Archive for October 14th, 2009


Special powers for OD&D characters

In yesterday’s comments, Eric requested a post about the individualized special powers that players are encouraged to choose for their characters in the White Sandbox campaign, and I’m happy to oblige!

First, some notes to put this in context. In theory, the White Sandbox uses only the “three little brown books” of OD&D, modified by some of Gary Gygax’s house rules – most notably that characters start at third level, so that PCs are already unusually capable at the start of play. In practice, I chose to leave the boundaries of the system very porous. Going forward in time, I wanted people to be able to use a copy of any of the D&D Basic Sets or the AD&D Player’s Handbook at the table as a good-enough reference as to how the game-reality worked. I also wanted to give players some of the kinds of options for making their character distinct from all other members of their class that later editions provide via feats. Going backward, as much as I enjoy scholastic investigation of the meaning and history of the original D&D rules, I didn’t want to have to refer to Chainmail in play or come up with my own definitive interpretation of the myriad and mystifying assumptions that OD&D borrows from that game. (If I were starting again today I’d look to Jason Vey’s Spellcraft and Swordplay and Forgotten Lore, and Nicolas Dessaux’s Epées & Sorcellerie, as great examples of such interpretations).

So giving players the choice of one special power related to their class helped me address these issues. If you want your fighting man to be able to split-move and fire like in Chainmail, make multiple attacks against one hit-dice creatures like in AD&D, or follow up with a free strike after a killing blow like the 3E Cleave feat, you can choose that as your character’s unique power without having to bring in all the other aspects of those rulesets.

Here are the special powers I suggested for each OD&D class, with the note that each member of that class will ” choose one of the following, or work with the referee to create a similar special ability.”

Fighting Men:

– Terrifying Foe. The fighting man can force a morale check upon surprising an enemy, killing an enemy, or performing an especially impressive deed.
– Melee Expert. The fighting man takes half the normal penalty when using a cautious defense, reckless assault, or targeted attack.

Fighting style Benefit Penalty for others Penalty for fighting man
Cautious defense Foe attacked takes -2 penalty to hit you -2 on roll to hit -1 on roll to hit
Reckless assault You gain +2 on roll to hit Enemy has +2 to hit you Enemy has +1 to hit you
Targeted attack Roll twice for damage -6 on roll to hit -3 on roll to hit

– Missile Skirmisher. Each round, when equipped with a missile weapon the fighting man can either move and engage in missile fire, or fire twice per round (taking two shots with a sling or bow, firing and reloading a light crossbow, or fully loading or firing a heavy crossbow).

Magic Users:

Fingerbone Wand. The magic-user turns his or her finger into a magic wand. This finger becomes permanently dead, and the magic-user permanently loses one point of Constitution. The magic-user may or may not choose to leave the finger attached to their hand during the creation of the fingerbone wand. When armed with this fingerbone wand, a magic-user can attack in melee as if using a dagger, or hurl a bolt of mystic energy in missile combat as if throwing a javelin. One point of constitution is temporarily lost whenever an attack with the fingerbone wand rolls a natural 1. The magic-user regains temporary Con loss at the rate of one point every eight hours. If their fingerbone wand is destroyed, the magic-user may craft another one, again losing one point of Con.

– Mental Scroll. The magic-user creates a memory palace big enough to contain an impossibly long scroll. One autistic part of the magic-user’s mind is always scribing rudimentary spells onto this imaginary scroll. , Creating the mental scroll takes 1d6 days, after which the magic-user permanently loses one point of Intelligence. By reading a spell off the visualized scroll, the magic-user may evoke a blast of baleful energy within a range of 50 feet. The magic-user may focus the blast on a single foe, who must save vs. spells or suffer 2d4 damage, or evoke the blast in a 10 foot radius, in which case 1-2 points of damage are dealt to all within who fail their save vs. spells. A potential victim of this blast who rolls a natural 20 on their save vs. spells has successfully disbelieved the essential illusion powering this spell. The magic-user temporarily loses one point of Intelligence whenever this happens, as it becomes difficult to maintain the necessary state of self-deception. The magic-user regains temporary Int loss at the rate of one point every eight hours.

– Familiar. The magic-user summons, creates, or binds an uncanny animal, magical beast, extra-planar servitor, or homonculous to serve his or her desires. The specific nature of the familiar will be determined by the player and the referee, but in general they are capable of rudimentary communication and simple tasks such as scouting, carrying messages, and picking up key rings when the magic-user is behind bars. Familiars are always fragile and inept combatants who must be coaxed into danger with promises of reward; keeping a familiar happy can be quite costly. The familiar also feeds on the magic-user’s blood or life energy, causing a magic-user with a familiar to take a -1d4 penalty on each dice roll for maximum hit points. Should the familiar be killed, the magic-user suffers 1d4 points of damage and must spend a similar number of days working to gain a new familiar.


