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).

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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.

 

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.

 

 

 

…the visages of evil baboons or perhaps mandrills

The ‘D’ section of AD&D’s Monster Manual is all killer, no filler, and easily the most deadly, dreaded, and damned dangerous alphabetical group in the whole game (ok, so maybe the Lawful Good dolphins aren’t so great?). Fitting, considering the name of the game, and also that the alphabetically appropriate Demogorgon head the demons. Demogorgon is large and in charge, a nasty piece work with 200 HP (I wonder if this ever annoys Asmodeus, who has 1HP less than his demonic counterpart). Despite his intimidating appearance, he’s no beatstick. His heads have combined and individual mind control powers that have a good chance of dominating anyone who gets close enough to determine whether they are more baboon or mandrill-like. His spell-like abilities are versatile and powerful and he uses them with supra-genius intelligence. And if it comes to fisticuffs or the tails-and-tentacle equivalent, he strikes with rotting disease and energy drain.

Welcome to the 'D-section', dumbshits.

Welcome to the ‘D-section’, dumbshits.

Drawing inspiration from the 1e MM entry, I pulled put the following elements to base cults and superstitions around –

Rule through personal power (how he retains his title, by being the strongest and cleverest of demons)

Duality (two heads, forked tail)

Mind control and insanity (head powers and spell-like abilities to charm, hypnotize, stun, feeblemind, illusion)

Disease (unique rot power in his attacks, energy drain)

Combination/corruption of form (being a chimera of animal parts)

Control of cold-blooded things, reptiles.

demog1

D-man’s first appearance in Eldritch Wizardry

 

Before the dawn of civilisation, men recognised and encountered Demogorgon every day. The Prince of Demons stalked the shadows of the dense jungle with watching eyes and bared teeth. He lurked under impassable sea with poisoned spine and grasping tentacle. He slithered in the pitch black depths of the deep caverns, brewing venom and disease. Even in the heart of man, Demogorgon has a dwelling place, and from there he urges man’s darker primaeval instincts, encouraging him turn on his fellows and seek power through violence and exploitation.

Man encountered Demogorgon at the fringes of his world, and in his foolish pride to define all that he found in the world, named Demogorgon, the first demon. But the act of naming only bound them closer together. It infuriates Demogorgon to hear a human speak his name. There are many humans and similar on many worlds, and Demogorgon is very, very angry.

Demogorgon hates the civilised humanoid races in general, and humanity in particular. He despises them for their pride, hope and ambition, and delights in their terror, helplessness and pain. He scorns the worship of humanoids, but in rare times has been known to grant boons to supplicants and encourage their worship for a time before turning against them. There are many whispered legends of of heretic clerics who abandoned the gods of their peoples and turned, in their selfishness, to the worship of Demogorgon to increase their personal power. Yet those with knowledge of the nature of demons, be they tribal witch-doctors or learned sages, that Demogorgon despises worship from humanlike beings, has nothing but contempt for his clerics, and grants his dark miracles for a time, only to punish the offending priest once the wretch becomes secure in his power.

demogrim

In some arcane demonological treatises, Demogorgon is referred to as The Child, and given a female pronoun. In the annotated grimoire Art of the Infernal Intelligencier, Theravad Sthsjan, Illuminate of the 9th Circle and personal diviner to the Tyrant of Thrask, describes his conversations with the angelic girl-child Demogorgon, who he conjured within a special pentacle. From these conversations Theravad gleaned much forbidden knowledge that was used to the advantage of Thrask, and moreover his own personal power, including words of power to turn the minds of political dissidents and to command the vicious wyverns of the mountains to join the Tyrant’s army. Theravad lived many years past the normal human lifespan to see Thrask sacked and burned by his many foes who joined forces against his dark magics, yet his body could not be found among the ruins of the once-great city-state.

Metzner's Immortals Demogorgon is hardcore powerful, but also more intriguing.

Metzner’s Immortals Demogorgon is hardcore powerful, but also more intriguing.

 

Occult texts which recognise Demogorgon male and female aspect typically present her as hermaphroditic, emphasising the dualistic nature of the entity. Incorporating the powers of both sexes, they speculate that Demogorgon spawns a terrible brood of monsters from her lair in the Abyss.

