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?

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MOOOOORTAL KOMBAT!

I hope everyone had a nice time over the holiday season. I for one certainly did, and although 2016 has been a bit of a shaky start for yours truly, I had a good time with my parents and siblings on Xmas. A personal holiday tradition in my family house are games of Mortal Kombat with my younger brother, and I’m pleased to say that despite only playing once a year, my muscle memory remains solid enough to reliably kick his arse. It helps that the series remains pretty consistent in gameplay. As a callow youth I was a poster boy for the satanic panic, and naturally Mortal Kombat was my fighting game of choice. I played the hell out of MK2, 3, and Trilogy and later MK: Deception on my console and after leaving the nest I got to play some of the latter instalments with my younger sibling. Although I haven’t owned a console for years now, I still look forward to my annual tournament but sadly 2015 brought no joy on that front, the family had sold the old console and its complement of games. Still, ’twas the season and I had MK on the mind, and it occurred to me that there’s more than one way to get that fix.

Mortal Kombat’s rather convoluted backstory seems to have a lot of D&D DNA in it. There are humanoids, elementals, planes of Order and Chaos, sorcerers, clerics, undead, fantastic worlds, dungeons and so on. Throw in some Big Trouble in Little China-style cod-Orientalist mythology and you have Mortal Kombat. There are a whole of  D&D-able elements from the series, for the purposes of this post I’m going to tackle my favourite monsters from the games.

I for one, can see a lot of potential in replacing the standard goblinoid army guys with these badasses:

The Tarkatans, represented in-game by playable character Baraka, are the shock troops of the Shao Kahn’s, the setting’s Evil Overlord. Distinguishing them from hosts of pointy-eared-fanged-ugly humanoid type are the retractable blades of bone that grow from their forearms. More alien and savage than the halberd-hefting hobgoblin, they would make for nasty beserker-type mooks. I can see them being fast, handy, and good at parrying and blocking with their bony growths on their arms that surround the main blades. Under a sophisticated leader, I can see them being trained in the use of crossbows or javelins before closing to melee.

Tarkartan –  HD:2, AC:6, 2 attacks/round, d8 damage.

Elites/leaders –  HD:4, AC:4, 2 attacks/round, d10 damage.

I could even see them as player characters for mercenary/fighter types. I’d model them with the same ability adjustments and level limits as half-orc fighters, but with the ability to deploy their blades as ‘natural’ longsword attacks. To counter this advantage, they would not be able to develop proficiency or specialisation in any artificial weapons, putting them behind human warriors once magical weapons are more desirable.

I’m also down with assassin class human/tarkartan hybrids a la Mileena, to serve as infiltrators and leaders. No bone swords but better class options and full weapon proficiencies.

milly

The games don’t exactly give much in the way of background depth from the tarkartans, except that they apparently have their origins as human/demon hybrids. In one cutscene a character hurls a bottle of tarkartan scent on her nemesis, whose tarkartan bodyguards proceed to turn on and eviscerate, believing her to be a ‘rival male’. I can imagine tarkartans being fiercely bestial, aggressive and competitive in their natural element, sharpening their bone swords and keeping one eye on their uppity underlings and the other watching their boss for signs of weakness.

Goro and his ilk, the hulking, four-armed shokan race, are also a good candidate for higher HD, ogre-type antagonists.

goro

Just to really emphasise their gimmick and distinguish them from ogres, I’ve give them 4 attacks per round, d6 fist damage from each. Their multiple limbs would give them a huge grappling advantage and allow for some weird combat manoevres, and even in D&D’s abstract system, I’d give them something similar to the bear-hug attacks, where if all four attacks hit, a man-size or smaller opponent is grappled and lifted by one pair of arms and suffers an automatic 2d6 damage pounding per round from the other pair of arms unless they can successfully escape with a bend bars check or are freed by outside assistance. Shokan rarely use weapons, but some employ scythe-like daggers or grippable claw blades, known as ‘dragon fangs’. These add +1 to hit and damage but disable their grapple attacks. Ceremonial guards may carry great halberds, with which they are limited to a single attack per round but with a +4 damage bonus due to strength. Shokan nobility have scaly growths upon their backs and claim descent from dragons. These fearsome warriors have a limited ability to throw fire from their hands, as well as +4 on saves versus fire-based attacks. Other, lower-class shokan warriors have been sighted with a tiger-striped, feline aspect to them. Female shokan are typically smaller in stature than their male counterparts, of equal fighting ability but less brute strength (d4 damage dice for unarmed attacks, d6 for champions)

sheevathrone

Shokan  –  HD:4+4, AC:5, 4 attacks/round, d6 damage, special: grapple.

