The Difference between Conan d20 and Barbarians of Lemuria

Yesterday someone had been asking me why I consider the descision to base the Conan d20 roleplaying game on the d20 system to be the biggest mistake the developers had made. I think the d20 system is not suited for any game based on fantasy literature, movies, or videogames and only gets in the way of everything that defines the Sword & Sorcery genre in particular. It’s all about fast action and outrageous stunts and is deeply set in a mindset that is all about emotion and not rational consideration. It’s not the smart and calculating guys who win, but the ones who are courageous and daring. It takes place in worlds that work by the Rule of Cool. And the d20 system is the total opposite of that. You can play in a world that looks just like a Sword & Sorcery world, but it does not play like a Sword & Sorcery world.

This is something that requires explanation if you are not familiar with rules light Sword & Sorcery games like Barbarians of Lemuria and especially when all you ever played is d20 games. I couldn’t see how the choice of system makes a difference either until I really started to learn some other games as well.

Conan d20

GM: While you are sitting at your table in the tavern, an officer of the guard and two guardsmen approach you. The officer steps next to your chair and orders you to come with him to the palace.

Player: Is the officer within 5 feet of me so I can strike him?

GM: Yes, he is right next to your chair, looking down at you.

Player: Is he wearing a helm?

GM: Yes.

Player: What kind of helm?

GM: It’s a type of steel cap.

Player: How close are the two guardsmen? Am I in the area they threaten to make Attacks of Opportunity?

GM: They are too far away to attack you from where they stand.

Player: Okay, I want to take my mug and bash the officer in the head with it to knock him out.

GM: Make a Sleight of Hand skill check to see if you can grab your mug without drawing suspicion.

Player: 12.

GM: The officer has a 15 on his Spot check and notices you reaching for the mug. Roll Initiative.

Player: I got a 15.

GM: The officer has a 9, the two guardsmen have a 17 and a 6. The first guard is too far away to see what is going on so you go first.

Player: I try to hit his head with my mug.

GM: Are you still sitting or do you stand up first?

Player: Can I still draw my sword in the same round when I stand up and make an attack?

GM: No, standing up and drawing a weapon are both Move Actions. But since your Base Attack Bonus is +1 or higher you could draw the weapon while you are standing up as a single Move Action.

Player: Okay, so I try to hit the officer with my mug while still sitting, then stand up and draw my sword at the same time.

GM: Since the officer has not had a turn in this fight yet he can not make an Attack of Opportunity because you use an improvised weapon. Do you have a special ability that allows you to make attacks with improvised weapons without a penalty for not being proficient with it?

Player: No.

GM: Okay, then make an attack roll with a -4 penalty for using an improvised weapon and a -2 penalty for sitting.

Other Player: Is there even enough light in this smoky tavern to make a normal attack roll or should the attack have a 20% miss chance from Concealment?

GM: They are standing right next to each other, I think that’s good enough to not have a miss chance.

Player: My attack roll is 12.

GM: Since the officer has no weapon in his hand he can not parry. But as he is still flat-footed he also loses his Dexterity bonus and Dodge bonus to his Dodge Defense, reducing it to 10. You hit him. The mug deals 1d3 points of nonlethal damage plus your Strength modifier.

Player: Since he is flat-footed I also get my extra 1d6 Sneak Attack damage, right?

GM: Yes.

Player: Okay, that’s 1d3+3+1d6… 9!

GM: Since you said you specifically want to bash him in the head, I only apply the Damage Reduction for the helm, but not the armor he is wearing. So that’s 8 points of nonlethal damage.

Player: Does that knock him out?

GM: No. As it is his turn now he draws his sword and makes an attack against you.

Player: Oh well, was a fun idea though.

Barbarians of Lemuria

GM: While you are sitting at your table in the tavern, an officer of the guard and two guardsmen approach you. The officer steps next to your chair and orders you to come with him to the palace.

Player: I bash him in the head with my mug!

GM: Roll attack.

Player: 11!

GM: Your mug shatters on his face and he drop down cold. The other two guardsmen raise their spears in panic.

Player: Come and get it!

The Ancient Lands in 20 questions

I saw a link to Jeff’s Gameblog with a list of 20 questions meant to create a quick introduction to your campaign setting that lets people know what it is about. Seems like a good idea to go through them with my Ancient Lands setting.

