A Dwarf’s Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fifi

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

More LL combat tweaks

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

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

beautiful-manuscript-image

Cleric chants from a safe distance. Smart.

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

d20+HD+AC ≥ 20

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

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

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

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

Advancing Weapons for Labyrinth Lord

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

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

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

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

 

poorsod

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

Swords

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

Short Sword – d6

Broad Sword/Scimitar/Falchion/Arming Sword – d8

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

2 handed Sword – d12

Axes

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

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

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

Battle axe – d6/d8 if used 2 handed

Maces, Morning Stars and Warhammers

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

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

Mace, Morning Star or Warhammer – d6

2H version- d8

Spears

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

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

Spear – d6/d8 if used 2H

Javelin – d6, can be hurled.

Daggers

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

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

Throwing daggers – d4

Polearms

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

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

Polearm – d10

Wooden Weapons

For the poor or desperate.

Club – d4

2H Quarterstaff – d6

Bows

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

Short Bow – d6

Long Bow – d8

Crossbows

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

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

Light Crossbow – d6

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

Slings

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

Sling – d4

Darts

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

Dart – d4

Weapon Restrictions

Fighter (and subclasses) – Any

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

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

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

Assassin – any

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

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

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

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

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

Liking Labyrinth Lord

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

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

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

Some not so nice things to say about LL:

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

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

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

 

Things I want to tinker with:

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

 

 

 

A farewell to Returns to the Temple of Elemental Evil

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

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

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

Round 1

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

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

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

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

Round 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…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.

 

The Unspeakable Cults

For the next series here on Power Word Kill, I’m going to get stuck in to what was undoubtably one of the most fascinating aspects of the game once I got my hands on the Monster Manual – the Demons and Devils. They were the most ‘fantasy’ element of the game and from their entries in the MM as well as some others one could piece together images from the planar cosmology of the D&D’s ‘implied setting’. The early books, by way of these monsters, fleshed out the lower plans and the fate of the damned in D&D considerably more than the upper or neutral planes.

demons

1E AD&D’s treatment of demons and devils is one of the stand-out things about the edition that keeps me coming back to it. The rules and lore surrounding their amulets, their hierarchies and dwelling places all give the game great flavour, and a mysterious, ‘authentic’ feel. Their old simple B&W illustrations are reminiscent of medieval images of demons in art and even their descriptions echo what one would find in an Ars Goetia style occult text. This kind of dark evocative detail delighted my nerdy-goth-metal-punk teenage mind. The whole ‘satanic panic’ reaction against D&D was before my time, but funnily enough, I borrowed some occult books from my DM as a teen, which caused a minor spat with my mother when discovered. Good thing the DM was a family friend. Anyway, the religious fundamentalist reaction against D&D led to the purging of demons and devils (not to mention my beloved half-orcs) from the game in its revision for 2nd Edition, and I think they haven’t really recovered since. Sure, Planescape did nice work with the lower planes and brought back the fiends without using the ‘d-words’, but they lost some of their mystery and dread by becoming powerful races of monsters with magic powers in a setting filled with such. Post-AD&D versions of the game seem to have a depressing trend of presenting demons and related fiends as simply powerful monsters for battles, a far cry from the 1E MM where the descriptions go on at length on ways to bind or treat with these beings via amulets, circles, etc. James M over at grognardia nails this shift in his analysis of the visual history of Orcus.

