Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Monster Archaeology - Magical Beasts


It's hard to know exactly where to start and stop the next set of monsters from Monsters and Treasure, bestial creatures that are (with one interesting exception) pulled directly from classic myth and legend.  These creatures are best described as "Dragon-like", but depart from the common structure of Monsters and Treasure in that they don't represent a hierarchy from weakest to strongest within a specific monster class.

Manticores ("Manticoras"), Hydras, Chimeras and Wyverns don't really share much descriptively or in any conceivable ecology, though all have some special attack, all appear in small numbers and all are dangerously powerful with 6-12 Hit Dice and decent armor class.  They seem to exist to provide a lone alpha predator, menace or 'boss monster' when dragons aren't appropriate.  This is somewhat unfortunate as most of these creatures are quite evocative and offer interesting encounters.

Manticores are perhaps the least dangerous of these large monsters, and Monsters and Treasure describes them as follows and continues to use the name "Manticora" which is the name of a genus of African beetle and the Latin term for Manticore - it describes them as follows:

MANTICORA: Huge, lion-bodied monstrosities with men's face, horns, dragon wings and a tail full of iron spikes.  There are 24 of these spikes in a Manticora's tail and they can be fired 6 at a time in any one direction with the range (18") accuracy and effect of a crossbow. Their favorite prey is man.

As a
6+1 hit die creature with great speed (12/18) and a good AC of 4, Manticores seem like they would be excellent hunters of man - and in the ancient Persian that provides the name it translates to "man eater".  They mythological Manticore seems to be one of those monsters of spirits of the wasteland that explains why shepards, hunters, travelers and herdsmen go missing and thier bodies are never found.  Allegedly the mythical beast devours its prey whole after stunning with it's poisonous sting.

As a monster the Manticore as a mechanical concept is far less interesting then it's parts imply.  It's a burly ranged attacker (though limited to one attack in melee) that can launch a dangerous (an with an attack bonus of +6 or the ability to hit a plate and shield armored character on an 11 or better) flurry of missiles.  The mechanics of the Manticore's missile attack present interesting possibilities, in that it can target a single enemy six times in a round at range, picking off magic users and other dangerous but unprotected characters.  Played with the human cunning that it's man's head implies a Manticore could be very dangerous, sniping party members from ambush and flying by to kill at long range.  One envisions them as predators and raiders, flying, retreating to filthy bachelor lairs in the wastelands, decorated in stolen frivolities and aping humanity, but scattered with bones and bloody bits of meals.  Goblin Punch has this lovely piece on Manticores, making them more mythical then the original myths of confused man faced and poison tailed tigers, or the later ones of cats with the faces of beautiful spiteful women, confused with the sphinx and as an allegory for fraud.  More recently Trey at Sorcerer's skull released his Manticore wizard focused adventure which takes the beast in a somewhat different direction but still focuses on the   It's hard not to think of Manticores as the idea of a monster in need of more interesting statistics.

Hydras are the next of the magical Beasts listed in Monsters and Treasure:

Monday, August 7, 2017

Heraldic Beasts

As regular readers of this blog may know, I don't love Monster Manuals, and rather enjoy designing my own monsters - usually via a quick re-skinning of something simple (A bear, giant rat or 1st level fighter being the most common).  This doesn't mean I'm uninterested in monsters for tabletop games, or the general concept of monsters as a sociological phenomenon.  I've been slowly reading through "Monsters & Treasure - the earliest edition of D&D's monster manual, thinking about the foes provided and how I'd personally make use of them.

One that's struck me about Monsters & Treasure is the somewhat clumsy feeling of its adaptions from mythological sources.  It pulls in various words for creatures from European and Classical myth, but often ignores many of the interesting elements of the underlying story.  The Monsters & Treasure Hydra seems the best example of this, transforming a sneaky, oddly botanical, regenerating, many headed snake thing into a super dinosaur.  Additionally, Monsters & Treasure (and the Monster Manuals that follow from what I can tell) miss a rich vein of mythical beast lore by almost entirely (the Dragon, the Wyvern and a few others are retained) ignoring the legacy of Heraldic Beasts.

