A Dwarf’s Tale

Fiona is a dwarf fighter in our long running (3 years and counting) AD&D campaign. Fiona isn’t the strongest warrior in the gang but she’s definitely the toughest, with 19 CON and ungodly saves and HP. She’s Chaotic Neutral and possessed of a somewhat belligerent, beserker nature, prone to axe heads first and ask questions later. Fiona’s ferocity in battle is balanced somewhat by her artistic side when it comes to her appearance. Aside from making good use out of the precious jewellery liberated from dungeons, she carefully maintains her face with makeup, unguents and oils, and braids her hair with the colourful feathers of fell beasts which have fallen under her axe.

Fiona’s a fabulous fighter, but her sex on the character sheet doesn’t say ‘F’. It’s M, because Fiona is transgender. And she’s amazing, beloved by her comrades and feared by her enemies. She’s the first transgender PC I’ve ever had the pleasure of DMing, but it wasn’t in any way difficult to incorporate her into the game.

How often does the fact of her gender identity come into play? Not so much. In the smaller towns and villages where the party sometimes make their base, she turns a few heads with her flamboyant appearance, but the adventurers as a whole are a ragtag bunch of misfits, and is a dwarf with some feathers and makeup going to freak out more people than the half-orc as strong as an ogre who flies around in full plate, or the wizard in a robe of moving, staring eyes, with a tiny dragon on his shoulder? In fact, Fiona’s managed to bond with village women over hair and fashion tips. Beauty is her weakness in more ways than one, however, and she’s had unfortunate encounters with sexy vampire ladies and succubi which have resulted in loss of life levels. Nowadays she still reacts strongly to encounters with enchantingly beautiful monsters, but is more inclined to reach for her hammer than her lipstick.

Dwarf society in my game world has the Discworld element of strict conformity to one gender role for both sexes. Fiona’s chaotic nature and rejection of tradition may make her an outcast from the more isolated communities of her own kind, but out in the wide world she has no trouble being taken for who she is.

Fiona’s player is a lesbian and an activist for social justice and I point this out because the character has NEVER been used as a soapbox for any kind of political agenda in the game world. In fact, Fiona as a character is irreverent, occasionally vulgar, and as ‘un-PC’ as they come. Sexuality has its place in D&D, but her gender identity is important to her story but not a major focus in the game.

I write this because of the vitriol and hate I witnessed from a certain toxic element of RPG fandom with regard to the AD&D-based CRPG Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, in which a minor NPC can mention to the protagonist that she was raised as a boy, sparking a massive reactionary backlash and mod spamming of bad reviews against a game that apparently ‘shoved SJW LGBT agenda and political correctness down the throats’ of some fragile, bitter souls. Despite as high an authority on Realms lore as Ed Greenwood defending the character’s inclusion, idiots continued to insist that trans characters had no place in the ‘medieval’ world (and D&D’s about as authentically medieval as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, not like was ever intended to be any more so, though), or that sex-changing magic made trans individuals obsolete (just how many girdles are there to go around, really?). These sad individuals look at all the possibilities of a game like D&D and insist that must conform to a particular kind of oppressive hierarchy found in the real world, or they feel threatened. What scares them so much that they try and police the fantastic?

I’m putting Fiona’s story out to demonstrate that I know from experience that anyone who claims that having trans characters in a game somehow spoils D&D is spewing bullshit. And because I’m sure that Fiona isn’t alone out there in many gaming worlds that populate tabletop roleplaying, old or new school, and I want to make queer D&D chars visible on the web for inspiration to anyone who is nervous about playing the character they want.

So that’s Fiona. She’s no one’s political token or fetish. She’s a fabulous fighter and hard-as-nails tank who dreams of find some magic sabatons that let her fight in high heels. Charmer of dusky maidens and slayer of demons. In our last session, she was hurled by a storm giantess onto a polar bear and managed to ride the enraged beast into a throng of enemies. Gods bless you Fiona, whether you find those heels or not, you’ve made your legend.

fifi

This isn’t mine, and I think is meant to represent Cheery Littlebottom from Discworld. Not as many transgender dwarf images online as you’d think.

More LL combat tweaks

I got a lot of positive feedback on social media channels for my weapons rules, although a few commentators highlighted that polearms seemed too powerful. I’m ok with polearms being more effective that most other weapons in combat, but that should only be part of their value. Rather than reduce their combat stats, I’ve an eye to make their drawbacks apparent to players via their greater encumbrance, expense and vulnerability of the wooden haft as opposed to swords which will have better item saving throws.

Moving on from the weapons, what about the adventurers who will be using them?

beautiful-manuscript-image

Cleric chants from a safe distance. Smart.

I like a good scrap in an RPG as much as anyone, but I like D&D combat fast and deadly, so I’m inclined to use the default LL hit die (i.e. as in BX D&D, d4 for thieves, d6 for clerics, d8 for fighters) as it helps curb HP bloat at higher levels. Rather than using attack tables, I’ll also be using the target 20 algorithm a la Delta. I’m already doing this in my AD&D campaign and it does wonders for speeding up combat encounters, especially when there are a lot of agents.

d20+HD+AC ≥ 20

Monsters and fighters use their full HD or level. Thieves and Clerics add 1/2 their level (Clerics round up, thieves round down), magic users use 1/3 of their level (round down). Target 20 has proven very satisfactory so far for combat, but I’m not convinced about using it for saving throws or thief skills.

I’m also changing up multiple attacks for high level fighters. Fighters will get 2 attacks/round at level 10, 3/round at lvl 20. This eliminates the awkward phase of 3/2 rounds that players often seem to mentally trip over, and moves one of the big power gains of the fighter down to a level which is more likely to be achieved in play.

