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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dark fey: Goblins

Pity the goblin - poor wretch!  For he is a creature of envy, doomed never to know joy or contentment of his own, forever tormented by that of others.  There is no thing animate or inanimate which is not the object of his envy.  He envies his brother-goblin who found a dead rat in the tunnel; he envies the rat, for it has no more concerns to trouble it in this world; he envies his chieftain for his position of power (even as the chieftain envies him a life free of the heavy burden of dominating the rabble with the lash!)  Most of all he envies men, elves, and dwarves, for the fellowship they share between one another, for the beauty of their crafts, for the delight they take in food and drink, for the mirth of their songs.  He envies them childhood, full of wonder; he envies them the robustness of adulthood; he envies them their wise venerability.  Especially he envies that they so freely walk beneath the daylight sky which burns his pallid skin and sears his red eyes.

Yes, pity the goblin, but fear him as well!  For so great is his misery that there is no act he will not contemplate to assuage it for the briefest of moments, or to share it in as great a measure as he can.  He is not brave, or at least seldom so, but he is sly and clever, and his eyes see in the blinding darkness.  He will steal whatever he may that seems to bring enjoyment to its owner, and either hoard it away with a hundred other forgotten baubles when it disappoints him, or ruin it that it might never give another the delight it has denied him.

He will hew down your beloved apple tree, set aflame your thatched hovel, pull the guts from your old striped cat because he sees you smile at her.  He balks not at foul murder, even - especially! - of children, who laugh and love so easily.  He laughs, too, as he works his malice, all full of madness but utterly void of mirth, and thus it is a sound most horrible.

Yet, pity him, though he has none in his withered heart for you!  Cold steel may slay his body, but it is kindness which his spirit cannot abide.  Set out bowls of food and drink for him at night, and little shoes and waistcoats sized just for him, though he will leave them untouched. Only then will your home and your kin be safe from his cruel mischief.

Dark fey

One of the great strengths of early iterations of D&D like B/X is their brief treatment of monsters.  There are none of the long treatises on each creature's ecology, biology, and society (which really exploded in AD&D 2E, if I recall.)  Each entry in the monsters chapter of the rules tells you the monster's stats, what it looks like, what it can do, and where it can be found.  That's it.  The beauty of this is that it leaves all the world-specific details of creatures to the DM, instead of codifying an "official" version.

Even though these things were lacking in the actual rule books, I absorbed a great deal of what monsters were "supposed" to be like from adventure modules, most especially The Keep on the Borderlands.  Gygax portrayed the humanoids as essentially evil, ugly, savage humans.  Sure, they looked different, and they hated "real" humans, but they had all the same basic needs and motivations.  They ate, drank, slept, reproduced, and reared young.  Other modules and supplements that I read and played pretty much followed Gary's lead, and the paradigm of goblins as reskinned barbaric humans became lodged in my mind.

These days, I want something a little more fantastic.  I want goblins and kobolds that are radically different from humans and demi-humans, despite their superficial physical resemblance.  (I also would like to avoid "orc babies" moral dilemmas, because I really don't find them fun or entertaining.) I'm thinking of something like the dark fey creatures depicted in so many tales.  Without further ado, here's the direction I'm leaning...

In addition to humans and demi-humans, the world is populated by fey beings - elemental spirits of nature spawned by the earth itself.  Thus, woodlands give rise to treants and dryads, flowers and mushrooms birth pixies and sprites, streams and springs spawn nixies and naiads.  But even nature itself is not incorruptible.

There are places where the trees, the waters, even the very hills themselves have grown hateful.  They may seem at a glance little different from more wholesome locales, but always they seethe with invisible malice that troubles the hearts of good creatures who venture near.  From the detritus of these places - the stinking mud and the mouldering leaves, the rotten hearts of diseased trees and deadly toadstools, the festering darkness within the fouled earth itself - spring the dark fey: Goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, bugbears, trolls, ogres, and others even more grotesque.

The dark fey, as their less-loathsome kin, are ageless beings, untouched by the ravages of time, although they often are haggard and gnarled in aspect suggestive of ruinous age.  Some may take the forms of male or female, but without the functions: they are not born, but generated spontaneously from places of malevolence and corruption, and they know not what it is to be young or old.  They need no food to sustain them, but hunger gnaws them nonetheless; eating assuages their hunger for a time but gives them no true pleasure, and what they cannot devour they will spoil so that no mortal may have the enjoyment of it.  They likewise do not need sleep.  Some partake of it anyway out of sheer sloth, but others despise it and never close their bloodshot eyes.  Long years of wakefulness may add the gift of stark madness to their vicious natures.