  1. What is the deal with my priests’s religion?
    Most priests are shamans who serve as mediators between the spirits of the land and the people who inhabit it. They perform the rituals to ask the spirits for favor and to appease them when they have become angered by something. Many villages have one primary spirit they worship, which rules over the valey the people live in or a mountain or lake that sits next to it, but shamans are not servants of any one particular spirit. Instead they see to it that all the spirits cause no harm to the village by performing rituals and sacrifices for them, and banish hostile spirits that come to the village to cause chaos. In some of the large cities, there are also local cults dedicated to specific gods like the Sun or the Moon, who are revered as great guides of wisdom and philosophy.
  2. Where can we go to buy standard equipment?
    Most villages don’t have stores were equipment is sold, but its usually no problem to trade for supplies if the locals are friendly. Many villages make their own axes, spears, and arrows, but shields, armor, and swords are usually made in larger central towns where the people from the surrounding villages come to trade for them.
  3. Where can we go to get plate armor custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?
    There is no plate armor in the Ancient Lands. The best places to get custom made large mail hauberks or lamellar armor is in the mountain strongholds of the skeyn, a race of short grey-green goblin-like people. Another option might be to try one of the handful of large port cities on the coast, which are big enough to have specialized craftsmen for more unusual trades.
  4. Who is the mightiest mage in the land?
    The greatest sorcerer in the Ancient Lands is probably the immortal Naga-Lord in the jungles far to the south, beyond the lands of the lizardmen. Few people have heard of him or know really anything about him and he never leaves his distant homeland, but his agents and those of other naga sorcerers sometimes show up in the most expected places, though most are probably never discovered as such.
    The second most powerful would likely be the Sorcerer Queen of the city state Ven Marhend, where many nobles practice the dark arts of sorcery in the open without fear of attack from druids or demon hunters.
  5. Who is the greatest warrior in the land?
    Most people consider the Sun Emperor of the lizardfolk empire to be the greatest warrior in the Ancient Lands. In his current position he almost never gets to test his strength in battle, but he was chosen by the priests of the sun to be the most capable warrior in the empire. In recent years, the Lord-General of the order of warrior monks has become the most successful and feared conqueror of the Ancient Lands, who turned the army of his predecessors from one among many into one of the major powers of the Ancient Lands.
  6. Who is the richest person in the land?
    This would most certainly be either the Sun Emperor or the Naga-Lord who have almost full control over all the riches of their lands. But in the lands of the elves and humans, there are many highly succesful merchants in the port cities who are believed to be fabulously rich as well.
  7. Where can we go to get some magical healing?
    Most village shamans know some healing magic and would likely be willing to share it with guests and travelers, unless the people of their village need it more. But to someone who is from an enemy clan or suspected to be allied with them would have a very hard time to get any kind of help.
  8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, death, undeath?
    Poisons, diseases, and minor curses can be dealt with by most shamans and witches. For more severe dark magic and the powers of undeath, the loose order of the druids is well known to have studied these dark forces and is dedicated to fight and eradicate them.
  9. Is there a magic guild my mage belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?
    The two largest and most influential groups of mages and shamans are the druids, who opperate throughout most of the Ancient Lands, and the noble sorcerers of Ven Marhend and the towns and mannors that surround the city. The two are bitte enemies though, and have completely opposing views about the dangers and potential benefits of sorcery. There are also numerous small and secretive groups of warlocks, but even most sorcerers consider them insane for consorting with demons.
  10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?
    In most places, shamans and witches are the best place to look for alchemical brews and the knowledge of sages. Other experts are probably more likely to be found in the larger towns, but if one needs someone of very great skill, the handful of large port cities are the only place where one could reliably hope to find them.
  11. Where can I hire mercenaries?
    To fight a dangerous nearby threat, a dozen or two additional armed men can be found in almost any village, but these would only fight to defend their home from an immediate danger. To find warriors for hire one would have to go to one of the larger towns and try the taverns around the market, but the possible choices are usually few and of questionable reputation as few warriors have any reason to leave their home villages and fight for pay. When in need of large numbers of elite mercenaries, the Warrior-Monks are always looking for reasons to fight something, though they come very expensively.
  12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?