I want my demons and devils to be more than just combat encounters, I want them to have a presence in the world. Even at low level play, the Demon Lords and Arch-Devils’ influence should be felt. A leering visage on a cracked church fresco, their many names written with a trembling hand in ancient chronicles or tomes of forgotten lore. In curses, fetishes, cultural taboos and weird superstitions. In the ravings of the wide-eyed apocalyptic fanatic on the street corner and the macabre rhymes sung by children to frighten each other. This way when PCs encounter a demon or devil in the ‘flesh’ they’ll know they’re face to face with a whole other level of danger.

paladin-in-hell1

To this end, I’m preparing a new blog series ‘Unspeakable Cults’ to develop these demons and devils in 1E along these lines. As well as some additional lore, there’ll be game material about legends, cults, rituals, superstitions, locations and items associated with each fiend or type thereof. I’ll be tackling each demon and devil in order of appearance from the 1E MM, FF and MM2, and if I can keep steam going take on some of the other similar beings in the books (Daemons, Slaad, Elemental Princes etc), even I think as the number of these monsters increase, they become somewhat less inspired or inspiring and more fiend-by-numbers, there should be a few choice ones here and there. This should hopefully provide some useful fodder for your old school games, despite your divine set-up or metaphysical cosmology. There may be no universal pantheon of gods across D&D worlds, but given their deep roots in the game, Demogorgon and Asmodeus probably have a hand in more game worlds than Ra, Vishnu or Odin taken together. Coming up first are the demons, (two-) headed by the big D himself.

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.

 

 

 

Orctober part 2 – half orc half biscuit

It became clear in time that undoubted Men could under the domination of Morgoth or his agents in a few generations be reduced almost to the Orc-level of mind and habits; and then they would or could be made to mate with Orcs, producing new breeds, often larger and more cunning. There is no doubt that long afterwards, in the Third Age, Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile.” (Myths Transformed, Morgoth’s Ring)

Liz's Danforth's MERP half-orc

Liz Danforth’s MERP half-orc, better than any of their example illustrations in AD&D

Yuck. From the beginning of the orcs in fiction, the half-orc came with them. Weirdly, men-orcs and orc-men are apparently different strains. Their origins in Middle-Earth somewhat occluded and mysterious, as is typical for orcish lore, but apparently some kind of sorcerous eugenics program. Interestingly, men first had to be corrupted to a certain level before being made to mate with orcs, it doesn’t seem like the orcs themselves had any inclination towards this before Morgoth ‘discovered’ the process.

LoTR and D&D core rulebooks both say almost nothing about female orcs’ side of things, but they differ in important respects. In our previous post, we look at the almost unique aspect of sexual threat attributed to orcs in the MM, markedly different from LoTR’s magic breeding program. It certain marks out the orcs as more sinister. Goblins and kobolds will kill you, but orcs are an existential threat to your race. They’ll assimilate and corrupt humanity, turning us into a badass multi-classable warrior race with infravision, higher STR and CON but a pathetic clerical level limit and no arcane magic. Sounds like there might be a few upsides? Damn right, half-orcs are awesome, and fun to play, even if the text itself appears to want to beat you up for wanting to play one sometimes, saddling you with harsh ability maximum in WIS (so cleric multis would usually be pretty weak), the only demi-human to have limited levels in thief and unlimited in assassin. Clearly there was some pressure to embrace your evil heritage and dedicate yourself to promoting the ‘antithesis of weal’ by being a Fighter/Assassin. There’s also the implication that all your tendencies to bad behaviour came from your orcish genes, and your good behaviour from your human parent.

Damnit, Gygax

Damnit, Gygax, I’m my own person, demi-human, humanoid, or whatever.

My first ever D&D character was a half-orc, and while I can fantasise about rolling up the perfect fighter/cleric/assassin and going maximum half-orc on the world, it was mainly because I wanted to be able to use miniatures from my Warhammer Fantasy Battle Orc and Goblin army.

Warhammer half-orcs from before my time.

Warhammer half-orcs from before my time.

