Posts Tagged ‘combat



09
Sep
10

That Burning, Burning Feeling: Flaming Oil in D&D

“Burning oil will deter many monsters from continuing pursuit.”

—Gygax & Arneson, “Dungeons & Dragons Volume III: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures”

Burning oil is the traditional equalizer for low-level parties in old school D&D. It’s a deadly ranged weapon that’s also dirt cheap and usable by anyone. Despite the risks of setting oneself on fire, it’s the most effective tool that starting PCs have for dealing with their enemies, dealing an average of 9 damage over two rounds—enough to kill even the toughest normal man or orcish sergeant.

But… why is it so deadly?

Clearly, dousing someone in burning oil is going to be deadly. In fact, in the Chainmail ruleset, dumping a cauldron of burning oil on targets kills them instantly! But using this as a baseline for the effect goes against the core of D&D combat. It’s like saying that running someone through with a sword will be deadly; this is true, but it’s also not a presumed effect of any successful attack. And just as a successful melee attack might reduce the target’s hit point total through a bruise, a graze or even a threatening near-miss, a successful burning oil attack might drench an easily-removed cloak, deliver only a few burning droplets or even result in a threatening near-miss.

On the other hand, burning oil isn’t actually that bad in terms of game balance, since it takes two rounds and two attack rolls to set someone alight—one to douse them in oil and another to hit them with a torch. This doubles the combat effectiveness of the party’s dagger-wielding magic-users, but isn’t nearly as beneficial for more fighting-oriented types. Alternatively, you can spread the oil on the floor in advance and light it when they come into range, but most opponents will be able to withdraw from the burning area after one round, and you risk getting pushed into your own oil patch or having it block your own escape.

Things really break down when you allow players to make and use oil-based Molotov cocktails. These are allowed in the Rules Cyclopedia, but there’s no mention of them in pure Red Box. Pre-lit oil lets you deal 2-16 damage with one attack roll. That’s definitely unbalanced at low levels, and makes Molotov-lobbing first level hirelings effective even in the deeper levels of the dungeon.

My recommendations:

  1. Allow a character hit by burning oil to spend a round rolling around and putting out the flames, thereby preventing the second round of damage from the oil.
  2. Disallow the use of Molotov cocktails, or make them sufficiently flawed that it’s a meaningful tactical choice as to whether or not to use them.
  3. Incorporate oil into the extant class-based weapon restrictions; it can be used by classes that can use any weapon, and as it lacks an edge it can be used by clerics, but magic-users can only wield daggers and thus cannot effectively throw oil (or at least suffer a penalty to do so).
  4. Consult Philotomy’s advice on burning oil for detailed suggestions regarding complexities arising from burning oil use.
  5. Set the PCs on fire and watch their oil flasks explode! (You may wish to employ a pyrologist for this purpose.)

This should make burning oil less of a trump card while still retaining its usefulness. It’s a decently effective weapon, a method to slay enemies resistant to ordinary weapons (such as mummies), a means to destroy wooden structures, and a barrier against hostile foes. There’s no reason for it to be anything more.

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27
Aug
10

Blood and Guts: A Red Box Death & Dismemberment Table

Several of my fellow OSR bloggers have designed injury tables that provide a range of possible results for when a PC drops to zero hit points. (Some examples are Robert Fisher’s, Trollsmyth’s and Norman Harman’s.

I like the idea in principle; it allows for non-lethal effects that keep beloved PCs alive, while simulating some of the ugly consequences to combat that can be found both in real life and in sword & sorcery fiction. But the versions I’ve seen include a number of ineffectual results where the target is unharmed, stunned for 1 round, gains bonus hit points from adrenaline, etc. That’s too forgiving for my taste! The PC is already in trouble; the table should indicate how much trouble results. So I’ve written my own table.

When a PC (or an important NPC, at the DM’s discretion) drops below 1 hit point, roll 1d8 and consult the following table. Reduce the die size to 1d6 or even 1d4 for relatively weak attacks, or increase to 1d10, 1d12 or even 1d20 for especially powerful, destructive attacks. When using a curative spell to deal with an injury from the table, the spell provides no other benefit; no hit points are regained.