Dark fey are normally closely bound to the sites of their genesis, and cannot stray more than a few miles without weakening.  If forcibly removed, their life force dissipates, and their bodies, bereft of the animating spirit, revert to the stuff of their making: mud, sticks, decaying leaves, slime, mold, and shadows.  The corrupted woods and hills which spawn dark fey inevitably produce more to replace any who are slain; they are not quite genius loci, but perhaps more akin to a fungal mass from which sprout an inexhaustible number of mushrooms.  Thus the numbers of dark fey tend to remain constant, despite the best efforts of adventurers and mercenaries charged with their extermination.  In some cases, it may be possible to purge such a site of its evil influence, but a different method is required for each, and discovering and implementing it is likely to prove an arduous and expensive endeavor.  Worse still, sometimes the evil spreads like rot, expanding outward to engulf a larger area.  Many a human village has succumbed to the creeping terror of a bugbear-haunted forest on its borders, or a dwarven stronghold overrun by the taint of goblin-earth spreading from a mountain's black heart.

These things the dark fey have in common, yet they are also diverse, with each race distinct from its awful brethren.  In our next installment, we will begin the tour through the ranks of these spirits of  malice, beginning with the goblin.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Re-opening

So.  I didn't think I'd ever be back here, but I am.  Tentatively.

I did not intend to be dramatic.  I didn't do it for sympathy or attention.  I boarded up the doors and windows back in February because at that point I sincerely could not imagine having anything worthwhile to post ever again.  Depression is a cruel bitch.

I'm sure I'm not the only RPG enthusiast to suffer from bouts of depression, so I trust that at least a few people who read my ramblings here have some firsthand understanding of how it feels when it hits.  This one just hit especially hard.  I soldiered on for a few posts ("fake it 'til you make it," as they say,) and then I hit the wall hard, the bottom fell out, the wheels fell off, or whatever other metaphor you like to use for a mental breakdown.  I don't think anything really changed over the next few months, except that the black cloud just slowly lifted.  They always do, I guess; it just doesn't feel like it will when you're in the middle of a particularly dark one.

I haven't run my usual game since last November, and I'm not sure of its status.  I haven't played in a game in more than ten years.  Despite all that, D&D is bubbling up in my brain again, and it needs an outlet.  Perhaps I'll try to suck up my social anxiety (and my aversion to newer editions) and find a local game store and see if I can worm my way into a game or two.  B/X is my first love, but maybe any D&D is better than none at all?  Maybe I'll find out.  Meanwhile, I guess there's no good reason not to write some new posts about some of these ideas that are cropping up.

Welcome back to the Flagon.  Pardon the dust and the cobwebs.  Hopefully things will be back to normal soon.

(Comments are turned off, because, as I said, I'm really not fishing for sympathy.  Comments will be re-enabled for the first new game-related post.)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sorry, we're closed

On further reflection, I think perhaps it's time to abandon this project entirely, and seek for more fruitful fields.  Sometimes a point is reached at which one realizes he simply has no more to say, and at such time he would be wise to cease the flow of words than to persist in pouring them forth to no purpose.  What is here will remain here, for any who care to revisit it, but no more will be added.

Again, thanks to those who have read and found something of value here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Anonymity

After having this blog connected to my Google+ profile for a couple years, I've decided that was a mistake, and reverted to my old faceless blogger profile.  I find that things are better when nobody knows who you are.  Content will continue to be published.  My identity is not relevant to that.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Comfort and healing

I can't claim any credit for the idea behind this post, which came from another blog that I can't recall.  If it's yours, or you know where it originated, please do come forth so I can bestow credit where credit is due.

(Edit: The core idea came from Telecanter's Receding Rules.  A lot more is covered there than merely healing rates, so go check it out if you haven't already.)

Anyway, the basic idea is that the comfort of characters affects their rate of healing, and comfort includes such things as entertainment as well as food and drink, lodgings, etc.  My contribution to the cause is to codify these factors into a very simple system, utilizing a slight modification of the standard B/X ability score modifier table.

First, the "comfort score" is determined, starting with a base of 11.  This assumes reasonable shelter from the elements (could be a house, an inn, or a sturdy pavilion or yurt), a basic bed such as a cot or straw pallet, adequate warmth, and basic food and drink (bread and cheese, porridge, or similar, plus water or other beverage of ordinary quality.)