I didn’t know much about how the rules worked but made a fighter/thief so he could use ALL THE WEAPONS and CLIMB ALL THE WALLS! Half-orcs get really low starting age ranges and he ended up being 15 or 16 yrs old, just a little older than myself in real life. This was exciting, but adolescent me thought he seemed a little immature, so I made up a background for him where he was the adopted son of my half-elf druid (who was around 4o years old with 15 WIS so seemed plenty mature to me). My older self can ponder the interesting roleplaying possibilities given this kind of relationship between these two mixed race characters, one from each side of half-human possibility, but in the end it may be a good thing I didn’t invest too much in it, as Morglum the half-orc met an untimely death by way of dragon-fire when he was still in his teens, somewhere around the 5th level. Still, in his short life, I managed to squeeze some nice RP juice out of him, just by way of his age, race and choice of associates. A youngster raised in the druidic religion away from his original parents by a mixed race foster parent, Morglum was naive, good natured and believed in balance. The violence and sneakiness of his classes were part of nature, but he didn’t ‘get’ a lot of the racial conflict in D&D. Our early level adventuring took us through plenty of humanoid areas, and when about to meet orcs for the first times in his life, Morglum regretted that he had to end up killing a lot of them to safeguard his friends, and that so few of them were willing to listen to reason (he got burned early on by desperate humanoids trying to exploit his naivety). Still where orcs where concerned I had him negotiate and communicate whenever possible, including attempting to temporarily recruit defeated orcs (especially after our men-at-arms all died). A couple of times his ability to read and speak orcish turned up handy information, and he was would discourage unncessary slaughter of humanoids in favour of focusing on the main objective. This led to a fair few conflicts with the group’s main warrior, an elven ranger with exceptional strength, a damage bonus vs humanoids, and an itchy sword hand every time he had a chance to use it. Having a half-orc in the party definitely had a meaningful impact on gameplay, and although Morglum was never destined for name-level greatness, I’ve had a penchant for playing half-orcs ever since.

No prince charming, but he’ll get the job done.

Before Drizzt and playable drow, the half-orc would be my pick for the badass anti-hero kind of character, the self-reliant type who kicks-ass while working through his or her often literally teenage angst. Strong, tough, cunning, distrusted by communities or humans and orcs alike, it seems like they’re a perfect fit for the gritty adventuring life, which would provide them with the riches, comradeship, validation and power that they couldn’t get through normal channels. They mature quickly and have a short lifespan, no wonder the live-fast die-young dungeon raiding lifestyle would appeal. They’re the intersection between monster and man, the character that can lift the veil over the all-too-convenient tidy set up of good playable pretty races versus bad ugly monsters and mess things around. Plenty of  murderhobos of other races have, at some point in their career, realised that there might not be much to separate them in behaviour from the humanoids in the dungeon. The half-orc knows this right from the start.

While they share some bad-boy rebel appeal with the drow, half-orcs are less glamorous. Orcs have a much gritter, barbaric, even working-class vibe to them that’s at odds with the suave dark elves. Half-orcs even stir things up in the real world. Half-orcs (and their signature assassin class) were omitted from 2nd Edition AD&D in an effort to purge the game of controversial content. They were eventually restored in the Complete Book of Humanoids supplement, and regained their rightful place in the core race set in 3e. Sadly, the 3e half-orc was something like a hulk-like bruiser with an INT penalty as well as the CHA, similar in appearance to the WoW orc but a very poor choice in 3e character building system, especially since the lack of INT meant they had less skill points for thief or assassin- like roles. I always imagined them as more lean and wiry. Certainly stronger than your average human but not the juiced-up ‘roid monster a lot of newer half-orc character art puts forward.  In 4th and 5th editions, they are better choices, presented as natural beserkers, with their orcish blood acting as a kind of curse egging them on to violent rages. 5e fluff does take a more nuanced and realistic approach to human-orc relations along the lines of my suggestion in the last post.

5e half-orc paladin. Continues with the trend of making them much beefier and more inhuman looking, but I like 5e’s treatment of half-orcs in general.

I’ll stick with my AD&D style half-orc for my old school games, though some good race-as-class variants have been offered up for B/X in the OSR blogosphere, with some emphasising the sneaky side of the race and other pushing the more modern beserker take. How do people feel about the half-orc out there? Are there still those out there think it’s inappropriate? For you 5e players, how does the modern iteration fare in play?