroad would likely be an unacceptable risk in any case, barring the scenario that the lich is so advanced in his plans and schemings that he is travelling with his army.  Rather, during most stages of a lich’s plot, he would prefer to use underlings whenever possible, staying cozy in his crypt.

3. Vampires have flexibility of lair

Liches often have devoted an incredible amount of time and resources to the creation of their lair, which is often a crypt, temple or castle built for the sole purpose of housing the lich while he schemes.  Acererak must have spent an inordinate amount of time and power to create the Tomb of Horrors.  It’s a near perfect stronghold for a monster that, more than anything, doesn’t want to be bothered. Most liches aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and campaigns that feature liches as their villains are looking at the tiny slice of a world’s history during which a lich got a hair up his ass and decided to actually flick the first of the million dominos he’d spent centuries setting up.  Vampires, however, are creatures immediate desires of the flesh (Varney, for instance, wanted to be comfortably well-off if he was going to be immortal), and will be a perpetual menace to anyone nearby. And, due to their need to feed, they WILL be nearby.

Vampires may have multiple lairs.  That’s one of their strengths.  Any place they can get a coffin, they have a resting place.  Their powers allow them to bypass most obstacles in any dungeon, and unless there is some powerful intelligent evil, the Vampire will be at the top of the food chain.  Wittingly or not, the monsters within will serve as guards.  Lairs should not be limited to dungeons, either.  Imagine how threatening to the players if they were to find out that the Vampire had a coffin in their hub city?  Maybe even in the Inn they were staying at?  Anywhere a Vampire has a coffin, a Vampire has refuge.  Easier to hunt down and destroy one phylactery than a dozen coffins.

4. Vampires can have a flexible combat package

Liches are spellcasters.  Always will be.  If a lich is confronted, first things that happen are either a call to raise some minions or a use of charm and hold spells to stall for time.  Then, the lich is gonna start rattling off high level spells that will either do massive damage, instantly kill whatever is annoying them, or create some magical plot delay while he escapes.  A lich is never going to get off all of the spells in his spell slots, typically, but they’re there to remind you that he’s a high-level wizard.  He has a melee attack with unimpressive damage, but paralyzes like a ghoul, but with his spells, he’s probably never going to get down to hand to hand combat.

Vampires have a lot more options they can run through during a confrontation.  They have a handful of charms (charm person, sleep, they can use if confronted. Vampires have the option to summon lesser beasts (giant rats, bats, wolves), and will likely do so at the start of combat.  At this point, the Vampire may either jump into the fray himself, or make his escape.  However, if the Vampire is a spellcaster/cleric/elf as well, he can take pot-shots from his spell list while the heroes are bogged down fighting wolves.  If they get through the summoned monsters and/or the Vampire exhausts his spell list, he can use his powers to escape, or he can get involved himself. Vampires are devastating in hand to hand combat.  Like ethereal undead, they possess level drain. Double level drain.  A vampire hits you, you drop two levels like a rock.  Unlike the lich’s paralyze, you don’t get a save for this.  If you’re high enough level to be fighting a Vampire, that’s going to be a LOT of XP to make up for.  A Vampire might aim to take a few levels off clerics or magic users, as they pose the greatest threat to them.  The ability to assume gaseous form at will, combined with regeneration, makes them nearly indestructible in hand to hand combat.

5. Power as a motivation for undeath

Just as evil wizards become liches on a quest for greater power, others might seek out undeath as a means to increase their power.  A fighter desires immortality and strength greater than any mortal.  Dwarven lords become immortal in their underhalls, unhampered by the sun’s rays.  Or a powerful wizard decides that the trade-offs for becoming a vampire seem more advantageous than lichdom; he instantly gains advantages of being a fighter mage with very few of drawbacks of the class limitations.  Even elves, who might simply desire to overcome their racial level cap, could make for truly fierce, unique foes.

If I get time, I’ll roll up a handful of scenarios, including party vs lich, party vs vampire as well as lich vs vampire.

For a bonus, here’s a comparison of the stats of Liches and Vampires across 3 editions.

Looking for Art for Towers of Dream + Campaign Prep!

Well, I’m finally on track to getting Towers of Dream play-tested. I’ve got my first player and we’re looking  to round out the rest of the group. It might not be the best test environment, since I’m incorporating it into a bigger campaign, but it’s better than nothing!

In the meantime, I might be looking for two or three pieces of original artwork for a published version, so if anyone might be interested in that, let me know, and maybe we can work something out.

As for the campaign I’m looking at running, I’ve cobbled together a hodge-podge of OSR modules, created a subway-system style map of how the hubs dungeons/modules are connected in a vague geographic sense, and a flimsy meta-narrative to drive the plot.

In summary, the adventure region was once an ancient, and very evil, elven empire where Necromancy and debauchery were the watchwords of the day. Necromancy seems to be coming back into vogue, a local wizard is thought to have become a lich (he hasn’t), tombs and towers of old elven necromancers seem to be stirring again, and no one really knows why. Turns out, a particularly wicked elf figured out how to surmount OD&D’s level cap: Become a vampire. I figure that as much as I love liches, they’re kind of played out (yeah, I know Vampires are pretty played out, too, but definitely not in high fantasy). Having a 10th level elf become a vampire will definitely pose some unusual challenges and create a truly unique and dangerous foe. I feel that a vampire’s powers make him an even more formidable enemy than a lich, if for no other reason than he can so easily come and go (combine living appearance & charm vs shambling skeleton wizard) and is harder to destroy (unless he’s Voldemort, a lich will have one phylactery, whereas a Vampire may have crates of earth hidden all over the place, especially if he is planning something big.) I might post some more high level vampires later.

So far, what I’m looking at is:
Morgansfort (Basic Fantasy Roleplaying) – as a hub city, plus some nice dungeons to act as time sinks while the enemy puts his plans in motion.
Sigyfel’s Tomb (Labyrinth Lord) – A nice warm-up, I think
Nuromen’s Maze (Blueholme) – See evil + elves + necromancy. I don’t think it’s stated if Nuromen’s an elf, but hey, why not?
Towers of Dream (ME!)
Gibbering Tower (Labyrinth Lord) – A crappy dungeon with no real way to win or worthwhile treasure? Well, that’s because the big bad already hit the place first and found what he wanted!
Merilla’s Magic Tower (BFR Adventure Anthology) – Either the bad guys get some legendary weapons, or the good guys get the means to stop him.
The Zombraire’s Estate (BFR AA) – A fully operating undead plantation totally fits the necromancy theme. (This is probably my favorite mini-adventure from the BFR Anthology)
Deathcrypt of Khaldhun (BFR AA) – High level undead monsters + a high level macguffin? I think this fits.
Night of the Necromancer (BFR AA) – Just need to tweak it so the necromancers in question are subordinate to the big bad.
Crooked Rock Tower (BFR, Fortress, Tomb & Tower) – This one is a maybe. I don’t know how I feel about incorporating the Lizard men, but it’s a cool dungeon that could be played a lot of ways in this setting.