I’m not using proficiency points in general, but I’m toying with a weapon specialisation system for fighter classes only, along the lines of fighter get points equal to half their level to assign to weapons (max 3 pts), each point granting a +1 to hit with that weapon. This allows players to play out their character for a while and get a feel for the weapons they want before locking in on their favourites, and doesn’t unbalance or front-load fighters too much like the Unearthed Arcana rules do.

Under consideration: Fighter subclasses such as Ranger and Paladin. Not sure whether they should benefit from the 2 attacks or weapon spec. Maybe have the 2 attacks moved up to 15th level and limit them to just 2 points in any weapon (round down when calculating points).

Advancing Weapons for Labyrinth Lord

In my last post on the topic, I mentioned how I was keen on the Labyrinth Lord ruleset for a future campaign, but there were a few things about it that irked me. One of those was the rules for weapons. Weapons are a bit of a problem point (or edge, or flange) for D&D and related games in general. A lot of this has to do with where you land on abstraction vs simulationism. Simple, abstract rules such as ‘all weapons do the same damage’ or ‘weapon damage = class HD’ keep weapon choice largely cosmetic and don’t bog down combat with too many variables. Full-fat AD&D, with its Weapons vs Armor Class tables and speed factors for every weapon, succeeds in distinguishing weapons mechanically but slow-down and over-complicate combat with a lot of table lookups and number crunching.

In Dungeons and Dragons, different classes are allowed to use different weapons, with one of the privileges of the Fighter class being their unrestricted weapon access. Assuming this, whatever weapon rules are used will end up affecting the power balance between classes, likely that of Fighters most of all.

I like D&D combat to be fast, deadly and easy to understand. For a while, I was sure class-based damage was the way to go. Now I’m leaning more towards a more complex system. This is mainly for two reasons.

  1. Watching HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) channels on youtube and increased acquaintance with the size, shape and weight of medieval weaponry has ramped up my enthusiasm for detail regarding these weapons and their relative advantages and disadvantages in use.
  2. I want the class selection of weapons to be meaningful, and in the case of fighter-types, the choice of which weapons to equip themselves with to be a meaningful tactical choice and appreciable benefit of the class.
  3. I wanted players do be able to quickly add up their damage rolls + modifiers, and to streamline the mental arithmetic, I wanted just 1 dice for damage rolls (e.g. no 2d4 damage, no d6+1 damage).

 

poorsod

Working with these goals in mind, here’s what I came up with:

Swords

Generally the most popular weapon in D&D, swords come in wide variety of shapes and sizes, and generally excel at being all purpose damage dealers. The longsword was tweaked to let it be used one or two handed and made interchangable with bastard sword, as far as D&D terminology is concerned. 2H sword has the highest damage around to compensate for lack of shield use, and the fact that I don’t use AD&D’s damage vs large rules. Also it gives the d12 some exercise.

Short Sword – d6

Broad Sword/Scimitar/Falchion/Arming Sword – d8

Long or ‘bastard’ sword – d8/d10 if used 2 handed

2 handed Sword – d12

Axes

I used a watered down version of AD&D’s WvsAC rules to highlight the armour penetration factor of axes versus many of the less advanced armour types. This makes the axe a very desirable type of weapon versus a common D&D enemy- low hit dice humanoids. Also good against beasts with leathery or scaly skin. The tomahawk or frankish style hand axe can be hurled. Most medieval battle axes I’ve seen seem to be optimised for 2-handed use, but could probably also be used, albeit less effectively, in combination with a shield.

All axes gain +2 to hit vs light armour (up to chain mail)

Hand axe – d6, can be hurled (hurled weapons gain both Str and Dex bonuses)

Battle axe – d6/d8 if used 2 handed

Maces, Morning Stars and Warhammers

I feel that maces and warhammers effectively fulfil  the same role – they’re percussive weapons designed to take down heavily armoured opponents. Morning stars are effectively a spiky mace. Flails, I think, can also be subsumed into this group. To this end they have a bonus that makes them useful against elite enemy characters and things like chitinous monsters.

All maces and warhammers get +2 to hit against heavy armour (banded/splint/plate mail or better)

Mace, Morning Star or Warhammer – d6

2H version- d8

Spears

Spears were the ubiquitous military weapon of the middle ages. For low-level adventurers and their henchmen, getting in that first hit can be the difference between life and death. Javelins are primarily missile weapons, they can be used as a 1H d6 damage weapon but do not get the reach advantage of melee spear.

Reach – Spear wielder automatically strikes first in the first round of combat vs any single opponent, and deals double damage if the opponent was charging. This is negated vs another weapon of similar length.

Spear – d6/d8 if used 2H

Javelin – d6, can be hurled.

Daggers

The last ditch defence option for magic users and the archetypal weapon of thieves and assassins, the dagger is easily concealable and great for a sneak attack. It can be hurled in a pinch, but only specially made throwing weapons can be used effectively thus. Throwing daggers are not available to magic-users.

Dagger – d4, +2 to hit when used in backstab or assassination, can be hurled at -2 penalty.

Throwing daggers – d4

Polearms

Gary Gygax’s polearm is well-documented, but for our purposes polearms such as halberds, pollaxes, guisarmes, bec-de-corbins and the like are lumped together. The main strength of polearms are their reach and versatility – it pierces, it slashes, it bashes! Reach, high damage and armour penetration are enjoyed by the polearm wielder.

Reach as spear. Armour penetration as both axe and mace. 2H required.

Polearm – d10

Wooden Weapons

For the poor or desperate.

Club – d4

2H Quarterstaff – d6

Bows

Labyrinth Lord gives longbows a higher damage die, which I like. No changes to these except to note that I would allow two arrows/round if the user does not also move.