Elite  –  HD:6+6, AC:4, 4 attacks/round, d6 damage, special: grapple, at-will burning hands 6th lvl spell-like ability.

Champion  –  HD:8+8, AC:3, 4 attacks/round, d8 damage, special: grapple, at-will burning hands 8th lvl spell-like ability.

Shokan appear to have a more sophisticated culture than the tarkartans and are at least as intelligent as humans, although I think their natural abilities make them too overpowered to be PC candidates.

Also, this picture is good enough reason for me to mount them on tyrannosaurs for added awesome.

MK3 introduced Motaro the centaurian, in my memory the most difficult boss in the entire series. I lost game after game to this guy, stuck on the penultimate rung of the ladder before big boss Shao Kahn, getting my ass-kicked over and over again by this demonic centaur on steroids.

I like centaur-monsters, but standard centaurs are not very scary as an antagonists. MK didn’t give the centaurians much attention, but Motaro’s plethora of powers and great strength makes his people good candidates for D&D monsters. Their skin has a special magic resistance that deflects magic bolts, rays and energy blasts (magic missile, cone of cold, lightning bolts, fireballs etc), with a 30% chance of reflecting back towards the caster. Centaurians also can use the following spell like abilities once per round: dimension door, magic missile (a single missile, fired from the tip of the tail).

Centaurian – HD:6+6 AC:4, 1 frontal attack for d10 damage or standard weapon damage +4, rear kick for 2d8 damage, tail whip for d6 damage if missle not fired. Special abilities spell deflection, spell-like abilities.

I can see centaurians as being threats to even high-level parties due to their great mobility, special abilities. They’re difficult to deal with at range and their dimension door ability, high speed, and ability to attack from the front and rear make them very hard to out-manoeuvre.

As fun as it might be to set a campaign in MK’s Outworld, I think that I would use these races on a lesser scale. Maybe feature them in a dungeon on an island, under the command of a soul-stealing, shape-shifting sorcerer. Or have them appear as the result of a monster summoning spell, bound to serve as warriors in the campaign world through ancient pacts, similar to Elric of Melibone’s kelmain or vulture lions. Perhaps a cursed artefact opens a portal to Outworld that allows for the invasion of Shao Kahn and his shock troops. A mixed group of these three types, with their multiple attacks and unconventional special abilities, would be a force to be reckoned with. I might not have the hardware to run any of the newer Mortal Kombat games, but it won’t be long before I see a shokan battle at the table.

…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 4 – more orcs, more problems

So our last post was really about making standard AD&D orcs more dangerous in various thematic ways, This is fine for keeping the spotlight on orcs for higher level play instead of moving on to bugbears or whatever, but it’s really just adding spice to the meat and potatoes humanoid slay-fest. Since my homebrew AD&D campaign has long since passed the point where low HD humanoids can present a threat to the players, and since there are a few half-orc player characters on the roster (one of the main crew, plus a couple of henchmen and secondary characters), I’ve been cooking up scenarios where they can be involved in different ways.

orcto44

business as usual

Not that it means making orcs noble savage friends of the forest full of of facebook-style fake native american shaman wisdom. Orcs are defined by violence, danger, mystery, opposition and otherness. Take that away and you don’t have an orc or half-orc, you just have some tough guy. Just because your orcs aren’t evil-to-the-core demonspawn doesn’t mean that their story shouldn’t be about conflict. In the real world there are plenty of long running conflicts going on where people on each side of the ethnic/religious/national divide see the other as an evil to be exterminated. Developing humanoid antagonists like the orcs can help you explore this kind of story in your game, if that’s your bag. Since violence is to orcs what mining is for dwarves, magic for elves, pies for halfings, etc…I would say that orcs should never be far from real or implied violent conflict, but in a campaign world where it’s possible for orcs to have value to the cultures that the PCs come from, an adventure can encourage different ways of managing that conflict.

orcto43

So what kind of value would they have? Well, history is full of examples of a powerful civilisation exercising influence over a group which it considers less civilised, less cultured, more warlike, barbarous and violent. Sure there is conflict, but also trade and exploitation, especially incorporation into the military, perhaps as auxiliaries or irregulars. My model is ancient Rome and the Celtic and Germanic ‘barbarians’. Sure there was plenty of warfare between them but also trade, alliances, intermarriage, vassalage and the assimilation of barbarians into the Roman military, to the point where Rome relied very heavily on barbarian soldiers, and successful barbarian military leaders could hold the balance of power in the empire. In a D&D world, I can mainly see this kind of thing happening with orcs because of their similarity to humans in size, and the whole half-orc thing. Even in terms of religion, human followers of a norse-type mythos would see some things in common with orcs venerating Gruumsh’s family.