Roll Result
1 Scarring: -1 to Charisma; drops to -2 with three scars, -3 with six scars, -4 with ten scars, etc
2 Broken bone (DM chooses or roll randomly): broken ribs/collarbone/etc give -2 to attack rolls, broken arm/leg gives penalties as per severed limb; heals in 3d4 weeks or with cure serious wounds; if attack is cutting/piercing and target is unarmored, use arterial bleeding instead
3 Arterial bleeding: die of blood loss in 3d6 rounds, preventable with cauterization (1d6 damage and scarring) or any healing spell; if attack is bludgeoning, use broken bone instead
4 Disabled part (DM chooses or roll randomly): Missing eye gives -1 to attack rolls, mangled/missing fingers give -2 to attack rolls using that hand, ruined larynx/shattered jaw impairs speech and prevents spellcasting; -1 to Charisma; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
5 Slow death (gutted, massive internal injuries, spine shattered, etc.): incapacitated, die in 1d6 days; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
6 Mortal wound (heart pierced, throat cut, neck broken, etc.): incapacitated, die in 1d6 rounds; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
7 Limb severed (DM chooses or roll randomly): die of blood loss in 1d6 rounds, preventable with tourniquet, cauterization (1d6 damage) or any curative spell cast; -1 to Charisma; missing arm can’t be used for weapon/shield, missing leg halves movement rate; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
8+ Instant death (decapitated, skull crushed, torn to shreds, etc.)

Have you used an injury table, whether a full-on death and dismemberment table or a broader critical hit table? If so, how has it worked for your game? What recommendations would you make for others who’d try that approach?

09
Aug
10

The Scorpion and the Adventurer: Envenomed Blades for Fun and Profit

Moving down to the edge of the leaves, he reached the spear up and carefully thrust the blade through one of the Apples of Derketa, drawing aside to avoid the darkly purple drops that dripped from the pierced fruit. Presently he withdrew the blade and showed her the blue steel stained a dull purplish crimson.

“I don’t know whether it will do the job or not,” quoth he. “There’s enough poison there to kill an elephant, but—well, we’ll see.”

—Robert E. Howard, “Red Nails”

In old-school D&D, poison is nasty stuff! There’s none of this “1d6 temporary Strength damage” business you see in later editions. No, back in the day poison was second only to level drain in how thoroughly players feared it. Fail your save and bam! Dead. This made giant spiders and poison needle traps into scary threats for low-level parties that lacked access to helpful magics like neutralize poison and raise dead.

Naturally, this only serves to encourage PCs to acquire poison and use it for themselves. But there’s no rules for using poison in Red Box! So how do we handle characters that carve open every cobra and giant brown recluse for their sweet, sweet venom glands?

The OD&D core says nothing about poison use by PCs. In the Blackmoor supplement, however, we first encounter the assassin class, who “may freely use poisoned weapons, but there is a 50% chance each turn such a weapon is displayed that any person in viewing range of it (10’ or less) will recognise the poisoned item and react with ferocity, Le. attack with a +4 chance of hitting and a +4 points of damage when hitting occurs.” (p. 3)

The Mentzer Companion rulebook (p. D22) deals with the problem by making extracted poisons lose their potency after 1-10 rounds of exposure to air, while an intact poison sac only lasts for 1-10 rounds times the Hit Dice of the monster. It also suggests legal sanctions against poisoners.

The AD&D 1e Player’s Handbook likewise indicates that poisoners will have trouble with the law. This goes double for characters not of the assassin class, as the Assassin’s Guild will view them as rivals to be exterminated! Moreover, onlookers have a 10% cumulative chance per melee round of spotting venom-crusted blades—unlike Blackmoor, no range is listed—which leads to their calling for the watch and/or attacking the poison-user. (p. 29) In addition, it’s suggested that the DM check to see whether characters using envenomed weapons accidentally nick themselves (p. 107).

The AD&D 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide adds a list of poisons that can be purchased and used by PCs (p. 20). These tend to be weaker than monster poisons; their victims receive bonuses to the save vs. poison, and most purchased poisons inflict a set amount of damage—only the most expensive versions automatically kill the target on a failed save.

“Black Dougal gasps ‘Poison!’ and falls to the floor. He looks dead.”

Gygax’s thoughts on the matter are summed up in the 1e PHB:
• “[Poisoned weapons] make it too easy for interesting play. Imagine: party sees red dragon, party discharges a volley of poisoned missiles, monster dies, and party seizes dragon hoard.”
• “Keep in mind the principal reason for restriction of the use of poison — the game must offer challenge.”

I feel the same. Poison, like the old adventurer’s stand-by of flaming oil, is uninteresting if it’s a cure-all solution to every problem.

Moreover, old-school D&D is as much an emulation of sword and sorcery tropes as it is a simulation of such a world, and while Conan and his ilk occasionally envenom blades and arrows, they don’t make a common practise of it. If a rule pulls the game away from one’s intended play style, the problem lies in the rule, and it’s the rule that should give way.

