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Dabbling with the Thief (pt. 2)

(Following up on part 1 here)

So, with the goal of re-organizing the Thief, I’d begin by breaking the Thief skills down into circles, or levels, by the Magic User spell they imitate (or close enough, and with some additions to play up an alchemical angle):

First Circle

  • Intoxicating Draught (Charm Person)
  • Read Languages
  • Sap (Person) (Sleep)
  • Sleeping Draught (Sleep)
  • Sleight of Hand (Ventriloquism)

Second Circle

  • Climb Walls (Levitate)
  • Find and Remove Traps (Locate Object and Knock)
  • Hallucinatory Draught (Phantasmal Force)
  • Hide in Shadows and Move Silently (Invisibility)
  • Pick Locks (Knock)

Third Circle (Just go with it)

  • Elixir (Cure Light Wounds)
  • Paralytic Draught (Hold Person)
  • Sap (Structure) (Fireball)
  • Serpentine Powder (Fireball)

Hear noise I’d treat somewhat differently, awarding an escalating bonus with level.  I’d match this with a bonus to missile weapon damage, with the idea that the steady hand and anatomical knowledge required for the draughts (not to mention the sapping) makes the character a deadlier shot.  It may be too much, but these numbers are all hypothetical. Speaking of numbers:

target numbers for skill checks

Two notes:  First, any character should be able to attempt non-alchemical first and second circle skills.  I’d recommend a target number of 10, with mishaps on 2-4: This is effectively the same as success on 6 and mishap on 1 on a d6, but puts the targets in the same framework as the proposed mechanics.

Second, the preparation of draughts, elixirs and powders should require a facility not dissimilar to a Magic User’s laboratory for research. Moreover, these alchemical efforts should be expensive- 5g and a day of work at first circle, 25g and a week at second circle, and 100g and a month at third circle.

I’d stick with the same hit dice (d4) and combat progressions (Cleric/Thief).  I think a class like this- well, frankly, it sucks less that the Thief, so I’d bump the experience progression up.  This post is already getting unwieldy, so I’ll leave notes about the skills and mishaps for another post.  What do you think?  Does thinking of the Thiefly bits as an outgrowth of tinkering and alchemy work?


Dabbling with the Thief

I was too busy to participate in this discussion when it happened, but I’d like to suggest another way to reconsider Thief-type classes.  I’d start with this vision of the BX Thief:

The Thief is a 3rd level Magic User that trades their limitations on number of spells for reduced scope and a chance of failure.  The high chance of failure at early levels is compensated for by improved melee abilities. The chance of failure diminishes as the Thief gains levels, putting the character on a trajectory to perform mundane, sometimes slower versions of a subset of first and second level spells at will.

The Thief knocks-off magic missile with missile weapons; knock with pick lockslocate object with find traps; levitation with climb walls; invisibility with hide in shadows; read languages with… you get the idea.

My reboot of the Thief would be a class that crystallizes this vision: A Thief derivative whose skills are rearranged so that those mocking first level spells are easier than those mocking second, with an escalating bonus to hear noise and missile damage as they increase in level.  And possibly some sapping skill (both kinds!).  This class is a roguish dabbler in sleights of hand, tinkering, archery, and minor alchemies and biologies… a crypto-medieval Indiana Jones, without the respectability of university backing.  Not a pickpocket, but a gray-market businessman with insight into fringe sciences and less-than-respectable studies.

But that’s another post. First, tell me where my vision of the BX Thief is inaccurate.


A Coin for Tavis

Tavis’s post today is a great read, but it lacks a Joesky coin.  All the more egregiously, I think, given the spirit he writes it in.  So here’s a quicky for generating a dragon with a fistful of dice (it takes two colors of dice): Roll 2d4, 1d6 (black, for clarity), and 3d6 (white).  The black d6 is what color the dragon is (1=white, 2=black, 3=green, 4=blue, 5=red, 6=gold). Add the 2d4 and the black d6; that’s how many hit dice the dragon has.  Add up the white 3d6: If it’s equal to or lower than the dragon’s hit dice, it can talk and cast spells.  You may ignore the 3d6 roll if it’s a gold dragon (or, alternately, ignore the 100% talking rule in B/X).

Now go read Tavis’s post, if you haven’t already.


The Serpent Barque

In Wander Ships: Folk-stories of the Sea, with Notes upon their Origin (1917), Wilbur Basset relates a tale that I cannot help adapting for my sea-borne menagerie.  Not a ghost ship, this one: This is a ship of devlish nightmares in the shape of a Chinese dragon.

