Creatures under Leaf and Moon

I went into the creation of the Green Sun setting (which I think could get a proper name by now) deliberately avoiding any elements that are specific original creations of Dungeons & Dragons. And I still think that this was a really good idea. Dark Sun and Planscape are both my favorite D&D settings, and I am far from alone in that opinion. And they both have their own setting specific casts of monsters, many of which became quite iconic, that aren’t part of the regular D&D economy. Especially with Dark Sun, which has only unique creatures other than elves, dwarves, and halflings, but even with Planescape most of the famous monsters first appeared in that setting and where added to the regular monster manuals later.

Setting out to make a non-D&D world first and only later starting to think of how it would translate to D&D rules (which wasn’t even a given when I started the work) led to a very different outcome than if I had just sat down with a Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual and browsed for the classes and creatures that I want to use. But now that I decided to start the first campaign using the setting in D&D 5th Edition and a lot of my creatures can be done perfectly with reskins of existing creature stats, I don’t feel bad about picking other creatures that I find fitting for the setting from the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters as well.


These are dangerous creatures of the wilderness that are not magical in nature but clearly more than normal animals.

  • Hydra (CR 8)
  • Wyvern (CR 6)
  • Umber Hulk (CR 5)
  • Chuul (CR 4)
  • Girallon (CR 4)
  • Manticore (CR 3)
  • Carrion Crawler (CR 2)
  • Ogre (CR 2)
  • Yuan-ti Broodguard (CR 2)
  • Harpy (CR 1)
  • Yuan-ti Pureblood (CR 1)
  • Gnoll (CR 1/2)
  • Kuo-toa (CR 1/4)

Spirits of Forest, Mountains, and Sea

This category consists of fey, as well as all plant creatures and most elementals. They are all detected by a detect good or evil spell and affected by similar magic.

  • Treant (CR 9)
  • Stone Giant (CR 7)
  • Yuan-ti Abomination (CR 7)
  • Air Elemental (CR 5)
  • Earth Elemental (CR 5)
  • Water Elemental (CR 5)
  • Lamia (CR 4)
  • Succubus (CR 4)
  • Yeth Hound (CR 4)
  • Doppelganger (CR 3)
  • Green Hag (CR 3)
  • Phase Spider (CR 3)
  • Will-o-wisp (CR 2)
  • Dryad (CR 1)
  • Deep Gnome (CR 1/2)
  • Myconids (CR 1/2)
  • Blights (CR 1/8 – 1/2)

Spirits of Beneath and Beyond

This category covers spirits that are native to the Realm Beneath, the subterranean wilderness that is inspired by Pandemonium and Gehenna, and also beings from the stars, though there aren’t any of those at this point. They are all either aberrations or fiends.

  • Devourer (CR 13)
  • Neothelid (CR 13)
  • Ultroloth (CR 13)
  • Arcanaloth (CR 12)
  • Aboleth (CR 10)
  • Nycaloth (CR 9)
  • Mind Flayer (CR 7)
  • Piscoloth (CR 7)
  • Fire Elemental (CR 5)
  • Mezzoloth (CR 5)
  • Canoloth (CR 4)
  • Helmed Horror (CR 4)
  • Choldrith (CR 3)
  • Howler (CR 3)
  • Dark Stalker (CR 2)
  • Grick (CR 2)
  • Meenlock (CR 2)
  • Chitine (CR 1/2)
  • Dark Creeper (CR 1/2)


Undead are limited to the very basics. Undead in the world are always the result of warlocks using powers gained from Spirits from Below and Beyond and never rise naturally.

  • Wraith (CR 5)
  • Wight (CR 3)
  • Ghast (CR 2)
  • Ghoul (CR 1)
  • Shadow (CR 1/2)
  • Skeleton (CR 1/4)


This category covers all the natural animals that are enough of a threat to deserve getting stats.

  • Axe Beak
  • Brontosaurus
  • Crocodiles
  • Giant Badger
  • Giant Boar
  • Giant Centipede
  • Giant Crab
  • Giant Hyena
  • Giant Octopus
  • Giant Rat
  • Giant Wasp
  • Hadrosaurus
  • Plesiosaur
  • Pteranodon
  • Sharks
  • Snakes

There are a handful of additional creatures that I want to incorporate, but for those I have to write stats first. When I have them, I will share them here with descriptions.