Demogorgon favours twins. In some communities, one of a pair of newborn twins will be put to death for fear of attracting his attention. In others, a woman who bears twins is persecuted as a witch. Although this superstition causes great pain and harm to innocents, there may be some justification for it. Several demonological texts recommend the sacrifice of a pair of twins of at least six years of age as part of a ritual to summon the Prince of Demons to the material plane. The sacrifice of twins, along with precious materials and more noisome artefacts, is mentioned to increase the likelihood that Demogorgon will be favourably disposed towards the summoner.

deadtwins

In a region where the local people secretly practice the exposure of unwanted children, they tell of Demogorgon, the demon-child. This evil spirit hides in wild places and cries out in distress like a human baby. The local people are suspicious of outsiders, especially clerics and paladins, for they cleave to many ancient pagan traditions. They will warn travellers that this demon can make an uncannily convincing impression, but the cries in the wilderness should under no circumstances be investigated, for Demogorgon will lure you to your doom.

A baby born with two heads is seen as a terrible omen and a sign that Demogorgon has cursed the community for some offence (or more likely, simply out of his normal malice). Some people slay the child and bury it in sanctified ground and hope for the best. Yet more common is the belief that if the two-headed child is nurtured, praised and given the best food and comforts the community has to offer, the Prince of Demons shall be appeased, and stay his wrath as long as the child lives. The child will mature quickly in intelligence and speak prophecy from one head, and tell of the location of hidden treasures with the other, though the heads will often bicker amongst themselves and contradict each other. Most such children perish nonetheless, and elders quick to blame future misfortune on this. However, if the child sent by Demogorgon is properly cared for and ceremoniously dedicated to the demon prince, it will grow into an ettin, its supernatural intelligence diminishing as its muscles grow. This strong monster will glut itself on the resources of the village for years but also use its might to defend it from threats, until a short time after maturity, when its taste for manflesh overwhelms its last vestige of humanity.

ettinssss

Two-faced instigator of strife and enemy of mankind, Demogorgon is invoked by oppressor and oppressed alike. Haughty kings and fiery demagogues are compared to him in chronicles, for their power of violence and manipulation. ‘The speaker held the crowd in his thrall, as if under the watch of The Dark Lady, and with poisonous words whipped them into a frenzy against their rightful liege’ (Melkiah of Orryane, Fall of the House of Atriesi), ‘…and in those days following the Cerithian War, Tiranpolis descended into anarchy and bloodshed, for the gaze of The Prince of Demons was upon them, and made them forget themselves, turning brother against brother, father against son, servant against master’ (Algernon the Azure Sage, An Account of the Desagan Peninsula during the Fourth Age).

A scrawled note on a forbidden tome of occult lore recounts a legend that Demogorgon was once tricked by a mischievous godling into looking into his own eyes and has ever since been afflicted with a suicidal mental anguish, in which he lures powerful mortals to his lair in the Abyss and goads them to destroy him. A latter-day annotation points out the difficultly of distinguishing between sane and insane demons, and states drily that whatever his mental state, Demogorgon clearly does not hesitate to slaughter any presumptuous heroes who approach him.

An examination of the lairs of lizardmen reveals evidence that Demogorgon is known to them as a baneful entity who is supplicated out of fear. However, among larger, domineering lizard kings, adventurers who have escaped captivity, have testified to the popularity of an active cult of Demogorgon. The lizard king cult demands ritual human sacrifice and the veneration of mutant lizard men as elites second only to the lizard kings themselves. The aristocracy and shamans of these evil tribes are dominated by two-headed mutants.

 

2hliz

FF lizard men rule

 

Another scaly race that worships Demogorgon is the Yuan-Ti. Originally a tropical empire of humans, the Yuan-Ti revered serpents and the ruins of their cities testify to their veneration of an entire pantheon of various snake-creatures, including the spirit naga and lamia, which were worshipped as demi-gods living on this plane, and the Type V demons as spirits of war and guardians. At the head of this pantheon was Demogorgon, depicted alternately in male and female aspects. As much as she detested their human forms, Demogorgon carefully nurtured the empire of Yuan-Ti through centuries of glory and hubris, before fouling their blood and twisting their minds and bodies into something more worthy of her patronage. Although now a fallen power, few among the Yuan-Ti, lament their lost humanity, preferring to revel in the strength The Dark Lady has granted them.

yanit

It is known among wise sea-faring folk that Ixitxachtil serve The Bane of Souls, and it is rumoured that a hapless victim threatened by these foul creatures can declare allegiance to Demogorgon in front of their priests and have their life spared. Such individuals are enchanted to breathe water and put to work as slaves or spies for the demon rays. The occasional sole survivor of a shipwreck, who returns to his people after some time when his fellows have perished, is sometimes looked at askance because of this legend. At least one innocent man is known to have survived a wreck only to be drowned by his neighbours, to ascertain whether he was a spy enchanted to breathe water.