The tale begins with some tiger hunters searching for a ship to carry their unexpected prey:

“Back toward the hills,” he said, “where the sun has not yet come, but a few li from Foochow, we set a trap for the great tiger. This morning we heard noises, and coming to the cage found in it a hideous serpent that goes upon his belly and upon short legs. His eyes are dead. and upon his head are horns. At first we were afraid, but the cage is mighty for strength and he cannot escape.”

The hunters appear to have found their man- a junk captain sailing for the South, and Formosa:

“We will see your serpent,” [the captain] said, “and if the cage is strong and your money rings true, he goes south with me.” The captain slipped out of his padded jacket and into a stout coat and went quietly over the side into the boat. Pulling ashore, they dragged the heavy boat upon the beach and made their way to the lonely valley where the cage was. They looked in very frightened upon the prisoner and he seemed small and not so terrible in the sunlight and they forgot their fears and laughed at him.

Pitiable fools, really: Dragons are proud, and- as they discover at sea- do not take mockery lightly.

[A] hoarse and raucous sound, half scream, half roar, once more blared forth, and they saw in the fierce light the broken bars of the cage and the horrid body of the serpent, emerging from his prison. The eyes were as festering pools in some foul desert, lusterless and dead, and above the slimy neck the head seemed raised in the half light to the level of the menacing cloud that was sweeping by and that mingled its vapors with the noxious breath of the monster. During that moment of awful visions, when death from wave monster and storm glared at them as in the light of day, the crew seemed to cling to life only by virtue of that tenacity which marks the sailor of every race. The gulf of darkness that succeeded swallowed up their fears with the great wave, the vision of the monster and the storm cloud, and as the little craft sturdily surmounted the crest of the following wave, so rose their confidence and fortitude, self assertive and buoyant, and they took heart and prepared to defend themselves.

… With fear drawn faces they drew back, then rushed it with uplifted blades. But their blows never fell. Out of the fetid nostrils of the beast issued a cloud of breath that broke upon them with the suddenness of tropic night, encircled them in the roaring of a thousand tempests and drifted lazily on to leeward over their stricken forms. … So quickly had moment passed that but for the broken bodies on there seemed no hold for memory to reconstruct it. No man approached the dead comrades. No man was to take up the fallen sword of the dragon slayer; none dared approach within reach of that death dealing breath.

The junk is abandoned to the dragon in a storm, but rather than sink, it is piloted by the beast:

No man knows the fate of the unhappy junk ,whether she still carries her foul passenger and cruises restlessly up and down the stormy yellow seas, or whether her ribs are bleaching long since upon some lonely strand. Some say she cruises still and is waiting for a captain.

Basset’s notes interpret the tale as a plague metaphor and, as he moves into a broader discussion of the folklore of plague ships, report this snippet from Assemani’s Bibliotheca Orientalis:

Perhaps the oldest European legend of phantom ships is of brazen barks seen off infected ports during the great plague in Roman times. These were veritable devil ships, whose crews were black and headless demons.

Now we’re talking.  Below are LL-style statistics and a description of Bastard Serpents, an unusual subtype of dragon known to pilot ships at sea with a crew of corpses.

Bastard Serpent

The Bastard Serpent is a debased dragon. The parentage of this subtype is unclear and likely variable, though they certainly lay some claim to the red dragon’s bloodline.  Unlike most of their nobler kindred, the bastard serpent is wingless and cannot fly- a humiliation spawning a pridefulness and disdain unusual even for a dragon.  It is a capable swimmer, and at adulthood its serpentine form can encircle smaller ships.  These serpents’ scales are brackish and ruddy, and covered in a thin, muculent film. They uniformly possess a fearsome crest of horns.  They are typically (80%) found in the command of a felucca, skiff, or junk manned by a charred and headless crew.  The falling pitch of this dragon’s horrid breath reduces many victims’ heads to ashes, but those left intact festoon the ship now manned by their former bodies. From this Serpent Barque, the Bastard seeks out victim ships to plunder.

Bastard Serpent
No. Enc.: 1 (+ crew)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 90’ (30’), swim 180’ (60’)
Armor Class: 1
Hit Dice: 8 (5-11)
Attacks: 3 (2 claws, 1 bite) or 2 (1 head butt, 1 bite) or 1 (breath)
Damage: 1d6+1/1d6+1/3d8 or 4d4/3d8
Save: F8
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: XV
XP: 2,060
Habitat: Ocean, Coastal caves
Probability Asleep: 30%
Probability Speech: 100% (3 1st level spells; 3 2nd level)
Breath weapon: Cloud of burning pitch
Breath Range, Shape, Type: 30’ gob; Burning Pitch

Special abilities: Spells; Animate Dead on victims of its breath weapon once daily as Serpent’s Crew

Serpent’s Crew

No. Enc.: 5-10

The remaining flesh of these headless undead is burnt and ashen, and emits a charnel reek.  Treat as zombies controlled by their dragon master; the sight and smell of Serpent’s Crewmen requires a save vs paralysis or flee in fear.