I didn’t plan that eight of the Top 10 biggest critters are all underworld monsters, but that’s actually a pretty cool outcome.

They look like us, but they are not us

They look like people, and they talk like people. But they don’t think like people, and they don’t feel like people.

They are unable to feel compassion for mortals, and they are selfish beings, rarely thinking of anyone else. They are volatile and erratic, but not easily harmed, and strike out at each other without thought. When they get agitated, things get broken. And they get agitated easily.

They are always dangerous to be around, even when they like you. They are proud and easy to anger, but you must never go with them.

Figuring out the Kaas

The kaas are one of the six mortal humanoid peoples that live in the Ancient Lands and were one of the very first things I created for the setting. It really started all with these two creature designs:

Human/Ferai Hybrid Form (Primal)
Charr (Guild Wars 2)

From a visual design perspective I think this is a really cool style for the look of a new fantasy race that fits into a Sword & Sorcery setting. But something that I have always been pushing back all these years is to really sit down and take the time to fully develop them into a full and distinct people and culture that will be recognizable to players. With the skeyn that wasn’t much of a problem and even though I came up with the yao and sui very late in the development they came together pretty much by themselves by relying on old archetypes that feel fitting.

But with kaas I mostly knew what I don’t want. I don’t want orcs, vikings, or klingons, or any of the many other iteration of this old stereotype and I also don’t want them to be the big silent guys who glower down on everyone else in mild contempt (that’s more the basis for the yao). Kaas are big and they are strong, and having a lion/bear motif making them at least somewhat more warlike than the other peoples just comes by itself. But I want them to be more “cheerful” and less psychopatic about killing or obsessed with honor. People that clearly are dangerous, but who could still be really fun to be around.

I think this last weekend I really made some big progress again by putting together a list with various existing characters from fiction that I could also really well imagine as kaas characters in the Ancient Lands. The resulting list is this one, which I hope will make some people as enthusiastic about having them in a campaign as I am.

Naked Snake (Metal Gear Solid 3)
Cerys (The Witcher 3)
Sylvar (Tales of the Jedi)
Canderous (Knights of the Old Republic)
Goliath (Gargoyles)
Dax (Star Trek: DS9)
Eve and Wrex (Mass Effect)
These two cool dudes (Halo 2)
These entertaining lunatics (Bound by Flame)

If you know only half of them, I think you should agree that these guys should be a blast to have in the party. One specific trait I have decided on for the kaas, which I think makes a great base to build their cultural identity on, is that violence is usually not their first choice of a solution to deal with a problem. But generally it’s their second choice if the first one didn’t work. They also need some more calming elements to balance them, but I think I am definitly on the right track with these guys now.


Eldritch Lore: Elementals

Air Elemental by javi-ure

A while back I’ve seen someone describe elementals in Dungeons & Dragons as fundamentally boring. I think they are really cool, but what is it that they rally have going for themselves? When you look at their description in the Monster Manuals and Expert Sets, really all that you get is a description of how they look and their abilities in combat. And that’s really everything there is about them. What little there is about their role in the wider world makes them appear more like mindless temporary golems controlled by wizards than actual nature spirits. I have to agree. Elementals in Dungeons & Dragons are super lame.

Yeah, well… I’m gonna go build my own fantasy setting. With blackjack and cool elementals!


Earth Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals are the oldest and most numerous of the spirits inhabiting the Spiritworld. Even more so than the spirits of trees and animals, they are the spirits of the land, sea, rivers, and sky themselves. They have no shape or form of their own, but wherever the elements are present there are also elemental spirits inhabiting them in the Spiritworld.  Whenever they have a need to interact with the physical world around them they can manifest a body shaped from their element. Weapons can not damage water and fire and even when rock is crushed an earth elemental can maintain a body made from rubble. The only ways to deal any harm to an elemental spirit are magic and the elements themselves. Dousing fire with water or turning water into steam with extreme heat can overwhelm the power of an elemental spirit, causing it to lose its hold over its physical form and disappearing back into the environment to recover its strength. Like all spirits, elementals are hurt by iron as well, but bronze, wood, and stone have no effect on them whatsoever.