11
Jul
10

the fighter is the thief of fighting

Two examples of D&D play.  First example:

Dungeon Master: The treasure chest looks to be made of an unearthly metal: it is a deep, slate grey color, but in your flickering torchlight it shows tints of magenta, lime green, and a nauseating purple which, when you gaze at it too long, seems to shrivel your eyeballs.  The clasp is worked to resemble a face somewhere between that of a preying mantis and a giraffe.  If the chest isn’t locked, it sure as hell doesn’t look inviting, either.

Fighting-Man: I’m gonna try to get that chest open.

Dungeon Master: How?

Second example:

Dungeon Master: As you and your allies try to scramble down from the Titan’s bookcase with the scrolls you found, its bookends–worked in brass to resemble an otherwordly hybrid of a purple worm and a lion–begin to roar in alarm.  As the Titan’s pet wyvern, hearing the noise, beats its wings furiously against the bars of its cage, hissing at you, the worm-lion bookends detach from their bases and come slithering toward you.  Now what?

Fighting-Man: I attack.

Dungeon Master: Okay, roll.

The first example cannot be resolved without obtaining additional fictional inputs from the character.  This can slow down the pace of the game to an absurd degree, but it leads to a richly imagined scene.

The second example may have some pretty nifty things operating on your character sheet (exhausting your spells one by one; losing hit points; getting enhancements due to your magic items), but usually the fictional events in the game are imaginatively anemic.

Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t require much in the way of fictional inputs for combat.  In the worst case scenario, the situation in the second example can degenerate into “I hit . . . 6 points . . . You miss . . . I miss . . . You hit, 5 points.”

This isn’t inevitable – a good Dungeon Master or good players can always gussy up this basic exchange – but the rules operate without that degree of creativity and imaginative investment, and there’s always a drift toward laziness which can result in less scintillating play.

(Case in point: in Tavis’s White Sandbox game, Tavis allows players to narrate how they land the killing blow against an enemy.  Sometimes this results in some very nice additions to the fiction: although Eric’s Halfling Archer was the one who reduced the Beast Lord to 0 Hit Points, Eric used his narration to describe that it was Adrian’s character who lopped Stronghoen’s head off.   But often we’re too lazy to say more than, “Um, I just totally kill him.”)

Giving some situational modifiers (+2 for high ground) is a step in the right direction, but these tend to get lost in the spread of a 1d20 roll.

Contrast Gygaxian combat with D&D 4e.  Fourth edition requires zillions of fictional inputs in order to work, it’s just that the fictional inputs are largely confined to relative positioning on a battlefield.  I find it hard to imagine how 4e could be played without figuring out exactly where people are standing, and exactly how they’re attacking.

As a result, combat in 4e is imaginatively rich, in the sense that how you attack someone both requires input from the imaginary environment and also changes the environment in a way that impacts later decisions.

The downside is that in 4e there are so many inputs to track that fighting slows to a crawl.  This isn’t a problem if you’re fighting the Beast Lord, but it stinks when you’re just mowing down encounters that only exist to bleed resources prior to the big showdown.

What would be nice is a version of D&D where resolution has a scalable complexity.  When you’re frustrated by bullshit caltrops on a staircase, just roll the Remove Traps skill and get it over with.  When you’re trying to do something really complicated, like blowing up a Lich by re-binding its booby-trapped spell books to deceive it (as Maldoor did), do something pretty freeform to enable the players to show creativity.  Stupid fights against lame-o’s, use the baseline combat system.  Big fights against major enemies, adopt a system where, say, special abilities or feat-type things come into play, allowing for some more tactical complexity.

Credit where it’s due department – Vincent’s making the same point here, over a year ago.

28
Jun
10

Fighting Blind

“It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.”

So someone’s swinging a sword at a target they can’t see. This isn’t as unlikely as it seems! Aside from hiding beneath a blanket of invisibility or blinding foes with light or darkness spells, the party may simply find themselves in the dark without a torch.

What happens then? Various old-school rulesets have little to say on the subject, and they often disagree.

—-

OD&D and Red Box don’t seem to cover the question of blindness.

The Rules Cyclopedia gives the following penalties to blind characters:
* -6 penalty to attack rolls;
* -4 penalty to saving throws;
* +4 penalty to Armor Class;
* Move at 1/3 speed (this is in feet, even outdoors); increased to 2/3 if led (this is in yards if outdoors), or to full speed if on a horse that’s being led.

Against an invisible foe, the Rules Cyclopedia only applies the -6 penalty to hit.