In grimoires and demonological texts, Demogorgon is noted as one of the most difficult demon lords to bind and command, and recommends that anyone attempting so spare no expense in both their ritual materials and offerings of tribute to The Bane of Souls. Many include a cautionary tale of some of his victims. Yet the Prince of Demons has much to offer the intelligent summoner. According to the Demononicon Demogorgon’s service can include the following:

  • Curses of ruin to a rival
  • To be feared and obeyed by those around you
  • Place another person or monster under your total mental control
  • To cure or bestow insanity, or to perceive the hidden truths in the ramblings of lunatics
  • Sow strife and discord among your enemies
  • Command over reptiles or sea creatures
  • The ability to speak the language of serpents
  • Immunity to poison or disease
  • Polymorph ability to snake, lizard or octopus
  • Instruction in the casting of masterful illusions

When summoning Demogorgon, aside from the typical trappings, the summoner is advised to additionally furnish the summoning chamber with certain items to increase the chance of success, such as:

  • Sacrifice of human twins
  • The body of a baby who has died of exposure
  • The hides of giant serpents and lizards, or statues of same worked in precious materials
  • Lizard man teeth
  • Banderlog heads
  • Broken holy swords
  • Snake venom
  • Ixitxcachtil spines
  • Defiled icons of Orcus
  • The thigh bone of a man or woman who has killed their brother or sister

One ambitious sorcerer, Derrash Mak of the Black Invocations, had particular success when he fashioned an effigy of the Prince of Demons using the body of a giant lizard, giant serpent tails and giant octopus tentacles, mounted with banderlog heads. This was done in a similar manner to the preparation of a flesh golem. Demogorgon manifested within the effigy and spoke to him, divulging many secrets. Although the fate of  Derrash Mak is lost to time, legend has it that the effigy itself escaped, possessed by demonic malice, into the catacombs of the city in which he dwelled.

That about wraps up my riff on Demogorgon, though I’m sure I’ll have more to add on it sooner or later, but if you need more I’d be amiss if I didn’t also refer you to this, Zak S.’s meta (and metal) take on the God of Total Party Kills.

 

Orctober part 1 – From OD&D to Advanced

Here’s my hand at an ‘Orctober’ series, as we spend the rest of the month up close and personal with the problematic humanoid everyone loves to hate.

orcflail

One at the back is all, like, ‘fucking hell Grishnakh, do you just have to be so dramatic all the time?’

Thanks to Mike Monaco for providing this excellent and amusing summary of generic fantasy orcs from UK wargame Hordes of the Things:

Although the dictionary definition of orc is merely “monster,” modern authors universally follow the lead of Tolkien in using the term as a synonym for a large goblin.  These have not had a fair press. They are fanatically brave in spite of being weaker and less practiced than most other humanoids, and must be kind to animals, since they train them so well.  It is interesting that Tolkien’s characters describe them in terms very similar to those used by medieval chroniclers to describe Mongols, who in our day are considered a nice friendly people of slightly eccentric lifestyle.  We might instead think of such goblins as a fantasy counterpart of the apocryphal northerner: clannish, rough spoken, given to imbibing of strong but peculiar liquor, keeping analogues of whippets and pidgeons, prone to mob violence at away fixtures and perhaps too easily influenced by radical politicians of other races. –Phil Barker, Sue Laflin Barker & Richard Bodley Scott, Hordes of the things

They’re Tolkienesque fantasty cliche, over-used and under-utilised, but I love orcs. The be-tusked nemesis of the fledgeling adventurer. The primitive, the bestial, the savage, the demonic. Even as a child reading The Lord of the Rings I always found them more fascinating than the elves and dwarves and hobbits. Maybe it was that bad-boy, underdog appeal. Maybe it was the fact that they were so undeveloped that made them so much more mysterious and compelling. I can’t have been the only one that wanted to know more about what was going on with Shagrat and Gorbag than Elrond and Galadriel, can I? In this series I’m going to try and get to grips with both the great appeal of orcs to me personally, their place in Dungeons and Dragons, and various ideas on how to expand their use in the game.

