Friday, June 11, 2021

Spark of Inspiration (The Mad Poet: A Class for King of Kings)

 He appeared now here, now there. He wandered about in the small alleys between the tents and in the bazaar where the merchants and artisans have their stalls. He walked aimlessly, driven only by his aching heart, without heeding the staring eyes; tears springing from under his eyelashes like wild mountain streams. All the time he sang melancholy songs such as lovers are wont to sing in their misery.

When he passed by, people around him shouted: "Look, the Madman, Majnun is coming... Majnun!"

The reins had slipped from the rider's hand. His innermost being was revealed like the heart of a split fruit. He had not only lost his beloved, but also himself. Everyone saw in his face the reflection of the fire scorching his heart, saw the blood running from his wound. He was suffering because of his beloved, but she remained far away. The longer it lasted, the more Qays became Majnun. Burning like a candle, he did not sleep at night and, while he searched for a remedy to cure soul and body, both were filled with deadly pain. Each day, at dusk, the ghosts of his vain hopes chased him out into the desert, barefoot and bareheaded.

Then strange things began to happen. Majnun had been separated from Layla, yet his longing made him the slave of his imprisoned Mistress. A madman he became-- but at the same time a poet, the harp of his love and of his pain.
-The Story of Layla and Majnun, from the Khamsa or Panj Ganj of Nizami Ganjavi

Majnun visited in the wilderness

Not all who hear the whispers of the stars above can handle their poetry. Not everyone receives the kind of training, experience, or rigor that makes a true sorcerer. A spell is more than just a word; it is a stance, a dance, a gesture, a mentality. It is difficult to achieve these things! That is why to be a sorcerer takes dedication, same as to be a true swordsmaster. When the stars deign to whisper into a sleeper's ear, the hearer does not always have such resources or dedication. Often, the words must flow out from their mouths like sweetened honey or poisoned wine, or onto the page in the form of black ink. That is the mad poet, a poet possessed by the maddening glory of the stars above. From which star their dreams come they do not know, for they have not been trained in astrology. They are artists who wear their emotions on their sleeves, and awaken each morning with a new idea on their lips.

Sorry for the shitty pretentious quote and description I just thought it would set the mood. Oh also for those who don't know majnun basically means "bejinned" or "the jinn-haunted/jinn-possessed", translating is kinda hard.
No clue what this is but doesn't it look cool?

The Mad Poet

Requirements: None
Prime Requisite: CHA
Hit Dice: 1d6
Combat Bonus: 1/2 level, rounded down
Armor: Leather, chain, no shields
Weapons: All except polearms, two-handed swords, and warhammers (no big military-type weapons basically)
Languages: Shahanistani, one additional language
XP to Level 2: 2,300

The mad poet is an able lyricist. They know all about the art of poetry, and their reputation as an artist precedes them. Their poetry is moving and beautiful to the ear. If they write a poem, speech, or song for a particular purpose (persuading a given character, communicating a plan, inspiring love or hatred, etc), there is a base 1-in-6 chance of it being successful (i.e. convincing its reader/listener, etc). You have to be fluent in the language of the reader/listener for this to have any success. The chance of success increases by 1 every third level (2-in-6 at level 4, 3-in-6 at level 7, etc). You can receive a +1 modifier if you have a preexisting relationship with the reader/listener.
Just as their reputation as an artist precedes them, so too does their madness. People will treat you strangely, and often rather dismissively or patronizingly. You are often called mad, and the effect of the whispers on your personality can be determined with the table below.
Mystic Whispers
Every night in their fitful sleep, the mad poet receives feverish whispers from the stars. They remember them only partially, and have to decipher their meaning and purpose by piecing them together. You receive a number of mystic words equal to your level + 2 (3 at level 1, 4 at level 2, etc), which you can speak aloud to produce magical effects. These can be spoken singly or in combination, but the particular effect must be determined by discussion with the referee. You roll for new mystic words every morning, and any words you knew the day before are abandoned. The die you roll increases with level: 1d6 at level 1, 1d8 at level 3, 1d10 at level 5, 1d12 at level 7, 1d20 at level 9. The table for mystic words changes depending on certain moon phases and auspicious (or inauspicious) stars. When mystic words are spoken aloud, make a saving throw vs. magic, with a penalty equal to the number of words spoken in excess of 1. On a failure, roll on the magical mishap table. You lose a mystic word when it is spoken. Actually writing up said table and all of the special mystic words tables is going to be for another day however.
Saving Throws
Mad poets save as magic-users, but receive +2 to saving throws against illusion effects.
Mad poets are able to take their mystic words (see below) and scrawl them on paper to create scrolls. This takes one week and 100 drachmae per mystic word vested in the scroll. Since these words are trapped in a paper prison, they do not dissipate until spoken; the mad poet permanently loses that many words until the scroll is used. For instance, if a level 1 mad poet creates a scroll with two mystic words on it, from then on they only receive 1 mystic word each day. Creating a scroll does, however, allow non-spellcasters to use the magical effect even if the mad poet is not present. Most magical scrolls were penned by desperate madmen attempting to get the whispers out of their head and onto paper, and the scroll burns into nothing but ashes when its words are spoken aloud, casting the spell and opening the poet's head to the stars.