orcto48

With that in mind, here are a couple of orc-related shenanigans for your players to get stuck into:

  • PCs stumble into in orc lair and meet with a positive reaction from rather polite orc guards in shabby livery. They are invited to feast with the chief, who has served some time as a mercenary in human lands and was incredibly taken with human culture and now styles himself as a baron. He’s done his best to imitate it as best as he understands, but something’s always just a little off. The chief’s family and high-ranking warriors all dress in an approximation of courtly fashion,give themselves extravagant titles and use extensively formal and flowery vocabulary, peppered with glaring malapropisms. The chief fancies himself something of an intellectual and inaccurately quotes from human playwrights and philosophers. He also insists on reading out his own poetry. The savage and vicious state of rival humanoid tribes and races shall be bemoaned. He inquires as to the health and fortunes of local nobility, speaking of them as if they were distant cousins and requesting that the PCs deliver letters to them inviting them to his next grand ball. Despite this veneer of sophistication many of their manners at the feast remain typically orcish and there are certainly some around who go about this with some distaste and are itching to chop the PCs to bits just like the good old days. Nonetheless if the PCs can keep a straight face throughout the feast they can make an strong ally, particularly if they are or give the impression that they are of high social status. This tribe will eagerly buy silks, dinner sets, objets d’art and all sorts of wealth and status signifiers from the PCs. Particularly good relationships can be established if they compliment the chief on his erudition and taste, the warriors on their dashing charm and the ladies on their beauty and manners. There will be music and dancing, which will come off as a bizarre mix of human and orcish styles. The chief will make much of his sons and daughters and will try to play matchmaker between them and human PCs. For what it’s worth, they clean up pretty nice. If this notion is entertained, this tribe can become a source of hirelings and other aid. Things can get ugly quickly if the chief is mocked, disrespected or ridiculed. He can take advice in private but will not be made to look a fool in front of his subjects. Likewise if the PCs turn out to be boors or ruffians, or let slip that they are wanted by local authorities then the tribe will turn on them to take their loot and either kill them or turn them in to the law. If the PCs flash around wealth while appearing weak and of low social status, the temptation to simply attack and appropriate their cultural valuable treasure and equipment might be too much to resist.
rat a tooey

rat a tooey

  • In a world where the use of orcish mercenaries and bodyguards is an established tradition, a human-dominated empire maintains control over its dominions with an army which has become more orcish with every generation. Having proven themselves eager and effective soldiers, orcs integrate themselves to do some degree within the wider citizenship and gain various rights under the law of the land, immigrating and settling into human cities. The success of orcish military units in the provinces have led to some orcish commanders becoming popular public figures, influential in the borderlands and in the urban power centres. The troops are so loyal to their generals that civil elites are quick to placate these warlords, fearing a military coup. Among the military nobles, mixed marriages and half-orcs are common and fashionable. In fact, the success of orcs in the military has led to a widespread trend of ‘orcish chic’ in human society. Popular among rebellious youth or those with ties to the army, this entails speaking orcish slang, swearing by orcish gods, wearing orcish hairstyles and tribal markings, horned helmets, spiky armour, jagged blades and furs, even though these kind of clothes were abandoned by most city orcs over a generation ago while they tried to integrate themselves. Traditional human elders are appalled by this appropriation of barbarism, and likewise so is the elvish population, who are both nostalgic for the past when they were seen as the ones for humans to emulate and also worried about the general anti-elf tendencies of this new subculture. On the orcish side, most orcs are increasingly annoyed at seeing their neighbourhoods and bars invaded by privileged human hipsters who caricature their traditions, pretending they ‘get’ them. What started as a harmless fad veers into dangerous territory as a group of noble youths connected to an orc-cult disappear into the undercity to take part in ultimate ‘authentic’ orcish experience, an inter-tribal gladitorial competition  where a group of traditionally minded orcs and shamans intend to make sure the pretenders meet a gruesome end as sacrifices to Gruumsh. An underworld snitch tips off the PCs or their patron, and it’s up to them to find and rescue these young nobles while keeping the local orcish population sweet enough to not cause problems with the army.
Fighting Fantasy half-orc warrior ready to gut some hipsters

