Archive for April, 2010


Red Box Workshop: The Thief-Dabbler PC


The fields of magic and roguery are not immiscible. Some inquisitive apprentice thieves investigate the mysteries of the arcane, while certain acquisitive apprentice magic-users turn their hands to larceny. Such thief-dabblers and their protégés practice legerdemain in both magical and mundane forms.

The prime requisites for a thief-dabbler are Intelligence and Dexterity. A thief-dabbler character whose Intelligence or Dexterity score is 13 or higher will receive a 5% bonus on earned experience. Thief-dabblers whose Intelligence and Dexterity scores are 13 or higher will receive a 10% bonus to earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Thief-dabblers use four-sided dice (d4) to determine their hit points. They may use any type of weapon, but they may not use shields, nor any armor more protective than leather. Thief-dabblers must have a minimum score of 9 in Intelligence and Dexterity.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: Thief-dabblers have access to all of an ordinary thief’s skills: bonuses to hit and damage for striking unnoticed from behind, along with the ability to pick pockets, climb steep surfaces, move silently, hide in shadows, open locks and remove traps (with appropriate tools) and hear noises. In addition, a thief-dabbler may prepare and cast spells as a magic-user of half the character’s level (rounded up). Thief-dabblers may read magic-user spells from scrolls. In addition, they may utilize wands and miscellaneous magical items normally usable only by magic-users, but there is always a 10% chance that any spell or power evoked from such an item will backfire, having an unexpected result. All thief-dabblers speak Common and the alignment language or dialect of the character.

SAVING THROWS: As thieves.


ADVANCEMENT: As per the magic-user advancement table.


Red Box Workshop: The Living Statue PC


Living statues are among the more common varieties of magical constructs. While most lack volition, a rare few have wills and personalities of their own. Some serve as vessels for bound ghosts, demons or other spirits; others are constructed to house synthetic, artificial intellects. Whatever their nature, these sapient sculptures come into being fully formed, and they require time and experience to master their innate physical talents.

The prime requisites for a living statue are Strength and Constitution. A living statue character whose Strength or Constitution score is 13 or higher will receive a 5% bonus on earned experience. Living statues whose Strength and Constitution scores are 13 or higher will receive a 10% bonus to earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Living statues use eight-sided dice (d8) to determine their hit points. They may advance to a maximum of 8th level of experience. Living statues may use any type of weapon or shield. Their durable construction—whether it be bronze, crystal or stone—grants them a base AC of 4, but they may not wear armor. Living statues must have a minimum score of 9 in Strength and Constitution.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: Living statues do not need to eat, drink, breathe or sleep. As such, they are unaffected by sleep spells and are immune to paralyzation, poison, disease, nausea, fatigue, starvation, dehydration, suffocation, drowning and the like. All living statues speak Common and the alignment language or dialect of the character.

SAVING THROWS: As dwarves.


ADVANCEMENT: As per the magic-user advancement table.


Let Me Tell You About My Character

I just learned that my PC in Eric’s Glantri game is not a ten-year-old orc, as previously suspected, but in fact a 5 year old one. This fills me with delight, and I wanted to post about it quickly before she dies; the fact that I already played her for an entire session means she is already pushing the outer limits of my average character lifespan.

This is actually Scott LeMien's drawing of James' character, who you've already been told about. The story of that chicken will have to wait for another day. Click on the picture for Scott's site!

Fun facts about my PC:

  • We found her hiding under a bed in a tower that was occupied by a scary hell-mastiff. We think she’s an orphan; certainly the rest of her tribe abandoned her there, and we later fought and killed some of them, so if she wasn’t before maybe she is now.
  • She was adopted by my previous PC, Gael, a cleric of the Boss. Gael’s nanny was an orc, so his ability to speak  Orcish made him the obvious candidate to take her as his apprentice and fellow pupil of the legend of the Boss.
  • The orcs apparently didn’t give girls this age names, so Gael named her Gael Jr.
  • Gael Sr. lived to the ripe old age of 2nd level before being consumed by ghouls, at which point I was prevailed upon by Lord Bodacious to play Gael Jr. as my next PCs. This did not require much persuading.
  • Gael Jr. rolled no ability scores over 12, which is widely believed to mean she will live forever. (She did avail herself of an ability-score swap, reducing her Intelligence by two to bump Wisdom by 1, the first time I’ve ever used that rule.)
  • After meeting an orc cleric named Ur-Ignem, which she learnt “slave of the god of fire”, Gael Jr. decided to change her name to Ur-Boss. It might be that she’ll keep Gael as her first name and use Ur-Boss as her patronym, something I believe Gael Senior lacked altogether.
  • Ur-Boss is likely to become a devotee of this god of fire, because a) her all-too-brief training in theology causes her to think “I am a cleric of the god who is the boss of all other gods” and b) clearly that god is someone who sets dudes on fire, not someone who gets turned to stone by a wand.
  • Ur-Boss’s holy symbol is a cloth dolly that represents the baby that the Boss took hostage as his last act pre-petrification. I intend to keep this symbol whatever may come, but will carouse for something that wreathes it in continual flame. She may be a five-year-old girl, but she’s got an orc’s taste in heavy metal iconography.
  • I blame Eric’s practice of keeping character sheets at the end of the session for the many inaccuracies in the above: it has nothing to do with my refusal to look stuff up in his carefully crafted summaries.