Add 1 point for each of the following that applies:
  • Comfortable bed (soft mattress, clean linens, etc.)
  • Good food and/or drink (Hearty fare, i.e. not simple gruel or bread and cheese, nor preserved rations.  Roast fowl or a chunky meat stew are enough to qualify.)
  • Abundant food and drink (Everyone can eat their fill, and then some.)
  • Heartening entertainment (Music or storytelling or whatever else seems appropriate.)
  • Care of a healer (No more than four patients per healer.)
  • Full rest (No other significant activity for 24 hours.)
  • Hygiene: Opportunity for bathing, washing, and grooming.
  • Creature comforts (Robe and slippers, tea, incense, or whatever else makes a character feel really comfortable.)
  • Pleasing environment (Neat and tidy indoor area with appealing decor, or an outdoor place of great natural beauty.)

Subtract one point for each of the following that applies:
  • Inhospitable climate (Hot or cold, rainy.) (Negated by rudimentary shelter and/or campfire, if appropriate.)
  • Very inhospitable climate (Bitter cold, sweltering heat. heavy rain, hail.) (Cumulative with the above.  Negated by full shelter and/or fire, if appropriate.)
  • Sleeping on ground 
  • Sleeping on hard, rough surface (A dungeon floor, for example. Cumulative with the above.)
  • Iron rations (Unappealing preserved food, e.g. hardtack and salt pork.)
  • Short rations (Stretching rations farther than they're intended, or living on foraged food.)
  • Interrupted sleep (Guard rotation, or actually being attacked or otherwise disturbed.)
  • Frightening/unsettling environment (Haunted, cursed, inhabited by monsters, etc.)
  • Unsanitary conditions (Muck, slime, corpses, horrible smells, etc.)

Base rate of healing is 1d4 points per day, modified by the "comfort score" as if it were an ability score:

 Less than 3            -4*
           3                          -3**      
      4-5                        -2***
                                     6-8                        -1                                     
9-12  No adjustment
13-15                   +1
16-17                   +2
18                         +3
19 or more           +4

* No spell memorization/restoring spell slots possible
** May not memorize or restore slots for highest two spell levels known
*** May not memorize or restore slots for highest level of spells known

Penalties may reduce a roll to zero or less, in which case no healing takes place and the character's condition may actually deteriorate.

Let's say our intrepid adventurers have had a rough go of things in an underground crypt, and barricade themselves in a dead-end chamber.  The place is pervaded by a deathly chill (-1), they're sleeping on the ground (-1), on a hard surface (-1), on iron rations (-1), interrupting their sleep to keep a constant watch (-1), and in a very unnerving place (-1), for a total penalty of -6.  That comes out to a Comfort score of 5, which is a -2 penalty to heal.  To bolster their flagging spirits, they break out the bottle of fine vintage brandy they found in one of the crypts, which adds +1, making their overall score a 6.  Their healing penalty is only -1, and their spell casters can recover all their spell levels normally.  (If they hadn't had the brandy, they could have risked the noise of singing a few heroic ballads to achieve the same effect.)

Once they make it back to town, they spend a week recovering in the luxurious villa they prudently purchased with some of their previous loot.  They have plush feather beds (+1), excellent food prepared by the villa staff (+1) in plenty (+1), they have nothing to do but rest and relax (+1), take hot baths (+1), enjoy all the luxuries of the well-to-do (+1), and in a very pleasing environment (+1) for a total Comfort score of 18.  

If desired, the Comfort score can be adjusted individually for each character's Constitution modifier; thus, hearty souls can recover quickly even in less than ideal circumstances, while the more delicate require greater ease and comfort to restore themselves.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dragon tactics for B/X

Dragons probably aren't the most appropriate opponents for levels 1-3, but of course it would have been a perverse design decision indeed to leave them out of even the introductory books of a game that's half named for them.  They really did seem like nigh-insuperable foes back when I was first poring over the monsters section of the Moldvay rulebook, especially the upper range of the dragon hierarchy, the terrible red dragon and the mighty gold.

That was with low-level PCs in mind, though.  Once the PCs gain several levels, they begin to rival the great monsters, at least at a glance.  A 6th-level fighter has about as many hit points as a white or black dragon, and maybe more if he has a bonus from Constitution.  Most likely he's going to have as good or better AC than most dragons, too, with magical armor and shield bonuses.   Dragons usually have the edge in physical attacks (a lowly white dragon has damage potential of up to 24 points per round, compared to the fighter's 1d8 or so plus Strength and magic - say, around 12 points max.  The dragon theoretically has an advantage in attack rolls (14 to hit AC 0 for a 6 HD white dragon) but a fighter at 4th level probably has similar odds (base 17 to hit AC 0, but with a combined bonus of +3 or more from Strength and magic, he at least equals the dragon.)  

(Random digression: This, in my mind, is a good argument in favor of limiting attack and damage bonuses from magical weapons.)