    In any place where the local shamans are known to be involved with the order of druids, sorcerers are very much advised to keep their special arts hidden and pretend to be common witches. The druids are very quick to eradicate any trace of sorcery they find and few people would try to get in their way. Naga and serpent warriors found in the lizardfolk empire are usually killed on sight or captured to be interrogated and executed later.
  13. Which way to the nearest tavern?
    Most villages don’t have a tavern, but large gatherings are in the great halls of the clan chiefs almost every night and guests of the clan are always expected to spend their evening there to share new and tales. In larger towns, taverns and small inns are usually found near the market. In the port cities numerous taverns line the harbor, but more are found almost everywhere inside the city walls.
  14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?
    Most of the Ancient Lands is wilderness and most of the wilderness is full of monsters. Sometimes these wander dangerously close to villages and each clan has warriors who watch out for them as much as for warriors from enemy clans. The most dangerous beasts likely to be encountered are wyverns, manticores, and various sea monsters, which often can be much to powerful for most common warriors, shamans, and witches.
  15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?
    There is always something brewing between the High Druids of Angdal and the Sorcerer Lords of Ven Marhend and the region between these two major power is constantly seeing some small scale fighting that occasionally grows into short wars. To the Warrior-Monks war is their life, and wherever companies of them are going there is most likely to be some big fighting to be found. The worst fighting tends to be in the jungles between the armies of the Sun Emperor and the Naga Lords, but both sides usually take only lizardmen into their forces. Hunting pirates on the Inner Sea is also always an option.
  16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?
    No, not really.
  17. Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?
    The two best known factions are the druids and the sorcerers who have been at odds for ages. The druids are dedicated to fighting the use of sorcery and the corrupting effects it has on the land and the people that live on it and will stop at nothing to destroy the presence of any demons that have been lured into the world by the use of sorcery either accidentally or on purpose. The sorcerers of Ven Marhend believe that the study and mastery of these can create magical wonders far beyond those of common witches and won’t allow the frightened druids to stop them. The much smaller faction of the demon hunters agrees with the druids that all demons have to be destroyed, as well as those sorcerers who take the path of the warlock and make deals with them, but they think that the best way to fight demons is to fight them with their own sorcerous magic. The little bit of magic corruption they cause is a small price compared to what would be left in the wake of a rampaging demon. The Naga Lords are another group of sorcerers who have always been rivals of the Sorcerer Lords of Ven Marhend and the two groups are constantly trying to send spies and assassins at each other and to gain control over burried magical secrets from ancient times before the other find them.
  18. What is there to eat around here?
    Most people live in small villages that grow most of their own food, which to a great part is wheat, rice, and potatoes. Most villages are small and remote enough to provide plenty of food by hunting in the forests and hills, which are full of deer, boars, rabbits, and geese. Sheep and goats are also commonly kept in small herds and when human nomads from the steppes in the west settled in the Ancient Lands a few generations ago they also brought with them cows. In the jungles and southern islands there are plenty of fruits, while in the north it’s mostly berries, apples, pears, and plums.
  19. Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?
    Ancient treasure left behind from the times when the fey ruled the world are the most prized things to be found anywhere in the Ancient Lands. While not exactly common, there are countless burried and overgrown ruins scattered throughout the massive stretches of unexplored wilderness and every small clan chief will sacrifice almost everything to get his hands on some. Especially if this keeps their enemies from getting them instead. The hunt for these ancient treasures is the main reason that drives warriors to explore the wild and that makes chiefs to send their best warriors and scouts to explore the surrounding wilds.
  20. Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with a huge treasure?
    Gold and jewels have little value to beasts and spirits, but those left behind by the few thousands of years ago are usually found deep in the ruins of their ancient castles and cities, which are often full of strange and very dangerous beasts not usually found near settled areas. Only a few of these ruins are well known and finding them in the trackless wilderness is a difficult challenge in itself. But even these usually have never been explored in full and there is no telling what might still be hidden in the deeper chambers. The best finds are usually made in those ruins that have never been seen by mortal eyes before and are located in the most unreachable parts of the great forests or mountains.