With that established, here is Eric’s message that I am specifically celebrating:

A quick clarification about Ur-Boss: When I described her as looking about 10 years old, I noted that orcs age much more quickly than humans, and that she was in actuality closer to half that age. (This is how the aggressive humanoid races keep their numbers up despite constant losses.) Not that this matters too much, as she’s probably as mature as a human ten-year-old, but I wanted to avoid confusion. She should hit puberty in just a few years — maybe during the course of play!

Rock on.


blue box blues

Calling it this

But using This

Been prepping the Blue Box lately – or rather, the Cook/Marsh version thereof.

For a year now I’ve wanted to create a high-level adventure to showcase the famous monsters and some under-used rules.  So I’m hoping to design a 6-hour dungeon for four Name Level characters.

The High Concept is that this powerful group is on a delve that Goes Terribly Wrong: they get stranded on a much deeper level than they’d anticipated, a Horrible Monster strikes from ambush and decimates half the party in the surprise round, and now it’s a scramble  to safety.  (Yes, it’s contrived, but it’s basically a one-shot.)

But all I’ve really done so far is design an adventuring party and make a bunch of mistakes in doing so.

  • Creating Level 9 pre-gens is loads faster than in D&D 3e, but it’s still tedious.
  • It’s even more tedious to create their attendant mid-level retainers and kit them out with magical gear.
  • 4 PC’s + 3 retainers each = 16 characters in the party = real slow combat rounds.
  • Giving retainers interesting magical items really gives them personality, but that’s a bad thing!  Personality distracts from the unfamiliar PC pre-gens.  Plus the magic items make them mechanically complex.
  • Choosing the Best Monsters Ever is difficult!  Contriving a way to fit them all into a dungeon is hard.
  • I feel bad I’m not including Wilderness Travel or Dominion play, because I want to road-test those rules too.  But there’s only so much a guy can do.

That said: a party of four Name Level PC’s can defeat a 10 HD Red Dragon in three rounds, although they do get banged up pretty badly in the process.  I’ve designed a pretty nasty Beholder encounter, we’ll have to see if it fares any better against the full group.  (I suspect the Mind Flayers wouldn’t even last three rounds.)

It wouldn't be smiling if it knew it would be dead three minutes later

EDIT: It took too long to play out the whole battle, but a more-or-less full strength Beholder managed to kill three retainers in the surprise round, charm a fourth, and then got its central eye poked out.  I suspect it would have lasted about three rounds as well.  Disappointing!


In AD&D You’re Always Stepping on 1d100 Woefully Encysted Creatures

cr0m’s recent comment to James’ post about Grand Motholam reminded me of a Gygaxism that I find utterly mind-blowing. He notes, justly, that:

In Vance’s stories, the spells available are much more wondrous, powerful or ridiculous than Sleep, Charm and Magic Missile. You’ve got incantations like the Spell of the Macroid Toe (victim gets a giant toe!), The Spell of Woeful Encystment (victim is in stasis deep beneath the earth), the Spell of the Sequestrous Digit (caster’s hand appears elsewhere, usually poised for groping someone attractive and/or picking their pockets). Is it really memorization/resource management that makes magic boring?

I quibble that The Spell of Woeful Encystment is, in AD&D, a ninth-level spell named Imprisonment. But yes, simply lifting a spell from Vance is boring in its own way. Gygax’s unique genius comes in this added detail:

The reverse (freedom) spell will cause the appearance of the victim at the spot he, she, or it was entombed and sunk in the earth. There is a 10% chance that 1 to 100 other creatures will be freed from imprisonment at the same time if the magic-user does not perfectly get the name and background of the creature to be freed.