Short Bow – d6

Long Bow – d8

Crossbows

Crossbows user cannot move and fire, but they can pre-load a bolt to be loosed before initiative is rolled for the first round of combat. In addition, the crossbow can be fired straight ahead from a prone or crouching position.

Hand Crossbow – d4, extremely rare except for drow and assassins

Light Crossbow – d6

Heavy Crossbow – d8, +2 to hit vs metal armour.

Slings

Same as bows, can be fired twice/round if user doesn’t move. Handy for adventurers on long journeys away from civilisation, as they can collect rocks to re-stock their ammunition.

Sling – d4

Darts

Effectively smaller, lighter javelins. Portable and used as hurled weapons only. Longer range than throwing daggers.

Dart – d4

Weapon Restrictions

Fighter (and subclasses) – Any

Cleric – mace, morningstar, warhammer, sling, staff, club

Druid – short sword, spear, sling, staff, club, dagger (melee only)

Thief – short sword, 1H sword, dagger, club, staff, light crossbow, short bow, sling, hand axe

Assassin – any

Magic user (and subclasses) – staff, dagger (melee only)

I think these class restrictions combined with the weapon rules work to keep the fighter and assassin on top when it comes fighting power but still gives the other classes some options to choose from. (except for poor MUs but nevermind).

The warrior equipping himself will have to weigh up weapon advantages versus inventory space and what kind of foe he or she thinks the party will face.

My thief list is somewhat expanded because I see the ‘adventuring thief’ as not necessarily limited to urban gang weapons. The AD&D’s Druid’s scimitar was intended to be a sickle like device used to harvest plants, but I don’t see that as being optimised for combat in a way a scimitar would be, but I can see them having smaller blades for self defence, hence the short sword.

I’d love to hear opinions on this, especially from anyone with experience in HEMA or designing custom OSR weapon rules. So far in playtesting with an AD&D group it’s working out well. Does anyone think I’ve made any serious blunders in the weapon attributes?

Orxit and its impact on the Borderlands

Resemblances to events on Earth or the famous TSR basic module are purely unintended coincidences from the random sentence generator.

On Darkmoon, twenty-third day of the month of Baghtru, Breaker of Bones, the Orcish tribes held their moot and voted to leave the Evil Union, throwing the Caves of Chaos into political and financial turmoil. As the humanoid factions erupt into tense political negotiations and tribal infighting, the long term consequences of Orxit, or ‘Orcish Exit’, for the orcs, the Caves of Chaos, and the wider Borderlands region remain unclear. We sent a team of bold adventurers to the Caves of Chaos to report on the situation.

The Union of Evil Humanoids, known for commonly as the Evil Union or EU, was born in the bloody aftermath of the War of a Thousand Spears, a conflict so devastating that even the traditionally bellicose and chaotic humanoid tribes agreed for the need for a unifying organisation that would so closely tie the various factions of the Caves together politically and economically as to ensure the survival and co-operation of all tribes in the future. Although represented by all the humanoid tribes (Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Gnolls and Bugbears), an important council of largely human Evil High Priests collect tribute into a common pool for all the tribes and set the agenda for the Union, issuing directives aimed at maintaining a common standard throughout the formerly warring clans. These directives, including regulations on weapons and armour manufacturing, allocation of slaves, distribution of loot and educational reforms encouraging proficiency in the Chaotic alignment tongue, have all improved the prosperity and security of the Caves of Chaos. But the orcs, a greatly diminished people but once the most powerful and far-ranging humanoid nation in terms of territory and slaves, have often chafed at the demands of what they see as a faceless bureaucracy of elites in service to a globalist pantheon of the Dark Gods of Suffering and Mayhem, including, crucially, the right of different humanoids to join different tribes and live and dwell throughout the caverns, including those traditionally held exclusively by orcs.

Namerok Pig-Sticker, Warchief of the Evil Eye

Namerok Pig-Sticker, Warchief of the Evil Eye

Namerok the Pig-Sticker, cocky chieftain of the Evil Eye tribe, had ruled the orcs through cruelty and intimidation for many years, and was no stranger to scapegoating the EU and blaming an influx of weaker humanoids into orcish territory to distract from his failings as a despot. Although not noted for his wisdom, Namerok was endowed with that low cunning and instinct for self-preservation endemic to the orcish ruling classes, and he knew that if the orcs had to fight alongside the other humanoids if they were to have any chance of maintaining their standing in the Borderlands. tired of repeating anti-HU grumblings from the elite warriors of his clan, promised his people a referendum on EU membership in order to head off a potential  rebellion from certain ambitious sub-chiefs. Namerok warned his people of the disaster that awaited them if their raids would not be supported by the bugbears and ogres, but his speeches fell on deaf ears as 52% of his warriors voted to leave the EU. But when the time came for him make the journey to the depths of the Evil Temple and deliver the verdict of his tribes to the priests, the previously arrogant chief instead announced his abdication of the skull throne, saying that he was going to retire from tribal leadership to spend more time with his favourite war-boar.

This decision has angered the Chaotic priesthood, who demand that the Black Rites of Secession be implemented by an orcish leader as soon as possible to avoid any confusion. The cabal, in unison with the other tribal chieftains, have made it clear that the orcs will be punished harshly for their insolence, so as to discourage other secession movements in the other clans. ‘It is of the utmost importance that the warlord of the orcs descends into the temple, takes the up the Jagged Shard of U’Zhul, and spills his blood over the purple-veined altar to Tharizdun to begin the long and torturous ritual of depature,’ said Yunkarr, Canon of the Crawling Chaos. During a passionate public address in the lower caves, flanked by his legion of undead servitors, the spokesperson of the EU lowered his death-mask for the first time in years to reveal his piercing, violet-tinged eyes, sunken into sallow skin, ‘The dark power that binds us in unity and prosperity does not brook shirkers or apostates. Our Unholy Union will grow ever stronger once the weak are purged from our ranks.’