Ian Miller’s LoTR orcs

Us and Them

In D&D, one of the many divisions of the game is between humans and demi-humans on one hand, and humanoids (sometimes ‘goblinoids’ or ‘giant class’) on the other. Demi-humans included elves, dwarves, halfings and gnomes, generally any race that could be selected by player characters. Humanoids were orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, gnolls, bugbears, and ogres. In D&D’s wargaming roots, these represented the different troop types available on each side (Light vs Darkness, Good vs Evil, Law vs Chaos and what have you). Although player characters may be of any alignment whatever their chosen race, the humanoids are unanimously bad guys, being Chaotic in Basic D&D and various flavours of Evil in AD&D. Being unplayable, unclassed and more tightly bound to antagonistic alignments, the orcs and related humanoids are the quintessential other – they walk, talk and resemble us, but but are in an exclusive and antagonistic group in opposition to ‘us’, the playable humans and demi-humans. On top of that, these humanoid antagonists tend to be low-tech, tribal, shamanistic cultures, which much made of their ugliness, aggression, lack of individuality, intelligence or sophistication, lack of art and culture, etc. It doesn’t take much thought to see the unfortunate implications of this presentation, particularly if one is familiar of colonial depictions of indigenous peoples. If we take the oft-made compsarison of D&D to the Old West, the orcs are the indians.  The orc is Grendel. In real-life warfare and imperialism, deliberate dehumanisation of the enemy in order to justify their killing or subjugation is a widespread and longstanding practice that continues to this day. The orc is the incarnation of this deception given life in the game world. The perfect enemy, the bane of civilisation that exists to be negated. This is all fine for some, and I get why. Monolithic evil cannon-fodder orc types allow the PCs to engage large groups of armed humanoid foes without becoming mass slaughterers of their own kind. The presentation of an exaggeratedly evil empire is easier to swallow if their forces are monstrous rather than human. I don’t fall into this camp personally though, and I think it can be rewarding to run humanoids in a way that explores, rather than ignores, their problematic implications.

Frazetta’s take. Bro, do you even squat?

 

A lot of what I’m going to say about orcs can also apply to the other races, but I’m going to focus on the orcs for a couple of reasons. One, they’re the iconic humanoid. Whenever you see D&D or analogous game referenced in movies and tv, for example, if a humanoid race is mentioned, it’s typically the orcs. In D&D inspired fantasy product including literature, videogames, tabletop wargames and suchlike, orcs often feature in one way or another, even though the treatment of them varies. Secondly, while Tolkien’s orcs are a race of corrupted elves, and this legacy persists to some small extent in D&D, I would say that in the game, orcs are actually the humanoid version of the standard human. When you square up the PC races against humanoids of roughly equivalent size and ability, you have kobolds as evil gnomes, goblins against dwarves, the Uruk-Hai-esque hobgoblin up against the elves, and the orc staring us humans right in the face. Orcs are human sized and have one hit die. They’re the ‘baseline’ humanoid from which the others deviate from. Most humanoid races and cultures are in their own way distortions of the human baseline, but orcs somehow stands on the same plane, the humanoid-equivalent in the mirror world of the savage humanoids.

warcraft_orcs_humans-400-400

face to squinty-eye face

 

Orcs and Humans

So let’s take a look and mankind-orc relations in early D&D. In the original version of the rules (the three little brown books, specifically Men & Magic) orcs are listed under both the Neutral and Chaotic alignment categories (interestingly, so are Ogres and Giants. Tough luck, goblins, hobgoblins and gnolls. You’re all still Chaotic only).

menmagaligntab

This gives them the same moral range as elves and dwarves, and plenty of leeway to make common cause with PC races. It also helps distinguish the Orcs from the mechanically similar goblins and hobgoblins. Although I have a hard time imagining a band of orcs hanging out with dryad and pixie friends. Alignment in OD&D was not so much an indicator of personality types as an allegiance to a particular side in a cosmic struggle of Law vs Chaos. Still, since the forces of Chaos boast the Evil High Priest and the undead, demons, etc, it’s a pretty clear equivalence of Law with Good and Chaos with Evil. Orcs in this game are far from nice guys, but capable of living in harmony with the rest of the world. The original rules didn’t forbid monster races as player characters, but these groupings were more used to see what kind of allies, henchmen and mounts an adventurer of a particular alignment could have. Thus, a neutral adventurer could ride a dragon and have a mixed entourage with an Elf and an Orc fighting side by side against goblins and ghouls. Or what have you. Wayne R’s fantastic blog explores this idea a little more. It is also of note that in their monster entry orcs are viciously antagonistic towards other tribes of their own species, but commonly associate with other creatures, including dragons, trolls, ogres as well as Fighters and Magic Users (I guess that these Fighters and Magic users are human, though it’s not explicit). They’re also into wagon trains. With regards to the orc-human relationship, note that men can be encountered as ‘monsters’, for example, as bandits or beserkers, and differ little from orc encounters in this regard, save for their classed leaders and lack of infravision. B/X D&D clarified the Law vs Chaos alignment system, making it a more explicit good-evil divide and sadly removing a lot of ambiguity regarding variable creature alignments, shunting the monstrous humanoids all firmly in the ‘C’ category.