1: Obsession with a particular number
2: Rapid mood swings
3: Fear of clowns (you don't quite know what they are, but you have seen visions of them and you hate them)
4: Intense paranoia
5: Claustrophobia
6: Poor anger control
7: You walk on all fours
8: Almost always crying
9: Can't stop dancing
10: Anxious around people, calm around animals
11: Anxious around animals, calm around inanimate objects
12: You believe you are already dead and rotting
(To be clear, the discussion of "madness" and such here isn't reflective of how I see or treat neurodiverse people, and more about exploring how neurodiversity has been treated historically/in fiction)

Portion of a magic scroll from Ethiopia

1: Light
2: Rough
3: Egg
4: Strong
5: Dark
6: Warm
7: Fire
8: Child
9: New
10: Soft
11: Pain
12: Owl
13: Steel
14: Blood
15: Muscle
16: Tooth
17: Love
18: Snake
19: Ax
20: Old

A multi-purpose magical mishap table is forthcoming.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

King of Kings Session 7 After Action Report

 King of Kings has RETURNED, or well it returned a few days ago, the session was last Friday. But I've been rather busy since then with Things and haven't had time to write up a session report for it.

Dramatis Personae
Ishthyromeda the Small, level one amazon
Kusa, level one cleric of the exiled and half-dead foreign goddess Nasitu-Neb
Manchugo Coldeswain, level one cleric dedicated to Damir, foreign god of the trade routes
Rohm'Daan, level one cleric dedicated to Anzhalar, a local chthonic god of subterranean flame
Zana the Charlatan, level one magic-user

To begin with, treasure from the previous session was handled, resulting in 85 drachmae being given to each of the five players present (technically a bit wonky since most of these players weren't at the previous session but it all evens out in the end). Clerics receive 76 after the tithe was taken off. BUT after Housekeeping from the unresolved session from months back was handled, things actually got started in earnest.

It was a fine and sunny day, and a holy day at that! The festival of Jumhura, the Rebel Saint, He Who Broke Spears on His Knee, He Who Spoke with the Voice of the Sun was here! The whole of Tabur was abuzz, and the five adventurers decided to make way to Temple Town for the festival. Shortly before leaving, however, Kusa went to the group's patron Farzaneh Taburi to hand over the clay lamp in the shape of a huma bird that she began work on some time before. The group decided to take a less direct route, leaving via the northern gate of the city and traveling on a wilderness road, astride their horse-drawn cart.

On the road, however, they came across a horrid figure... Jamshid, the mercantile rival of Zana from his previous life as a less than successful merchant. The muscular black-bearded man seemed to be visiting Temple Town to take advantage of all of the captive customers during the festival. Immediately, Manchugo and Zana started yelling at him, and a shouting match ensued where Jamshid mocked them and made only small shifts out of the way of the cart. The loud yelling attracted a group of goatherds, who at first were concerned but very quickly took to resting on their staves to watch the situation go down. Ishthyromeda rode up ahead and attempted to push at Jamshid's cart with her javalin, but he budged only slightly. The group considered ramming his cart to push him off the road, but didn't act on it. Kusa ran up ahead and asked for a ride on Jamshid's cart, which Jamshid gave... and then Kusa turned to look at her friends' cart behind her, showing off her firestarter in her hand. For the sole reason of Zana's backstory rivalry, they collectively decided to just make this the worst day for Jamshid.

In short time, the two carts both reach their destination: Temple Town, more properly called the Hallowed Halls of the Holy Mountain, the ritual epicenter for Elburz satrapy and the headquarters of the temple bureaucracy for the whole of the east. The wide plaza of Temple Town was teeming with the raucous crowd, and just as the group arrived the mummified corpse of Saint Jumhura, curled up with his bony legs drawn up to his chest, was borne out of the fire temple at the center of the ritual plaza to be taken up to the cliffs where the mummies of the eastern saints reside... And at the same time, Kusa set fire to Jamshid's cart and quickly dashed away into the crowd. From this point on, the group somewhat split up: Kusa, Manchugo, and Rohm'Daan dashed over to the market-temple of Damir in Temple Town, while Ishthyromeda haggled in the crowd and Zana focused on his rival's fire.

Their messing about with Jamshid prompted a lot of memes to be made... this is only one of them!

Zana (and Kusa somewhat): As the fire grew and blazed ever-larger, more and more of the people in the crowd noticed and began to panic, and the guards posted at the gates to Temple Town's mausoleum-laden depths dashed over to attempt to put out the fire. For setting the fire, Kusa received 20 XP. Zana stood by and watched as the fire raged, and when it began to dwindle down, he stepped over and helped put out its last remaining embers, turning to mock his rival as he sat on the ground staring fearfully at the ashen remains of his cart. For mocking his rival and putting out the fire, Zana received 20 XP.

Ishthyromeda: Ish haggled with a sacrifice-seller in the crowd to buy a goat from him, and did so for only 8 drachmae!

Kusa, Manchugo, and Rohm'Daan: Visited the market-temple of Damir, which is operated by the former master conman turned... well, he's still a conman, but now its part of his official job, Mansour Jir. He is a young man with a short cropped black beard, and almost immediately took to selling trinkets to the trio. Rohm'Daan bought a tooth of Saint Melcayak, the blind and de-fanged dogman saint, while Manchugo sat in awe of Mansour's fame as a conman-merchant, and then began to explain the importance of mercantile activity to Kusa and sold a small basalt idol of the Conquering King to her.