Fighting Fantasy half-orc warrior ready to gut some hipsters

  • Based on the idea of Chaotic and Neutral orcs from OD&D, the Chaotic Dark Lord of the month is a powerful and charismatic fellow and has gathered the Chaotic orc tribes into a fearsome horde. The closest bastion of civilisation has recently recovered from an internal conflict and cannot stand up to an invasion on its own. The PCs are recruited as emissaries to the Neutral tribes. These tribes, being orcs, are all fierce rivals and reluctant to co-operate or see the others profit at their expense. In fact, they may push the PCs to eliminate other Neutral tribes to gain their allegiance. Otherwise they will demand treasure, weapons, magic items, hostages, territory in formerly human lands or marriage alliances with important humans.  The PCs may be asked to clear out dungeon/cavern areas in tribal territory, remove dangerous monsters or tame them for the war effort. Perhaps they must prove themselves through torturous tribal initiations or feats of strength. Maybe they will demand bloody sacrifices of powerful creatures to their tribal gods in order to ensure a good omen. The PCs will have to sit and moderate war councils with different human and orcish elders. Tribes whom with which negotiations go badly may join the Chaotic side, particularly if they suffer heavy losses at the hands of PCs. If the PCs manage to recruit most of the Neutral tribes, then they will it will be sufficient to halt the advance of Chaos, giving the party a chance to go on the offensive against the BBEG. Then there’s seeing if all those deals hold up come ‘peace’-time.
reaction roll

reaction roll

That’s a wrap for Orctober 2015. Please also check out parts 1, 2 and 3 and let me know what you think in the comments, feel free to comment your own ideas and get in touch if you’d like me to write more on our humanoid friends.

Orctober part 3 – Unearthed Orcana

Unearthed Arcana, that divisive tome which ushered in the ‘1.5e’ era for AD&D, detailed the most powerful gods of the orc pantheon, apart from Gruumsh (who had been detailed earlier in deities and Demigods). It mentions orc tribes often being divided among cult lines, with the holy symbol also being the tribal standard, etc. This doesn’t sit well with me for most of the standard orc tribes in a gameworld, as it sort of defeats the point of pantheistic worship in the first place. If there are lots of gods, each with specific portfolios that make up the rich tapestry of angry humanoid life, it’d be weird for every single tribe to be dedicated to one. But it does make a nice way to differentiate orc groups and highlight various traits and tactics. I also like the idea of orcs being deeply religious and competing for status via various warrior cults within their tribe. In my current AD&D campaign, most orc encounters will be with normal tribes, but around certain tribes will be dominated by a warrior-cult of a particular deity and will have their own particular special skills and tactics.

Here are my rules for the special orc tribes for a vanilla style AD&D world. The mechanics refer back to the Monster Manual entry. Just roll up a bunch of orcs as normal, mod from there.

Evil Eye

ianmiller3

The chosen of Gruumsh, the high one consider themselves the mightiest, wisest, most ruthless of orcs. At inter-tribal gatherings, their warlord and chief shaman have the highest seats and the final word. But Gruumsh does not sleep, and he is always watching. Watching for weakness, watching for worthiness. Likewise do the Evil Eye warriors regard each other most intently to impress their leaders and rivals.

Philosophy: You’re the best of the best, but it means nothing if you don’t show it. Evil Eye orcs are respected and feared everywhere, and you need the swagger and the head count to make sure it stays that way, or Gruumsh will turn his eye toward another bunch of ambitious warriors. Those that excel will take the greatest share of the spoils, the most comely concubines, and be blessed with many strong sons, and be an example to those tribes less favoured by He-Who-Never-Sleeps. Fight well, and lead the lesser ones to victory, for you are first in the eye of the great god, and the first to suffer his judgement.

Aesthetics: Evil Eye warriors like to show off their prestige with high quality armour and weapons, and maintain them well. Intimidation factor is also a priority, signalling to your enemies and rivals alike that you are not to be fucked with. Every Evil Eye worth the name wears several personal trophies over his battle gear and keeps count of their kills. Notched blades, necklaces of fingers, ears, or teeth, a bag of eyes worn around the neck, bone jewellery. Their sign is that of a great red unblinking eye. Every shaman has one eye plucked out to show their dedication to Gruumsh. Under supervisions of shamans, extensive ritual scarification and piercing is practised, serving a record of the warrior’s deeds, protective talismans, and a display of fearsomeness.

Mechanics: 

Elites: Double number of non-standard orcs encountered (i.e., leaders and assistants, the chiefs, sub-chiefs, bodyguards). These are all Evil Eye elites and subject to the Eye of God rule.