Angus McBride’s orcs. How’d they all fit into that tower on the cliff? Multiple dungeon levels, obviously.

 

 

The idea of non-evil orcs even has a precedent in Tolkien based on a sentence in The Silmarillion regarding the “War of the Last Alliance”:

‘All living things were divided in that day, and some of every kind, even of beasts and birds, were found in either host, save the Elves only. They alone were undivided and followed Gil-galad.’

This and perhaps the existence of orcs and goblins living an isolated, tribal existence without any direct control from a Dark Lord (Melkor, Sauron, Saruman, etc), is perhaps another reason why orcs also got a pass into the Neutral column.

Advanced Orcology

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons put orcs (and other organised humanoids like goblins, kobolds, and hobgoblins) into the Lawful Evil camp. The Monster Manual entry includes a lot of fussing about the details of their lair and force composition.  Perhaps to shore up their place in the new alignment paradigm, their generally unpleasant nature is detailed and strongly emphasised:

Advanced Orcs. Less morally complex, but they know bunch of languages and are good miners

Advanced Orcs. Less morally complex, but they know bunch of languages and are good miners.

Parts of this entry feel like they were written by a particularly catty personal stylist. Despite ramping up the evil (they are now more explicitly bullies and slavers) and ragging on their particularly disgusting appearance, right down to their choice of colour scheme (and in all fairness, the pig face period is one of the derpiest visual representations of the race), orcs remain one of the more fleshed out and sophisticated humanoid races. They still love caravan journeys, and are fiercely loyal to their tribe and leaders, gaining bonuses when their standard is present. A hatred of elves is introduced, which has been noted to not make a whole lot of sense, given that the races have few overlapping territories or resources to fight over. I’d put it down to an upping of the Tolkien element (funnily enough, in the time of balrog to balors and hobbits to halflings, ents to treants etc). The elves also went through an alignment shift from Lawful leaning to Chaotic Good, so perhaps it made sense to set them against the main Lawful Evil humanoid. The MM entry also details one of the trickier bits of the orcish question, their women and children. Gaming forums abound with players wrestling with the moral dilemma of what to do with orc babies after massacring the fighting males. How this is approached will say a lot about any campaign’s tone regarding humanoids and alignment. The entry for orc is Lawful Evil, for groups of 30-300 plus addition leaders, females and young. Does the alignment dictate their dominant group culture? Allegiance to a specific cause? Or is every orc baby born with a heart of authoritarian cruelty?

baby’s first morning star

 

The game changer here here is the introduction of half-orcs. The MM passage is full of weirdness, They’ll breed with anything? Except for elves. So…orc-dragons, orc-dwarves, orc-lizardmen, or what? It piles on the unfortunate implications of orcs by making them into rape monsters, with some uncomfortable echoes of Lovecraftians fear of miscegnation and racial deterioration. The orc-goblins and -hobgoblins, being basically orcs, are completely pointless (as if PCs would notice? They’re in the Caves of Chaos to loot them, not carrying out an anthropological study) and never mentioned again except for one in module S4, whose orcish parentage is noted, to absolutely no mechanical or story disctinction because WTF. Only elves in their ubermenschian pure sparkly +1 with swords and bows awesomeness are immune to orcish contamination. There are echoes of Tolkien again here, although IIRC LoTR half-orcs were the result of magical interference rather than sexual compatibility. Then again, if elves and humans can produce viable offspring, and LoTR orcs are corrupted elves, it makes sense. But D&D orcs and elves are not connected in that way…or are they? It would certainly make more sense of why orcs make such an effort to target them. Orcs, humans and elves exist in a strange relationship where both orcs and elves can breed with humans but not with each other. Half-orc and half-elf pairing? Maybe they cancel each other out and make normal humans. A setting that plays this straight implies to me some kind of dark secret tying together the origins of those three races. Certainly, one can make more out of it than the male adventurer who hopes to win the favour of the hot elf chick and the female adventurer who fears violation at the hands of the nasty orc. A quick google image search for ‘sexy orc’ confirms that both ladies and gentleman are getting down with this.