Fire Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals don’t have any needs as living creatures would understand them or even desires like the shie, naga, and raksha. They are eternal beings as old as the world itself, who will probably continue to exist until the end of time, long after all people, beasts, and other nature spirits will be gone. Yet they are not mindless forces of nature, nor completely devoid of emotions. The main priority pursued by elementals is to be left in peace. The one thing that drives them into furious rage are disturbances of their comfortable quiet. However what costitutes a disturbance to these enigmatic beings is never clear to tell. The presence of beasts large and small is a constant and regular occurence throughout all the world and most of the time elementals make no distinguishment between people and animals. The affairs of mortals are of no relevance to them and so they are generally ignored by elementals. However, their apparent peacefulness can very quickly turn into determined agression by causing a commotion in their vicinity or merely getting to close for their comfort.

Water Elemental by javi-ure

While elementals usually don’t talk to other creatures they are capable of speech, speaking in the languages of spirits of the earth, water, and sky. They simply lack any desire to communicate with other beings. But when approached with care by a shaman they can be drawn into a conversation and reveal themselves to be quite intelligent creatures of great wisdom, though much of it has little meaning to the short lives of mortal beings. When interacting with people, elementals often take a vaguely humanoid shape but they can also assume forms resembling various great beasts or simply appear as rolling clouds or bulges of water. The minds of elementals are nearly as alien as those of the ancients that predate the formation of the world, but being a fundamental part of the natural world their presence has none of their warping and corrupting effects on the land and creatures around them.

Lesser Elemental

XP: 500
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 19
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 6 (27 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d6
Earth: Slam 1d8
Fire: Slam 1d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 12
Poison: 10
Breath: 13
Device: 11
Magic: 14
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Greater Elemental

XP: 1,200
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 21
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 8 (36 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d8
Earth: Slam 2d6
Fire: Slam 1d8 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 10
Poison: 8
Breath: 11
Device: 9
Magic: 12
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Elder Elemental

XP: 1,900
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 23
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 12 (54 hp)
Attack: Slam 2d6
Earth: Slam 2d8
Fire: Slam 2d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 8
Poison: 6
Breath: 9
Device: 7
Magic: 10
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Eldritch Lore: Undead

This is hopefully going to be the first enty in a new series of post. I’ve often been talking about having a pretty much complete monster book for the Ancient Lands lying around that only needs the various monster descriptions typed down but so far I’ve never got around to actually do it. This hopefully is going to change now. There are close to a hundred monsters I’ve created for the Ancient Lands (and probably that many again that ended up cut) and they more or less fall into two basic categories. Supernatural monsters and fictional animals. While I really love my weird animals, there’s not really much interesting to say about them. A hippo with horns is stills just a hippo and a big hadrosaurus that has the stats and behavior of a camel is still just a camel. Not terribly exciting to read, nor to write. For the final document I am probably going to cover them with just two or three sentences each.

That still leaves the spirits, demons, undead, and other magical critters, and those are where all of the real meat is. I am kind of starting this at the very end with the undead, who don’t actually play much of a significant role in the greater design of the setting and which are by far the fewest in number. Though this is what is actually making them the easiest to cover, and I’m always the first to admit that I am really lazy, so here you have them. I admit that there is nothing drastically new or original about them and they are in fact the most mainstream depictions of undead you can get. But I think most undead in fantasy are really just slight modifications of these and since undead are not going to be a real focus of the setting they should be sufficient. Also, given the way that undeath works in the Ancient Lands, having numerous highly specialized forms of undead wouldn’t feel really appropriate.

General Undead Information

Undead are rare and terrifying monsters in the Ancient Lands and only come into being through the effects of sorcery and demonic corruption. There is no single definition of undeath, but all these creatures share in common that they originally used to be living people (or animals) but have been transformed into something neither fully living nor dead. Animated corpses, wights, shades, and wraiths are the remains of people who have unquestionably died and whose spirits are forever gone. With ghouls and darklings things are much less clear as they have never truly died but share many of the other traits common to undead creatures. They might more accurately be described as corrupted rather than undead but this is a distinction that only matters to sages who have never actually encountered them in person.

While ghouls and darklings are still consisting of a unified body and spirit and sustain themselves through consuming the flesh of the living, the other types of undead are fully magical beings that can not exist independently of the source of sorcerous power that created them. Walking corpses are usually close to the sorcerer or demon that created them while wights, shades, and wraiths are eternally linked to the corrupted energies of the place that spawned them. In fact they are more part of the place than separate beings and as such it is impossible to exist beyond its borders. This is widely seen as a blessing as these undead horrors have the ability to turn the slain into more of their own.