Hail to da Chief: A tribe with this many wannabe-bosses has to have a big boss indeed to keep them all in line. If encountered outside the lair there will be an additional hero figure, a leader of the expedition with 4HD, AC3 (plate mail, AC2 if with shield), +2 ‘to hit’ and weapon damage. If in lair there will be an additional warlord figure with 5-8HD, AC3 (plate mail, AC2 if with shield), +2 ‘to hit’ and weapon damage. These are subject to the Eye of God rule.

Eye of God: Aware that they must be exemplars of orcish might or feel the wrath of their god, Evil Eye elites and leaders fight with a fierce fanaticism to distinguish themselves from their rivals. To show weakness is to forfeit one’s privilege and be damned. On a natural 20 ‘to hit’, they gain an immediate additional attack. If they take damage to below 0hp, they have a 50% chance of gritting through it and coming back up to fight again on 1hp the following combat round. This does not apply to non hp damage e.g. death spells, poison.

Spellcasters: The oldest, wisest, and most powerful shamans guide the Evil Eye. They may reach the 7th level of spellcasting ability.

Broken Bone

 

brjenv

Taking their name and totem from the great beast broken by the bare hands of Bahgtru, Broken Bone warrior cults worship physical strength and the pinnacle of personal achievement. Intense physical training through gladitorial competition with rivals or captured beasts defines progress through the circles of this warrior cult.

Philosophy: The Broken Bone are not a society of thinkers. Might makes right. Fight and train hard enough and you’ll find that there’s no such things as a problem that can’t be crushed, smashed, or throttled.

Aesthetics: Primitive and barbaric-looking even by orc standards, Broken Bone warriors are muscular hulks. Bone trophies and jewellery are common, as are tattoos. The supremely confident beserkers among them scorn armour, relying on strength and divine favour alone to turn aside blows. Two-handed, heavy weapons are preferred.

Mechanics:

Beserkers: All non-standard orcs have +2hp, +1 to hit and damage. Chiefs and subchiefs have +4hp, +2 to hit and damage, but suffer a 2 point penalty to AC from lack of armour.

Spellcasters: Shaman and witch doctors fight as subchiefs with the same modifications in addition to their spellcasting ability.

Additional Figures: D6 ogrillons per 50 orcs.

Death Moon

lephand

 

Shargaas favours the Death Moon tribe, and his cult preachers stealth and cunning. The Death Moon warriors only attack at night and are practised in sneaking and moving silently. Those who aspire to the inner circles of the cult must master the art of subterfuge and assassination. As a tribe, the Death Moon favour guerilla tactics and ambushes. Death Moon assassins are sometimes hired by other tribes to remove an unpopular chief or as scouts or guerilla troops.

Philosophy: Darkness is strength, and there is no greater art than the art of unseen, silent death. Avoid the light which is the joy of our enemies. Honour and glory are dangerous lies, results are what matter.

Aesthetics: Death Moon warriors favour dark, drab clothing and dark grey warpaint. They sport padded footwear and prefer smaller and lighter weapons that then typical orc band. Their banner displays the crescent moon and skull.

Mechanics:

Ambush: All orcs in this tribe surprise on a 1-3, as bugbears.

Assassins: All non-standard orcs have the abilities of assassins equal to their HD. These orcs wear reinforced leather armour at best, and do not improve from the normal orc AC6.

Dwellers in darkness: All orcs in this tribe suffer a -2 ‘to hit’ in bright light or daylight.

Dripping Blade

Taking for their symbol the dread sword of Ilneval, the Dripping Blade are elite warriors similar to the Evil Eye. They are more organised and aggressive, however. In an orcish-dominated region, the Dripping Blade will often be at the frontiers, forgoing typical inter-tribal warfare in favour taking the fight to the enemies of the orcs. When the Dripping Blade does move against a rival tribe, it does so ruthlessly with the aim of exterminating its enemies.

Philosophy: Strength. Cunning. Discipline. These are the hallmarks of the ideal orc warrior. Dripping Blade elites are trained to fight as units and use intelligent tactics.

Aesthetics: Dripping Blade warriors sport well-maintained arms and armour. Their elites wear red colours on their armour and warpaint and their banner depicts a bloody sword.

Mechanics:

Elites: Double the number of nonstandard orcs in the group. These are Dripping Blade elites.

Discipline: Dripping Blade elites are well-trained to work together in combat tactics and manoeuvres. They gain +1 ‘to hit’ any opponent which is already engaged in melee with a member of their tribe. All orcs in the group, whether elites or not, gain a +1 bonus on initiative rolls.