Ok, so it’s mostly this kind of cheesecake thing. On the internet, why sexualise when you can hyper-sexualise?

 

Since orcs and humans can interbreed and produce viable offspring, this adds a whole new dimension to human-orc relations in the campaign world. For one, it brings them closer to us humans but it also adds an extra dimension to politicking in-game, if that’s your thing. In Borderlands-type situations where humans and orcs co-exist in an uneasy cold-but-periodically-warming-up war, there exists the potential for marriage alliances as a solution to these tensions. This fits in well with D&D’s dark ages default setting, and it is, I think, not unreasonable for a community of humans out in the wildlands to forge alliances with orcs in this manner, perhaps with the children of chieftains. Life in the monster-haunted lands is hard enough as it is, and hard pressed orc and human communities might see that they have a lot to offer each other. Adventurers in a Keep on the Borderlands type of scenario might tackle it differently if one of the orc cheiftains has important family members in the human stronghold, trades with humans for commodities, perhaps lending them his tribes services as caravan guards, miners, etc.

One of my favourites from Ian Miller, which I believe shows a mix of orcs and half orcs

 

So the transition from Original to Advanced D&D has both taken orcs further away from humankind in some aspects, but also brought them together in other important ways. Part 2 in the series will examine the playable incarnation of this, AD&D’s half-orc. Part 3 develops orc tribes in the 1e AD&D Monster Manual, and in part 4 I put forward a few outside the box ideas for using orcs in your games.

 

Module Mash-Up

Most of my early experience playing D&D featured a lot playing through TSR adventure modules. In my first post, I mention a few of them. In addition to these, we also went though some higher level modules like A Star Falls, Baltron’s Beacon and Scourge of the Slave Lords. I remember that our DM always intended, one way or another to get us into the G-series, but the campaign always fizzled out before we could manage to. I had a great time with these modules, and since I want to pass some of that enjoyment on to players I have some modules I like to use in my campaigns. But as a DM with a lot of ideas of his own, I have an ambivalent relationship with published modules. To run modules as written seems lazy, almost cheating, and takes some of the fun away from being a DM in the first place. But on the other hand, they can be great time savers and templates. I’ve got a lot of published adventurers and I feel that most of them just aren’t up to scratch to run at the table, but on occasion I reach into them and pluck out an encounter, treasure list or NPC on the fly. Then there are a few that, with a bit of tinkering and development, can make a worthwhile addition to a campaign.

Of these my favourite and most oft-used is T1: The Village of Hommlet, even though I never played through it myself. But every time I’ve run it it’s been a blast. I like it so much because, when you need a quick adventure for first time players to see if they like D&D, this module has a perfect storm of ingredients for the low-level D&D experience. Village with a cheesy tavern. Detailed NPCs, treacherous hirelings, higher level NPCs building a stronghold, a religious centre, details of peasant treasure for the more antisocial PCs. My ‘Hommlets’, whatever I end up calling them, keep all those elements flesh out the NPCs, sometimes changing personalities or class, and play up the importance of the Church, usually having it as a popular place of pilgrimage and holder of a holy relic. On the dungeon side, you’ve got giant animals, cunning bandits, secret doors, traps, prisoners, humanoids, an ogre, undead and an evil priest. It’s tough going, especially once the priest and bodyguards are roused, but a well-played party can make it, and the rewards are rich.

some good art, too

some good art, too

But I’ve run T1 a few times and even with a tweak here and there, I’m getting a little bored with it. So I dug around for alternatives but failed to come up with an option that served up the kind of all round experience I was looking for. But one other low level module did hold my attention, and that was B3: The Palace of the Silver Princess. I’d played through that at the beginning of my first ever D&D game, and figured I’d make a go of it. But the copy I had obtained jarred with my memories of play. See, I’d picked up a pdf version of the original orange cover version of the scenario, whereas clearly, I had played though the revised green version. The reasons for the almost immediate recall of the original are detailed on wikipedia. This site elaborates and highlights differences between the original module and the later revision by Tom Moldvay.  Once I had a chance to compare the two I realised that there was a lot I liked about the original over the version I actually played though. There was also a lot of weirdness which I couldn’t quite appreciate for its own sake.