Perhaps Maldoor will contribute a calculation of exactly how many creatures have already been encysted, on average, at each and every spot in the Prime Material Plane where you might choose to cast an incompletely-specified freedom spell. I will merely note that what these rules say about the world –  that wizards of the 18th level or higher have been sealing people in small spheres far beneath the earth for so many aeons that now the main problem is losing track of which particular one you’re looking for – that the globe is an over-stuffed filing system for people who rubbed Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter and his buddies the wrong way –  is why session reports of a peyote/crack/LSD binge are indistinguishable from just playing D&D.

For my money, imprisonment is as brilliant a riff on Vance’s themes as any of Gene Wolfe’s, that other acolyte for whom The Dying Earth was the Book of Gold. In The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe tells us that no delver can turn a spadeful of earth that does not contain some artifact of the past, and his viewpoint character Severian so takes it for granted that every mountain there is has been given the Mount Rushmore treatment in some past age that this fact is never directly stated. Which is awesome and all, but is it mundane of me to be even more amazed by the suggestion that, armed with my trusty polyhedrons, I could determine just how many artifacts there are in each spadeful?

EDIT: To avoid the promulgation of error among those who might not read the comments, Eric writes there:

Oh, Tavis! That isn’t Gygax’s genius at all! It’s pure Vance. When we see Cugel the Clever get the spell of forlorn encystment backwards in The Eyes of the Overworld, the ancient earth coughs up dozens of time-lost encystees.

Oops! While I’m doing my penance and re-reading Tales of the Dying Earth (with the fitting Brom cover instead of the out-of-place Berkey one, natch!), y’all can discuss whether this means that the idea of a reversible spell is also a lifted Vancism.


Cartography to Conjure By pt. 2: Beneath the Chateau

As a follow-up to Eric’s post about the beauty of player maps, I present some maps by myself (grotty pencil) and Maldoor (beautiful GIMP):

The first level beneath the Chateau d'Amberville

One level further down, connected by the curving stairs in the SW of the L1 map

An outbuilding of the main Chateau, suspected but never proven to connect with its dungeon

The map of the aboveground castle in Eric’s previous post was my hand-drawn copy of Eric’s GM map. Here, I started with a player map hand-drawn during a session I wasn’t able to attend, copied it over into my own sheet of graph paper, added notes about what was encountered in that session, and then drew in new rooms and comments as we explored.

The room on Level 2 had a three-dimensional geometry which proved difficult for us to understand and especially for me to map:

ERIC: Let me see what you’ve got there. (Shakes head) Do you just want me to draw it in for you?

ME: Yes, please.

ERIC: (erasing) How did you get it over here?

ME: I think I confused east and west.

ERIC: You’re not a very good mapper.

ME: That’s true, I just like drawing them.

Although it’s frustrating when my maps are inaccurate due to my miserable spatial sense (which frequently includes an  inability to tell left from right), I think map-making has several benefits:

  1. The act of making the map causes you to think about how things connect. For example, when we retreated from the termites, I was able to run to the east and be confident I could link up with those fleeing to the south even without consulting my map (as my PC would be too busy to do), because having just drawn those rooms made their layout clear in my mind.
  2. Likewise, it leads you to think about what might lie beyond the edges of the map. Sketching out the double-wide corridors led us to theorize these were main hallways and more likely to take us somewhere interesting than the narrower ones we thought were originally built for servants to use.
  3. Unlike swinging a sword, making a map is an action you can perform in real life just as your character is doing in the fiction. This creates a satisfying sense of the difficulties involved in map-making, and causes you to value maps all the more. For example, copying out the previous player map made me appreciate the effort involved in making sure that the hard-won knowledge of the dungeon layout doesn’t perish when one cartographer falls into a pool of acid along with the sole copy of the map. And when my previous PC mapped some of the watchtower dungeon, he didn’t own any parchment and I didn’t have graph paper, so I had him carve lines and notches in his shield and tried to draw what that would look like on my character sheet. The result was versimilitudinous and surprisingly useful for navigation, but much less nice looking than Maldoor’s.  Our experiments with mapping structures in NYC in real time also suggest that even with parchment in hand, our PCs are doing a similar thing – jotting down paces counted and directions taken or not, and only compiling this into a drawn-out map readable by others.

as it was in Grand Motholam

A partial list of game design consequences which arise from Vancian casting:

  1. Refers to Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, never a bad thing.
  2. Introduces a pacing mechanic: oops, time to retreat I’m out of juice.
  3. Introduces suspense: did I pick the right spells?
  4. Allows new ways to measure skillful play based on how well you manage the gamble of spell selection.
  5. Rewards gathering information to make wise spell choices.
  6. Encourages repeated delves to improve casters’ efficiency.
  7. Creates a market for more reliable classes, and thus an adventuring party, to hedge against bad spell selection.
  8. Implies a very mundane (board-gamey?) aesthetic: magic is a commodity like torches, food, and arrows.