Animated Corpse

XP: 20
No. Appearing: 2d4 (4d6)
Armor: 12
Move: 90′
Hit Dice: 2 (9 hp)
Attack: Claw +2 (1d6) or weapon +2 (1d6)
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 14
Poison: 12
Breath: 15
Device: 13
Magic: 16
Morale: 12
Special: Immune to disease, poison, charm, paralysis, and sleep.

Animated corpses are known under many names but in the end they are effectively just that. The remains of living people and beasts that have magically been giving a semblance of life by the magic of a sorcerer or demon. They have no spirit of their own and are nothing more than empty shells made to rise and move pulled by magic strings. While terrifying to look at, animated corpses pose no greater threat than living beasts and can simply be cut down by any blade, but as there is no blood running in their veins they tend to continue fighting until they are hacked to pieces.


XP: 25
No. Appearing: 1d8 (3d6)
Armor: 14
Move: 120′
Hit Dice: 2 (9 hp)
Attack: Claw +2 (1d4 + paralysis) or weapon +2 (1d6)
Saving Throws:
Paralysis: 14
Poison: 12
Breath: 15
Device: 13
Magic: 16
Morale: 8
Special: Immune to disease, poison, charm, paralysis, and sleep.

Ghouls are elves, yao, or other humanoids who have been corrupted by the dark magic of sorcery or demons. Though they have never truly died, they resemble the undead, existing in a state between life and death. They grow gaunt with pale skin and dark sunken eyes and are suffering from madness, but are also filled with unnatural vigor and are much more cunning than any beast. Their clawed fingers can crush a mans throat and leave deep rends in the flesh of their victims, and their teeth have the strength to bite through bones, as they regain their strength by feeding on the flesh of humans and beasts.

Many ghouls once were adventurers and treasure hunters who delved too deep into ancient places where the living are not meant to tread, or what remains of those who become slaves of dark sorcerers or demons. The corruption that warped their bodies also affects their minds and all of them are clearly unhinged, but most of them seem to retain the memories of their former lives and traces of their past selves.

A living creature hit by a ghoul’s claws must make a saving throw against paralysis or collapse to the ground unable to move for 2d4x10 minutes.


XP: 35
No. Appearing: 1d8 (2d8)
Armor: 14
Move: 120′
Climb: 90′
Hit Dice: 3 (13 hp)
Attack: Claw +3 (1d6 + paralysis)
Saving Throws:
Paralysis: 14
Poison: 12
Breath: 15
Device: 13
Magic: 16
Morale: 10
Special: Immune to disease, poison, charm, paralysis, and sleep.

Darklings are ghouls that not only have survived in their undead state for decades but actually managed to gain additional strength from it, losing their last traces of humanity in the process. While still roughly the size of a person, darklings are are powerfully build beasts with pale gray hide that run on all fours and have become truly feral in their madness. Darklings are almost always found underground and never go outside during the day. Their small black eyes can see perfectly even without any kind of light. They have never be seen to follow commands of other creatures or communicating in an intelligible manner but have been known to be magically goaded by sorcerers to patrol the area around their lairs or attack the strongholds of their enemies in large packs. Continue reading “Eldritch Lore: Undead”

Unbe or not unbe?

Undead! One of the great classics of fantasy monsters with a history that goes back to the earliest beginnings og culture. Could you even imagine a Sword & Sorcery world without any undead in it? They are probably a much more common representation of sorcery than sorcerers themselves.

Yet I am finding myself beginning to seriously doubt my concept for undead in the Ancient Lands setting. The problem begins with the basic assumption that for mortal creatures body and soul are an inseparable whole, from which follows that people do not face troubles with the certainty that a better life awaits them after death. This really is one of the core premises of the whole setting that forms part of the basis of its many cultures and religions. This is something that just can’t go. But I still love undead and so reduced them to half a dozen forms that are mostly mutations caused by sorcerous energy (ghouls, wights) or or elemental-like entities that have some faint resemblance to the people from which they were created (shadows, wraiths) But the downside is that you can’t really have conversations with the actual dead. Hellboy has a lot of scenes where he discovers old battlefield and the frozen skeletons whisper warnings and advice to him. That’s an element that is just so cool and I don’t really want to have missing out on it.