Rolling Up Lots of Buccaneers

My at-sea encounter tables have a subtable for the types of men aboard that ship on the horizon, but much to my shame I did not pre-gen any ships (and crews) for my first play-test. Definitely a mistake: Rolling up 1-6 ships and their officer corps (they’ll generally all have at least two Fighters of level 2+, and some possible mages and clerics thrown in) is not like rolling up a pod of whales. I decided to remedy this in advance of my next go-round.

For a more-or-less completely fleshed out pirate/buccaneer officer, doughty enough to have survived all the way to level 2 (or more!), I went with the following:

  • Average hit points (4.5) per die, rounded up.
  • Chain, sword, crossbow unless magic is indicated
  • The Marsh/Cook rules for magic items (5% chance per level on swords, armor, miscellaneous weapons, potions, scrolls, miscellaneous magic, and rods/wands; results that cannot be used by a Fighter become no result)
  • Dexterity assumed to be 9-12, Strength and Constitution 8-18

The STR and CON range was a bit of a problem- I didn’t want to deal with totaling three dice and re-rolling totals below 8 for the dozens of fighters I was sketching out; I also didn’t want to change the relative probability of results of 8 and over (not too much, anyway). Time for a weird table:

Fiddly NPC Ability Scores Ranging 8-18
1d20 1d12
1-13 1-3: 9; 4-6: 10; 7-9: 11; 10-12: 12
14-18 1-6: 13; 7-10: 14; 11-12: 15
19 1-8: 16; 9-12: 17
20 1-10: 8; 11-12: 18

This gave me some variety in hit points from the CON bonuses, and some potential surprises in melee from STR.

If I cared less for the actual score than for the bonus, I would have disregarded the d12 roll in all cases but a 20, and rolled a d6 (1-5: -1; 6: +3).


Saltbox Test Run

Today several New York Red Boxers took the plunge, and play-tested some of my saltbox rules. We rolled up some mid-level characters (30k xp), and set out to sea.

What Worked?

  • Encounters: I feel pretty good about my encounter tables, and my random encounter mechanics (between random encounters and the day’s event at sea being an encounter, about 1/4 chance of at least one sea-beastie).
  • Clerics: It is a wilderness crawl, so some spells that are marginalized in dungeons get a chance to perform – the party cleric cast Speak with Animal on a shark, Growth of Animals on same (arguably to his detriment) and Speak with Plants (requiring me to role-play Strangle Weed)
  • Inferred Wind: Between reaction rolls for the weather and Marsh/Cook for the wind effect, I just let the result of those rolls and player intent imply the wind direction. It felt a little fake at times, but it sped things up considerably
  • Evasion Roll-Offs: I liked it being a bit more interactive, even if a strategic (and expertly placed!) fireball rendered it moot.
  • The Players: They threw themselves into it, and were willing to talk through the rough spots in rules far more than I could reasonably have expected.

What Failed?

  • Char Gen: I wanted there to be some economy of sailor-type abilities and potential boat-funding cash to affect how the party set out to sea. The generation was really slow, and the players were entirely uninterested in hiring onto a boat for a lay in the profits.
  • Encountered Ship Generation: There were many things I over-prepared for, why oh why didn’t I have a handful of encountered ships all rolled up? I had three different undead ships, I couldn’t work up a few pirates?
  • Harpoons: Necessary to emulate whaling, their relationship to “normal” weapons was a bit too obscure. I had intended them to have broad impact on a small but vitally-important niche, but their limitations as weapons frustrated people. I should have explained this better.
  • Navigation: The 72 and 6 miles hexes make calculation easier… until ships are damaged, wind is weak, and evasion wackiness is in effect.

What was Iffy?

  • Every day is determined by four random rolls, and it took some effort to shape them into a coherent description of the day’s events.
  • Mapping- The player map was (to my mind) suitably un-detailed, but the lack of hexes meant a little too-much of the DM just explaining things.  Probably not worth the mystery.
  • Frequently encounters (like sharks) are both low-reward and mechanically awkward (fighting a water-bound beastie from on-deck).  A sea serpent can rear up to attack characters on deck, but a lot of stuff is perhaps too-easily ignored.  Then again, people fly right over random encounters on land, so why worry?