After all of the above, the crowd had dissipated and the group decided it was time to bring the day to a close. Rather than making the journey back to Tabur, they decided to rest in one of the two pilgrims' houses in Temple Town, marching over to the Snail's Trail. Within, they found a small dining area with a wide clinic-hospital off to the side where groaning men and women could be seen on low-lying beds. There was a counter toward the back of the entrance hall, with a large snail's shell resting atop it and a woman in a thin purple veil and green robes standing behind it. Kusa, Manchugo, Rohm'Daan, and Zana each bought a room for the night (for 12 drachmae each), while Ishthyromeda slept on the cart with her newly bought goat and her horses.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

d8 Alternative Mind Flayers

 So I was reading this post by the wonderful semiurge over at Archons March On, and it got me thinkin'. Thinkin' about my own introduction to D&D being relatively similar (my first exposure to D&D was the 4e Monster Manual 2, along with the 3e-era kids book series that WotC put out, gazing in awe at the 3e books my mom's friends had, flipping through the pages of Pathfinder bestiaries while sitting on the floor of bookstores... though my first actual game was a boxed set, the box for the 7th edition of Gamma World). Also thinkin' about one bit that is mentioned in the post:

"Urophions", mind flayers made out of ropers, are born losers. An SCP-ish list of other attempts at making non-humanoid mind flayers would've been neat. 

I'm already familiar with those Urophions and other illithid-variants (alhoons (illithiliches) and vampire illithids for instance) so well, I thought I might try my hand at writing a few of those "attempts at making non-humanoid mind flayers"! Another big inspiration for this post was definitely the line of Alien toys by Kenner, which included a number of xenomorphs that had taken over non-human life. Oh also technically there is another mind flayer with a non-human host in the tzakandi which is a mind flayer in a lizardman, but its kinda boring if I'm completely honest. 

The urophion mentioned above... I wanna say this is from 3e? Love the colors and the horrid little mouth!

Alternative title for this post: d8 Mind Failures. This was going to be d12 but it has been taking me a bit too long to write.

1: Illithox: An attempt at developing an illithid to infiltrate human societies unnoticed, the illithox is a looming monstrous thing of an only loosely bovine inspiration. The host creature, the humble cow, was too large for a single larval mind flayer to take control of the whole body on its own, and so a second was introduced to speed along the process. This has resulted in a two-headed beast, long stiff necks tipped with tentacular heads jutting out from front and back. It groans incessantly, its back weighed down by a large udder-like growth that produces a sweet jelly that is sometimes used as bait by other mind flayers. The two heads of the illithox can oftentimes come to disagreements, and it is not uncommon for an illithox head to request being removed from its body so that it won't be around the other head anymore.

So I only found out after writing this that there already is
a gnome illithid but I think my attempt is distinct enough
2: Half Brain: Although the small races (halflings, gnomes, leprechauns, etc) are of a similar form to humanity, when a mind flayer larva is inserted into their skull, it finds little in the way of body matter to work with. The product is a half brain: an engorged mass of tentacles and valves with only the most vestigial of humanoid bodies hanging on like a skin tag. They move very slowly and are relatively dim witted since they lack a body to sustain them. They can reach the heights of mind flayer intelligence only shortly after feeding, their oversized brains filled with nutrients that steadily dwindle down, leaving them dumber until their next feast.

3: Calcium Creature: The rust monster is an ubiquitous presence in the dungeon ecosystem, its unique mouthparts and feathery tendrils adapted to melt away metal at the gentlest of touches. When a mind flayer takes control of these insectoid beasts, their rusting mouthparts are twisted into corrosive bonesaws that melt away calcium to leave the underlying organs defenseless. The carapace of the calcium creature is a lavender purple speckled with pale white spots, its long mandibles wrapping around limbs and heads and leaving them soft and flimsy.

4: The Colony: A desperate mind flayer larva, abandoned in the wilderness, comes across an underground maze of naked mole rat tunnels and nests. Crawling within, the wriggling thing finds the abode of the colony's queen, sliding into her mouth and taking root. What emerges is a mound of wrinkly flesh, its limbs turned vestigial, a circle of tentacles tipping its nose. The new mind flayer mole rat's psychic field takes control of the other rodents, already evolved for a eusocial existence, and bends them into a powerful colony united by one ur-mind. The colony hides beneath the surface of the earth, sometimes emerging as a many-limbed mass of earth puppeteered by the mole rats under the sway of their mind flayer queen.

5: Cerebroid Birther: In the depths of hot jungles dwells the pipa pipa, a strange little frog with a flat appearance and a unique style of birth. The female pipa pipa lays eggs which the male then forces into the female's back, the skin growing over them to keep them protected until it is time for them to hatch. When a larval mind flayer takes control of the pipa pipa, it uses these adaptations to its advantage. Although sex matters little to the mind flayer, the cerebroid birther comes in two forms: a wide limbless egg-holding form that crawls about on a ring of wriggling toes on its underside, and a slim egg-placing form with long and surprisingly strong forelimbs. Both forms produce partial larvae as clones of themselves, with the egg-placing form inserting them into the back of the egg-holding form. These partial larvae are little more than a brain with a flagellum, able to produce a slight telekinetic field that allows them to fly through the air when released from the back of the egg-holder. When the partial larvae are in the back of the egg-holder, it is also able to fly in the air, and can use the collective telekinesis to lift large objects, sometimes with the assistance of the strong forelimbs of its "mate", although this telekinesis dissipates as the larvae are launched.

6: Postoina: One of the more common variant mind flayers, the postoina is born from a larva inserted into the body of the olm, a pale and eyeless cave salamander ubiquitous in the wet caverns beneath the earth. Its pale purple skin is drawn tight on its frail bones, its head a perfectly smooth shield over a wide mouth filled with small teeth and a mass of flailing growths. Those growths are the center of the postoina's psionic power, able to cause hallucinations strong enough in the minds of creatures within a certain distance of it. Often, the postoina tricks the viewer into seeing it as much larger than itself, and as breathing a poisonous fume that can ignite easily. Because of this, the postoina is sometimes called a mind flayer dragon, but in reality the thing itself is rather small and physically weak.