And sometimes they aren’t even human.

But the problem gets even bigger. The Ancient Lands are a very nontraditional setting while zombies, ghouls, wights, and wraiths are all as generic Standard Fantasy as orcs and goblins. Now that I’ve started looking again over towards Final Fantasy, Star Wars or Kalimdor from Warcraft 3 as stylistic inspirations and references they’ve started to stand out to me as somewhat out of place. Morrowind has lots of undead but those exist within a context of a complex culture of worshipping dead ancestors. Can’t worship your ancestors if they’ve ceased to exist.

What am I going to do with unbdead that really makes them seem like an integrated part of the setting instead of something foreign clumsily tacked on? No afterlife has to remain integral to the religion and cosmology of the Ancient Lands. Removing the spirit of a mortal (and putting it somewhere else) also must remain an impossibility. But there is still the Spiritworld. The limitation that spirits have to be tied to the body applies only to mortals, such as people and animals. For spirits this is not the case and they can manifest physical shapes separate from their actual “bodies” (mountains, lakes, trees, …) and possess the bodies of mortals. In Final Fantasy X, there are the fayth, great mystics of ancient times who have somehow preserved their bodies in an eternal sleep within sacred shrines and gained the ability to create powerful spiritual phantoms that can aid living summoners in battle. I really quite like that concept. Putting great shamans into an eternal sleep between life and death to become something similar to spirits that can advise the living in times of need would be pretty cool.

And it could also be extended to undead. Instead of people simply dying in places of great sorcerous power, they could become part of the place. Their bodies may be dead, but the energies of the place keep their spirits together to at least give them some ability to communicate with living visitors through visions. It would also mean that they can never leave the place, which is not just an interesting image but also keeps them neatly confined and unable to spread across the world. For simple animated corpses an exception could easily be made. They would be mindless and only be moving on magic strings created by a sorcerer. Scary, but not really returning from death. The bodies move again, but this time there is no spirit inside For ghouls I think the idea of sorcerous mutants that are technically still alive, just really sick and unnaturally strong, could still work really well.

That would only really leave the wight, which I had already fused with the mummy and the lich, I think those are all really different expressions of the same idea, I could simply scrap them and leave it at that, but perhaps I could also find a different background and role for them that would fit better into the setting.

The Monster in its natural habitat

The current OSR topic of the week appears to be monster books. Which is one of my favorite topics and just for once I’m not a month late to the part. Just a day earlier, a new monster from Joseph at Against the Wicked City had me motivated to put a lot more effort into my own monsters. I9 got things like tar demons, giant hypnotic butterflies, and psychic flying tentacle monsters and there’s a lot more potential in them than just a stat block with hit points, damage, and perhaps two or three spells. And I am in agreement with the other writers who think that this is basically all that common RPG monster books provide.

I think that’s a general problem with RPG material, not just monster books but also campaign settings and adventures, and it has been so for a very long time. A question that you see brought up a lot these days, and very prominently and deservedly by Bryce at tenfootpole, is “how does this help a GM to run a game”? I think I am probably speaking for every fan of monster books in saying that what we are looking for are not stats and new mechanics. What we hope to find in such books are ideas to turn into great adventures and encounters that are thrilling and fascinating to the players.

I wouldn’t go as far as noism and say that I’d be happy with a book that is nothing but pictures, but I can see where he is coming from. Monster art always has a huge impact for me, often considerably greater than the stats and the actual description text you get in most books. And I think D&D and all it’s descendants have been doing it wrong from the very start. I don’t blame the first Monster Manual, as it was a completely new thing and creators still had to learn what works and what doesn’t by trial and error. But shortly after we got the Fiend Folio, which could teach us a lesson that has still been largely ignored to this very day.

Hm, okay...
Hm, okay…

Most art in monster books is very much resembling zoological species identification guides. You get the creature from a front angle or slightly from the side, in a position that is at rest or ready to attack, with a focus on making it very easy to see its anatomy and all its distinguishing physiological features. Its a precise way to give the reader a good view at how the creature looks. But it’s also very boring and doesn’t really tell you anything about what the creature does, how it behaves, and in what situation the players might encounter it. The FF had images of this type for every creature, but it also had a lot of pictures showing some of the creatures in a fight with adventurers. And these action shots are always making the respective creatures so much more interesting than the portraits.