The referendum itself exposed a deeply divided orcish society, with tendencies to vote leave or remain according to status, treasure type, age, alignment, hit die, and %In Lair. Dressed in fashionable scale armour and sipping artesanal goblin fungus brew from a gnome skull, the young orc warrior Ghorak the Iron Claw stands in for the typical cosmopolitan Remain voter. His long black hair is tied in a topknot and his arms ritually scarred with chaotic pictograms. As he speaks he fidgets with an arm-ring, gifted to him by the Hobgoblin chief after his term of service as a bodyguard in an inter-tribal exchange program, ‘This is shocking, I just can’t believe it. I speak Orcish, Goblin, Hobgoblin, Ogre, Common and Gnoll, and I’m learning Bugbear. I’ve stood side to side with gnoll archers and bugbear ambushers against our pink-skinned enemies and seen them flee before our combined might. We are stronger together. Some of my best friends are half-ogres or half-human. Some of them are even multi-classed. I feel more giant-class humanoid than orcish. It’s the older generation, stuck in the delusions of the orcish empire, that don’t understand the modern world’. Ghorak settled in the hobgoblin caverns and took a priestess of chaos for his mate. He worries that the increasing hostility between the orcs and the EU will leave him unwelcome in his adopted home and deny his half-orc son access to his heritage when he matures in 12 years.

The orcs are also split among inter-tribal lines, with the Vile Rune tribe, vassals of Namerok’s Evil Eye, overwhelming voting to remain in the EU. N’kholah, head shaman of the Vile Rune, has threatened to declare independence from the horde and is rumoured to be in negotiation with the chaos priests and other humanoid clans to secure their future in the EU. The warriors of the Vile Rune, noted for their raucous lifestyle, tartan kilts and claymore swords, are feared troops and an asset to the armies of the Caves of Chaos, but their efforts to become independent and remain in the EU have met with opposition from Yojar the Goblin King, who fears that his own vassal tribes would be inspired to break away from his rule.

Urgok the Beard-Burner is of the older generation, a retired blacksmith, bemoans what he sees as the excessive regulation of the EU cabal, ‘Used ter be nuffink wrong good old fashioned orky choppas. Made em the same way my grandad did when we conquered the humie hill tribes and looted the lizardmen. Now the EU says every axe got’s ter haf a hooky beard on t’end, and scimitar gotter haf da curve on’t just so. Nah we gots ter life with da gobbos and bugbears in our caves? In t’good old days, gobbo in an orc cave was a slave or snack. You knew where you stood! Nah dey warboys, miners, smiths? Dey work for half da gold bits and a bowl of pigswill, da sneaky gits’.

The racial animosity of Urgok and those like him found a voice in Nerghaal Tharaj, elite warrior and leader of the Orcish Independence sub-faction. Tharaj argued against the EU on the grounds of orcish supremacy despite his particularly vile visage betraying his own trollish ancestry. But despite the referendum result, all has not gone smoothly for this sub-chief. Once his side had won, a detect lie spell from an inquisitive shaman revealed that the Leave faction had no intention of honouring one of their main promises, that the 350,000 gold tribute that the orcs handed over to the chaos priests would be used instead to buy healing potions for orcish foot soldiers. Instead, those orcs on his side with the highest HD and armor class intended to pocket it for themselves. Likewise, the claim that they could eject humanoid migrants from the orc caves and still retain access to the minotaur and skeleton troops has been firmly dismissed by Murkhaal, Matriarch of the Bugbear Clans. Likewise, their claim that they would make greater alliances with more distant factions, such as the norkers and lizard men, have been met with caution and ambivalence. The reptilian humanoids prefer to deal with the greater treasure and access to magic that the EU possesses, and have not seen an orcish chieftain emerge with sufficient charisma to inspire their trust.

Tharaj, like Namerok, has chosen this moment of confusion to back down from authority and flee to the shadows, claiming no desire to sit on the Namerok’s throne of skulls. Likewise, the loudest and strongest sub-chiefs that backed Leave have slunk away. Chaos and bloodshed reign in the orcish caves as the sub-factions fight amongst themselves and lash out against the weaker humanoids in their ranks. Backstabbings occur with such frequency that the Grandfather of Assassins has had to issue a statement from his hidden fastness, clarifying that his organisation has had no involvement in the dispute. To date, no leader has emerged with the courage to descend into the Lower Temple and sacrifice his life to secure the secession of the orcs from their dark pact, nor have the Remainers a champion with the strength of will to restore order to the warring tribes and affirm their pledge to Chaos and the cause of humanoids everywhere.

Upon their return to the Keep, our adventurers report that there has never been a safer time for humans, elves and dwarves to raid the orc caverns and take advantage of their weakness, but warned future parties that their treasure is few, and that their warriors are worth less experience than the pre-orxit times.

 

Liking Labyrinth Lord

The last few months I managed to find some time alongside my long-running AD&D campaign to start playing Labyrinth Lord with a small group, using the free PDFs. It went well enough to get me really excited about switching over to LL core rules (with the Advanced Edition Companion) for my next long term campaign, so I ordered hard copies.  I own the B/X box set and I was already thing of importing B/X elements into AD&D, but having the Labyrinth Lord books as base makes that much easier, especially now that I have the books on the table as a player reference. I still see the game as D&D, whether you’re playing an official D&D product, Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, Pathfinder or whatever. D&D is a genre, not a specific ruleset.