Fantasy Safari: Monster Manual (D&D 3rd Ed.), Part 1

To me, and probably lots of other people my age and younger, the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Monster Manual is clearly the one and only true monster book. It was the one I started with and unlike the later monster books for the edition, it had all the normal monsters, like orcs, goblins, ogres, owlbears, manticores, yuan-ti, beholders, gelatinous cubes and so on. Well “normal” for Dungeons & Dragons. But it also had quite a number of creatures that always made me think “did anyone ever use this?” and that never seemed to make any appearances in any other books. There was just that one entry with the weird picture, which I soon didn’t even notice any longer when I flipped through the book looking for monsters for my adventures. Since I assume that lots of people felt similar about them, I wanted to give this one the Fantasy Safari treatment for quite some time, even though it’s possibly the least obscure monster book for almost anyone under 30.

mm3_cover

Monster Manual

Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition by Wizards of the Coast, 2000/2003; 266 pages of monsters.

Behir

Behir

I am not going to lie, I love the Behir mostly because of the picture. Damn, this thing looks cool. A behir is a huge spiky purple snake with lots of small legs. While they are not particularly bright, they are still of somewhat human-like intelligence and able to talk. But like animals they are of neutral alignment, which means they shouldn’t be attacking everyone they encounter on sight, as an intelligent creature killing other intelligent creatures for food is almost always considered evil, no matter what particular interpretation of alignment you follow. Though that leaves the question, how do they interact with player characters? They probably would defend their home against intruders and keep anyone from stealing their treasures, but with a creature like this its hard to imagine why they would even have treasure in the first place. The most likely situation I can imagine for players to fight a behir would be the behir being in service to some other more powerful creature or NPC and guarding the entrances to their stronghold. But even then, given the behirs usual alignment and intelligence, talking might be a real option as well. As a giant worm, a behir has all the common abilities of such creatures in 3rd edition, as wrapping around a smaller creature and crushing it or swallowing it down in one go. It also has a lightning breath, but as it can be used only once per minute, it probably will use it only once in a fight. The behir is actually a pretty old creature that predates the Monster Manual by almost 20 years, but I’ve never really seen it used anywhere through all editions.

Chaos Beast

Chaos Beast

Chaos Beast, we meet again. It’s the Foaming Blasphemy from the Bestiary of the Hyborian Age. The Monster Manual actually predates the Bestiary by several years, but since the Bestiary usually only includes creatures from Conan stories, I think it’s a strong indication that this is where D&D got the idea from. The Bestiary then just copied the rules for the mechanical implementation that had already been written up for D&D. (Since the Conan d20 RPG is basically the same system; why invent the wheel twice?) Continue reading

We are not using the Z-Word!

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the concept of Evil in my Ancient Lands setting. It got me thinking about how a story or series of stories can be given its own distinctive character by deciding what words and concepts don’t exist in their worlds. Even longer back, I also remember reading an article about a writer saying he doesn’t use the word “damn” in his story because in that world there is no damnation that could await people. And it does not make sense in a Legend of Zelda game when a character says “Gee, it sure is boring around here”, because “Gee” is Jesus. Selectively not using word is probably something that readers are very unlikely to actively notice unless they are specifically looking out for it. But I think a great number of readers will at least sense it unconscously. So I’ve been thinking some more on other words I don’t want to use in my writing.

"Why not?" "Because it's ridiculous!"

“Why not?”
“Because it’s ridiculous!”

Zombie: The original Z-word. In the world I am using there are the corpses of the dead which get animated by magic and wander around attacking the living. But these are not created by some kind of plague or being altered by a wizard, but are possessed by evil hostile spirits. They can be mostly intact or nothing more than skeletons or anything in between. While not terribly smart or displaying any real motivations, they still think. They are still very much like zombies, but they are also quite different from the common movie-zombie. Also, a zombie is something the readers know and are familiar with, and within the world of the story the walking dead are so rare that almost no character will ever have encountered them. If I call them zombies, the readers will think the protagonist thinks of them as zombies and therefore assume these are not really anything to worry about for an experienced hero. If the protagonist is surprised and does not quite know what he’s dealing with, then the reader should feel the same and that just won’t happen if they are described as zombies.

Hell, hellish: Something can not look hellish, like Hell, or like from hell if there is no place called Hell and the people in the stories have no concept of such a place.

Ghost: Still not entirely certain about this, but I think I want to avoid using the word ghost. Those are those white glowing souls of the dead with unfinished business they have to complete before they can depart. In a world that is highly animistic, the default world for an incorporeal being would be “spirit”. In case the spirit is actually a dead person, I prefer the words Shade or Wraith. Like the zombies, it keeps readers a bit uncertain what exactly it is.

