Archive for the 'Red Box Workshop' Category


wtf, monk?

Jia Dao, “The Swordsman” (9th C. CE)

For ten years I have been polishing this sword;
Its frosty edge has never been put to the test.
Now I am holding it and showing it to you, sir:
Is there anyone suffering from injustice?

(Trans. by Dr. James J.Y. Liu.)

As a sideline to the “Escape from the Elder Brain” thing I’m working on, I’ve been mucking around with 1e Monks lately.  (Monks are good for jailbreak scenarios because they don’t require much equipment.)

Has anybody played a TSR-era Monk?  What in the world are they like in play?

Just looking at the rules, the Monk is a strange, strange class.  Absurdly high stat requirements, but the stats don’t give you any benefits.  An absolutely brutal XP curve.  A big passel o’ Thief abilities, including Open Locks and Find Traps (because of all the lockpicking Bruce Lee did, I guess).  Their martial arts abilities constantly upgrade their Armor Class, Attack Rate, and Damage–and confer an instant-stun or instant-kill attack that involves treating descending Armor Class as a percentage.  And they can run around at super-speed.  And, pretty much every level, they get  weird random stuff like speak with animals or feign death.

This is not so much a class as something the dog sicked up.  Everyone always moans about how a quintessentially Asian class doesn’t really belong in Tolkien-manque fantasy (or maybe says everything belongs everywhere, Elmo-meets-Leatherface style), but I think that argument overlooks the fact that the Monk class is simply an abominable design.  It’s ugly in Supplement II: Blackmoor, it’s ugly in AD&D, it’s ugly in Oriental Adventures (where the Monk mess gets folded into a build-it-yourself martial arts mess) and in Master’s Set/Rules Cyclopedia.

Around 100,000 XP, the range I’ve been looking at, a 1e Monk probably does damage equivalent to a Fighter (hitting less often but occasionally getting lucky with a devastating attack), coupled with the AC of a Thief and the Hit Points of a Wizard.  That’s odd, but viable–but to get there you need to slog through the levels where you’ve got the AC of a Magic-User, the 85% failure rate of the Thief, and combat abilities that mainly require melee.  I refuse to believe anyone ever played a Monk to 17th level, where they are engines of destruction.

Is there a way to clean this up?  I know several people have tried.  Here’s what I see as a niche for the Monk: it’s an acrobatic ninja type class straight out of wuxia films, so you’ve got a bit of the Thief’s stealth with the Fighter’s general ass-kickery, but all mixed into a huge heaping helping of wire-fu.  Because Enlightenment = Compassion = Power = Humility = Enlightenment, the Monk has some mystical abilities as well, but I don’t want to get too crazy here.  If I can implement this using some of the class-design constraints of B/X, so much the better.


Yeah, going with Chinese for the class name, which may be a mistake.  But Yóuxiá (pronounced: “yo? sha?”) has a more secular connotation than “Monk,” approximately equal to our knight-errant or wandering hero, and arguably you could fold in Ninja-type rogues in there too.  If you want to call it a Monk in the privacy of your own home, that’s fine.