Spellcasters: Ilneval’s favoured shamans are warrior-priests and the military as well as spiritual leaders of the Dripping Blade. They wear red chainmail armour and have extra HD and accompanying fighting power equal to their cleric level (up to 5th). A high-ranking warrior priest typically leads the tribe.

Leprous Hand

OrcWarsIsengardOrcs

The Leprous Hand tribe are feared and reviled by rival tribes and enemies of the orc alike, for the revel in the glorification of Yurtrus, god of death and disease. Though armed as other tribes, they supplement their weapons with traps of poison gas and smear their blades with disease-ridden concoctions. The flayed bodies of their victims hang from their grim victory totems.

Philosophy: By progressing through the circles of the warrior cult, you place your life in the white hands of Yurtrus and shed your fear of death and suffering itself. The weakness of your body will be purged in order to make it a vessel for spreading terror and misery to the unenlightened.

Aesthetics: The elites of the Leprous Hand practice mortification of the flesh, subject themselves to normally deadly disease, and revel in the disgust their appearance invokes in others. It is not uncommon for them to wear masks and cloaks made from the flesh of their enemies. Their banner is a white hand on black background.

Mechanics:

Feel no pain: All non-standard orcs have +2 hp and a +1 bonus on all saving throws for every HD. They are immune to disease and fear.

Tainted weapons: If any orc in the tribe rolls a natural 20 to hit, the victim of the attack must save vs. poison or contract a random disease.

Spellcasters: Shamans wear white gloves made from human skin and wield maces. In addition they may cast animate dead and turn undead as evil clerics of equivalent level.

Extra figures: A pack of 2-8 ghouls will follow a Leprous Hand expedition. Double that number if encountered in their lair. The Leprous Hand lair will also contain 1-3 Otyughs (20% chance one will be a Neo-Otyugh) from which the shamans extract the necrotic poison for their weapons.

 

Vile Rune

vilrune

The Vile Rune follow Luthic, goddess of orcish females and their fertility, as well as earth, protection and healing. The Vile Rune dwell undergrounds are among the least aggressive of orcish groups, yet defend their subterranean lairs with a beserk fury. Females hold a higher status in this clan, and rise through the ranks of the cult as shamans. The Vile Rune sees this as part of its special status and does not push its form of female empowerment on other orc tribes. Just as Luthic is loyal to Gruumsh and Baghtru to Luthic, in inter-tribal matters, the Vile Rune defers to the authority of the Evil Eye tribe and may command the Broken Bone tribe into its service.

Philosophy: Respect the the life-giving power of females and the earth. The women are closer to Luthic and closer to her wise counsel. Through them, with Luthic’s favour, will come the strength that the orcish race needs to dominate its enemies. It is no shame for your mate to fight by your side. Nurture and protect the young, and the tribe will thrive and grow strong. Show no mercy to any who defile our sacred places.

Aesthetics: Vile Rune orcs prefer lighter armour and less violent imagery than their more warlike kin. They often decorate themselves with earth-based warpaint. Their sign is a Y-shaped rune, representing a cave entrance.

Mechanics:

Furious defence: When in their lair, all the orcs in the tribe fight at +2 to hit, but take a AC penalty of 2 points.

Amazons: Females present in lair will equal 100% of males and have full fighting ability.

Spellcasters: The female shamans and witch doctors are armed with gauntlets tipped with steel claws, in imitation of their goddess (2 attacks/round, d4 damage).

Additional figures: 2d4 cave bears will be present in the lair.

 

 

 

Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks and my first campaign.

Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t my first roleplaying game. My introduction to RPG actually came from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain first of the Fighting Fantasy books, a choose-your own-adventure-style series. This book, discovered lumped in with random titles on a year 5 classroom shelf, had many elements of old school D&D play. Underground exploration, funhouse-style assortment of monsters, mazes, magic items, sudden death, grim humour, etc. all featured. I was hooked and hunted around libraries and second hand shops for more titles and ended up with an impressive, but no means incomplete collection. The series are mostly fantasy-based, with you playing an adventuring fighter in the ‘campaign world’ of Titan, but there were plenty of titles with different kinds of protagonist (wizard, thief, spy, assassin, samurai, assassin, superhero) different settings, including sci-fi, post-apocalypse and alternative fantasy world. As much fun as I had with these, their potential exploded when I got my hands on two books gathering dust on a shelf in a used furniture shop. These were The Riddling Reaver, an RPG adventure module to be played with a GM running the scenarios for a group of players, and Out of the Pit, a ‘monster manual’ compendium of many of the creatures found in the books and quite a few more powerful ones clearly intended for group play. The latter included maps of two of Titan’s continents.