Soul: Like Evil, the word soul comes with a lot of preconcieved bagage. If the life energy of a person is not immortal and going to remain what it is in some form of afterlife, the term soul seems misleading to me.

Sin: Another word that really works only in a christian context. The best analogue in an animistic world would be taboo.

Wizard: I never use the term wizard. It always reminds me too much of scholars with libraries of arcane tomes and magic wands. Since that’s not in any way similar to what these people are in my stories, I always call them sorcerers or witches or something like that.

Fire!: This is admitedly pendantery. But arrows and catapults are not fired.

(And yes, I know. I need to find some other names for Ghost Paint and Soul Stones.)

Magic items in fantasy fiction

Long before I even started to consider serious fiction writing, I’ve been running roleplaying games for years. And in many games, things like magic swords, magic boots, and flying carpets are a pretty big deal. And when you look at many classic “proto-fantasy” stories and the Lord of the Rings, magic items are everywhere. Every halfway decent god or hero had two or three magic items he acquired over his many adventures by stealing them from villains he defeated.

I am not terribly well read in contemporary fantasy books, but it seems to me that magic items are almost absent these days. And in the Sword & Sorcery of Howard and Leiber they appear to be almost nonexistent. (Moorcock being an exception here, with a prominent magic sword being almost a character in its own right.)

Like monsters, I like magic items, as unfashionable they may be right now. But unlike monsters, I don’t really see how I would include magic items in my stories. It’s not that I can’t get magic items to fit into the world, but that with all my characters and villains, I just don’t see any actual use for them. A normal sword, a normal armor is good enough; as is a normal rope with a grappling hook and you can sneak around just fine without boots of sneakiness or an obscuring cloak.

The one point where I really do like “magic items” is when it comes to alchemy. Potions, poisons, smoke bombs and the like are wonderful stuff. These are quite different from regular magic items in two ways: They can be made by craftsmen and may only be borderline magical, and they are also used up once you use them. After that, you need to get new ones if you want to use them again. Which, again, isn’t that particularly difficult as they are relatively easy to make.

But I think it’s not primarily the “mundanity” of potions and bombs that makes them so much more interesting to me, but rather that they actively do something in a noticable way that makes a lot of difference. Take our default example for half of all fantasy discussions: Frodo Baggins. Frodo has a lot of magic items. A magic sword, magic armor, a magic cloak, a magic light, and of course a magic ring. The armors special ability comes into play only once in the entire story, when Frodo gets hit by a troll. But everything Frodo did was “not die”. His sword is a magic sword, but its most interesting ability is not that it’s super durable, super sharp, and super harmful to monsters or anything like that, but that it glows when orcs are nearby. That this magic item of orc detection is shaped like a sword is really just coincidence that doesn’t actually affect its usefulness. The one time Frodo uses his magic stuff actively is his light. And this is not the item that makes him fight harder, survive longer, and hide better, but the one item that he turns on and aims at an enemy. It’s a much more interesting weapon than his sword really.

And that’s what I like about alchemical items. Any time a character uses one, you really see something dramatic happen. In a story, you probably wouldn’t mention a character taking a sip from a magic potion to heal some bruises and small cuts. Healing potions are for when the character would die without it. Smoke bombs, flash powder, liguid fire, and metal eating acid are things that really change the situation a lot. A potion that protects against fire or cold allows a character to survive in otherwise deadly conditions. They don’t just improve the odds, they enable the character to do completely new things he couldn’t normally do.

Those few ideas I have for genuinely enchanted items go into a similar direction. A magic lantern that shows the way to a magically hidden place for example, or a magic gem that glows in the dark. These are also items that you turn on when you need them to do their thing, but don’t keep running the whole time. I think making a magic item being active makes it a lot more interesting than the item just being sligtly better manufactured than mundane gear.

m4s0n501

Forgotten Realms, the North, and the importance of art

Over the past couple of days I was rereading the old Forgotten Realms supplement The Savage Frontier. Released in 1988, it was one of the very early Realms product that expanded upon the original Grey Box set. Waterdeep and the North had been released the previous year and The Savage Frontier greatly expanded the “and the North” content. I got into RPGs and Dungeons & Dragons much later with the Baldur’s Gate videogames and when Neverwinter Nights followed four years later, there was a very active German scene of homemade online games based on that game. And for reasons that always have eluded me, that German scene was almost completely in line with the North sub-setting of the Forgotten Realms. I think there were about a dozen or so big servers and almost all of them had their game world set somewhere in The North. That was before World of Warcraft and we playing online with 20 people in the same game at the same was quite a big deal back then. We played that a lot and I even became one of the admins for the server I played at. Since I was good with the level editor I did quite some work on expanding the game world with new areas and dungeons. And if you think RPG geeks are obsessive about canon and accuracy, remember we were German RPG geeks! So I had to know all the source material inside out! Which I very gladly did.