Naturally other magic systems might be better at these same goals, or achieve different goals entirely.  But the existing system is pretty far-reaching in its effect on the game.


Red Box Workshop: The Doppelganger PC


In their natural form, doppelgangers are tall and gaunt, with flesh as featureless and puffy as dough. But the doppelganger is a shapeshifter capable of assuming any human, demi-human or humanoid form. These creatures rarely hold any love for humanity, but some have been known to associate with adventuring parties for their own inscrutable purposes.

The prime requisites for a doppelganger are Intelligence and Charisma. A doppelganger character whose Intelligence or Charisma score is 13 or higher will receive a 5% bonus on earned experience. Doppelgangers whose Intelligence and Charisma scores are 13 or higher will receive a 10% bonus to earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Doppelgangers use eight-sided dice (d8) to determine their hit points. They may advance to a maximum of 4th level of experience. Doppelgangers may use any type of weapon. Their tough hides grant them a base AC of 5, but they may not wear armor or use shields. Doppelgangers must have a minimum score of 9 in Intelligence and Charisma.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: A doppelganger may assume the shape of any human or human-like creature from 4’ to 8’ tall. This power is otherwise the same as polymorph self, with an indefinite duration and usable once per day per level. The false shape includes clothing, armor and weapons. False armor provides no benefit to AC, but the doppelganger always has an AC of 5 or its new form’s natural AC, whichever is better. Melee weapons—swords, maces, staves, etc—formed from the doppelganger’s own flesh deal 1d6 damage at level 1; this increases to 1d8 at level 2, 1d10 at level 3, and 1d12 at level 4. Doppelgangers are immune to sleep and charm effects. All doppelgangers speak Common, Doppelganger and the alignment language or dialect of the character.

SAVING THROWS: As fighters.


ADVANCEMENT: As per the elf advancement table.


what have I got in my pocket?

Resolved: In the long history of Dungeons & Dragons, the Thief’s skill to pick pockets has never once come in handy.

On the Pro side (i.e., against Pick Pockets), it’s a ridiculous, pointless skill that is pretty much a nod to the idea that if you call a class a Thief, its members should be thieves.  In all my days of playing this game, I’ve never seen a player ever use this skill–much less a situation where its use would have made a critical contribution to play.  It’s dead wood.

On the Con side . . . I got nothin’.  I mean, maybe in a heavily urban game this skill could see some use but I think urban adventuring has never been implemented very well in D&D and is a pretty uncommon play style.

Any arguments in favor of Pick Pockets?


why’d it have to be snakes?

Best. Cleric. Evar.

What’s up with the Cleric spell list in the Marsh/Cook (and Mentzer) Expert rules?  Were there a whole bunch of snake-themed dudes in the early games way back when?   Two or three years ago it was just another snake cult…

* Neutralize Poison
* Snake Charm

* Sticks to Snakes

* Growth of Animals SNAKES
* Speak with Animal SNAKES


Make Snakes Awesome

  • Cleric Level 3
  • Range 60
  • Duration Permanent
  • By means of this spell a cleric can transform one snake within range into awesomeness – like shooting lasers from its eyes, or having two heads, or regenerating while eating their own tails, or shedding skin to create extra boss magical leather armor, or dripping hallucinogenic addictive venom or whatever dude.  The awesomeness may gain a reaction roll bonus from NPC’s who appreciate greatness and 1970’s Proto-Metal.

Snakes to Ladders

  • Cleric Spell Level 2
  • Range 30′
  • Duration 2 turns
  • This spell turns any snake, serpent, eel, worm, or other scaly tubular poisoned critter, like a purple worm, into a ladder with fanged hooks to grab on to walls, 10′ long per hit die.  If the snake has more hit dice than the caster, whoever climbs the ladder must save vs. poison or be pricked by the poisonous fangs.

Turn Into Crazy Snake-Man

  • Cleric Spell Level 4
  • Range 0
  • Duration 6 turns
  • This spell turns the cleric into a crazy snake-man.  The cleric cannot speak in crazy snake-man form, cannot wear clothes and has no hands, but can slither around and pass through holes too small for a Halfling to crawl through.  The cleric’s bite becomes deadly poison and he or she has Armor Class 6.  If the crazy snake-man successfully bites a victim, he or she may coil around that victim to automatically do 2d4 points of damage the next round–but this is only possible if the cleric was wearing an extra nifty little hat thingy at the time when the spell was cast (see picture, above).

Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2010

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