These two books together spring-boarded my first fantasy RPG campaign. Initially, it was very simple. FF uses a d6 based system with just three stats. Skill (used in combat and feats of strength or dexterity), Stamina (hit points) and Luck (effectively used in situations that would warrant a saving throw in D&D). This simplicity gave me an unparalleled ability to spin adventures on the fly that I miss sometimes when playing more complex games. At the same time the limitations of the system became clear in the lack of character variety and progression. Many of the monsters were woefully weak, the 2d6 range used for combat and skill tests meant that any adjustment of more than 2 was either crippling or overpowered.

Shortly after I started running this game I was inducted as a player into AD&D and began to introduce greater complexity into my FF campaign, both borrowed from D&D and from the various single player books that contained rules variants or special characters, monsters and equipment. My friends’ gang of leather-armoured sword swingers expanded to include wizards, samurai, rangers, paladins, clerics, thieves, assassins, elves, dwarves, lizardmen, death knights, barbarians, vampires, chaos warriors etc. I built a feat system, made spells, new rules from armour and weapon variants, all bolted on to the FF chassis. Once I managed to get my hands on some 1e AD&D books from ebay, I left this homebrew system behind but I still regard it as invaluable experience in DMing, and because of it I still see a lot of merit in rules-light, easily moddable game systems. And a lot of appreciation for the Brit-fantasy weirdness and atmosphere of the Titan game world. The early campaign also taught me that, even in a system with relatively little to distinguish characters mechanically, imaginative players will find a way to make them unique, to the point where I still remember them this day.

Fighting Fantasy also featured plenty of Russ Nicholson illustrations, which also happen to be one of the redeeming features of AD&Ds Fiend Folio

I’d still recommend the FF series for old school D&D players looking to mine some inspiration for their locales, monsters, and items. Here are some of my favourites from early in the series, plus some D&D-able content I converted from them for use in more grown-up elfgames.

 

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain: The daddy and probably the most generic of the lot. Classic dungeon crawl with an interesting amoral hero who invades the titular warlock’s lair with the intention of claiming his treasure, and can end with the hero claiming the magical power of the warlock as his own and ruling the dungeon as his successor. Combat is on the easy side (there’s an easy to find powerful magic sword and even the dragon can go down in 6 hits) but the location is good funhouse fare with varied monsters and traps.

D&D-able: Firetop Mountain is a good setting to adapt to a wizard lair a la White Plume Mountain. Here’s an encounter/item I like to use in my games.

The Eye of the Cyclops

A fist-size ruby that pulses with an eerie red light, this powerful gem is fixed in the face of the Iron Cyclops, a unique Iron Golem. The Iron Cyclops has no gas atteck, but instead projects a 30 foot range, 90 degree wide arc cone of anti-magic from its eye. This will prevent spellcasting and negate the properties of magic items in the area of effect, including weapons and armour. If the golem is defeated, the gem may be taken and used by other creatures. As a magic item, The Eye of the Cyclops may be used to detect magic 15′ at will. Its anti-magic cone may be activated at will for 5 rounds, once per day.

dat ass tho

Citadel of Chaos: This and Riddling Reaver contain a complete magic system if you want to play group FF with a wizard class. Riddling Reaver balances the wizard with other classes by penalising the spellcaster’s SKILL and STAMINA.

D&D-able: Not much in the spell-list is useful for D&D, though some of the weirder monsters might appeal to some. My main take from this was the name of the villain, Balthus Dire, which I stole for use as my go-to moniker for my magic user characters. If you really want to freak out your players with silly/dangerous monsters, I recommend the Wheelies.

Wheelie

No Appearing: 2-5, AC: 6, MV: 16″, HD: 2, AT: 1, DMG/AT: d4, Special: spin and throw 2 daggers per round at +2 to hit, Average Intelligence, Medium Size, Chaotic Evil. Each carries a brace of 6 throwing daggers with a spare for melee. These can come from any bizarro plane, but something about their aspect suggests corrupted Modron to me.

 

 

The Forest of Doom: Forest-crawl (duh) and one of the more non-linear of the books. Overall not one of the best but has a singularly inspiring way to fail the game by being transformed into the demon overlord of a fungus farm.