I assume that the intention is that the illustration of each creature is as generic as possible to allow GMs to imagine it in whatever environment and situation is appropriate for it in their respective campaigns, and this might also go for the description text. But I don’t think it works this way.

Much more interesting.
Much more interesting.

As I said above, the most useful presentation of a monster is something that inspires encounters and adventures based around the creature. That is what we pay for. Not a block of stats and abilities to be a moderate challenge for a group of four 15th level characters. Action shots are probably more expensive than portraits since the artist has to paint at least twice as much space and its much more complex work to get the full composition of creatures and environment right. But as I see it, it would be worth it. I gladly pay a bit more for monster books that inspire me by giving me ideas that I can work with. I buy the monster books that are around because there’s nothing else to get, but I almost always feel disappointed by them. Showing the creatures in action, in a context that suggests situations to steal for my own campaign, would be a good step forward. It requires much more effort from the writers, but that’s after all what I am paying for. Imagine a monster book with descriptions like those of Joseph and proper action shots for each creature. A book like that would easily blow everything else out of the water.

Not everything is trying to kill you

I think the greatest thing that oldschool roleplaying brought to the attention of younger GMs like me is the whole system of wandering monsters, reaction rolls, and morale checks. When I first got into RPGs I occasionally saw mention of them, but they seemed silly and annoying for what I assumed a good adventure to be like and a good riddance in general. But after having played and run games for over 10 years, all the adventures never turned out to be anything like what I had been hoping they would. And I think it really comes down to D&D of that time having abandoned the aforementioned mechanics. Which didn’t start with 3rd edition but actually preceded even AD&D 2nd edition for a good number of years.

My first contact with RPGs was Baldur’s Gate and that set a precedent of what I expected adventures to be like and I found it confirmed by AD&D modules I’ve looked at. When you encounter a creature, one side makes a surprise attack and then the fight continues until one side has been wiped out. The characters get XP and the treasure lies where the enemy fell. Having creatures appear randomly and someimes trying to run away would be a nuisance and interrupt the plot. But videogames NPCs are still absolutely primitive compared to one controlled by a GM and I much later learned that most of the modules were not meant to be normal AD&D adventures but tournament modules for conventions where many groups would play the same dungeon simultaneously as a single session one-shot and then compare which party got the most points. Which is why The Tomb of Horrors is so awful. It’s not meant to be part of an ongoing campaign, but unfortunately fails to explain that to GMs who read it.

Wandering monsters in a dungeon have the main function of keeping the party moving and the clock ticking. They make resting in a dungeon almost impossible and that means your spells and hit points have to last you through the whole expedition. Since wandering monsters have negligible treasure and roughly 75% of XP are expected to come from collecting gold, fighting them is just a waste of resources and a risk of death with barely any reward. And as wandering monsters are encountered based on time spend in the dungeon, there’s a real incentive to be quick. Giving the majority of XP for treasure also has the effect that it is often more efficient to just steal treasure without a fight and minimize the loss of spells and hit points (and party members). Getting 75% of XP for stealing treasures without defeating the owners will get you more than getting 100% from just one creature. XP for gold seemed silly, but is actually great design.

It also makes morale checks much more interesting. An opponent who runs away may abandon its treasure. Every round you don’t have to fight saves you more hit points and spells and allows you to continue the current expedition a bit longer. Yes, they run away with their pocket change, but you still get all the XP for having defeated them.

But let’s now look at reaction rolls, which are perhaps the most intriguing element of oldschool roleplaying. A reaction roll tell you how a group of creatures or NPCs will react to encountering the PCs when their reaction is not predetermined by the adventure or obvious. I took notice of this and mentally filed it away to be used with animals encountered in dungeons or NPC parties encountered during overland travel. But what does “obvious” actually mean? A group of zombies? Yeah, obvious. A golem guarding a door? Predetermined by the adventure. But what about a group of orcs sitting around a campfire? Obvious?