The Encounters

  • A school of mako sharks, one of which was grown into a 8HD monstrosity while being spoken to by the party cleric
  • A longship crewed by buccaneers, who were roasted by a fireball and finished off with missile weapons. The mast was burnt down, but the deck was only charred and the ship salvaged.
  • A morass of strangle weed, which the party convinced to disgorge both their ship and a couple of items from my Salvage subtable (a barrel of harpoon heads, and a denuded fruit tree).
  • A SEA DRAGON of sub-adult size (7HD). The players handled this encounter very well, negotiating with the dragon and extracting valuable information, as well as agreeing with it to trade some jewels for a magic potion.
  • The SAME SEA DRAGON, who the party betrayed as part of a scheme to gain access to it hoard. This went fairly poorly for them, striking a goblin harpooneer down, and rendering helpless all but one party member.

James, a while back, had the brilliant notion that a sea dragon’s breath weapon is a spew of noxious, fertilized sea dragon larvae. I took this to mean that anyone struck down by the weapon must not only be healed, but cured of disease to avoid “hatching” into a sea dragon newt in 1d4 days. The party’s plan was almost brilliant: They used their massive haul from the sale of the longship (and the buccaneers’ treasure) to buy the inn in which they were to meet the dragon, and stuff it with barrels of whale oil that they intended to ignite. Unfortunately, the dragon rolled up charm person and find traps, which colluded to dampen the effectiveness of their timing (although it also meant some of the dragon’s spells were exhausted). They incinerated the inn, killed 9 hireling fighters, and made enemies both in town and in the dragon’s lair. They did manage to chase the thing off, but not before suffering heavy casualties. That sea dragon breath weapon is nasty!

Here’s one of my daily 2d6 rolls at sea:

Events at Sea (Daily, 2d6)

2 Outbreak!: Roll on Diseases at Sea Subtable
3 Batten the Hatches!: Roll surprise: 1-2: Sudden encounter with a storm, 3-6: Change course for day or encounter storm
4 Land Ho? 1d6, 1: kelp/sargasso forest, 2-3: reefs/shoals/rocks, 4-5: wrecked ship adrift, 6: uncharted island/islet
5 Albatross: Is it wounded? An omen? Crew morale check at  -1
6 Salt Air and the Deep Blue: Nothing out of the ordinary
7 Avast!: Ocean Encounter, roll for type
8 Salt Air and the Deep Blue: Nothing out of the ordinary
9 Ships Ahoy!: Ships sighted on horizon; roll on Men Subtable
10 Sea-Legs: 1 of the ship’s marines becomes effective as a sailor
11 The Corpusants! The Corpusants!: A thunderstorm far off the starboard, and St. Elmo’s Fire on the masts at dawn; crew morale check at +1
12 Fruits of the Sea: Salvageable wreckage, roll Salvage Type subtable

saltbox, pt. 2

What are the touchstones in fiction for the sandbox-at-sea? Three broad genres come to mind: Ocean voyages in mythic antiquity (Argonautica, Odyssey), swashbuckling in the age of gunpowder (Aubrey/Maturin), and whaling. There is a model in all of them for a space of incidental adventure (a roving commission!), sometimes in service of a much-larger goal (Ulysses and Jason knew their win conditions), but I gravitate to Moby Dick for my inspiration.

The crew of the Pequod is paid in shares of the valuables retrieved. They are at the margins of society and of unusually cosmopolitan composition for the social setting. The greenest among them enters into whaling motivated by a mix of melancholy in day-to-day life, and “an everlasting itch for things remote”:

I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it – would they let me – since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.

But the more experienced are both less desperate and more restrained:

Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions. Besides, he thought, perhaps, that in this business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted. … For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. What doom was his own father’s? Where, in the bottomless deeps, could he find the torn limbs of his brother?

… and of course, there are strange rituals, mysterious omens, dangerous combats, near-mutinies, blood-forged magical weapons, and at least one hugely dangerous monster on the random encounter table too strong for the adventurers to overcome.

Drawing on all this, I have some goals for the mass of tables determining a day in the saltbox:

  • It must be possible nothing happens, because the sea is vast and lonely
  • It must be possible one day holds many events, because the sea is also dangerous and teeming with life
  • It must be possible to hunt/chase beasts at sea
  • It must possible to encounter, parley with and perhaps pursue and capture other ships
  • and vice versa
  • It must be possible to encounter un-navigable obstacles (scylla/charybdis)
  • It must be possible to discover uncharted territory
  • It must be possible to encounter and survive epic storms

What struts for action am I missing? What useful fiction am I ignoring? And what do I have to offer for reading a post this long? I’ll post some tables after our first play-test, but for now here’s a draft of my player map:

The North Seas?
Big version here

Past Adventures of the Mule

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