The 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting was very brief on The North and Silver Marches wasn’t really covering the area we were building on. (Looking back, we were way too obsessed with realism and the world would have been much better if we had skipped all those huge outdoor road maps and focused more on actual adventure sites.) So our main source was the 1996 box set The North for 2nd edition. I also got The Savage Frontier on ebay, but being young and stupid and obsessed with detail, I found it very lacking and much to short and brief and didn’t really pay it any attention. It was kinda cool, but The North is about five times its size and more detail and more up to date information is always better, right?

The past couple of years I’ve been doing quite a lot of work with my own Ancient Lands setting and been doing a lot of research on what other settings did right or wrong, and I also did a complete 180 from d20 games and fully embraced rules light games. Both led me to greatly appreciate the older editions of Dungeons & Dragons and take a more serious look at the 1st edition Forgotten Realms material in particular. And as the very first outline of my Ancient Lands setting was “The High Forest, 4,000 years in the past”, I also came back to The Savage Frontier and gave it another close look.

SavagefrontiercoverAnd I have to say, I now actually greatly prefer it over The North, even though it’s much smaller. But for the last years I never really was sure why I like it more and what it actually does better. Having read the wonderful thread Let’s Read The Known World – ALL of it by Blacky the Blackball and NPCDave, I dug up The Savage Frontier another time to read the whole thing and compare to how things changed in the later versions of the sub-setting I am much more familiar with.

First thing I noticed is that it is really very short. 64 pages plus maps, you can read the whole thing in one go. But at the same time, it is still a complete setting. You could perfectly run a whole campaign with it that runs for years without having the main box set or even knowing anything about the rest of the Forgotten Realms at all. The only thing that is missing are the descriptions of the gods, but these don’t actually play any role in this sub-setting and all you need is a post-it note that tells you which domain each of the listed gods has. This book doesn’t tell you how everything works, it just tells you what it is called, where it is located, and what its purpose it. That really are the most important parts a GM needs to know to be able to create some own content based on it. The exact amount of orcs that inhabit a fortress and the name of their chief and the level of their shaman really are not that important or barely relevant. By letting the GM come up with these things the setting becomes actually more usable. You think it might be a good idea to have the party sneak into a goblin lair and fight their chief? But the PCs are only 3rd level and it says the chief has 12 HD and is always guarded by twenty warriors with 4 HD each, so that’s not really an option. We’re actually better off when these things are left to the GM. As a result, the descriptions of towns, dungeons, and regions are usually very brief, rarely more than a short paragraph or two. The Savage Frontier may be short, but it’s long enough. Continue reading

Fantasy Safari: More BECMI creatures

Back in the 70s, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons established the tradition of presenting the primary rules of the game in the form of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual, which is still continued to this day. Both by the official D&D brand and a large number of OGL games based on it. (The first game from 1974 also had three small books, but they were divided up differently and were sold as a single box set.) At the same time, the original Dungeons & Dragons got a new edition as well, released as the Basic Set in anticipation that there would be more sets to follow later on. The Expert Set followed four years later in 1981 (at the same time as a third edition of the Basic game), and from 1983 onward came the Companion, Master, and Immortals Sets set one year appart (with a fourth edition of the Basic Set). Each set added more character levels, spells for these higher levels, and also new monster. This was the same approach that was used for the first edition of the Dragon Age RPG a few years ago (though it now gets a second Editon where everything is in a single hardcover book).

I got the 1983 Basic and Expert Sets, as well as the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, which contains most of the content from all five BECMI sets. Mostly the monsters are classic D&D critters like orcs, goblins, owlbears, rust monsters, gelatinous cubes, and so on. But there are also a couple of monsters that never made it into the AD&D line or were picked up by 3rd, 4th, and 5th edition (though there was one Mystara Monstrous Compendium for AD&D 2nd Edition), which are the ones I’ll be covering here.