Labyrinth Lord imposes a -4 penalty to hit for both blindness and invisibility.

OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry impose a -4 penalty to hit for invisibility, but provide no rules for blindness.

—-

In all cases, one must know the approximate location of an opponent in order to attack. Obviously this leaves a lot of room for DM rulings. If a distant opponent is standing in one place and making a ruckus, can it be targeted by a blinded character with a bow? If so, where do you draw the line at which you do or do not know a foe’s “approximate location”?

The Rules Cyclopedia seems to be a bit of an outlier in terms of the effects of blindness, but it also covers some bases that might be worth considering.

—-

So here are my own tentative rulings on blindness in Red Box:
* -4 penalty to attack rolls;
* Move at 1/3 speed, or 2/3 speed if led—may attempt to move faster by making a 3d6 Dexterity or Wisdom check, whichever is better;
* May be backstabbed from any direction, not just from behind.

How do you see yourself handling blindness in your old school game?

16
Jun
10

Tactic Table: Ghouls

Ghouls have descended on the party! Their bodies reek of rot and corruption. Claws rake an adventurer’s flesh — paralysis! A victim falls prone, frozen but conscious.

What do the ghouls do next? Roll on the following table!

* * * * *

Roll 1d6 the first time any member of a group of ghouls paralyzes a party member. Apply an impromptu penalty if the ghouls feel outmatched, or a bonus if the ghouls feel they outmatch the party.

Less than 1: The ghouls flee for safety, hoping the other adventurers will tend to their paralyzed comrades instead of pursuing.
1: The ghouls flee in hopes of luring the party after them (possibly into a trap), then double back to seize the paralyzed adventurers.
2: The ghouls tear out the throats of paralyzed adventurers to ensure that they stay down. This coup de grace takes one round.
3-4: Whenever an adventurer is paralyzed, a ghoul will pick up the adventurer on the next round and carry him or her off to the lair.
5-6: The ghouls ignore the paralyzed adventurers, leaving them alone until the battle is over so they can feed on their still-living bodies at leisure.
More than 6: Any ghouls not engaged in melee spend the rest of the combat glutting themselves on the flesh and blood of paralyzed adventurers, stopping only if attacked.

27
May
10

we killed the beast lord. you missed it.

The Beast Lord enjoys his last meal

Tavis’s White Sandbox campaign is largely centered around Paul Jaquays’s 1979 masterpiece, The Caverns of Thracia.  On Saturday night, we defeated its arch-villain, Stronghoen the Beast Lord.

Thirty-seven players and fifty-five characters have played in the sandbox over its twenty-two session lifespan, and they’ve all been gunning for this moment.

What was most impressive to me is that defeating the villain was a beautiful team effort, in which everyone at the table that night played a part.

The Cast

Ookla the Mok, Elvish Ranger
Theos, Dwarven Magic-User (played by JoeTheLawyer)
Lotur the Scurrying Cur, a Fighting-Human (played by Greengoat)
Thales, a Faun
Arnold Littleworth, a Human Magic-User (played by me)
John Fighter, a Fighting-Human
Merselon the Magnificent, a Fighting-Human
Lucky, a Fighting-Hobbit (played by Eric)
THE SPIRITS OF ALL RED BOX CHARACTERS EVERYWHERE

Snapshots of Awesome

Ookla the Mok

Fred the Talking Fish (billion years old, made out of wood, you wear it around your neck, it never shuts up–in short, don’t ask!) cast an illusion on Ookla so that he looks like an Ixchel wearing a sombrero. Ookla would spend the next several hours going “Boogita-boogita-boo!” to every NPC in the game. (Dave had another awesome moment below, but I’m not sure if it was OOC brainstorming or in character.)

Theos the Renegade Dwarven Magician

Armed with our wand of paralyzation, Theos – unafraid to scout ahead – immobilized half a dozen slime-monsters which exploded out of barrels dropped by an especially pesky group of vines.  (He later made a pretty strong bid to operate the wand of wonder while high, which given Tavis’s glee at the idea would have been disastrous but showed massive courage.)

Lotur the Scurrying Cur

After overcoming a swarm of slime-monsters, Lotur ran up the side of a cave wall, and jumped down in front of a female Minotaur so impressively that she decided to worship him.

Thales the Faun, a Faun

Being half-goat means you can haltingly communicate to half-cows. (Who knew?) Thales managed to interview the female Minotaur, discovering much about their lair.

Arnold “Zolobachai” Littleworth

Armed with this information, Arnold cast Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation and strolled into a Minotaur Sorority Party. When his attempt to poison everyone failed, he made friends with their Druid-Queen Raven Gargamel.

