Friday, October 23, 2009

Non-Standard Critters For Fun and Profit

Nothing like the look on a player's face when you are playing a "traditional" game of D&D and they run into an "iconic" creature like, say, a troll, or a mummy, or a minotaur, that doesn't perform "by the book" (the spellcasting troll, the fire resistant mummy, the poison gas breathing minotaur, etc). Stats should be a baseline; a good gamemaster takes the ball from there and runs it in for the touchdown.

In my own campaign world, I do this all the time. I have dozens of types of skeletons and zombies; jungle stirges; arctic owlbears; a score of poisonous snakes (based on real life examples like the black mamba and fer de lance) each whose poison has differing effects; various varieties of iron cobras (some giant sized), spell-casting ogres, and much more. I know there is nothing "original" about this, but I have always disliked the player who memorized the Monster Manual to the point of a rabid zoologist and always knew the EXACT spell to counter any monster (which is the best time to mention that a blessed crossbow bolt does SQUAT to rakshasas in my world.....!) When I created my own campaign world, I gave certain monsters the "week off" (there are very few hobgoblins, bugbears and drow) and instead concentrated on more varied undead, climatical varieties of regular creatures (arctic owlbears and snakes, jungle stirges and ogres, desert spiders, swamp landsharks, etc), and intelligent spellcasting gargoyles, spectres and dopplegangers. I also allow monsters to pick up and use items like any other schlub. Why wouldn't a halfway intelligent creature pick up that glowing sword or shield instead of leaving it sitting on that sack of gold? The dead adventurer was wearing this pretty ring? I'm putting it on...hey, I'm invisible!

Confounding player's expectations is really doing them (and you) a favor. If a character in my campaign sees a giant of any type and assumes ANYTHING other than it looks mean, powerful, and could have something up it's sleeve this side of a vorpal blade, they have only themselves to blame when the "simple" hill giant begins beating the tar out of them using a girdle of Storm Giant strength...or begins casting a fireball at the party standing out of missile weapon range. Presuming to know the DM's world (or mind) without empirical evidence can get you dead really fast in my campaigns.

One of my favorite encounters was many years ago in some campaign or another I ran, as a band of adventurers was trudging across the wilderness and came across a kobold sitting on a fence post. He eyed the approaching group but did nothing to move or hide (a warning right there). In the middle of nowhere, the heavily scarred critter exuded toughness and had a gleaming sword hanging on a scabbard at it's side. Veterans of my campaigns knew something was up, so they gave the grizzled warrior a nod and wave and continued on. Newbies were looking at the vets with mouth agape..."It's a kobold, for crying out loud! Free XP! Let's get 'em!" as their characters rushed to what they thought would be easy pickens.

A few rounds later, the 10th level kobold warrior having viciously thrashed the sadder but wiser newbies (being careful not to kill them lest he raise the ire of the other adventurers), he paused to spit on the ground and pointed to the pile of groaning bodies. "These idiots belong to you?" he snarled. The unbeaten party members smiled, shrugged and nodded as he strolled on, his rest spoiled. The players learned a valuable lesson that served them well: appearances can be deceiving, and don't base your expectations on what is in-between the covers of the MM. They soon learned that while the MM provides a baseline description, in my campaign world, it pays to be cautious.

Here is a very heavily edited chart I sometimes use when I want to spring a little surprise using a iconic D&D critter. I usually just use it when I'm working on a unique encounter or trying to create a "boss" type with a little more "oomph". It's not the quality of a James Raggi Random Esoteric Creature Generator, but it does the job:

  1. Breathes Fire (3-18 pts, cone 10 feet long at base)
  2. Has Shocking Grasp (1-8 electrical damage per touch)
  3. Poisonous breath (cloud 10x10x10, sv vs poison or die, immune to own breath)
  4. Spellcaster (mage or priest of 1st-5th level)
  5. Touch causes disease (as 3rd level AD&D spell)
  6. Immune to attack form (Cold, Fire, Poison, En/Charm, etc)
  7. Uses a magic weapon in combat
  8. Uses missile weapons in combat
  9. Reflects magic on caster
  10. Smarter than the average bear
  11. Uses magic item (ring, potion, amulet, etc)
  12. Unusual alliance

For unusual powers like the above, I use the "touched by the gods" explanation in my campaign. In certain creatures, powers develop that mean that one is favored by the gods (may or may not be, it may be a mutation due to any reason) and they are often at the top of the food chain (natural leaders) of their group. Sometimes, however, their unusual powers make them outcasts and they will be found by themselves in a secluded lair, nursing their hatred at the world.