Basic Set

Oh, right off to a good start: BECMI can rightfully be considered the Dad Joke edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Some people on the time really had a great fondness for them. The largest of the giant spiders in the Basic Set is the Tarantella. Maybe you are like me and think “Don’t you mean tarantula? Isn’t tarantella some kind of dance?” And yes, it is. The tarantella is a giant tarantula that has a special poison that does not kill but instead causes the victim to start dancing. It’s a magical poison and everyone who sees a poisoned person dancing must make a saving throw or also start to dance. After about an hour of dancing, they will collapse from exhaustion. *groan*

According to legend, the Thoul was inspired by a typo. The creature that was made from it is a magical crossbreed of a troll, a ghoul, and a hobgoblin. A thoul looks almost exactly like a hobgoblin, but has a paralyzing touch like a ghoul and regenreates 1 hit point every round like a troll. They are not terribly strong, but for 1st and 2nd level characters they might actually be quite mean and a lot more challenging than a regular hobgoblin. Nice boss for a 1st level dungeon crawl, I would say.

Expert Set

"Oink!"

“Oink!”

The Devil Swine is a special type of lycanthrope. It can change shape freely during the night, but stays in whichever form it had last taken during the day. It prefers to eat human flesh and at 9 HD is a really mean beast, much more dangerous than even werebears or weretigers. As a special ability, a devil swine can cast charm person three times per day and often is accompanied by a few human minions. Lawrence Schick confirmed to me that the devil swine is indeed based on the swine things from the novel The House on the Borderland which he and Tom Moldvay quite loved. And whose title should also sound quite familiar to long time D&D fans.

Not a new monster, but I think it’s interesting that the types of giants in the Expert Set are the same ones as in the 3rd Edition Monster Manual, while the Monstrous Manual of AD&D, on which the 3rd edition is primarily based, has a lot more varieties that never really made much of an appearance in the later editions. Continue reading

Blue Rose returns

With quite some surprise I just saw that Green Ronin is planing a new version of their Blue Rose setting. There had been quite some talk about the original setting from ten years back on the RPG.net forum the last three weeks and some people brought up the idea of a new revised version. And apparently, people at Green Ronin had been pondering that idea themselves for a while, so now they are actually doing it.

Blue Rose is just old enough that I can say I remember the talk about it when it was originally released. (Or maybe it’s just me who’se getting old enough to say such things now.) While there was a good amount of praise and excitement for the game, a great deal of it was for the then new True 20 system, which was considered an interesting new take on the d20 system. The setting itself was something which lots of people just didn’t care for, and a good number of other people had some great interest in, but where rather disappointed with the actual realization. My own perception was that it was just another d20 game with an overly simplistic black and white setting that was disappointingly naive and didn’t really have much useful advice on how to run it.

18943Blue Rose is described as a Romantic Fantasy setting, as in the artistic period of the early 19th century, but based on more contemporary works like the books of Mercedes Lackey and Ursula Le Guin. While that would appear to be the entire opposite end of the spectrum from my prefered genre of Sword & Sorcery, there is actually some considerable overlapp, in that the two both are fundamentally about high emotions and personal drama. From the descriptions of popular works, I wouldn’t want to read them, but as a Sword & Sorcery GM I have a very great interest in how the genre ticks and what elements I can use to spice up my own Sword & Sorcery campaigns. As much as I love the Sword & Sorcery genre, it’s mostly about preposterous actions and crazy stunts. Which I really love a lot, but I also have plenty of friends who I think might really like RPGs, but for who slaying hordes of monsters and throwing sorcerers off the top of their towers just isn’t doing anything.

Romantic fantasy is neither clean nor pretty, and can get quite ugly and brutal, but it exists in a different context. It’s not about enjoying the thrill of battle and the lust for riches, but a struggle to save the people you care for and to repair your own broken life. It may be a genre about knights in shining armor and fair maidens held in a castle by a dragon, but you might just as well see the knight being mortally wounded or tortured in some terribly dungeon with the maiden having to put on the armor and slay the dragon herself in grueling battle, suffering grevious injuries and and the loss of her friends and allies.