A B/X white dragon has 6 Hit Dice, an AC of 3 (equivalent to plate armor), and damage of 1d4/1d4/2d8 with its claw/claw/bite attack routine.  That's pretty tough for low-level PCs, but curiously, except for the better AC, ability to fly, and breath weapon, it's not far off from the stats of a tiger (6 HD, Dam 1d6/1d6/2d6) -a formidable foe, to be sure, but less than you might think.  While the correlation between size and HD in B/X is tenuous at best, taken together with attacks and damage it maps pretty well to size and strength.  The dragon's claw attacks do as much damage as a character with a dagger, and less than the tiger's claws.  Its bite is a little better than the tiger's, but the total damage potential is 24 in both cases.

(Random digression: A 3 HD giant crab also has damage potential of up to 24 points - 2 pincers for 2d6/2d6.  An overgrown crustacean is going to mess you up as much as a tiger or a dragon?  What?)

So, apparently a white dragon is roughly equivalent in size to a tiger.  Probably a longer, more sinuous shape, with smaller claws and bigger teeth, but still pretty close to the same overall bulk and strength.

More powerful dragon types have more Hit Dice, better ACs, and significantly more powerful physical attacks, but across the board, a dragon's biggest advantage over other foes is its breath weapon.  This inflicts automatic damage (no attack roll needed) equal to the dragon's current hit points, or half that if a save is made.  In theory, then, our white dragon could either knock a 6th level fighter (or a group of them - breath weapons are area attacks!) either to around 0 hp, or to around half their starting hp in one breath.  Lower level characters would most likely be slain outright on a failed save, and in very bad shape even on a successful save. A dragon can use its breath weapon three times per day, so if it doesn't wipe out the opposition on the first try, it can finish them off with a second blast.

Of course, if the PCs get the drop on the dragon - either surprising it or winning initiative the first round - and manage to do some significant damage to it, they also reduce the damage it can do with its breath.  This is virtually essential for successfully fighting a dragon.  More so than in almost any other situation in the game, surprise and initiative can make the difference between victory and a rout or TPK.

Clearly, then, these B/X dragons are not the gargantuan monsters depicted in fantasy art (including that of most editions of D&D.)  They aren't Smaug.  (The Mentzer edition Companion set provides stats and write-ups for such epic beasts, though they should probably be exceedingly rare, maybe no more than a small handful in an entire campaign world.)  While they are physically robust and well-armored, B/X dragons aren't world destroyers.  If they were no more than their physical bulk, armored hides, claws, and teeth, they'd be tough, but predictably beatable by a party with enough experience.

Even more than their legendary breath weapons, it's the intelligence and cunning of dragons that truly set them apart from run-of-the-mill monsters.  Dragons should absolutely not be played like zombies, charging headlong into battle and fighting until slain.  A toe-to-toe fight between a powerful party and a dragon should almost never happen.  Even dragons not intelligent enough to talk or use magic will be clever and devious opponents.  A party that expects to walk into a dragon's lair and cut it down through sheer force of arms and magic should generally have a very bad time, even if every one of them individually has more levels than the dragon has Hit Dice, because dragons play their advantages to the hilt.  Defeating a dragon should require them to outfox the beast, not merely outfight it.

If there were a book like The Art of War written by dragons for dragons, it would probably include the following pieces of advice:

  • The first strike is decisive.  Be aware of your opponent before he is aware of you.
  • Whenever possible, observe and learn the strength of your opponents.  Engage them in conversation, if you can talk, and if you can do so without endangering yourself unduly.  Humans who come poking around in a dragon's lair are either very formidable or very foolish, but the greatest fool is you if you mistake one sort for the other.
  • Your lair is your fortress.  Know it to the last detail.  Set traps and alarms on every entrance, especially if you plan on sleeping there.  Block the entrances that are of no use to you.  Conceal the others if possible, and consider moving if you can't.
  • Unite and conquer!  Use terrain to your advantage, to force your enemies to approach you together so that you may wipe them out at once with a breath attack.  Do not allow them to surround you and bring all their attacks to bear on you at once.  Hallways and narrow defiles are your allies; huge chambers with low ceilings are deathtraps. 
  • Choose the time and place of a fight to suit you.  Don't fight on your enemies' terms if you can help it.  Outdoors, the choice is almost always yours, because you can fly. 
  • Use your wings.  When fighting outdoors, don't stand there on the ground while your enemies swarm over you.  Take to the air; use your mobility to attack individuals separated from the rest, and take off again before the others can come to their aid.  If you've chosen a particularly spacious cavern for your lair, you can use flying tactics there too.
  • Employ henchmen, hench-monsters, servitors, dragon cultists, etc. to act as guards, spies, and providers of tribute in the form of treasure and fresh meat.  Don't ever trust them completely, though.
  • If you have the use of magic spells or items, use them, especially if they facilitate one of the above strategies.