Heraldic Beasts are the fantastical creatures used on shields and as devices for (primarily) European nobility, and there are lots of them.  Below is a list of several I found interesting and worthy of inclusion as strange monsters in your tabletop game.  I'm not sure why exactly, though many of them have rather mundane names (Tyger, Lion or Wildman), their descriptions are as bizarre as anything else in the monster manual  Heraldic Beasts seem like they would make an especially valid or even a key addition to a setting that seeks to remain quasi-historical (such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess's default setting) or to provide a knightly, even Arthurian element.

The 'Queen's Beasts' of England

Sunday, July 2, 2017

HMS Apollyon Viking Character Generation Rules

Below are some rules I wrote up to run Viking seafarers in the HMS Apollyon setting to run some one shots of a few new areas.  A friend ran a game at NTRPG Con using these rules and related WWII Commando Character Generation Rules and reported success. I think they make a nice enough distillation of my current rule system and provide a nice means of character generation.  A Character sheet is also included.  For further explanations of rules and things you might find this Players Guide for Combat and Exploration helpful as well.

I have no justification for using this illustration
The Karve was a ghostly shape in the sea mist when Thorgest the Foul and his men reached the black pebble beach, and his screaming red face was the last you saw of the cold fjords at Hornstrandir as the clansfolk who had survived the hall burning rowed hard into the hide.  You rowed West and South intent on reaching Reykjavík or Ireland for supplies.  The sea had different plans, and after three days of storm, buffeted by waves and lashed by rain the Karve was far to the West, beyond the known sea, and the supplies already stretched.  You’ve sailed now for a week more, two men dead from wounds gone rotten, another lost over the side, and even with the storm the water is almost gone again.

Doldrums, a crew too exhausted and hungry to row more than a few hours and no sun to act as a guide in the heavy fog seem to have written a grim end for you and your people. But the fog breaks, orange light trickles in and in the near distance a cliff of metal looms.  A cliff that seems to float like a great ship, sides encrusted with shell and trailing weed, but beneath black plates, smooth like the toenails of dead giants.  It is Naglfar, but there are no choices - go aboard and be damned or die of thirst and sink into Hel.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Steel Leviathan

Sometimes I still mull over ASE and things like will it ever get more levels, and will I ever write anything more for the setting.

Sometimes this musing goes as far as drawing some stuff for the setting.  Like this Steel Leviathan and Unyielding Fist detachment.  I think this is a bigger and meaner steel Leviathan then the ones described in ASE - I imagine that it is a new creation from the Academy designed for the wars against the Dinosaur Khan and Serpent Men of the Certopsian plains who threaten Denethix's expansion and sovereignty.

It's also a chance to play around with some drawing effects.

Let's take this another step ... here are stats for "Red Ruin" and the unit it's part of.  If you are running ASE, they can flesh out the Unyielding Fist that guards all the other entrances of the megadungeon after it opens

Friday, May 26, 2017

A Swords and Sorcery Setting - Part 1

 I haven't ever really bothered with applying about Swords & Sorcery elements as setting building blocks.  Here's an attempt.  At some point the This is the World PDF may be followed by This is You, These are Your People, and This is Your Fate.  Which will contain rules for character generation, a faction/town/quest system and very short combat rules based on my HMS Apollyon rules. Don't hold your breath though.


The Sky is red at midday; light has gone out of the world, long before your unprophetic birth. In the thin light the grain grows slow, a meager harvest before the ice storms come.  Sometimes the rain is a torrent of blood or a cascade of frogs - a boon to the village, but too much salt and iron is bad the soil.

Iron is rare; the earth mined clean of useful metals so your tools and weapons are carved of bone or red oak, chipped of obsidian and jade or hammered from old soft copper.  Iron is power and steel a myth that rust in the ruins of the ancients among those lesser imperishable metals of grey or green that only grow brittle or burst into flame in the smith’s fire.

Man is no longer the ruler of this world, or presumably those that rave, sometimes blossoming with green fire in in the night sky. You are made of dirt and to dirt you will return.  Man is only a thing, among other things, Beastkind, Ghostkind and the others that hunt and creep or stride proud to seek dominion atop the ruined root-choked world.

It has been a fat generation, and there are more of the polis then the herds and crop can support, or at least there might be if the grey shivers, the raiders, and the gods are kind and overlook your people for another generation.  Thus it is no longer a crime to take your fertile flesh beyond the village palisades.  Already a mother or father, you have given your people at least a life to replace your own squandered existence. To be an explorer is still uncouth, a whispering offense, unless you return with good grey iron, trade or artifacts.