The original Blue Rose game wasn’t really that good at presenting the world in such a way and explaining how it works to GMs and players, and even with the changes of the True 20 system the d20 system was just too fiddly and tactical to really work. Particularly people who are not already great fans of RPGs tend to have a quite difficult time to get into d20 games, and it’s a lot more problematic when it comes to GMs who havn’t run and perhaps even played any games before. (I’d link to Angry DM here, but he’s currently reworking his website.) But I still really like the idea behind the setting and from what I know about the AGE system from the Dragon Age RPG it seems to be a much better fit. So I am quite exited to see how this will turn out. Might even throw in a bit of money if the Kickstarter has difficulties reaching its goal.

Fantasy Safari: Creature Collection (BECMI), Part 5

The fifth part of the Creature Collection with more Monsters and Undead.

Hivebrood

Hivebrood

The Hivebrood is a swarm of insects that reproduces by putting larvas into humanoid bodies which then grow to turn the person into one of them. They are all controlled by a hivemother. Maybe back in the early 80s that concept was still original. But probably not. The most interesting ability they have is that the broodmother is able to turn larvas into a more powerful form than normal drones to become hiveminds. Hiveminds have the interesting ability that they can gain any ability from any creature they eat, which includes any spells memorized by spellcasters they consumed. When in danger, a hivemind can release a chemical cloud that spreads through the hive and shares a single ability with all the regular drones for three rounds, after which it is lost. If that ability is something like casting fireball, the result can be utterly devastating for the PCs.

The Ice Wolf is simply a different name for the well known winter wolf and has exactly the same abilities. (Demon Dogs +1)

Kopru

Kopru

The Kopru is a classic monsters from X1 The Isle of Dread. It’s fame is mostly tied to that classic adventure. They have three tails which they use to grab enemies and have a special power to control the mind of any creature and have full accees to it. I did some snooping around if the kopru predates aboleths that are surprisingly similar, and it turns out they both appeared in the same year. And in addition, The Isle of Dread and Dwellers of the Forbidden City were both written by Zeb Cook. So yeah, they are basically the same idea slightly modified for B/X and AD&D. This is the same Cook that did the “Cook Expert” set of the “Moldvay/Cook” edition and also the Kara-Tur and Planescape settings. Why isn’t he more famous? He’s probably the second most influential person to make D&D into what we know now. Aboleths are a lot cooler than kopru, though.

Nagpa

Nagpa

The Nagpa is from the adventure X4 Master of the Desert Nomads, which is one of my favorite ones. And also made by Zeb Cook. Not as cool as the Bhut but better than the Juggernaut from the same adventure. They are humanoids with vulture heads and various magical powers like making objects within 20 meters to burst into flames or decay, paralyse all lawful characters within 3 meters, and cast darkness and illusions. It took about 30 years until designers realized that just four or five spell abilities are enough for an interesting encounter and you don’t need a spellcasting monster to have as many spells as a high level wizard. Continue reading

The Ultimate Retro-Pulp Fantasy Setting

A couple of weeks ago me and a few others threw around some random ideas for the Ultimate Retro-Pulp Fantasy Setting. It didn’t get very far, but even with the little we got it’s already a really cool setting I really would like to use for a couple one-shot stories or adventures.

To begin with, we have planet with a giant moon, which is the home to amazons and dark elves, who occasionally come to raid the planet riding on giant space whales.

On the planet there are the evil serpent men and the island empire of Talantis. The Talantians also build air ships, which can fly to the moon as well. There is also the great dragon sorcerer Tyrannosaurus Hex. Hawk Men are one of the minor races that inhabit the planet. There are also giant apes and dinosaurs.

frank_frazetta_thuviamaidofmarsThe moon would be even more hardcore and dangerous and only for experienced heroes. Below the surface live the dangerous Generic Brand™ Mind Flayers.

Regarding religion, the true gods are totally weird and alien beings from a different plane of reality and beyond human comprehension. There are lots of temples in all the cities, but only the high priests really know what kind of thing they are worshipping. Gods don’t intervene and don’t reveal themselves to normal people.

Colossal stone bodies cover the landscape and are the remains of titans, who were very powerful, but not true gods. There also is no real difference between a sorcerer and a priest, their magic is all the same thing.

Based on all these things, the tech level for weapons and armor would best be Antiquity. No knights in plate armor or samurai, or anything like that. That means chainmail, dragonhide, breast plate, and boob plate.