Breathes fire: self explanatory, can use once a round or turn;

Shocking grasp: can either turn it off or it is an continuous effect;

Poisonous breath: again, once a round or turn;

Spellcaster: Creature is particularly intelligent or wise (15-18) for it's kind, and has access to a spellbook and training or worships a god that answers it's call;

Touch causes disease: as the cleric spell, usually a worshipper of Bacaris (the god of Disease and Filth in my campaign, he often gives this boon to his worshippers hoping to spread plague)

Has a magic weapon: Got it from a foe defeated in battle or found it in a treasure horde;

Immune to a special attack form: choose randomly or use to confound expectations ( a troll immune to fire, for example, or a fire giant immune to cold);

Reflect magic: Only for "targeted" spells like Magic Missile or can expand to area spells;

Use Missile weapons: Many creatures would benefit from being able to fire a bow or even throw a spear or two before combat;

Smarter than the average bear: unlike most of it’s kind, the creature is a natural and cunning leader, of higher wisdom/intelligence, and is able to do some abstract thinking, use sophisticated battle tactics, and create devious traps/ambushes;

Uses a magic item: gathered from a defeated foe or found in a treasure horde;

Unusual alliance: has overcome it’s natural bestial hatred or hunger for others and entered into a mutually beneficial alliance with another creature.

Examples of each that could spice up your game and confound player expectations:
A Minotaur with fire breath
A Mummy with a shocking grasp
A Naga with poisonous breath (in addition to or in lieu of its poisonous bite)
A Medusa who is a 3rd level mage with Charm Person, Magic Missile, and Invisibility
A Carrion Crawler whose tentacles cause disease instead of/in addition to paralyzing
A Wolfwere with a +2 longsword
A Troll immune to non-magical weapons
A Spectre that reflects magic
A group of Gargoyles that uses longbows before they fly to attack
A Displacer Beast who is a genius of it’s kind….a leader of the pack extraodinaire, it has turned the other beasts into a well-trained fighting force; they use tactics like ganging up on one character to kill them before moving to another, bounding past fighters to attack spellcasters, and setting ambushes in the caves where they lair (aided by howls and barks of the genius Beast)
A Lamia with a ring of fire resistance and a potion of extra healing
A pair of Dopplegangers who have formed an alliance with a Deathkiss beholder. They wait in the wilderness and take on the appearance of a merchant and his mule being attacked by the deathkiss. As soon as the party engages the deathkiss and attempts to rescue the “merchant and beast”, the pair will attack by surprise.

It goes without saying that such unusual permutaions shouldn't be overused, lest your campaign become a "random monster" session and lose a lot of credibility. If every goblin, orc and werewolf is wielding a magic sword, wand of paralyzation and firing lasers from their frikken eyes, the campaign starts to resemble a particularly jokey version of Gamma World or Mutant Future. I also like to leave some sort of small clue that "not everything is quite kosher" to train your players to be more observant. Perhaps the bodies in the minotaur's lair are burned beyond recognition, or the one survivor of the medusa's fury says "she appeared out of nowhere, I swear!" while recovering at the local inn.

Remember to bump that XP reward, while you're at it!

Monday, October 19, 2009

NTRPG Con: 2010 Guest List Set!