Going forward, here’s what won me over to Labyrinth Lord:

  1. B/X style attribute system strikes me as much more elegant and balanced than AD&D’s, and gives more of an impact to attributes in the 10-15 and doing away with the tacked-on subsystem of exceptional strength.
  2. Most importantly, the books emulate Moldvay’s clear and concise writing style and logical layout, making reading through them and looking up rules much easier on the eyes and head.
  3. Simpler and clearer initiative rules.
  4. More balanced demi-humans, with options to use them with classes or race-as-class.
  5. System is built with plenty of options to turn the dial up to be more like AD&D, or down to B/X style.
  6. All the options of core AD&D, no Unearthed Arcana style classes with their own clunky unique subsystems.
  7. Generally trims the fat and presents a version of D&D that cleaves more to actual play, where some of the fiddlier or less clear aspects of the advanced game go discarded or house-ruled.
  8. LL comes with less ‘baggage’ than D&D, and the players will have fewer ‘BTB D&D’ expectations.
  9. Pretty cool illustrations that reminded me of punk/metal posters and zines.

Some not so nice things to say about LL:

  1. Could’ve done with some more proofreading, in some cases there’s a typo or omission in something that could seriously affect gameplay. For example, Confusion has no save to negate. Other stuff is more minor, like warhammers needing 2 hands to use, or having 2 Monster Summoning VI spells. This isn’t so bad for the experienced DM but is disappointing for a book that otherwise was so good as to inspire me to make it the main rules doc at the table.
  2. I would have loved to buy a compiled hard copy version with the core rules and advanced rules together, to avoid redundancy and make it easier to reference. Goblinoid Games’s rather quiet forums attest to a demand for it, but there’s no clear indications that it’ll happen anytime soon.
  3. LL would be my ideal ‘players handbook’ if it cut out the monster stats and cursed items. I like the players to be able to look up all the information they need to run their characters, including how their items work, but it’s kind of annoying that they can check out all the monster details in the same book.
  4. The seams show up a bit when Advanced Edition Companion introduces 9 point alignment, but none of the monsters or items from the first book are accounted for.

However, my AD&D books will still see use at the table:

  1. I love my 1E DMG in all it’s high Gygaxian genius and mess, and I can’t imagine retiring it. It’ll always be by my side and used liberally.
  2.  Use of AD&D Monster Manuals will keep players on their toes, even if they study the monsters in the LL books.
  3. Some Unearthed Arcana spells and items may find their way in to the campaign. I’ve always had a soft spot at least for the ritual magic from the Demonomicon.

 

Things I want to tinker with:

  1. Combat…getting rid of ‘to hit’ tables and replacing it with a quick algorithm, probably based on Delta’s system.
  2. Weapons. I want weapon choice to mean more than it does in LL without getting into the over-complicated and not very sensible Weapon vs AC modifiers of AD&D.
  3. Fighters. I think they’re badass but since we won’t be having exceptional strength or weapon specialisation, I do want to work on them a little to give them some mechanical tweaks for expressing their badassery, but don’t slow down or over-complicated combat.
  4. Encumbrance and equipment. I feel like a want an alternative system, maybe slot based. Something that’ll get the resource management point of encumbrance across without too much fiddly book-keeping.

 

 

 

A farewell to Returns to the Temple of Elemental Evil

Last month was a milestone for my AD&D gaming group, as they defeated my latest version of the TSR classic supermodule, Temple of Elemental Evil. It’s the second time I’ve run the module and the first time my players have completed it ‘successfully’, which I judge as destroying the evil artefact, defeating the imprisoned demon lord, and making off with a heap of treasure. Two  of the triumphant PCs (human magic-user and dwarf cleric/thief) had come a long way from their generation as first level characters (for 1st time AD&D players) at the beginning of the campaign. Those less fortunate had perished, some less confident about their chances had retired, and of course other adventurers joined along the way. This ToEE lasted 2 years of game time. The module is far from perfect but you can get a hell of a lot of mileage out of it. 2 settlements, a starter dungeon, a 4-level megadungeon, planar travel, minor deities, and a host of NPCs and interesting items. For me, it’s a great foundation for a mini-setting. I never used Greyhawk used the Temple to springboard my own world-building, adding additional locations, NPCs and side-quests, more or less confident that the mystery of the Temple and its multiple levels would keep the players focus on the started area and get them invested in the world while I fleshed out it’s surroundings. It’s a bonus that the module was designed to provide enough treasure and enemies to level a party to around the 8th level, a perfect time for them to leave the dungeon and venture out into the wilderness to carve out territory for their strongholds, as encouraged by Gygax in the 1e core books.

I first ran ToEE more or less BTB, but the PCs never ventured into the nodes or the secret level. Once they had beaten the evil cult leaders and recovered the Golden Skull, it seemed enough to them that the thing should be removed far from its missing gems, and they pursued other interests that eventually took them to distant lands, never to return to Hommlet or its environs.  For my second ToEE campaign, aware that one of my players had played through the module many years ago, and that others owned the 3e-based videogame, Many events from the first campaign were incorporated as legacy elements in the new one, I added more background and locations, and replaced some of the original ‘surprises’ (illusionary vampire/paladin, Zuggytmoy, shopkeeper assassins), and re-fitted the lower levels with more demonic and elemental elements, replacing the nodes with side-adventures into the elemental planes themselves. This made the module harder than by the book, but with the additional resources from their sidequests, my current group of players still have the honour of ‘beating’ the Temple. Well before this part of the campaign was over, I was halfway through a 3rd revamping of the Temple for a future group, and I realised it was becoming very much its own beast, very different from the pages of T1-4, and perhaps it was time to cut the cord that tied it to the original.