Beyond the palisades, almost a mile of traps and sharpened logs, the world to the North is ice steppe, tall dense forest to the East and West, and deserts of glassy sand to the South.   Little else is known, but lies and half-truths filter back from outlanders, traders and explorers - something must be true even from the lips of the mad.

Linked is a PDF with a bit more to help randomly generate a Swords & Sorcery Setting.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Oldest of Old School (part III) - G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

G1 - Steading of the Hill Giant Chief
Original Cover Art

Recently I reviewed both Tomb of Horrors (Gary Gygax - 1975/1978) and Temple of the Frog (Dave Arneson - 1975) and found them both interesting from a historical perspective and as iconic representations of styles of location based adventure.  Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (G1) (1978) is another of the oldest adventure modules and unlike Tomb of Horrors (which had some contribution from Alan Lucien) appears to be purely the work of Gygax. Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is also a very different sort of adventure from Tomb of Horrors and doesn't appear to have been written solely with tournament play in mind, though it certainly has elements of Gygax's tournament style. Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is for ‘experienced characters’  - though it’s unclear if this is only raw levels of if Gygax (rightfully) suspects that the adventure might be tricky for players that are unfamiliar with some of the more sneaky options available to their characters in AD&D.

Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is short (13 pages or so) and densely written.  It’s much clearer then the writing in Temple of the Frog, but is similar in construction - with the now standard introduction, hooks, and note for the game master followed by keyed locations (52 on two levels) and a single page of pre-generated (tournament) characters.  The writing is Gygaxian, though far less descriptive than that and without the illustration booklet provided in Tomb of Horrors it still has some of his unique phrasing.  The adventure is a simpleattack on a hill giant stronghold, but set up specifically to build tension and encourage infiltration and character creativity due to the enormity of that task.  

A first level details the giant’s huge wooden hall and palisade, a sort of cliched barbarian/Viking/Celtic chief’s hall or even inbred backwoods family compound, built on a giant’s scale and filled with details that repeatedly hammer on the giants’ themes of squalor, debauchery and sloth.  While individually keyed most of the rooms on this upper level are empty, as the inhabitants feast endlessly in their great hall they do offer plenty of clues and interesting spaces to explore.  A secret stair leads down to a lower level much closer to a traditional ‘dungeon adventure’, though a rather tightly wound one, in the Giant’s cellar (slave cells, weapon manufacturing area and secret treasury, insane manticore garbage disposal), caverns with orcish rebels and several other factions, and a secret tentacle god temple.  The upper level is a tightly written adventure locale that inspires plans and schemes in the players while giving the GM the tools to make them fail or succeed interestingly, the lower level is a bit of a jumble.  Yes it has useful faction and a few neat set pieces, but it also very densely packed and small with a bit of the 'monster hotel' feeling, especially in the cave portion.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Haunted West

You know you want this
in your Boot Hill Game...
A few days ago I got to play a game of Boot Hill using the 2nd, 1979, edition (which are very similar to the 1975 1st edition in its little brown book) of what can best be described as a percentile driven cowboy gunfight game.  Boot Hill's rules are simple and spare, solely designed for rolling percentile dice to mercilessly kill characters and NPCs alike.  There are very few rules about anything other then various forms of Western mayhem, and no implied setting beyond a list of statistics for famous Western gunfighters and a weapons list where the better items are listed as 'available after 1870'.

Yet I enjoyed Boot Hill, I've always liked the idea of the system, murderously fast gunfights in the collective American (or possibly Italian) cultural confusion of the Wild West. Playing with the players from Hill Cantons, with Chris K running things (he's clearly run Boot Hill before) makes for a fun game and plenty of jokes about the inherent idiocy of the Western genre. While the mechanics of Boot Hill are strangely sparse, creating only a 'white room' where gunfights between faceless cowboys endlessly repeat, Cantones County (Hill Canton's Western equivalent) has already been fleshed out to a fair degree.  Best, these character generating 'Fast Packs' build character backstory almost as quickly as the quirky modifier heavy rules of Boot Hill (Really it only has 3 meaningful statistics so it's not that bad) allow for character stat creation. 