  • Ability Requirements: None.  Unlike the designers behind the Blackmoor Monk and its progeny, I believe in creating a class that people can qualify for without cheating.  I thought about requiring 9 Dexterity, but none of the other human classes in B/X impose ability requirements.  But the way this is written, you’re going to want very high stats, especially Dexterity and Constitution, just to survive.  So there’s “multiple attribute dependency” built in here already, as in the original class.
  • Prime Requisite: Wisdom.   In the source fiction, the best of these characters tend to be very philosophical, and thematically that outlook is the source of their power.  Placing Wisdom as PR gives players an incentive to play that type of character.  It also contributes to the “multiple attribute dependency.”
  • Weapons: Dagger, Short Bow, Staff, Long Sword, Spear, Mace, Hand Axe.  I could see an argument for “All” here, but these seem to be the weapons that feature most prominently in the wuxia movies I’ve seen.  You could probably change it to “All” without too much trouble.
  • Armor: None, no shield.  I think we all agree that these guys are not encumbered.  The lack of armor makes Dexterity and Constitution extremely important to survival.
  • Hit Dice: d4, to a maximum of 9d4 +2 per level.  I could see an argument for d6, but the 1e Monk in has d4 like a Magic-User, and fulfills many of the same functions as the Thief which gets d4 HD in B/X (where all classes have HD one step lower than in 1e or 2e).  This feels cruel, but helps keep the XP curve down.  Note that while the 1e Monk rolls d4 for HD each level, eventually getting 18d4, this seems really cheesy and I’m avoiding it.
  • Attacks and Saves: as Cleric.  Medium attack progression (same as a Thief), but pretty good saves.  I thought about going with Halfling attacks and saves, but figured that it would be better to err on the side of caution.  The best argument for Halfling (i.e., Fighter) attack progression is that in 1e, the Monk gets to attack many times per round, but that is probably an example of how the abstract nature of D&D combat doesn’t really model the moment-by-moment theatrics of a martial arts battle–presumably a swordsman too makes many attacks in a 60 second round of combat.  But let’s just bracket the Halfling attacks & saves for later playtesting.
  • Special Abilities…
    • Unarmed Damage: 1d4.  Youxia can inflict serious harm with their hands and feet.  (But getting stabbed still hurts worse.)  If an Youxia inflicts minimum damage, this is treated as a special strike, depending on level:
      • Trip or Disarm at level 1.  Save versus Wands, or be tripped or disarmed, likely losing next action.
      • Sweeping Strike at level 5.  All adjacent enemies take 3d4 damage, save vs. Breath for half.
      • Nerve Strike at level 9.  Save versus Paralysis, or be stunned for 2d4 turns.  CLW ends.
      • Quivering Palm at level 13.  Save vs. Poison, or lose 4 HP every round.  Neutralize poison or cure disease ends.
    • Climb Walls, Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, Detect Noise as Thief.  These guys do a lot of sneaking around.  The Detect Noise is probably unnecessary, but helps the Ninja aspect of the class do spy stuff.
    • Special Movement.  The Youxia can zip around the battle field, from level 1 onward.
      • Split-Move.  Youxia may move, attack, and move again.
      • Charge.  Youxia may inflict double damage when charging, like a Fighter.
      • Dodge.  Youxia get a +2 to Armor Class in any round in which they move.
      • Retreat.  Youxia can retreat from melee without announcing it before rolling initiative, and don’t provoke “attacks of opportunity” when moving around the battlefield.
    • Use Cleric Scrolls at 10th level, 90% accuracy.  To give them a mystical side.
  • XP Curve: Cleric.  I could see an argument for the Thief curve, since these guys are merely unarmored lunatics running around punching people for d4 damage.  But let’s stick with the Cleric curve for now since the Youxia has the Cleric’s save progression and Wisdom as Prime Req, and it’s simply easier to reference.

But you know?  I’m wondering if this is really an improvement.


a glimpse of siddím

art by Adam Paquette

Instead of addressing actual problems, I’ve been working on a complicated Underdark setting for what amounts to a one-shot.

Siddím is a riff on Thomas Gold’s Deep Hot Biosphere idea: life originally evolved as bacteria and unicellular organisms deep underground: slimes, basically.  (I haven’t read Gold’s book and just using it as window-dressing.)  Siddím: a subterranean slime pit where life evolved from mindless ooze into a civilization of Slithering Trackers, who built their city here.  In time, fungi evolved to feed directly off the caustic slimes, leading to Myconids.  Throw in some Aboleths in a deep underground lake where some slime-streams meet.  Sprinkle with Duergar, Troglodytes, and a “lost world” sinkhole populated by neanderthals and giant bats, and you’ve got the region, a sort of Icelandic Underdark.  Siddím is a holy site to the Jubilex cult, which uses purify food and drink to feast on the slimes, and relies on a Slaver Guild to supply their landlords with fresh meat.

All of that is background scenery.

The one-shot I’m working on is a jailbreak by a group of slaves owned by a trading coster of Mind Flayers, who have emerged from an abscess in the Collective Unconscious to trade with the Aboleths.  The Mind Flayers have set themselves up in a Fortress Dam constructed ages ago by the Duergar, but has since been converted into a pound lock by the Aboleths who use it to portage over a really steep and rocky subterranean rapids.

I don’t want to think about the number of hours I’ve spent working on this thing, but it’s involved doing Internet research on speleology and cave ecosystems, Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for mitre gates (PDF), coming up with bizarre Dungeon Theology, revisiting the 2e Psionics Handbook, and playing around with famous D&D monsters.

This is a crazy hobby.

designed by Da Vinci


non-violence (and slime gods)

As convention season approaches, New York Red Box Charter Member E.T. Smith made an intriguing remark while musing about convention games:

I barely even notice game descriptions [at conventions] anymore. They nearly always, to me, read like a variation of “Some dudes are doing something you don’t like. Stop them with violence,” so they don’t tell me anything about what might make the game interesting.