Here it is, not even October and all guests have confirmed for the North Texas RPG Convention June 3-6, 2010 in Dallas (all the info can be found here: Last year, this tiny gaming con took the old-school world by storm by having Frank Mentzer, Tim Kask, Rob Kuntz, Paul Jaquays, and Dennis Sustarre come to a La Quinta in Bedford, TX to game and hang out with a handful (50+) of old school devotees. Most of the con goers were members of The Acaeum and Dragonsfoot, with a few curious bystanders, and were excited to play almost non-stop OD&D, 1E and B/X events throughout the weekend.

Except for Gary Con ( ) there exists few conventions nowadays devoted exclusively to old school gaming. NTRPG Con was brainstormed up one fine day as a way for old-school gamers to get together and share the game they love without having to dodge Magic cards, LARPs, pirate-dressed wanna be actors, and the latest "Game Du Jour" put out by WOTC or whoever. All the guys running games (which last year included Black Blade Publishing's Jon Hershberger and Allan Grohe) know the score and sometimes the choice of playing in an event is downright nervewracking (Friday night, should I go through El Raja Key DM'd by Rob Kuntz? Tim Kask's newly written OD&D adventure Temple of the Weaver Queen? Or Frank Mentzer's adventure in his classic game world of Emphyria? Arrggggh!)

This year, we've expanded the action by a day to accommodate even more old school goodness, and have finalized our lineup of special guests for 2010. Joining Tim Kask, Rob Kuntz, Paul Jaquays, Dennis Sustarre and Jason Braun (artist extraordinaire) from last year are Steve Winter and Jim Ward. Jim's name is well known in old school circles as the creator of Metamorphosis Alpha and has had his presence in gaming since the beginning, his Tainted Lands setting has just been released by Troll Lords; Steve Winter worked at TSR for 20 years spanning the EGG era through the beginnings of 3rd edition D&D. Both gentlemen will be a great addition to the present lineup and we can't wait to meet both! (Due to other circumstances, Frank Mentzer won't be able to make the con this year, and we hope to have him back again for a con in the future).

For those not in the know, the guests at NTRPG Con are not required to run games (although most happily do); all we ask is that they be accessable to con members and mingle. Guests were often seen (when not running games) in the eating area of the hotel discussing many events (the epic several hour conversation between old friends Paul Jaquays and Dennis Sustarre was witnessed and participated in by many con members not gaming at the time; one of my personal high points of the con!!!) Having a bite to eat at the local Denny's with Tim and Frank late Saturday night (actually, early Sunday morning) was also a treat. Lots of stories and reminisces were shared and the entire activity becomes an incredible experience for anyone interested in the history of the hobby.

In addition to our guests we have had commitments by Sword & Wizardry's Matt Finch (, Black Blade Publishing (, Pacesetter Games (, and Troll Lord (publishers of Castles & Crusades) to run games at NTRPG Con. We are also open to accepting other old school games and gamemasters as space opens up. I wish this was next week! I'm ready to go today!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Magic Item Junkie

Thinking back on it, yeh, I'm a magic item junkie. I love endless variety in my magic items, as I figure mages in my world are of endless variety themselves and would naturally create magic unfettered by any boundaries. So, for example, instead of the usual 35 varieties of magic potions given on the standard 2E random chart, my jiggered chart in my heavily adapted 2E Core Rules CD set gives 90! Rings, 84 varieties instead of 34; Wands, 32 varieties instead of 19. This isn't even counting a lot of non-standard type magic items I have occur in my campaigns that are just simple variations on existing items (Bracers of Invisibility and Necklaces of Protection from Missiles are two that crop up quite a bit in my world). It's safe to say that players in my campaigns have absolutely no clue what they have found when they find a ring in a treasure horde that detects could do everything from protect against disease, allow you to understand any language, let you polymorph into a giant, to give you the simplest of protection (the humble +1 Ring of Protection). I'm also a huge fan of unique, individual's safe to say a typical party of adventurers in my world won't have standard magical items and won't look like the typical party of adventurers in anyone else's world, which is a good thing. Nothing more boring than a ranger equipped with a +1 long sword, +2 shield, +1 long bow and Boots of Striding and Springing; my player's ranger would probably have a +1 long sword that speaks giantish, a long bow of distance, Shield +1/+2 vs missiles, and a Horn of Wolf Summoning. I just can't help but goose up the magic items one way or another to make them interesting and just the littlest bit more useful than the "average" magic item.