 

D&D-able:

The Crown of the Taskmaster

A cave leads to an small network of underground caves where large mushrooms are cultivated by mute humanoid clones. The mushroom growers quickly fall in combat, but they are guarded by patrols of fighting clones (as zombies). In the last cave is a throne where dwells a fire demon (basically a Balor, down to flaming whip and sword etc) which wears a golden crown. Once the demon is defeated, should the crown be donned by any mortal, he or she will be transformed into a fire demon/Balor and gain telepathic command of the clone walkers and warriors. The crown wearer is effectively removed from play, as it will desire only to maintain it’s mushroom farm on the prime material, the produce of which is considered a delicacy by a notable Demon Lord. The new demon will fight its former comrades to drive them from the farm, but is bound to its duty and will not pursue them outside the cave complex.

meet the new boss, same as the old boss

City of Thieves: Easily one of the best. Port Blacksand as a location is one of the gems of the series, and this adventure is chock full of interesting urban encounters in this chaotic and corrupt wretched hive of scum and villainy.

D&D-able: Totally. This one really deserves to be read through and mined for city adventure ideas. Confidence tricks, corruption, danger and just plain strangeness lurk round every corner. Hassle your players with corrupt guards, some of which are sarcastic trolls. Practise home invasion and encounter depressed Ogres, a wrecked house with squabbling hags dressed as little girls. Get some embarrassingly tasteless but magically protective tattoos. Present your players with a glass ball filled with swirling gas. Gas in D&D is generally feared as poisonous, but smash this thing on the ground and find that it dissipates harmlessly to reveal a useful magic item.

The Serpent Queen

In a sumptuous house, concealed behind silk curtains, dwells the Serpent Queen, a beautiful young woman with the head of a snake. The overlord of the city keeps her maintained in luxury and often sends her lavish gifts. It is said that he will reward handsomely anyone who can find a way to restore her to fully human form. If disturbed, she will defend herself with a deadly poison bite. I would make her a rogue Yuan-Ti abomination who never held true human form, but nonetheless holds onto hope that she can achieve one.

nice lashes

 

Deathtrap Dungeon: Baron Sukumvit of Fang creates this megadungeon as a sadistic contest to promote his dinky town, where the winner who beats the dungeon by collecting a series of gems and stepping out alive wins a fantastic cash prize. Straight-up dungeon crawl with some interesting encounters, especially from the Baron’s agents, who can cripple or empower your character depending on choices you make. One of the more gruesome and brutal entries in the series.

D&D-able. The dungeon and encounters a ok but what I would take from this is the setting. Want a contrived funhouse megadungeon? Set up the Baron’s contest in your campaign world. You can make it for competing teams if player co-operation is a concern or keep it for one winner for a brutal one-off adventure that would see the players team up for survival while awaiting the best opportunity to dispose of their rivals. I would actually say that the silliest thing about the dungeon is how it is treated as some kind of gladistorial entertainment when the crowd in the arena at the end has no way to see what’s going on. Fix some kind of giant scrying device or spell for the poor punters so that they can have some fun watching the carnage and derring-do.

the contenders

Island of the Lizard King: Combat-heavy jungle adventure with some really tough (but cool) antagonists and a compelling story. The island works well as a D&D setting, possibly fusing its elements with TSR module I2 for ultimate Royal Lizardy goodness.

D&D-able: The whole adventure would work well for a D&D party, but something more unique to be taken from the module is the Gonchong, a strange spider-like head parasite that both dominates and bestows great power on its host, in this case the titular Lizard King. I also take cues from this book when fleshing out Lizard Men tribes in D&D, boosting them with mutants, two-headed types, Styracosaurus riders.

Gongchong

AC: 5, MV: 6″, HD: 2, AT: 1, DMG/AT: d4, Small Size, Genius Intelligence, Lawful Evil, Special Defenses: +1 or better weapon to hit, 25% magic resistance, Special attacks: +2 to hit as it leaps onto a humanoid’s head. Upon a successful hit against an opponent, the Gonchong will implant itself onto the creatures head and make it its host. If the opponent wears a helm or protective headgear, the Gongchong must make another successful attack the next round to dislodge the headgear and implant itself. The host of a Gongchong loses his or her free will but gains the following benefits: strength 18.00, immunity to non-magical weapons, bonus hit points equal to the parasite’s hit points, 25% magic resistance, immunity to disease. Psionic or mind affecting attacks affect the parasite rather than the host. The Gongchong is cruel, domineering and paranoid, and will use its host to gather guards and slaves and establish a power base.

the big kahuna with big cat and Gonchong

the big kahuna with big cat and Gonchong

There are some other monsters/items/encounters that have made it from these books to my D&D campaigns, but that’s to be continued in a future post.

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.