When I rolled "calico dress" as a fashion statement, several guns and a "child named William" as my character's possessions, my own fast, frail, accurate and fairly inexperienced gunfighter quickly became "Sally Murder" the last survivor of some sort of old order religious wagon train, loaded down with the guns of her dead fellows and her nine-year old son (at least this is her story, she might just be a mad murderess). The other players were able to concoct equally amusing backstories with equal speed based on the possessions randomly generated by these tables.  While this is an important lesson (one I've long embraced) that equipment and a few random items can lay the basis for interesting characterization, the world that the strange gun thugs of Cantones County exist in still seems pretty bare. 

Boot Hill's rules cover combat, exclusively and without variation.  Almost a page on the effects of exploding dynamite, but nothing sneaking past sentries in the gloaming to take up a position on a rocky outcropping and snipe the local mine boss from cover on behalf of his perturbed workforce (this was the plot of the recent game).  While articles in ancient Dragon magazines have some strange errata, mostly stats for fictional TV cowboy gunfighters, even the adventures offered are tactical map based gun battles against outlaws (and a Tyrannosaurus Rex) - individual scenes that may be fun but don't offer much variety or campaign play and suggest no space for expanding ones campaign beyond gunfights.
A famous US President as Supernatural Monster Slayer - Jason Hauser
This doesn't really appeal to me, while I enjoy Western shootouts as much as anyone who watched a lot of UHF television as a child, Marty Robbin's "Big Iron" gets old fast. It gets old especially fast with the Boot Hill rules which use a static speed and percentile rolls to determine who gets shot in the groin. My own inclination for Western gaming is the Weird Western, where supernatural elements abound, but this of course is hard to mechanically model in a system as narrowly focused on cinematic gunfights.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Monster Archaeology - Cockatrice, Basilisks, Medusae and Gorgons


No 1 - Catoblepas? Gnu?
It's shocking how many monsters in the 1970’s editions of Dungeons and Dragons turn their foes to stone, but maybe it shouldn't be as there's an entire saving throw dedicated to petrification and then the spell stone to flesh.  It does seem odd though, of all the awful things mythical beasts might do to brave adventurers, Gygax and Arneson have fixated on the ability to petrify people as an iconic and very dangerous power.  The authors of the Little Brown Books found ‘stoning’ or petrification such an exciting power that they added it to many mythical creatures which legend ascribes different (though similar powers).  Perhaps this is an artifact of the ‘economy of monster strength’ found in Monsters & Treasure, in the same way that humanoids creep up in HD and danger so that a similar enemy can challenge higher level characters there are increasingly sturdy varieties of strange, mostly beastial enemies that turn their targets to stone.

Now there’s something really interesting about mechanics that directly attack Saving Throws, and while the penalty of instant death for a failed save (or petrification) might seem harsh in a less granular system, combat in early is already quite lethal, and Save or Die Saving Throw attacks while deadly in a special way don’t really make combat much more dangerous, and unlike Ogre or Giants with their ability to lay down incredible damage, petrifying monsters have weakness written into their extraordinary abilities.

As a practical matter while running a game it’s hard to view these creatures as anything other than either a trick of nuisance.  It’s always been a bit confusing to me if mirrors are supposed to be a hard counter against gaze attacks.

No 2 - Catoblepas? Gnu?
COCKATRICE: The Cockatrice is a less powerful but more mobile Basilisk.  It turns opponents to stone by touch. The Cockatrice is able to fly.  They are not intelligent.

That’s not much description for one of the weirder creatures found in medieval bestiaries.  From my memory a cocaktrice occurs when a rooster that new crowns at the sun lays a snake egg that’s possessed by a demon… Ok that was fairly close to folkloric description, though I guess a toad or snake incubates the egg and the thing is basically a two legged chicken headed dragon.  Another interesting aspect of the fables around the Cockatrice are that it may be a confused descriptions of the Nile Crocodile. Also it doesn’t turn people to stone it just kills people by looking at them, touching them or breathing on them.

What I find interesting about the historical Cocktrice is that it implies acopolypse - it’s a creature that causes instant death which appears birthed by strange portents and unnatural acts. This has gaming potential - a sickly green comet burns in the sky and cockatrices start hatching.  If the original implied setting of Dungeons & Dragons is post-apocalyptic (The cultural and religious strictures of the Medieval world are not to be found in any D&D rulebook) the Cockatrice is a monster that should appear often.