Now as the AD&D campaign progresses, I’ve become more and more tempted after much perusal of the Basic/Expert Ruleset kindly gifted to me by one of the players (he found the English boxed set in a German flea market) to move further away from BTB and do some streamlining in a B/X direction. I’m very keen to give (Advanced) Labyrinth Lord a try, especially with how its character creation/progression and attribute bonuses appear to me to combine the best elements of Basic and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve got a serious itch to start new campaigns with LL rules (at least for players, even if they have the LL pdfs I can still pull surprises out of my 1e rulebooks), but it’s also time to say goodbye to Temple of Elemental Evil  to make room for more low-level adventuring locations. Version 3 might come into play some years on, but for now, I’d just like to pay tribute to the classic module and the great players who’ve braved its darkness, with a record of memories from my Temple campaigns.

Round 1

New party’s first encounter is with the comely face of a widow who hails them from the window of her house. Unsure of how to respond to this, the party falls into confusion and discussion- 15 minutes later, one of them formulates a response, but she is long gone. It’s an easy nerd gag, but there were few monster encounters in the following adventures that terrified the PCs more than talking to an attractive woman.

My last post on romance in the game world references this campaign, in which a PC won the heart of Elmo the uber-henchman and formed a relationship which persists in sucessive campaigns and game worlds, and a random comeliness roll for an NPC sparked a dangerous rivalry between two players.

The short but memorable career of Tuk, an Unearthed Arcana style barbarian, strong of body and short of patience. Tuk’s player took the barb’s suspicion of magic very seriously, and at one point discovered a reasonably powerful magic weapon early on the game, only to keep its existence a secret from the party. But his distrust of magic would be somewhat justified on the first dungeon level of the Temple, as he was fatally struck by a javelin of lightning. The party raised him after quite a hefty donation to the church of St. Cuthbert, but convinced him that he had only been stunned by the bolt, knowing full well that Tuk would rather die a thousand deaths than owe his life to vile magic. It would take the most mighty of magics to bring this barbarian to his end, however, as, upon drawing what must be the most unlucky hand possible from the Deck of Many Things, his soul was ripped from his body and cast into the void, while his body banished to a donjon somewhere in the Nine Hells. Tuk’s spirit (bound to a magic weapon), and his body (occupied by a new spirit), have since been encountered by adventurers in separate campaign worlds.

Squid, the amoral thief who made himself rather unpopular in Hommlet after trying to pick too many pockets at the Inn of the Welcome Wench, in particular that of fellow thief Furnok of Furd. He didn’t even make many friends among his own party members, fleeing a crucial battle and refusing to stick around to stabilise his allies when they were downed and critically wounded. The cowardly crook eventually made his home in the pirate town of Nulb, which was more tolerant of a man of his disposition, even shacking up with a local girl there. Squid had a strange approach to overcoming his fears, getting a tattoo of every monsters that had ever seriously injured him. A large grotesque rendition of a giant tick was his favourite piece. A colourful character in life, he was undistinguished in death. I can’t even remember what killed him.

Round 2

Players tackle the moathouse ghoul crypts by pouring oil down the well, throwing down corpses to lure the ghouls and then setting the crypts ablaze. A fantastic way to neutralise a terrifying low-level encounter.

One side adventure had the PCs sneaking into a wizard tower to rescue a hostage, they were discovered and in the eventual bloodbath everyone involved was dead, or dying or unconscious save for Xariarch, the party’s magic-user, and the evil NPC wizard. Both magic-users had exhausted their spells, so they would either have to come to terms or blows. The evil sorcerer had an ace up his sleeve in the form of an imp familiar, but the PC mage was possessed of a +2 dagger and more than his fair share of luck, and so the final round of the battle, two nerdy academics in star-spangled dresses grappled, punched, and stabbed each other until Xariarch came out victorious in his first hand-to-hand duel. He was as proud of this as any of his magical accomplishments, and there was much lamentation from his player when, later in the campaign, his dagger was melted by the energy attack of a Xag-Ya.

The presence of a pair of orcish prisoners in the Temple dungeons was used as an introduction for 2 new PCs, both half-orcs. One, a fighter-assassin named Gnolltwister, the other a strong bruiser of a fighter named Thuragh. Gnolltwister had a brief career which saw the beginnings of a sinister plan to murder prominent good NPCs in the area, but he was cut short by a bad draw on the Deck of Many Things. Thuragh, however, survived and became the party’s main melee fighter, and has been much changed by his life among humankind, having converted to good alignment and worship of the Norse gods, he adventures on in the Land of Ice and Fire.

Since Thuragh recruited another half-orc fighter henchman and the party has also hired a semi-retired former PC half-orc to adventure with them, it seems to me that this game is almost lousy with half-orcs, despite having very few orcs appear in play. Unusual as it is, this suits me fine, since I think half-orcs need some love. Murnol Rapak, a Lawful Good dervish-inspired warrior-priest of a Mesopotamian fire god, initially sought the destruction of the ‘heretics’ of the fire elemental temple, now seeks to revive the faith of Girru, his mostly forgotten and obscure deity.

Divine backing was provided by Aygarr Grimdeep, a cleric/thief, follower of Vergedain, god of luck and wealth. A fantastic patron deity for a party of old school adventurers, as the acquisition of wealth was sacred in itself to his faith. His greed often landed the party in trouble, however, as he strictly opposed spending money or gems to bargain with monsters or hire henchmen. At one point he even used a wish spell granted by a Talisman of Zagyg to wish for a chamber full of gold back in his ancestral home, a place that has yet to feature in the campaign. Late into the campaign he used a gate scroll so summon Straasha, Lord of Water Elementals (Elric mythos in Deities and Demigods), to aid in a battle, and earned the favour of the elemental prince by having the consideration to cast a humble cure light wounds on the powerful entity’s manifestation.