My philosophy on placing magic is probably not grognard tested (or approved), but generally, the weakest examples of magic items (+1 weapons, +1 rings of protection, +1 armor) are not uncommon. I figure some smart leader type centuries ago got a mage school to pump these out on a fairly regular basis to arm his minions; through the intervening period, these weapons have fallen into the hands of much "common" folk. Actually, that's pretty much what DID happen in my campaign world almost 2000 years ago when the Overlord's army threatened to over run the entire world; he literally had hundreds of mages (and priests, for that matter) loyal to his cult churning them out assembly line fashion to arm his followers. After the Cataclysm, these weapons have indeed found their way into various treasure hordes scattered across the planet. In my campaigns, it's fairly easy to determine you have come across a magical weapon or armor; they are the only ones in the treasure hordes that haven't aged and look new once they have been handled and polished off a little. Their individual powers might be a bit harder to figure out, although if grasped most magical items in my world will let the wielder know it's powers or purpose (kind of a bummer when the item is evil in intent, whoops).

It's not out of the question to figure every village or town across my world has one or two village elders with a magical weapon or device squirreled away for an emergency. The trick is to make the +2 and higher weapons much, much rarer in context. Not only are they a factor harder to find, but almost every weapon of +2 and above is a "unique" weapon with a special power or two (even if the special power is only to create Light '30 radius or speak a language). So, if you enter a good-sized town and notice all the guard commanders have at least a +1 sword, be assured that only the Leader of the Guard will have something as esoteric as a Flaming Longsword or talking sword that also detects magic and alignment. So, while everyone in one of my campaigns may possess at least one +1 weapon by 3rd level, getting anything better than that prior to 5th-7th level may be quite problematic (unless the characters happen to defeat a group of adventurers of higher level, or specifically hunt down a long-lost treasure horde rumored to contain a magic weapon or two of high quality).

It also must be noted at although I dearly love different types of variations on magic items, I don't favor "powerful" types of magic. I generally stick to items that have one or two intriguing functions that are not game changing, but that may affect the game in various ways. That, and the aforementioned "tweaking" an item to so something "standard" (i.e., invisibility) in a non-standard form. How the characters use an item that has probably never come up in their play before is one of the things that really interest me as a DM and as a student of the game. Everyone has been in a campaign with a +1 Cloak of Protection; how about a cloak that lets you assume the form of a stalagmite when the hood is put over your head? (one of the non-standard items in my campaign). I enjoy seeing what the clever player can bring to the table when give an item like that that takes them a bit out of the their "typical magic item" comfort zone.

Now, I don't cater to party expectations and sometimes the characters must adapt to the weapons or items they have found, or use something they are not proficient with in order to wield a magical weapon. For example right now one of my current adventuring parties (everyone 3-4 level) has everyone wielding at least one +1 weapon (well, except for a priest who is only proficient in the sling, club and mace and hasn't stumbled across anything), although the thief isn't proficient in the magical dagger she has found, and the druid just this level gained proficiency in a magical spear he was toting for an entire adventure. A few times in the past I specifically placed weapons for characters, and I felt "dirty" if I was injecting far too much of my own bias in the proceedings. Since then, I've let the chips (or magical items/weapons) fall as they may, and it's much more fun to watch the characters adapt to what they find rather than the other way around. Sometimes players slog through a dungeon only to be rewarded with several items they cannot use (say, Robes of Shadow or Rings of Bone, which are evil in purpose, or esoteric like a +3 Maul or halfling-sized +3 banded mail). Sometimes, however, that's where the fun begins as players must figure out how to make a profit off such items, either by finding someone to sell it or trade it to. My caution would be if you play in my campaigns don't expect to be fully outfitted in magical gee-gaws by 5th level (or at least, the magical goodies you EXPECT to find).