Well, I always assumed it is, based on fantasy books, movies, videogames, and all the adventures published by WotC and Paizo. But this is a preconception that is not actually supported by the 1981 Moldvay Basic rules. Yes, orcs are chaotic and it says that Chaos generally means evil. But player characters can be chaotic as well and they are members of the party. Chaotic indicates breaking rules and promises when it benefits you and you can get away with it. And what benefit is there in randomly attacking groups of well armed people?

I always found it somewhat difficult to interprete the rection table. What does it mean if the result is “Hostile, possible attack” or “Uncertain, monster confused”? But with a bit of searching you can easily find a few examples from fiction. When Bilbo encounters Golum under the mountains, Golum plans to kill him and eat him. But he doesn’t have surprise and knows that frontal attack is risky so he keeps Bilbo talking in the hope of getting an opportunity where he has advantage. That fits very well with “Hostile, possible attack”. Another good example is in Return of the Jedi when Leia encounters the ewok Wicket whose reaction is just spot on “Uncertain, monster confused”. He holds up his spear but only to keep her at a safe distance, not with an intention to attack her. Because she handles the situation well she’s able to get the ewoks as allies. A bit later the others get in a similar situation but Han handles it less well ad the ewoks decide to cook them.

return-of-the-jedi-ewoksOnly on a roll of 2 on a 2d6 does a reaction roll actually indicate an immediate attack and a 3 to 5 indicates hostility with a chance that the creatures might attack. This results in only a 28% chance that a fight breaks out without the players initiating it. If you start making reaction rolls for any encounter where the reaction isn’t automatically fixed, it will change the game quite a lot. Orcs and ogres are no longer monsters but people just like bndits, mercenaries, or barbarians. Their culture might be different and unappealing to many of the PCs, but if the players handle it right they can be interacted with just like people.

This affects both worldbuilding and the way that adventures play out. A dungeon in which only a third of encountered denizens are hostile and the rest could provide information, cooperate with the PCs, or even offer free help is a very different place from the common deathtrap presented in most modules in which everything including the kitchen sink tries to kill you on sight. And again, this is supported by XP being gained mostly through finding treasure. How much XP you get out of a dungeon does not depend on the number of fights. XP for gold may not be perfect, but it certainly beats XP for combat only. If you get a reward for fighting and no reward for not fighting, the message for players is clear. Kill everything. (Don’t let them run away, they take all their treasure with them which you need to buy magic items from stores.)

This encourages and supports a play style that is really about exploration and discovery of fantastic environments the PCs will find themselves in. Treasures are an incentive to poke around and find hidden rooms, but seem much less like the main purpose why you go on an adventure. The options to discover things about the environment and the greater world are very much limited when all your interactions are with statues and wall paintings. There is so much more that can be leared by interacting with other people and the knowledge you gain becomes much more useful and meaningful if it can help you with dealing with other people you’ll encounter later. Or possibly people you encountered before and who might reward you for sharing your discoveries.

Another fascinating part of the rules that had almost entirely disappeared are retainers. In 3rd edition you have to be at least 6th level and spend one of your precious few feats to get only one retainer. In Basic everyone can have around 4 at first level for free. (You have to pay wage, but that’s no limited resource.) My assumption was that you’re meant to post job offet notes at the market place and then pick one of the people who come to apply. But that’s not what the rules demand. A much more fun and interesting option is to recruit people you meet on adventures. It says retainers can be of any level or any class but not have a higher level than the PC they follow. But the Hit Dice of a monster are effectively the same as class levels in every way. Once you make it practice to befriend monsters, why not let players take them along as retainers? The GM would have to rely on making good judgement calls on what kinds of monsters might possibly be hired. A black pudding or a purple worm would be silly. But if it’s reasonably intelligent, able to integrate into society, and the player mange to get it friendly, why not?

While working on my setting and preparing for my next campaign I wanted to do something different than the average treasure hunt or assaulting the lair of a villain over and over. Instead I want to do something much more fantastic that focuses and supernatural things and discovery. I mostly failed at this with my last two campaigns and even in the last months much of my preparation once again ended up focusing on humanoid antagonists. Realizing that the 35 year old Basic rules suggest a world that is much less hostile and encouraging cooperation with dungeons denizens between the line has been a major eye opener for me. And once more makes me feel amazed that an RPG so close to what I consider perfect has been around almost from the very beginning. (There’s still negative armor class and spell preparation, but those are easily fixed and exist for the purpose of edition compatibility.)