7: Blattobrain: A last-ditch attempt to save whole societies of mind flayers from utter destruction, the blattobrain is a cockroach (multiple varieties of which are ubiquitous in subterranean environs) bred to large sizes and taken over by a cloying illithid larva. Dungeon cockroaches are kept as a foodstuff for the juicy mammals and reptiles that illithids eat, but during intense societal collapse the elder brains can ordain to force new larvae into especially large specimens in order to relocate. Found in massive swarms that carpet every surface as far as the eye can see, blattobrains carry their elder brain masters upon their backs, protecting the relocating society with a collective psychic blast that can put the victim to sleep. They are able to collaborate and form vaguely humanoid shapes in a pinch as well, but do not rely on that ability, instead focusing on relocating the elder brains to a new home.

8: Kavalrax: The mind flayers are fascinated by the phenomenon of otyugh intelligence, the beasts' large stumbling bodies endowed with the gift of telepathy and a mild sapience. Born from a larval illithid inserted into an otyugh, the kavalrax is a creature torn from its natural environment. The otyugh, like the cow, is too large for a single mind flayer to control, but this issue is compounded even more by the otyugh's mind already being endowed with mild psychic ability. No matter how many illithids take control of the bottom feeder's body, its mind will remain in the dark recesses, able to send out psychic screams or periodically take over the body's tentacular limbs. As a result of the uncertain control the mind flayer has over the kavalrax body and the disgust that mind flayers have for the otyugh's home in refuse and sewage, the kavalrax is typically held in a tight metal cage, kept absolutely clean and perfumed, only able to walk around when allowed.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Be a Good Listener. Encourage Others to Talk About Themselves.

 So you know how beholders are big spheres all covered with eyes? Well what if they were all ears!

This is just a monster that I'm writing for fun based on an idea that came to me a few days ago. I'm (probably) not gonna use it in King of Kings, so this isn't going to have any of the assumptions of that setting in it. Just a fun unique monster for old school roleplaying games!

Armor Class: 14
Hit Dice: 6
Attacks: 2 bonks (1d4) or 1 spell
To-Hit: +3
Saving Throws: D10/W11/P12/B13/S14
Morale: 6
Alignment: Neutral
XP: 500
Number Appearing: 1d3 (1d6)

Yeah I cut movement from this what of it? I'm not gonna bother with that stuff anymore.

Bonk: The only real mode of attack for the eavesdropper is a bonk from its hard but flexible trumpet. If the trumpet is torn off, the eavesdropper loses the ability to make melee attacks and must immediately make a morale check.
Flight: Eavesdroppers can fly with the use of their ear-wings. They cannot magically float, and must flap their wings to even remain in the air. This produces a noticeable noise similar to a canvas flapping in the wind.
Sound Sensitivity: The eavesdropper is sensitive to loud noises, being stunned for 1d4 rounds if it fails a save vs. paralysis when it hears a very loud sound (such as a cave-in, explosion, tyrannosaur roaring, etc)
Sound-Stealing: Eavesdroppers are unable to produce their own original sounds, and instead must steal sounds from others or from their environment. The eavesdropper can steal the words right out of a person's mouth as they are spoken. Eavesdroppers can steal any normal word, phrase, or sentence as it is spoken. If it is attempting to steal a magical spell as it is being cast, the spellcaster must make a save vs. spells to not lose the spell immediately. After stealing a sound, it can repeat it with complete perfect accuracy, as if it was just spoken or produced. Once it repeats a sound, it loses it forever.
Spellcasting: If the eavesdropper stole a spell, it is able to cast it. It must choose between casting a spell or bonking. There is a 2-in-6 chance that the eavesdropper has already acquired a spell. Determine spells acquired randomly.

Eavesdroppers are anxious and self-conscious little things no bigger than a barrel or the top half of a human body (torso+head), every inch of their spherical bodies covered in ears of various sizes. They are cursed with an inability to speak their mind or use their words, and must instead steal words from others in order to repeat them with perfect precision. This leaves them terribly depressed, feeling that they are unable to assert themselves or have any real independent thoughts, doubly so because each precious sound that they hear is immediately lost upon being repeated. The saddest of all eavesdroppers are those who dwell in cavern depths, incessantly repeating the dripping of water off of stalactites. Certain very clever eavesdroppers are able to piece together sentences from words and phrases they've heard, but since they lose each sound upon repeating it this is rather fleeting. They have beautiful minds filled with thoughts and ideas, and no way to express them.

Their ability to steal words, including the words of power that make up magical spells, makes them quite sought after by sorcerers and spymasters of all sorts. Since the eavesdropper is unable to say how it is feeling, however, these are mostly very unequal relations. A spymaster with an eavesdropper servant may keep it in a cage, while a heinous sorcerer may trap the eavesdropper in a box of complete silence. Kinder masters feed their eavesdroppers words for them to repeat, effectively giving their ear-slave the gift of speech. Most eavesdroppers don't like the situations they are forced into.

The young of an eavesdropper are called evenings, and appear as a complete smooth sphere of skin with two disproportionately large ears. They cannot yet fly, and crawl on the ground with their ears. Eavesdropper parents will often hide a nest somewhere they think is safe and return to give their young sounds to repeat in order to develop their noise-trumpets.