Fiona, the first transgender character I’ve seen in a D&D game not under some kind of curse, is one of the long term characters who survived the Temple. A female dwarf trapped in biologically male body, she struggles to express her femininity while indulging her rather unladylike appetite for bloodshed and mayhem. Is supremely excited whenever the opportunity to loot perfumes, unguents and fabrics present themselves, although she is not particularly skilled in their application. Despite her female identification, Fiona is a sucker for a hot babe, and has more than once come out a few levels short due to unfortunate encounters with succubi and sexy vampires.

My version of the 3rd level of the Temple had a succubus inside a secret room, disguised as a ‘sleeping beauty’ lady that could be awakened from her curse by a kiss. She weakened the PCs before gating in a type IV demon which chased them out of the dungeon. Then she escaped to the surface to plague the party as a subtle but vicious recurring antagonist. Cynthia the succubus played many dirty tricks on the players via impersonation, manipulating NPCs against them, picking on their henchmen or allies when the main characters were on an expedition or sabotaging their efforts from a distance. But she wasn’t afraid to get up close and personal. My girlfriend, who was trying D&D for the first time, had her half-elf wake up while Cynthia was riding her during the night (which would have resulted in level drain). She didn’t quite realise the peril of the situation enough to put up much of a fight but fortunate intervention from the other PCs saved her soul. Cynthia was eventually vanquished from this plane while attempting to disrupt a ritual to banish a demon lord who had been imprisoned in the temple. At first it seemed like she had charmed the key players into giving her control of the greater, but then she was entangled by a critical hit from a harpoon thrown by Thuragh, and dragged to the ground. The chamber they were in was enchanted to prevent extradimensional travel, so she could not escape easily. To add insult to injury, Xariarch the mage had managed to charm her at the last minute. While some considered that a bound, charmed succubus would be worth taking home to enjoy with the rest of the treasure, Fiona cut the poor demonette down in a bezerk fury, claiming vengeance for those treacherous kisses.

Thanks for the memories, ToEE, of which these are just a few. Thanks for spawning the ever-changing evil temple megadungeon in my mind. It might never become ‘perfect’ but many adventurers will have a great time playing through its evolution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love is in the air, save vs. poison gas

I’m not really one for Valentines Day, but Dyson Logos’ adorable heart dungeon got me thinking about writing something in the spirit of the occasion. I’ve always thought that love and sexuality sit rather uncomfortably with D&D. Usually it appears in the context of certain monsters – succubi, nymphs, dryads, neirids. In this respect, D&D has a puritanical attitude towards sex similar to the horror film – sex is death, indulging your lust leads to your doom. While not necessarily evil, all these female-appearing monsters are dangerous because of their ability to seduce, but mythological monsters that incorporated male sexual aggression, such as centaurs and satyrs, appear to be lacking any kind of sexual threat. This is perhaps because of an assumed male perspective, or maybe just because the details would be quite distasteful (unlike the succubi and co, these beast-men are not seductive, mind-controlling monsters).

snaketits

credit to oglaf.com

In the 1e DMG, love and sex appear, but, like the allure of the succubus, largely as a magic effect. The philtre of love is a classic fairytale love potion which could have interesting gameplay consequences. My players in my current campaign used one to reconcile a separated storm giant couple at the behest of the estranged wife, but I’ve never seen a PC use one to snag a lover for themselves. Satyrisis, nymphomania, sex change and losing interest in sex are all potential curse effects from artifacts. And then of course there’s the infamous harlot city encounter table. No mechanics as to what might happen when this encounter actually comes up. Nonetheless, for these curses and encounters to actually be meaningful in the game, the lovelives of D&D characters must have been assumed  to be going on, and also to be important enough to the players that they would feel the sting of being hit by one of these curses, or interested in a harlot encounter. Some modules encouraged romantic engagements with PCs and NPCs. Scourge of the Slave Lords presented opportunities for romantic dalliances at a festival in Safeton before the main plot of the campaign kicked off. Throne of Bloodstone, which sets up high-level PCs for military campaigning and domain rulership, suggests marriage with particular NPCs, one of which stands to inherit significant territory. This is the level where I think that romance for D&D PCs can get most interesting – dynastic feuds and marriage alliances were at the centre of a lot of intrigue and conflict in the medieval period, and the PCs will be at a level where they likely have more than their fair share of magic and money, but their legacy is still something to fight for.

Still, while all this is hinted at, there’s no crunch to support it mechanically, so the DM who finds themes of love crop up in his murderhobo game just has to wing it. Games which focus more on politicking or interactive storytelling have systems in place to game-ify romance and sexual relationships when these things are important in the game’s themes. The actual act of sex is usually not covered in detail (for the best I think, that way lies FATAL and other cringe-fests). If you’re lucky enough to have erotic fantasy roleplay group sessions, involving hit points and percentile rolls is probably overcomplicating it. Dungeons and Dragons isn’t really about that, and I never set out to include sex and romance in my games, I’ve found that they tend to turn up anyway, usually arising organically from the players, and generally with positive results for the gaming experience. Given how lightly the topic is covered by the rules, I thought I’d share some stories about how love and sex has cropped up so far in my D&D games.