– Oracular Trance. The cleric has performed a grueling ritual that leaves them able to enter a catatonic state in which they become receptive to divinations, but permanently drains them of one point of Wisdom. Entering the trance is instantaneous, after which the player temporarily loses one point of Wisdom and rolls 1d8 to determine how many rounds they will remain in the trance. During this time, they are paralyzed; afterwards, the player and the referee roll for surprise (no modifiers). If the player is surprised, the divination contains untruth as well as truth; fif the referee is surprised, the divination contains only truth; if both were surprised, the divination contains truth as well as falsehood. Temporary Wisdom loss is regained at the rate of one point every eight hours.

– Lucky Coin. The cleric possesses a talisman that they believe indicates the favor or disfavor of the gods. Owning this talisman causes the cleric to permanently lose one point of Charisma, as they become sullen and deflated when its luck turns away from them. When faced with a binary choice, the player of the coin’s owner may flip a coin to decide which option to pursue. If, in the DM’s judgement and the eyes of the character’s deity, the result of this choice would bring woe to the cleric, the DM will inform the player that their lucky coin revealed a different result. Each toss of the coin causes the cleric to temporarily lose 1 point of Charisma.

– Restore Spirits. The cleric can minister to a comrade and buck up their fighting spirit, enabling them to re-roll their hit dice. If the new result is higher than the character’s previous maximum hit point total, this becomes their new maximum. Accumulated damage is subtracted from this new maximum to determine current hit points. Restoring spirits takes 1 round, after which the cleric must save vs. death ray or suffer damage equal to the sum of all hit dice that rolled identical numbers. (Example: Faithful Lurue restores the spirits of Balto, a myrmidon. Balto rolls 6 dice for his new maximum hit points; two of these dice come up 6’s, while three come up 1’s. Lurue fails her saving throw and suffers 15 points of damage.)

I still think these examples of mine are pretty cool, although in some cases they no longer reflect our house rules (e.g. the cleric’s Restore Spirits). However, in actual play almost no one has used these suggested ones. This might be because I didn’t print these examples and bring them to the table during the early sessions of character creation (and also didn’t include them in my later one-page character creation guide). It also might be because players latched on to the way that a completely self-defined special power allows a character to be personalized to match an individual concept in a way that later-edition rules options or my list of examples can’t.

Recently James attempted to compile a list of the White Sandbox characters’ special powers, which is incomplete but representative:

  • Argus the Rat Knight can inspire massive amounts of pity
  • Arnold can pretend to be Zolobachai, a high-level Magic-User
  • Caswyn is a good healer
  • Colin Treeslayer can shatter wood with a scream.
  • Into the Mystic is largely immune to the touch of the undead
  • Lucky is a spectacular marksman
  • Maldoor (deceased) can identify magical items
  • Tiburon can astrally project

Comparing the first and last entries, it’s apparent that the power level of these special powers spans a wide range! Sternum wrote:

The Aura of Pity works as follows: If Argus is about to be struck down in combat, he makes a charisma roll. If he fails, his opponents take pity on him and leave him curled in a fetal position, sobbing for his mother. This skill was inspired by Argus’ incredibly low ability scores. Of course, as fate would have it, he is my most successful and resilient White Box character. Each session, Argus has charged into hordes of gnolls or lizardmen on horseback and fought in deadly one-on-two combats, only to emerge victorious and unscathed time and time again.

I was eager to allow Tiburon’s astral projection ability, because I love silver cords and Githyanki battleships. To balance it against what other characters could do, we agreed that Tiburon had to go to sleep in order to use this ability – so that he spent the entirety of his first battle trying to drift off despite all the noise – and that he was potentially at risk from things he might encounter during his astral travel. In play, this special power had interesting effects. It broadened the players’ knowledge of the dungeon, which I was glad to see taking place, and it caused me to roll some random encounters which shaped my own understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes and will likely have long-term effects on play. At the same time, Tiburon’s astral investigations posed an even more acute version of the normal problem with scouting, in that it occupied play-time with an activity in which no other character could participate. I’ll consider ways to address this problem if Tiburon is rescued from his current vile captivity, which points out the ultimate check-and-balance on the special power system: the cruel fate of the dice, which have long smiled on Argus (at least, after an initial chastisement when he rolled 3d6 in order) but quickly smote down Tiburon extra-planar abilities and all.

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009

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