Here is a very quick doodle of one sleeping (since they have to flap their wings to fly, when they sleep they're just slumped over on the floor)

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Steel on Steel and Blood on Blood!

 My foolhardy rules-tinkering knows no bounds! Or well, I guess actually it is pretty bounded, since I am just going to be re-examining something that has been examined innumerable times before by innumerable other referees and game designers: combat. 

I have set out to make a combat system that:
01: is no more complex than B/X combat already is
02: has simultaneous/descriptive initiative (this is the biggest change from how I'm used to running things, but I think it will be a change for the better)
03: has as many rolls as possible be player-facing (gotten really into player-facing rolls from the GLOG tbh)
04: has abstracted and simplified movement that doesn't require tracking distances (this is because on the one hand a lot of my games are run over the internet and on the other hand because I am awful at visualizing distances so just not bothering with it is better for me)

There are many posts that inspired this one, too many to link individually, though I would like to thank the fine post-writers over at METAL vs SKIN, Spells and Steel, Goblin Punch, Alone in the Labyrinth, and innumerable people I know via the OSR discord who helped me in discussions about this, especially Retired Adventurer, CosmicOrrery, Archon's Court, and kahva. Very likely I've forgotten some people, sorry about that if I have!

I've taken too long to actually get to the combat rules stuff so here it is


Let's take a look at this step by step using a made up random encounter to illustrate. Skip to the section titled IN SUMMARY for a more succinct description.

An adventuring party of two fighters, a thief, a cleric, and the cleric's henchman come across four pigmen wandering the halls of some abandoned cellar, one of them astride a stinking manpig. It would take 2 rounds for one party moving in to close the distance, and the pigmen are doing just that! At the table, the referee rolled a hostile reaction for the pigmen, who noticed the adventurers by their torchlight. The adventurers cannot see anything just yet, but they hear movement in the darkness and smell the dripping spit of the manpig as it approaches. The players succeeded their roll to see if they would be surprised.

So far this mostly works like a B/X encounter normally does! Notice the switch from rolling the exact distance that the monsters are encountered at to rolling the number of rounds it takes to close the distance. Since we will not be tracking distances elsewhere in combat, I figured that an easy abstraction would be to just roll how long it would take for the players, the monsters, or both to close in. Then, it becomes a binary choice: do you move in to engage in combat, or move away to avoid a fight? There are of course other alternatives, but those would be situational and don't have to be detailed here. The way this is determined depends on the location:
Dungeon/Underground: 1d4 rounds to close in.
Wilderness: 3d6 rounds to close in.

A rambunctious pigman, upon rushing closer to the group for a round, throws a rock at one of the fighters, who is holding a torch. The fighter's player makes a saving throw vs. dragon breath, and fails. They are hit on the head with the rock, taking 2 points of damage.

Like I said above, as many rolls as possible are made player-facing. Rather than the pigman making an attack roll to hit the fighter with their rock, the fighter makes a saving throw to not get hit. Didn't help them much here though; they got hit anyway!

By the time the four pigmen come within the light of the torches, the adventurers are ready. The referee describes the situation to them: a pigman with a tangled mess of teeth holds another rock in their hands, while a pigman with one eye missing approaches the fighter that was hit by the rock, a sword in hand. The pigman astride the manpig rushes toward the cleric, while another pigman wielding a flail approaches the other fighter. Each player describes what they are doing in response: the already hit fighter defends themself from the sword-wielding pigman, the other fighter engages the flail-wielding pigman, the cleric and their henchman defend from the pigman astride the manpig, and the thief dashes in to strike the sword-wielding pigman while distracted by the fighter.

Here is where things start to look more and more different from B/X. Combat is handled with simultaneous initiative: the referee describes a starting situation, the players describe their reaction to that situation, and each response is handled one by one. A round finishes once all of these are resolved.

The fighter who wasn't struck by the rock is wielding a short sword and a wicker shield, and is engaged in melee with the pigman wielding a flail. The fighter rolls 1d20+2; this is the combat roll, it is modified by +2 because of the fighter's level (they are level 1, so they add +1 to their rolls) and because they are carrying a wicker shield (which adds an additional +1). They roll an 8, which is a failing roll, so the referee rolls 1d6 for the pigman's flail: 3 damage is rolled, which would halve the fighter's HP, but they are wearing cloth armor that lessens it by 1 point.

With monsters no longer having a dedicated turn in combat that they do their actions on, and with as many rolls as possible being player-facing, I decided to combine monster and player attack/to-hit rolls into one single roll that the player makes every round they are engaged in melee. The player rolls 1d20+combat bonus (your combat bonus is based on your class, level, and possibly also certain items you are using) with the referee comparing it to the monster's combat score. On a success the player rolls damage dealt to the monster, on a failure the referee rolls damage dealt to the player. Armor worn by a character is damage reduction. The combat roll functions this way as an abstraction of offensive hits and defensive parries in aggregate, with the ultimate result of each round of fighting coming out at the end.

That armor doesn't look very protective young lady! I would be inclined to grant a bonus to damage for wearing that!

The other fighter (the one who got hit by a rock earlier) and the thief are engaged in melee with the sword-wielding pigman. The pigman is focused on the fighter, although they do notice the thief slipping behind them out of the edge of the torchlight. The fighter rolls 1d20+1, rolling a 19, which is a success! In addition, since the majority of their attention is focused on the fighter, the thief is able to stab them with a knife, automatically dealing damage. The pigman collapses to the ground from their injuries.

A creature/character with only one attack per round simply does not have the capability to keep attention on multiple opponents at once. As a result, if another combatant attacks the "distracted" opponent, that combatant's attack automatically deals damage. In a sense, this is an abstracted way to handle that flanking that "tactical" combat in games like 3e and 5e like so much. Notice however that this did not give the thief the opportunity for a sneak attack; the pigman was fully aware of the thief, but couldn't risk turning to defend from them since they were already defending from the fighter.

The cleric and their henchman are engaged in combat with the pigman and its manpig mount. This is a dangerous situation for the cleric: they have to contend with two melee combatants, as well as a very likely thrown rock from the other pigman. The cleric's player asks if it would be possible for their henchman to distract the pigman so that they could turn the unclean manpig and force the mount and rider to flee. The referee gives the a-okay to that plan, but includes a difficult cost: the henchman will automatically take damage and the player must make a save vs. poison or their henchman contracts a horrid disease from the manpig's bite. The cleric player succeeds on the saving throw, but the henchman ends up taking 6 points of damage and collapses to the ground. In the interim, however, the cleric succeeds on the turn unclean roll, forcing the manpig to flee with its rider in tow. The referee makes a morale check for the other pigmen, resulting in them fleeing, but not before the one wielding a rock throws it at the cleric. They fail their save and take 4 points of damage.

After just one round the combat is over. Morale works just the same as in B/X, since it is by far my favorite aspect of that system's encounter rules. I included the bits about the cleric's player discussing with the referee to show that this combat rework is just as flexible as normal OSR play, with everything coming about as agreement between players and referee, and DM adjudication. 

Distances are not tracked in absolute numbers. Whether you are able to engage with a given creature is entirely based on relative, narrative-based description. Initiative is simultaneous, rather than going in turns.

To-hit rolls, AC, and monster saving throws have all been scrapped. Instead, players make combat rolls that represent all aspects of a fight in a round, defensive and offensive. If they succeed in a combat roll against a monster's static combat score, they deal damage; if they fail, the monster deals damage to them. Characters have a bonus to their combat rolls based on their level, their class, and items/hirelings they may have. Armor is damage reduction, and players make saving throws for non-player characters/monsters, as well as making saving throws to avoid being hit by ranged attacks, rather than the monster rolling to hit them with the ranged attack. Characters/monsters can only engage with as many combatants as they have attacks per round; any creatures attacking them in excess automatically deal damage.

01: (if applicable/at beginning of combat) Roll for surprise. During the surprise round, whichever side has surprise can act unopposed (attacks automatically deal damage).
02: Referee describes the situation at the start of the round to the players.
03: Players discuss among themselves and communicate to the referee how they respond.
04: Non-melee actions are resolved first. Spells, retreats, missile attacks. (these are resolved first so that monsters can respond to them if possible. this didn't happen in the example above but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen).
05: Melee combat is resolved.
06: Check morale when applicable. If monsters or players do not flee, return to step 2.

Martial Classes: Equal to level. Example: Fighter, Berserker.
Semi-Martial Classes: Half level, rounded up. Example: Wrestler, Ranger.
Semi-Combatant Classes: Half level, rounded down. Example: Cleric, Thief.
Non-Combatant Classes: 0 at level 1, +1 every level after. Example: Magic-User.

DEX modifies melee combat rolls. INT modifies missile attack rolls. STR modifies all damage rolls.

Wielding a side-arm along with a one-handed weapon provides a +1 to a combat roll. Think a parrying dagger or swordbreaker. On a critical hit, deal the damage of the sidearm in addition to the maximum damage of your primary weapon.

Carrying a shield with a one-handed weapon provides a bonus to the combat roll. +1 for a wicker shield, +2 for wood or metal. The player can choose to sacrifice their shield to negate all damage taken (a la SHIELDS SHALL BE SPLINTERED).

Henchmen (defined here as retainers that typically engage in combat) provide a bonus to the attack roll of whoever they are helping equal to half their HD/level, rounded up if a more fighty-type character, rounded down if a less fighty-type character.

Armor is damage reduction. Damage dealt can not go below 1 point from armor.

No armor, normal clothing: 0 armor
Cloth/padded armor, leather, animal skins: 1 armor
Mail: 2 armor
Plate and mail: 4 armor

Reach weapons (such as spears, polearms) stop their opponent from effectively responding. The player still rolls (when both on the receiving end of the polearm or they are the one wielding it themself), but the one not wielding a reach weapon never deals damage to the one that is wielding it. If both parties are wielding spears/polearms, combat works as normal, with some risk of the polearms getting caught up on one another and falling to the floor.

Being slow in combat (either from encumbrance or wielding a slow two-handed type weapon) leaves you open to attacks even when attacking. If engaged in combat with a faster opponent (i.e. one that isn't encumbered and isn't wielding a slow weapon), they always deal damage to you even if you succeed on the combat roll. If you succeed, for instance, they deal damage to you and you deal damage to them. Two opponents that both wield slow weapons fight as normal.

Sneak attacks automatically hit, none of this "+4 to-hit" stuff, if your opponent is actually unaware that you are attacking then you always hit with the sole exception of if some extraneous circumstance stops you from doing so. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Toward a More Perfect Statblock: Second Edition

 So it's been a while since the last time I did one of my examinations of D&D monster statblocks! The first (and thus far only) one was... by Jove, six whole months ago! Go check that out if you want my preliminary thoughts on a) why I'm even looking at different monster stat presentations in the first place and b) my thoughts on the presentation that OD&D, the Basic line, and AD&D 1e go for. Today though we're just gonna be looking at how monsters were presented in AD&D 2e, and whether there is anything worthwhile to glean from them.

Like I mentioned in the previous post, I'll be using the owlbear as the stat block of choice, since it appears in every single edition of the game. Here is the owlbear from the AD&D Monstrous Manual from 1994!

Aw jeeze... that sure just ratchets up the density that I didn't like about the 1e presentation. Uhhhh but first, some general comments!

AD&D 2e standardizes the structure of monster entries like no previous edition has. Each monster takes at least one full page, with only very few prominent monsters or types of monsters having more than that (like dragons, giants, beholders, etc). The monster description is no longer a mostly free form paragraph that includes both gameplay information and description/lore; instead, the description is cordoned off into four distinct sections: an opening short description, a combat section, a "habitat/society" section, and an ecology section. AD&D 2e definitely leaned into naturalism with its monsters. Also, every single monster has an illustration, which I for one really appreciate if for no reason other than I just love monster art. A lot of the art in the Monstrous Manual is from Tony Diterlizzi, who for me is the face of AD&D 2e, for both his part in the Planescape setting and his monster art in general.

Also, not really related to the discussion at hand, but the page directly opposite this owlbear from Diterlizzi (which I am sorry to say is not one the better illustrations of the beast) is one of my favorite monster illustrations for D&D ever.

Tony Diterlizzi's otyugh illustration is the best drawing that that creature has ever had, and you can't change my mind!! It's just so full of personality, so scuzzy and gross but with a kind of puppy-like cuteness. Just love it! That's the power of an illustration; it really does say a thousand words.

But yeah back to the descriptions. These sections are mostly there to fill space, if I'm being completely honest. I don't think the reader really needs to be told that owlbears "inhabit the depths of tangled forests in temperate climes, as well as subterranean labyrinths, living in caves or hollow stumps." It's just a wordy jumble that says what the DM reader already knew: owlbears live in forests because that's where owls and bears live, but also I can just put them in my dungeon because I want to. It's not exactly rocket science to come to that conclusion. Most of the descriptions in 2e were like this, and while there are for sure interesting elements buried in those verbose paragraphs, for the most part much of the information isn't useful. I wouldn't even say it makes for good reading since a lot of it isn't very conceptually dense. This isn't me saying its worthless though! I have a copy of the Monstrous Manual and I love reading it and perusing it. I just don't think its the most economical use of space.

The ultimate reason why monster descriptions were formatted like this is because of the shift in how AD&D 2e brought its monsters to the plucky monster-loving DM. Rather than publishing a Monster Manual with the release of the edition, they chose to release "Monstrous Compendiums" that were collections of loose leaf paper that you would put into a binder. The Monstrous Manual I've been referencing was published later, and just brought a few of those Compendiums into one hard-cover book. The idea behind these Compendiums was that the DM would be able to pick and choose which monsters they needed or wanted, and then just put those into their own personal little bestiary in their game binder. The only problem with this is that each page was printed on both sides with a monster each, so it was a tad impractical to put only the monsters you wanted or needed in there. In reality, I'm fairly certain that this was a plan by TSR to cut costs and sell more monsters; it's why they produced dozens of Monstrous Compendiums, many of them associated with TSR's new campaign settings. Born at the confluence of corporate cost-cutting/profit-seeking and a presentation of making monster selection better for the DM, 2e AD&D produced monster presentation that was... relatively sterile and static.

How about we take a look at the stat block itself?

Just like with the text descriptions, 2e separates the stat block into two distinct sections. The former is mostly environmental/ecological information, while the latter is combat information. I actually... rather like this. I don't think the environmental information should be at the top since it isn't important for me to reference that owlbears live in temperate forests when I'm actively running the game, but I don't think it is a bad addition! To me, it evokes an RPG bestiary as a kind of field guide, providing quick information for a traveler or perhaps even a dungeon delver. I like blurring the distinction between an in-universe object and a game object. 

A number of the somewhat problematic entries on previous stat blocks have been moved to this section: frequency, intelligence, treasure type, and alignment. I still don't think frequency is at all important, and I stand by thinking treasure type is a confusing presentation of an important concept, but otherwise I think it was a good choice to move those to this first section. The other elements of the opening section all relate to the ecology of the creature: climate/terrain, organization, activity cycle, and diet. I think some of these are more useful than others. Climate/terrain is probably the least useful. It either presents information that is obvious or reiterates information that would already be known from where the creature is appearing, its inclusion in random encounter tables, or whatever is mentioned in the description. Activity cycle is... a very interesting choice, and one that I would be tempted to include. It wouldn't be necessary for all creatures, but noting that a given creature is diurnal or nocturnal etc etc could be very interesting! You could easily make that relevant to the players by tying their activity cycle to whether or not they are in their lair or by giving penalties to creatures that have been awake too long. I just don't think that needs to be codified for every creature.

Organization and diet are the most useful of the new additions, in my opinion. Diet I am a little uncertain on, since oftentimes it can be easily gleaned from description or intuition, but I think it could be useful to note what a given creature eats, if only for that good ol' verisimilitude and for reference for whenever players attempt food-related interactions with creatures (which has happened a not insignificant amount of times in my games). Organization is the most useful in my opinion, but I don't think it should be presented like that. Please just roll it up into Number Appearing, it means literally the same thing. Or well, it would if you actually based the number appearing entry on anything. The 2e owlbear says that their organization is as a pack, but then the number appearing is 1 unless they are in a lair. A lone predator does not a pack make! I think if I were to include organization at all, it would be on the number appearing line to provide more concise information for why that is the number appearing.

The rest of the stat block is mostly the same as the previous editions, just with some reordering. XP has been included like in the BECMI line, which is useful (though I am increasingly interested in scrapping XP for monsters and just having it be treasure if I'm completely honest), and... oh my gosh the mad men they finally did it. They actually put Morale on the monster stat block! I really harped on morale being included when I made my last post, mostly just because I think it is the most important part of old school style combat, so I was appalled when 1e AD&D didn't include it in monster entries. Or well, not appalled, because I already knew that that was the case just... it makes the 1e stat blocks really bad for reference. Oh also technically THAC0 is a new addition in the 2e stat block, which does make combat easier than the flipping back and forth that previous editions had, but I don't use THAC0 so I don't feel much of then need to comment on it /shrug

In conclusion:
AD&D 2e went really far into how much they can try and cram into a single page of monster information. Most of it isn't very useful, or reiterates stuff that is mentioned elsewhere, or can be easily inferred without needing to be stated. However, I think including ecological information is useful, fun, and brings an element of verisimilitude! I would be more exacting about what ecological information I include, but I would be inclined to include it. I appreciate the descriptive terms for entries like Morale and Intelligence, and I would be inclined to include descriptive terms for things like those in my own ideal stat block. Also I think there are interesting lessons to learn from the strange attempt a new format for monsters that was the Monstrous Compendiums; there are definitely more interesting directions to take an RPG bestiary than just a big book full of big stat blocks, long descriptions, and drawings.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

On Assassins, Geckos, and Leprosy

My very bad and scribbly attempts at drawing examples of Eggsmen in their cloaks, hats, and masks.

The city of Humakuyun is home to the headquarters of the Order of the Egg, the most extensive such organization in the whole of the Enlightened Empire. They are sanctioned murderers, a clan of criminals given a wide berth here in the east. The only person they fear is the Kanarang; not even the King of Kings himself scares them. They make themselves identifiable with tall flat-topped hats and wear masks that hide their true identities. They give themselves new names, for their old names are forfeit when they take their first blood.
An oviraptor, the symbol of the Eggsmen

The Eggsmen have a crest in the form of a oviraptor clutching to a clutch of cracked eggs. They were founded centuries ago as a raptorial clan in the realms of the ancient Dinosaur Kings, granted official license to keep rival family lines in check and regulate the law of death by bringing all assassination into one association. Only their clan could kill with impunity; the only other given that right were the armies of the Dinosaur Kings themselves. When the Conquering King marched his armies into the northern valleys, the raptor assassin clan saw the writing on the wall and betrayed their lords. The Eggsmen sent messengers with missives to kill the Conquering King back to their senders, their eyes torn from their sockets.

In the generations since, the clan has become a secret society, one that accepts initiates of all peoples and nations. Its saurian leadership has receded into the secretive depths of its most exclusive circles, while its network has expanded to reach far north, south, and east. The Enlightened Empire, otherwise opposed to such criminal networks, has allowed the Eggsmen to continue to operate solely because of their reach, influence, and... usefulness.

It is rumored that the patriarch of the Eggsmen is still a dinosaur, wrapped up tight in linens and silks, their sharp-toothed snout peeking out from behind the curtains that only the grandest of guests or the deepest of initiates get to see.

The assassins of the west resent the Eggsmen for having state sanction and for their influence. It is not uncommon for western assassins to try and steal Egg secrets for their own gain, or try to take out high-ranking Eggsmen... the reach of the westerners is fleeting and clamoring, however.

Source: Iguanamouth, A Book of Creatures

A favored weapon of the assassins is the humble gecko. Geckos, especially the ones from the shores of the southern seas, spread leprosy. Their wrinkly skin festers with disease, and reminds fearful hearts of the melting of their own skin. The assassin releases the lizard into their target's chambers, and leaves it to fate. It is a slow and painful death, but one that gives the assassin many options. They can kill the target while they are at their weakest, leave them to fester alone, or push for their exile to a leper colony across the mountains. A social death is still a death, after all.

Coming into physical contact with a transmitter of leprosy prompts a save vs. disease (poison). You must make this save for every potential vector if in contact with multiple (for instance, multiple geckos). On a failed save, you have contracted the disease. It takes 1d4 weeks to begin to show effects; after that amount of time, you take 1d2 points of damage to CHA and CON per week, and -1 to save vs disease/poison per week. You are also able to transmit the disease yourself. Cure disease only cures one week of leprosy; it takes serious intervention to heal the disease.

(Hex 19,15)
Terrain: Rocky arid wasteland in a wide valley between looming mountain peaks.
Main Feature: A quarantined leper colony, connected to the satrapy to the north by only a few isolated mountain paths. Its ostensible head is a long gone leprous priest named Zurva Baba, his tattered robes eroded down by desert wind. They have small gardens on the edge of the isolated oasis they cling to.
East: Camel graveyard. Home of a desert hermit who despises the leper colony nearby. Haunted by disembodied screeching at night.

(Hex 15,10)
Terrain: A hilly and rugged land coated in a consistent covering of deciduous trees.
Main Feature: An abandoned village, only recently depopulated by disease. Its houses still stand, empty and forlorn. It is crawling with geckos, coating just about every surface. The statue of the goddess of the morning star that sits in the town's shrine has an angry look about it, deprived of sacrifices for several months.