credit to oglaf.com

credit to oglaf.com

My first running of PC-NPC ‘romance’ was when I was DMing a Temple of Elemental Evil campaign. Facing a TPK in the moathouse at the hands of Lareth and bodyguard after all the other party members were bleeding out or had fled, the elf magic-user/thief ‘Raven’ (played by a male, I might add) made an heartfelt appeal to stand their ground to Elmo (lvl5 NPC ranger who had joined as a hired hand), just as I was making a morale roll to see whether he would break. Her charisma and good hearted nature as well as good roleplaying from her player modified the roll and won Elmo over, and he and Raven fought to victory against the odds. This event ended up being something of a meet-cute for these two, as they became fire-forged friends and more. As a DM I was impressed by the amount of effort Raven’s player put into the relationship, including shelling out a lot of money to resurrect the poor ranger after he failed his System Shock roll against a wand of polymorph. Raven took care to impress Elmo’s parents and even bought a house in Hommlet so that they could live close to his family. Sadly our elf’s ambitions of domestic bliss were disrupted when Elmo was kidnapped while out on a solo adventure (I don’t like long-running DMPCs, and Elmo’s stats were so good he outshined the main characters at times, I felt he was better served as a macguffin for the next adventure locale). I have to admit, at first I was reluctant to encourage the relationship, feeling that it might distract from the dungeoncrawl and sideline other players, but to my surprise the other players and their characters were supportive. And clearly the player was getting something genuinely satisfying  out of roleplaying a woman in love. As a tribute to this romance, when I have run latter incarnations of ToEE, the local ranger hireling can be found meeting in the woods with his elf lover, if the players stalk him well enough.

In the same ToEE campaign there was a great example of how a good random roll can add to the game. I was playing with the rules from the Unearthed Arcana book, which added a comeliness attribute to determine a character’s physical attractiveness. Characters with high comeliness scores were able to fascinate those of the opposite sex (although I, and I guess other non-homophobic DMs, applied it to anyone of the relevant sexual orientation). Whenever my players took an interest in the appearance of a certain NPC, I rolled for their score with racial and charisma modifiers as if they were PCs. A natural 18 on the dice plus racial bonus transformed Otis’s henchwoman Murfles into a figure of unearthly beauty. The party’s illusionist and druid became infatuated with her and began competing for her affection. Despite the lovely elf’s indifference, this rivalry culminated with a blow-out display of magics from both characters after a very messy celebration at the inn of the Welcome Wench.  Murfles the elf, however, remained indifferent to and somewhat embarrassed by the attentions of these lovesick spellcasters. No wonder the she kept up her disguise as an old crone whenever she could!

dragrish2k

In my current 1e campaign, romance has not been featured so much. At times I employ a ‘carousing table’ to determine any interesting effects from partying, and one result from a revel in a djinni palace on the elemental plane of air meant that the party wizard snagged the affections of a slyph. Since such creatures are long lived and time passes differently on the planes, I guessed that casual dalliances with mortal planar travellers would be enjoyed but that the female elemental would not get too attached or pursue any serious commitment. But, it did mean that the wizard can call that specific slyph for aid or just company in the future, though a modified conjure elemental spell. Aside from that, one of the fighters has hinted at a slow-burning sexual tension with his henchwoman.

Once as a player, when describing my character’s background, I made an offhand remark about my wizard having having won marriage to a pirate captain in a drunken card game and needing money to pay her off after a divorce. This was intended as a humorous excuse to justify his dungeon looting, but as it turned out, the early campaign was a city-based affair, heavy on intrigue, swashbuckling and cloak-and-dagger politicking, and the main antagonist (a beautiful, manipulative leader of a thieves guild) was presented as my character’s ex. What would have been a rather straightforward enmity was complicated by my character’s personal relationship with the BBEG. He realised that his ex was mixed up in some dangerous plot, knew that she was ruthless and cruel but he still had feelings for her and didn’t want to see her come to a sticky end. By being able to meet and talk with the antagonist throughout the plot, this put more of a splotlight on the nature and motivations of the villain that we wouldn’t have experienced in the game if we’d only managed to encounter her in the back of a dungeon. It also gave the DM plenty of opportunities to fuck with us and try to sabotage our efforts. This was largely done through straight roleplaying although since it was a 3.5 game, some bluff and diplomacy rolls were called for. Also, with both of us being spellcasters with serious trust issues, some charm spells were employed now and again. Although I hadn’t conceived of playing this type of game when I rolled up the characer, I found it rewarding. It let me enjoy role-playing a conflicted character who desired to do good and redeem this villain but was also tempted by the more shady life he used to enjoy. She did eventually come to a sticky end, but my PC’s romance subplot with her made the resolution more satisfying (of course he was the one who had to kill her in the end).

These experiences from both sides of the screen have taught me to open my heart and let love into the game. If your group is mature, it can add a lot of fun and a richer roleplaying experience, resulting in more well-rounded characters and players who are more invested in the game world. I’ve found that love can make players do crazy things against their ‘better judgement’, as in, risk game advantage like money, items or just plain safety in pursuit of a purely role-playing based character goals. Maybe it’s easier to relate to this as a motivation, after your characters are sitting on piles of gold coins and magic swords.

I’ve been wondering about good ways to actually house rule love and relationships and somehow game-ify them, to inspire players and have a system to deal with these things within a limited time at the table. Perhaps a table for romantic entanglements to be checked during downtime that could dish out bonuses or problems. Or one for random generation of suitors if a well-heeled adventurer sets up a stronghold and lets it be known that he or she is looking. One that should also allow for some unusual results like magical beings, curses, spies, etc, to spice things up. Right now though, it seems that players who enjoy the idea of their characters having a lovelife have been happy to take the initiative.

P.S. I updated the post with some images, and for anyone who wants to think about sex in D&D in a more explicit, irreverent way, I can’t recommend Oglaf enough. Read it with your nerdy sweetie. There’s plenty of material in the archives to keep you occupied while I work on my dating mishaps table. Or a post on succubi. Whatever comes out first.