(emphasis added).

And he’s right.  It would be pretty neat to play some games where the primary conflicts couldn’t be solved through violence, if only as a change of pace.

Figuring out how to do a “non-violence” session of D&D:

  • Maybe violence is just a strategically dumb move, like if every monster in the dungeon is way tougher than you.  This becomes more of a stealth mission, either trying to creep into a place, or trying to escape.  For several years now I’ve wanted to run an adventure where PC’s are accidentally teleported into a much deeper level of the dungeon than they anticipated . . .
  • Maybe violence isn’t the focus of the adventure, though this begins to get into areas of play that aren’t well-supported.
    • A cross-country or oceanic race, for example, would offer the chance to overcome a lot of wilderness hazards.  (In D&D, most wilderness hazards take the form of monsters you have to kill; I much prefer Mouse Guard‘s approach to wilderness and weather hazards.  But I suppose with old-school “imagine-the-hell-out-of-it” principles players could try to cope with travel emergencies.)
    • An attempt to solve a particularly vexing problem by means of researching a new spell or magic item.  Spell research is one of those cool things that tends to happen away from the table, but trying to acquire super-bizarre metaphorical ingredients, like “the tears of the moon” or something, might require a lot of creative thinking from the players.
    • An attempt to build a stronghold.  I can imagine all sorts of stuff going wrong here: incompetent architectural design, labor trouble, low-key interference from neighboring powers who want to test the new guy on the block.  And of course the peasants are watching to determine if this new guy really deserves their respect.  Again this gets into social-style adventuring that isn’t always handled well by D&D rules, but would probably be an interesting change of pace.
  • Maybe violence is morally problematic – like, the whole scenario is caused by horribly wrong violence and its tragic after-effects can’t really be remedied by more of the same.

Some of this stuff, like magical research and stronghold-building, skirt pretty close to the carousing mechanisms that the New York Red Box uses between sessions.  (The workings of the carousing system has been pretty opaque to me as a player: Tavis uses some kind of Apocalypse World -derived 2d6 + Ability Mod system, where 10 is an unqualified success, 7-9 is a compromise somehow, and 6- is a bad failure; Eric I think is using something like a saving throw system.)

Anyway: as an RPG player I’d like to play in the occasional game that wasn’t predicated on solving conflicts by the application of superior force, that’s all.  (I am not saying that violence in gaming is bad; just that it’s boring sometimes.)

tax: 2e Slime Cult Specialty Priest

Been mucking around with 2e lately.  The 2e Cleric is ridiculously powerful.  Perhaps as an acknowledgement of this, the 2e Players Handbook introduces Specialty Priests, which are sort of like themed mini-Clerics.  The 2e Druid is arguably one example of this though they don’t explicitly say so in the text IIRC.

Anyway, specialty priest who worships primordial subterranean slime gods:

Restrictions: Constitution 15, Charisma 12.  Followers of the Slime God must be hardy to endure filth and ordure, yet they remain mysteriously compelling.  Alignment: any non-good and non-lawful.  The Slime God is indifferent to human welfare and scorns efforts at systematizing.

Weapons Allowed: Non-metal armor and weapons that are mostly wood.  Flasks of burning oil, acid, and poison are permitted.  The idea is to be immune from most Ooze attacks, while mimicking them in return.

Spheres: Major access to: All, Charm, Creation, Divination, Elemental, and Necromantic.  Minor access to Animal, Healing, Plant.  According to the cult, slime exists at the juncture between insensate matter and all living things–the protoplasmic goo is a link between plants, animals, and the raw elements, and the quintessence of life itself.  I’m throwing in Divination and Charm just because I like the idea of extremely charismatic priests driven mad by unspeakable insights.

Granted Powers: command Oozes, Otyughs and Fungi (as evil Cleric commands Undead).  At Level 7, transform into Ooze (as Druid’s shape-changing ability).

Ethos: To the anti-priests of the cult, we weren’t created by any gods in the service of a divine purpose.  We crawled into the sunlight after countless eons of muck for no discernible reason.  If you’re puzzled and confused by the world you live in, that’s perfectly understandable: it’s not supposed to make sense.   We’re just globs of muck, doing what globs of muck do: eat, shit, puke, ejaculate, and die.  There’s no relief from that: it’s the bedrock of our existence.  And if the social institutions of the surface world appear corrupt, hypocritical, and historically contingent–almost as if there was no divine plan at all–well, that shouldn’t come as a surprise .  If you’re expecing our society to be pure and wholesome, you’re misunderstanding who and what we are.  There’s no destiny.  There’s just the continuous consumption of rotting flesh to shit out nightsoil to keep the thing going.

Amid all that mindless biological twitching, there’s a lesson to be learned.  Don’t let people tell you to do stuff on the basis of some goofball ideology.  Here and now is what matters.  Being left alone, and leaving others alone even if it means they’ll drink their own piss, is a cardinal virtue: you don’t have authority to tell others what to do.  And that applies to yourself too.  You have to reconcile yourself to the fact that your life and its attendant suffering is pointless.  Don’t have hopes, or daydreams, or wishes for anything other.  Just this: over and over, just this.


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?


experimental combat system

Quick post because I have to get to work.

Several months ago I was wondering about how to separate deflection-type protection (shields, dexterity) from soak-type protection (armor).

In cases of uncertainty, the baseline here is the Moldvay/Mentzer Basic D&D combat system.

  1. Typical combat sequence is unaltered. Variable weapon damage is used.
  2. Attack rolls are made as usual in D&D: 1d20 + (class attack bonus/THAC0 stuff) + (ability mod) + (magic mod) + (circumstance)
  3. Ascending Deflection Class = 11 + (Dex mod) + (shield & shield magic mods) + (circumstance). Note: no actual “armor” in this calculation.
  4. If the attack roll equals or exceeds your deflection, guess what – you’re hit.
  5. If hit, Armor decreases the size of the damage dice: 1d10 > 1d8 > 1d6 > 1d4 > 2 > 1. Any hit does at least 1 point of damage, regardless.
  6. Multiple dice-types (3dX for example) shed the extra dice first, and once they hit 1dX then degrade to the lower dice type.  So 2d6 > 1d6 > 1d4.
  7. Light armor reduces the damage die type by one step, medium armor by two steps, and heavy armor by three steps.
  8. Damage is then rolled “normally” – the modifed die type + (ability mod) + (magic mod) + (circumstance)
  9. Magical armor lightens your Encumbrance Category, e.g., a heavily laden warrior in Plate +3 moves as if totally unencumbered.
  10. Monsters don’t have to be changed, but they could be depending on your ambition. An attack doing 1d3 damage reduces to 2 points, not 1.

Thus: Arnold Littleworth, under this system, has a Bathrobe of AC 4, which is equal to Chain + Shield. His Deflection class is 11 (base) -1 (poor Dexterity) +1 (equivalent to shield) = 11.

If, solely for the sake of science, Martin le Black attacked Arnold with his +2 sword Bazilien, his attack roll would be executed normally, hoping for a roll equal or better than 11. Because Arnold’s Bathrobe is equivalent to Chain armor, the damage from Bazilien would be 1d4 (starting from 1d8 and reducing two steps) +1 (strength) +2 (magic).

Action Normal B/X D&D Experimental System
Martin hits Arnold … 60% of the time 80% of the time
On average Martin inflicts 7.5 damage 5.5 damage
Expected damage per round 4.5 damage 4.4 damage

Note a couple of effects from this experimental system:

  • Armor reduces damage, it doesn’t keep you from getting hit in the first place.
  • Magic-Users and Clerics can make “touch attacks” to overcome Deflection Class much easier than AC
  • Characters are hit more often for less damage. Armor is approximately twice as useful as before, which helps Level 1 wimp-o’s.
  • Damage reduction is neither fixed nor does it require an extra roll, i.e., it’s unpredictable without slowing play
  • Against a guy with heavy armor, a dagger +1 does the same damage as a normal sword (more, on average, since it hits more often): magic is cool
  • Heavily armored knights are slow and easy to hit, but very difficult to wound without magic.
  • The special thing about Frodo’s undershirt is that it was extremely lightweight and easily concealed – like not wearing armor at all.
  • Maybe someone other than me will enjoy the strategic effects of Encumbrance… oh who am I kidding

Just to see what it would look like, here is the comparison for a duel between Martin le Black and Hanna Darrowkin, using their stats as of 1/9/2011:

Action Normal B/X D&D Experimental System
Martin hits Hanna … 25% of the time 55% of the time
On average Martin inflicts 7.5 damage 5 damage
Expected damage per round 1.875 damage 2.75 damage
Action Normal B/X D&D Experimental System
Hanna hits Martin … 30% of the time 60% of the time
On average Hanna inflicts 3.5 damage 1 damage
Expected damage per round 1.05 damage 0.6 damage

What’s happening here is that Hanna, physically weaker, is using what amounts to an ordinary sword to attack a stronger foe armed with a larger, more heavily enchanted blade. Both duelists are very heavily armored, but over time, Martin’s superior strength and magic can punch through the Halfling Hero’s defenses.

I still need to figure out:

  • What to do against touch-style attacks, like Wights and Vampires?  They become a lot deadlier under this system.
  • Do Hit Dice change? I’m thinking that combat between heavily armored dudes would take too long at standard Hit-Dice values.
  • Maybe each type of armor stays vulnerable to a particular type of damage (Piercing, Slashing, Bludgeon), if people think armor otherwise is too good.

treasure of the sierra loco

John Huston seems like the kind of DM who would make you count torches

While Tavis chills with Paul Jaquays, I spent the weekend with another gaming luminary, my mother, who was my very first player for all of ten minutes in 1985.  Mama Nostack’s verdict on Frank Mentzer’s Basic Set?  “This game is too complicated.”  (The breaking point was the 10% XP bonus calculation for having a high prime requisite.)

Anyway: my mom leads to Netflix leads to Bogart leads to Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Throw a little At the Mountains of Madness in there, and you’ve got a basis for an Expert level adventure or two.

Douglas Niles’s much-maligned Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide devotes seven pages to mining as the basis of a campaign.  Naturally it’s hard to get title to land in civilized areas, so you’d have to light out for the borderlands or the unsettled wilderness, probably several days of overland travel during which time encumbrance might be a major issue.  There would, of course, be bandits and monsters in the wilderness requiring guards and Fighting Men.  You’d need trustworthy hirelings to work the mine (morale and charisma matters).   When you get back to town, there would be problems with tax collectors and claim jumpers eager for news of a profitable mine.  Inevitably the mine hooks into some lost mega-dungeon.

Come to think of it, dungeoneering is presumably the equivalent of mining in D&D World.  You follow a rumor of some tomb laden with riches, you delve into it repeatedly at great risk, and then you’ve got to cart your winnings back to town to replenish supplies without tipping off the Thieves Guild or rival adventurers keen to exploit the find for their own profit.

joesky tax: disgruntled hireling chart

When your hirelings (or henchmen) (or retainers) (you know what I mean) fail a morale check as a result of dungeoneering or mining, roll 2d6 + PC’s loyalty bonus to see how he or she breaks.

2 Hireling gets treasure-madness. Kills one or two NPC’s in the night, drives off the horses, and absconds with as much of the loot as possible.
3 to 5 Hireling feels his share isn’t commensurate to his hard work. Steals treasure from other hirelings. When the loss is discovered, hirelings must make a new morale check due to outrage and suspicion.
6 to 8 Hireling is grumpy and bitches about PC’s. Other hirelings swayed by his words.  Any hirelings who make a morale check after this guy get a -1 to the roll until conditions noticeably improve.
9 to 11 Back at town, hireling is indiscreet and blabs location of dungeon (mine) (etc.) at the local tavern. Next wandering encounter in the dungeon area is with NPC adventurers acting as claim jumpers.
12 Back at town, hireling tries to make himself feel better by spending ostentatiously. Attracts attention of tax collector, church, or Thieves Guild who wants a cut.




The World of the Thief-Dabbler

In worlds within which magic and roguery mix, it is inevitable that the bottomless well of arcane potential is drawn for acts of petty criminality.  Let us consider some of the unfortunate charms and hexes born of the Thief-Dabbler!

Prestidigital Adherence
Level: Magic-User 1
Range: Touch
The miscreant mage is able, by means of this spell, to instantly transport an object weighing up to one pound into a bag or pocket on his person, so long as the caster is in physical contact with the object when the spell is cast.

Tergiversant Testimony
Level: Magic-User 1
Range: n/a
Also known as mystic mendacity, this spell allows the caster to tell the target of the spell a lie regarding a recent event that matches the event’s apparent outcome. The target adopts this lie as a true memory, receiving a saving throw versus spell if they are confronted with contradictory evidence.
“I did not throw this lamp to the floor! I tried to catch it when it fell from the table.”
“Pick your pocket? I tripped on that flagstone!”
“I’m sorry, but I think you wrote that entry in your ledger before you paid me.”
(The last would require a save versus spell if the clerk counted the contents of their changebox).

Boon Contrivance
Level: Magic-User 1
Range: 1 large table
This spell allows the caster to determine the outcome of a minor chance occurrence immediately before it happens, and is used almost exclusively in conjunction with sleight-of-hand maneuvers to affect gambling outcomes.

Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2019
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