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that to this day I add to my custom stock of magical items in my Core Rules CD rom program on a weekly basis, whenever I come across something in the four volume Encyclopedia Magica (fantastic resource for ANY edition) or while thumbing through an older Dragon, Polyhedron, or random fantasy oriented mag or rules system (like Rolemaster or Runequest). Some unique or interesting items may only rarely come up as part of a random treasure horde, while others might fit the personality or aims of a NPC character so perfectly they just belong with him or her. Whether or not the party can use the item is somewhat immaterial to me; I know in the past (particularly in the classic TSR "letter" series of modules in the late 70s and early 80s) magical items were placed with a purpose (Dungeon Design Tip #101, so to speak). For example, anyone hack and slashing through the classic G-series will, by the successful completion of G1, have not one but TWO flaming swords as well as a sword of Giant Slaying! (nice of Nosnra to keep that lying around.) I do enjoy the frisson that accompanies finding a not so standard item; sometimes players are flummoxed when they are confronted with an item that doesn't fit their preconceived notions of past dungeon play. So who gets the Bracers of Missile Protection? No previous paradigm exists for most of the oddball items that I toss into the campaign, so a lot of times it causes a new dynamic to emerge. Thieves, who are almost always presented with a Ring of Invisibility in a treasure horde, are often reluctant to instead take a pair of Boots of Invisibility (what if Boots of Elvenkind pop up later?). Mages presented with the aforementioned Bracers of Missile Protection will be in a quandary when Bracers of AC 4 are discovered; a fighter who wins a flaming longsword in battle might be loathe to give up his +1 weapon, since it also has the ability to detect invisibility '10 and can speak elvish, dwarvish and orcish. Even more so the truly non-standard items I introduce such as Pooky the Bear (detailed below) that anyone can use.

Anyway, I do so love the non-standard magic item, and today while flipping through a random mag while on the throne (Polyhedron #58 from 1991, the Magic Item Contest Winners column they used to run every year) I found a few more to add to my data base. Here they are below if you want to throw a curveball into your own campaigns!

Warstar of the Manticore:
Several of these morning stars, +1, are believed to exist. However, scholars believe most owners of these weapons do not realize they have more than a melee weapon. Upon command, a Warstar of the Manticore releases 1d6 spikes at any one target. The spikes have a range of a light crossbow and instantly replace themselves. the wielder must make one "to hit" roll, adjusted for range, for the volley of spikes. The wielder gains the Warstar's +1 "to hit" bonus and any bonus he normally would be entitled to for high dexterity (the Warstar's enchantment negates dexterity penalties). The spikes can be released up to four times a day (thanks to Michael Madden)

Rock Robe:
This average looking garment radiates a strong aura of alteration magic, if such is detected for. When first donned, nothing unusual happens, as the robe takes 24 hours to attune itself to its new owner. After that time its powers become known to the owner. The robe has two powers, each usable at will. The first allows the wearer to become a statue, similar to the 7th level wizard spell of the same name; no system shock roll is required, and the effect can be maintained indefinitely. The wearer can change back and forth between his flesh form and statue, with each change requiring one round. No other action scan be taken during the transformation.
The second power is immunity to petrification. Further, the robe can be used to return a petrified individual to flesh after it has attuned itself to that person for 24 hours. The robe only functions when worn, and it is useable by any character class (thanks to Gary Watkins)

Protection Item:
Pooky the Bear:
This protection device is unique and was created by a high level mage for his children. This huggable, lovable stuffed bear looks like a typical toy animal, However, when held somewhere on the body, Pooky acts like a +3 Ring of Protection. In addition, if held while slumbering, the owner is surrounded by a Protection From Enemies 3 foot radius. This protection ends as soon as the owner awakes. While sleeping, the owner is prevented from suffering bad dreams. Because of the restful nature of sleep while slumbering with the bear, hit points are restored at twice the normal rate.

(Pooky came from a oddball published module whose name I can't recall...I changed it up a bit and inserted it into an adventure I ran BITD. My brother's tough as nails high level dwarven fighter came into possession of it, and would wear it stuffed under his armor into battle. Despite a lot of ribbing he kept the item and was probably the only name level Dwarven fighter ever to run into battle screaming "For Pooky!" with a stuffed bear head peeking out over the top of his plate mail....!)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

More Fun With Skype!