Mechanically a Cockatrice is far more dangerous than it perhaps warrants - a five HD monster that has a deadly touch and can fly.  With its hit dice the Cockatrice will hit often, even against well armored characters making it very dangerous. This might be somewhat limited by the Cockatrice’s animal intelligence, and I can see a fun game resulting from a 0-level funnel about a Cockatrice hatching in some poor farmer’s field.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In the City at Night - The Night Holds Terrors

The roads are pure and timeless, and around them the detritus of a civilization that has failed from efforts  tawdry efforts to emulate the roads' perfection. Bright avenues run to the horizons - imperishable blocks of bonewhite and alchemical stone set straight and true to the compass points, surrounded by gardens of tangled briar, monuments of crumbled ruin, industrial yards where a few lackadaisical workers loaf in the shadows of ancient machines, store front churches to venal gods and dusty monuments faceless with time.

1970's Sci-Fi art - artist David A. Hardy
While this expanse of baroque decay calls out for contemplation, there is no safety here. Whether native son or bold intruder from some savage remoteness, the streets are hungry for flesh and the stuff of mortal souls.  Fellow citizens are hardened and travelers predatory even in the bright noon light, but at night other things come creeping and hunting from the endless ruins, to waylay the unsuspecting.

Below is a table of 38 random encounters for the Imperial Capital.  I expect that with these encounters, the locations table and the treasure table I have previously posted under the title "In the City at Night" one would have sufficient material to run the location.  A 3D6 table of random new PC/NPC equipment and identity might also be helpful to flesh out the citizenry a bit.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Oldest of the Old School (part II) - Temple of the Frog - The First Module?

The review previous to this one is an in depth review of the adventure module S1 - Tomb of HorrorsTomb of Horrors was written in 1975 as a tournament adventure for the first Origin's Conference of July 1975.  It was not published until 1978, when S1 - Tomb of Horrors appeared.  This means that Tomb of Horrors is not the first published piece of adventure content for tabletop roll playing.  The first is likely to be "Temple of the Frog", included in the Second Supplement to the original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) box set - Blackmoor by Dave Arneson.  In the introduction to Blackmoor Gygax credits Arneson as the "innovator of the 'dungeon adventure' concept."

Yup that's Blackmoor
So 1975 - the first published adventure (it's unclear to me if the very different Tomb of Horrors was written first) and one that fundamentally sets the style for published adventure content - but "Temple of the Frog" is a strange thing, 19 pages long and filling the center of Blackmoor.  Most of the supplement is a scattering of house rules (stupidly complex combat rules based on hit location and height, the fragmentary Monk and Assassin classes, a monster manual very close to the Monster Manual largely focusing on aquatic foes, some rules for underwater adventure, diseases and hiring specialists), but there in the middle is "Temple of the Frog". 

I happen to have a copy of Blackmoor, so I can suggest picking up a PDF (even if it's one of the simpler Little Brown Books to find) because the type is tiny (9 point maybe) and written densely to the margins in large blocks of text.  The information design is not good...even by the standards of the OD&D box set.

Still this is apparently the first "Dungeon Adventure" which I take to mean a location based exploration adventure as opposed to a siege, battle or a campaign of sieges and battles.  This is very interesting from a historical prospective, even if I don't really find much use in game history, and in thinking about writing this review I was somewhat excited to see what is in "Temple of the Frog" that one might style recognize as the ancestor for standards, mechanics and ways for playing and producing location based adventures today.

I read the thing, all 19 pages of confusing, poorly mapped, weirdness and while "Temple of the Frog" is 'interesting' and it really does appear to have set the standard for the way adventures are designed and written, it's a mess.  "Temple of the Frog" is not the worst adventure ever written (it's not a linear combat based railroad for one), certainly it's not a good one - especially not today - but it's bad largely in the same way that a Model T Ford is bad compared to a Porsche 911 or a Prius.  Most of the right parts are included and one can see that a game could be run from "Temple of the Frog", but it might be clunky and fairly uncomfortable.  The pattern that Temple of the Frog creates invites comparison with Tomb of Horrors and a curiosity about what the original, pre-publication 1975 version of Tomb of Horrors looked like.It invites curiousity because while the adventures are practically compatriots they are so very different in mood, theme, scope and approach that they are entirely different species of adventure.