(It turns out Raven’s gang views the Beast Lord as a sell-out to the lich roaming the dungeon, and she agreed to help fight the Lich if we first neutralized the Beast Lord.  She gave us a straight line of access to the Beast Lord’s palace.  I am pretty sure she didn’t want us to kill him, cannibalize his body for trophies, and then cook what was left in Arnold’s trusty frying pan, but all good relationships are built on keeping some facts strictly to yourself.)

John Fighter, True King of Thracia

With the help of our scouts, John found a group of ten were-bears whom we sorta knew.  After getting the bears good and drunk on Lucky’s dwarven ale, he promised them half the Beast Lord’s treasure if they would help us fight. Were-Bears are 6 HD monsters who cannot be injured by normal weapons – in other words, far more bad-ass than we are.

(So, with 8 of John’s soldiers, and 10 were-bears, we stormed the Beast Lord’s citadel. Everyone did brave things. Kudos especially to Ookla’s player, who ingeniously suggested using illusionary Harpies to trick the victims of a real Harpy’s mind-control powers. I don’t know if this was suggested in-character, so maybe it’s not an Awesome Thing for Ookla, but it was still damn clever, and built on an idea Joe had.)

Merselon the Magnificent

After the gang demolished six Gnolls, five Harpies and a Hydra, Stronghoen the Beast Lord and his group of Gnolls charged out at us. Though Theos managed to paralyze most of the Gnolls, Stronghoen incinerated all eight of John’s soldiers (including like 3 George Foremans) with a fire ball, which also put 5 of 7 party members at death’s door. When Arnold blinded the Beast Lord with the wand of wonder, MERSELON THE MAGNIFICENT magnificently vaulted into melee combat alone, and was the first of the Grey Company to draw the Beast Lord’s blood. For a round or two, Merselon fought the Beast Lord alone … until the Beast Lord slew him with single stroke of his enormous battle axe. It was an epic death.

Lucky the Hobbit

With Merselon down and the Were-Bears running away in terror, things looked grim. As Arnold desperately tried to revive the others, Lucky kept nailing the Beast Lord with critical after critical. As John, Ookla, and Lotur – all with 1-2 hit points – swarmed into melee, Lotur’s preposterous fumble managed to distract the Beast Lord long enough for Lucky to nail him straight through the throat with one of his deadly arrows, and as the Beast Lord fell to his knees, King John ran Stronghoen through with his blade, Heart of the Mok. (Then Arnold hit him upside the head with the busted frying pan.)

Lucky is more of a bad-ass than I'd previously assumed

Aftermath

We pretty much stopped right there: six survivors, each with one foot in the grave, gathered around the Beast Lord’s corpse in the depths of the Lost City. Though a Dog Brother was gathering reinforcements deeper in the palace and casting nefarious spells, the Slayers of the Beast Lord bowed their heads to honor all the brave souls who have soldiered at their side:

Merselon the Magnificent (Acrobat)
Christos, Assassin
Maldoor the M-U
Obscura the Illusionist
Lydio the Spider-Dwarf, M-U
Thisilyn, Cleric
Fostra, Archer
Caswin of Aeschlepius, Cleric
Emurak the multi-classed
Bartholomew Honeytongue, Cleric
Brother Gao, Cleric
Into the Mystic, Cleric
23, Robot Cleric
Myggle the Priest
Mallo Beer-bane, Cleric
Thorsten Skullsplitter (Fighting Man)
Garrett Nailo, (Cleric)
David Carradine, Monk
Colin, F-M
Tommy, M-U
Argus the Rat Knight, F-M
Narcissus, M-U
Elston, Elf
Sir Hendrik the Halfling
Garrock, Alchemist
Obamabiden the Druid
Fark the Dwarf
Dirk
Orb the M-U (and his spider)
Fletcher the Fighting Man
Janape
Bluto, F-M
Morena, F-W
Chance, Cleric
Billy the Rat
Nicholas, Cleric
Axum Maldoran (Axum)
Dr. Meridian Kaine the Cleric
Doghead the M-U
Tiburo, F-M
Wolfrey, F-M
Rebmik the Cleric
Balint, Sapper
Goo the baby Elf
Mariano the Fighting Man
Renaldo the Cleric
Florin the Dwarf
Oban the Cleric
B’Var the Fighting Man
Wallace the Caged (Fighting Man)
Mungar the Fighting Man
Tusk the Fighting Man

We could not have slain Stronghoen without their bravery, creativity, and fellowship.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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