The good:

Location based adventure with a fabulous ruby as the hook. Ruby isn’t magical or anything, just legendarily beautiful. A good lure for relatively impoverished low-level types. Noble heroes may be more motivated to discover its history or to retrieve the gem to its rightful inheritors (of which there may be few rival claims to) or make a connection between it and the evil that haunts the ruins.

500-year-old backstory regarding the princess, dragon rider and the fall of her kingdom with multiple, contradictory accounts surviving to the modern age, tantalising clues here and there but no definitive answers in the text. I enjoy ruin-type locations and the intriguing history should give the players a good impression of picking through the leavings of a bygone age, even if they are uninterested in getting to the bottom of the story.

Detailed wilderness area with overview of local politics and other potential areas of adventure. Though I prefer to use my own stuff for this, it’s inclusion in a beginner module as inspiration for further worldbuilding is appreciated.

Dungeon Factions. Various bands of intelligent creatures with different allegiances can be encountered wandering or picking through the ruins. These include evil priests, barbarians/berserkers, humanoids, bandits and mysterious soldiers bearing a wolf insignia. Plenty of opportunities to confuse players who might expect a single ‘big boss’ to control the monsters, for negotiation, divide and rule and even acquiring henchmen or hirelings.

Some dungeon rooms are empty so they can be populated by the DM, and the book comes with random tables for creatures, treasure and traps. I’ve mentioned before how I like to have some extra randomness in dungeons and I use these rooms as places where the party can stumble upon the agents of other factions, also in the process of looting the area, clearing out invaders or expanding their power base. Since some of these bands don’t have their base in the dungeon, it keeps the threat fresh and will hopefully motivate the players into looting as much as they can before another gang gets their hands on the goods.

Catharandamus and his retinue. A slimy, cunning, charismatic evil cleric who’s managed to bring some unlikely allies under his sway. Aleigha the werebear, 2 dwarves and a host of goblinoids and cultists. Moldvay made this great NPC more boring and standard by changing his followers to a few orcs and a standard werewolf and forcing immediate hostilities with the PCs. Boo. In the original module, he also collected various holy symbols from different religions and placed them around his HQ. This could be an indicator of some interesting research into comparative religion, an obscure ritual or just some serious commitment issues.

some of my favourite NPCs from any published module

some of my favourite NPCs from any published module

The bad:

The map doesn’t make much sense if you think of it as a working palace, with functional rooms and noble quarters being placed apparently at random. A little rearrangement and repositioning of entrances fixes this though. Moldvay’s revised maps are better in this regard.

The original featured some seriously silly monsters (evil bubbles, 6 legged duck-billed rats, 3 headed hermaphrodite tribe of humanoids). Silly monsters are a fine part of D&D, but I don’t find most of these very inspiring and I want to tone down the weird a little in the more inconsequential encounters, to make it count in smaller doses.

There’s a ‘safe’ area watched over by sparkly lawful spirit beings called ‘Protectors’. Ugh. I don’t like this coddling of the PCs. Competent players can set watches, use barricades etc to secure a good resting spot, and I think supernatural aid from benevolent spirits should be rare, and then hard won and subtle.

The weird:

The nearby misandrist barony of Gulluvia. Where men are 2nd class citizens and have to have legal guardians of a woman of at least 15 years. It’s odd that a module written by a woman and features this kind of Drow-esque trope where ‘strong women’ follows into ‘evil matriarchy’. Problematic as it is I can see some potential for adventure in this, but it would need some development and fleshing out to stop it being a one-note caricature.

Reading this module with the author in mind (during a time when it was very rare for a published adventure to have a female author) with an eye for gender turns up some food for thought. Plenty of strong female characters and their relationships with men affect the plot and encounters. The Silver Princess and her mysterious suitor, for example. Plenty of rumours blame her lover for her kingdom’s downfall, but clues in the ruins suggest that they had a good relationship, though do not exactly settle whether there was a more sinister aspect to the dragon-riding knight. The little insights that players can get into their life and relationship are welcome nuggets of flavour. Aleigha, the good werebear is another example. She is venerated by the beserkers and commands their loyalty, but she is under the influence of the handsome and charismatic but slimy evil priest (who will maintain his control through ‘negging’, gaslighting and his own charm). Then there’s the Decapus, a monster which lures players into it’s tentacles with an illusion suggesting sexual violence (a bound and helpless woman surround by a gang of hostile thugs). I actually did my first play through of the mash-up with a mainly female group of players, and they really got stuck into roleplaying and getting to know the NPC relationships, though without much comment on the tales of the Gulluvian regime.

Speaking of gender, there are the Ubues, odd 3-headed humanoids with both male and female heads and bodies all mixed up. I can actually see the Ubue tribe as being quite fun in the right circumstances, in a kind of ‘wild magic blew up our castle and merged the population into jumbled up beings then need to share bodies now’ scenario, but they’re not really story-important and not what I want in an introductory adventure. The Ubues were drawn by Erol Otus as caricatures of TSR staff, and apparently this was the main reason for the product recall. Check out the male head ogling the breasts on its own female body.

uubs

So what to do? I jazzed up my old favourite T1 by blending it with B3 into a delicious module smoothie. Here’s my personal recipe:

T1 village Hommlet/Thorvald/whatever remains the base of operations, more or less unchanged. Agents of evil hidden in the village will be allied to a dungeon faction, likely the necromancer or ‘wolf soldiers’. ‘Elmo’ helper toned down somewhat, as he has an annoying tendency to upstage PCs.

B3’s palace and T1’s moathouse smashed together into specially calibrated Large Module Collider. Result: 3 level area with ground floor, upper works and dungeon.

Dungeon as in T1, reaching via secret staircase in the ground floor of the palace, controlled by Lareth. Lareth is now a female necromancer-priest of Orcus (the name seems to fit a woman more in my mind, plus it makes her a better foil to Catharandamus). She has noted a powerful well of necromantic energy in the area and seeks the gem as a means to control the ghosts and other undead. Her fighter bodyguard is her half-orc paramour and ‘cultists’ are now orcs. She commands the loyalty of the humanoid troops in her level, as well as some on the ground floor, and all non-intelligent undead encountered.

Ground floor of the palace is ‘no mans land’ disputed by various factions and freelance adventurers and looters. The sillier monsters from B3 area are removed and replaced by encounters based on the ground floor moathouse area of T1. Small parties of independent orcs and bandits occasionally raid the area, bringing loot to their lairs outside. The ‘wolf soldiers’ are scouts from a foreign power looking to secure the ruby as part of a territorial claim. The PCs can discover this ambition through interrogation or negotiation. Goblins, hobgoblins and acolytes serving Catharandamus battle skeletons, ghouls and orcs serving Lareth. Duchess and Candella are independent adventurers and likely PC allies.

Top level is Catharandamus’s power base. This charming villain is interesting in using the ruins as a power base for a new cult. He has yet to commit to a patron but courts the favour of multiple demon lords. He and Lareth were initially allies and had joined forces to banish the ghosts and take over the area but after their falling out wish nothing but death upon their counterpart and are individually too weak to risk taking on the powerful undead by themselves. Catharandamus is a womaniser who had hoped to control Lareth but now has settled for having the more naive Aleigha under his thumb. He is well read, curious, courteous and friendly to PCs encountered, hoping to use them to break the stalemate with his rival. Aleigha the werebear follows Catharandamus partly out of attraction but also because he has promised her a cure for her lycanthropy. The beserkers believe she is blessed and implore her to pass the bear-strength onto them, but she sees it as a curse, and stalls, unwilling to anger them with outright refusal, she tells them that they must first prove themselves worthy through their deeds in the dungeon. In time she has come to value her followers but cannot bring herself to tell them how she really feels, nor can she embrace their bloodthirsty ways.

The Ubues have been transformed into a tribe of Bugbears lead by a petty ‘king’. King Krule is too proud and haughty to serve under either evil faction or to admit their fear of the ghosts. Krule pretends authority over the whole palace, but in reality is paranoid and cautious, keeping to his territory. The PCs can spur this faction into action on one side or the other with some careful diplomacy.

The Decapus, Killer Plants and Princess/Dragon Rider story stay, rule of cool. The story of the Silver Princess’ true fate will likely still elude players, but there’s plenty going on in the present day to keep their minds busy.

sptres

Mm…yummy. Multi-level, open ended first level adventure location with plenty of interacting factions, a mysterious backstory, varied monsters and opportunities to roleplay. My new favourite 1st-level adventure setting.