Last friday night was our fourth session in a row with my Skype campaign. It was the best so far, mostly because I didn't drop out once (replaced a cable on my computer that was crimped, I believe that was the culprit) and the party reached a conclusion of sorts to their first real "dungeon" adventure on the jungle isle of Delos. They managed to defeat a far superior foe under tough circumstances, basically destroying a minor demon with the party only in the 2-3rd level range, with only one slight casualty (the npc fighter was hurled against a wall and knocked unconcious during the climatic battle, going to negative HP before being aided). Good show!
The party is really coming together, and it's always a magical moment for the DM when the players seem to "click" and everyone realizes their roles in the party...the thief/mage started hiding behind the burly fighter types to cast spells and shoot arrows, the cleric held his holy symbol and turned all the undead in sight, the druid began exploring the uses of his many spells when underground and battling mostly undead instead of outdoors battling living creatures, and the fighters, well they did what they do best. A lot less of "Everyone grabs a weapn and rushes up to whack the enemy" we saw in the first few sessions. I'm having a blast and the players seem to be having fun also.
While simplistic, Gametable has done just fine with the basics online (graph paper, drawing walls, pogs for representations of characters, monsters, trees, etc, dice rolling macros). I wish it had a few more features but right now it's performed admirably. Now that I replaced my cable, I had my first "drop free" session which helped quite a bit with the flow of the game....and might have hurt the players a little, they are used to having extra time to discuss strategy when I dropped out every 10 minutes or so for sixty secords or more!
I do miss some aspects of fact to face gaming...the minis, drawing out the rooms on the battle board, using my Dwarven Forge walls, being able to see the player's faces and react to that when I spring something on them, being able to easily show them visual representations, etc. However, Skype still remains IMO the best vehicle for gaming when everyone is scattered across the world, and has allowed us to have a 3-4 hour session four weeks in a row. For comparison, we haven't gamed in my face to face campaign since May, and even though it's been going for almost three years, have only managed back to back weeks one time (we are lucky to get once a month in at the best of times!)
My favorite part of the recent campaign (set on a steamy tropical jungle isle, and very reminiscent of pulp "Lost civilization" type adventures) was the last session when the party, who had successfully managed to deal with undead shadows, ghouls, zombies; poisonous snakes (the druid reasoned with the giant bushmaster snake and got him to leave!), tigers, and bloodthirsty native warriors....were almost wasted by....giant rats!
After clearing a room out of a bunch of ghouls, the party forced open a door that led a to a previously unexplored area. After entering, hordes of rabid giant rats began pouring out of a small pit it in the room. Two blown throws of oil vials later, the rats were swarming the party as I rolled 19's and 20's and covered the characters with bite after bite from the menaces. Finally, someone was able to get a pool of oil lit in front of the door and cut off reinforcements, just in time for the "king rat" (I described him as a rat as big as a potbelly pig, shades of Stephen King's short story "Night Shift") to show up and squeak a challenge. Just as they finished him off, a pair of ghouls returned from behind (whoops) with a Ghast leader, and the ghast quickly downed the two party fighters with paralyzing bites!
Suddenly, with the party's two fighters down to paralyzation, and still wounded from the attacking giant rats, (not to mention a rat as big as a pig gnawing on them), it looked reeeealy touch and go for a few minutes. I was down to deciding which character the ghast would choose as a "snack" after everyone went down, when the three remaining party members managed to hold off the undead just long enough for the paralyzed fighters to recover and rejoin the combat. That was a hard won battle, and in some ways was closer to a TPK than the later battle with a Shadow Fiend in the heart of the temple. Every campaign it seems has a moment early on when things are touch and go but the party pulls it out, and this gives them confidence for what lies ahead; this was definitely that moment!
Anyone wanting to keep track of the Isle of Delos Skype campaign (be warned, there's not much dialogue and it's more a "Just the facts, ma'am" type blog), the link is below: