Ideas on using Notice in Worlds Without Number

One of the additions that Worlds Without Number adds to the common oldschool structure is skills. The system for skills is not bad. Basic skill checks are 2d6 plus the appropriate attribute modifier, plus the character’s level in the respective skill for the task. Skill level can be as high as 4 at 9th level, but with the way the cost for each skill level increases each time, I don’t think you’re going to see that often, except maybe for skills like Stab or Magic, which are not usually used as skill checks but rather as modifiers to attack rolls or how much magic a Mage can use per day. I think +2 and the the occasional +3 added to attribute checks is the most that will be commonly encountered in the wild.

However, one of the skills is Notice, which is something that is usually considered one of the big things that make newer D&D editions unsuitable for classic dungeon crawling, which in the defense of Worlds Without Number, it never claims to do. The GM tells the players the things in a room that are immediately obvious, and then it’s up to the players to ask the right questions to find the things that are not immediately obvious. “You can not roll dice to avoid playing the game.”

Worlds Without Number does not specify when Notice checks are supposed to be made, but after some pondering, I’ve decided that there’s still ways to both make the skill work and also make it worthwhile to put points into for players. One approach is to make the target number of a Notice check to “notice something unusual” very high. I would consider a character with a +2 Wisdom modifier and a +3 skill bonus to be highly specialized, and quite likely the highest total modifier that players might actually be able to field in play. Maybe a total of +6, but that’s probably really it. With a +5 bonus, a character would have a 28% chance to make a difficulty 14 check. A character with a more modest +3 would only have a chance of 8%. That doesn’t seem too bad.

But to still make players work for their progress, I’d add the following rules to making a Notice check to find hidden things: Since searching an area is a group activity, I’d only allow a single check for the whole group, with the highest modifier of any characters in the party. They don’t get four or five checks to maximize their chances of someone rolling a 12. Also, I am thinking that this method can only discover a single hidden thing. So the players better search the place as well as they can before they make that roll. You don’t want to waste it on something that you could have found yourself with two more minutes of thinking. Making a Notice check should be the the final gamble after the party has given up on finding anything else themselves.

Another way to use Notice checks is when it comes to surprise. Worlds Without Number only addresses surprise in regards to one character waiting in ambush to attack another character. In which case it’s a Notice check against a Sneak check. It doesn’t mention how you’d do that with groups of characters (if everyone rolls, it’s boils down to the defenders’ best Notice roll against the attackers’ lowest Sneak roll), and it also doesn’t go at all into the situation where wandering monsters just happen to stumble into the party entirely by accident.

The regular surprise system in B/X is rolling 1d6 for both sides, and on a 1 or 2, that side is surprised. (Both sides can be surprised, and neither side can be surprised.) This roll could instead by made by having both sides make a Notice check, rolled by the character with the highest modifier. Monsters and generic NPCs in Worlds Without Number usually have a +1 or +2 modifier in whatever skills they would likely to be good at. I think Notice checks to determine surprise should always fall under that. Players would easily have a +2 or possibly +3 advantage over the creatures they encounter, and since 2d6 give a normal distribution, that’s really quite big. But this can be addressed by tweaking the difficulty of the check.

In B/X, the chance to become surprised is 1/3rd, so the chance to detect the other group is 2/3rds. Since most monsters and guards in Worlds Without Number have a skill modifier of +1 or +2, setting the default difficulty to detect a group of adventurers exploring a room to 8 gets the closest to those 2/3rds odds. PCs will regularly have higher modifiers to that, since they also get to add their Wisdom modifiers to their check. But monsters prowling the dark tunnels of a dungeon are much less noisy, so to detect them, the difficulty should be a higher 10. And if you have really sneaky creatures prowling in the dark, that difficulty can increase to 12.

Now you might be wondering: “Why do this much more complicated approach to get basically the same result?” That is a good question, Timmy. If I’d design a game from scratch, I just wouldn’t bother with a Notice skill in the first place. And as GM, I totally have the option to just modify the rules and kick out Notice entirely. But each small change you make to the system comes with a cost when it comes to recruiting players when you’re not in the position to tell your existing group that this is what you’re going to play from now on. Getting players for a more obscure system (that is, everything that isn’t D&D 5th edition) is not quite trivial to begin with. Having a somewhat well known and highly regarded name like Worlds Without Number helps a lot in that regard, but when that’s your way to lure in players to your campaign, many of them will show up to play Worlds Without Number. And every change you make to the default rules slightly decreases the enthusiasm people will have to join your campaign. There’s already a good number of changes I am making to the system, like ditching a couple of foci, two of the magic traditions, and completely overhauling the High Magic spells. I’m ditching much of the weapons and armor lists and the whole equipment modification system. All of this adds up to make the game less of what people think of when you ask who wants to play in a new Worlds Without Number campaign. A change like this doesn’t really change anything on the player facing side of the game. They still can get their Notice skill and all the foci that give bonus skill levels to Notice, and they are still going to make plenty of Notice checks while they play the game. Even players who know  the rules might not even notice (huh huh) that anything has been changed at all.

A proposal for a river navigation mechanic

Most RPGs I’ve seen mention about navigation that when you’re following a road or river, you automatically get to your destination eventually, and you only need to make rolls for navigation if you’re going cross country or across the ocean.

Yeah. Kind of. But not really.

If you’re on a river and your destination is to just go downstream to the coast or a city you know to be further down the river, then there’s really no way you can get lost. But things look completely different when you’re trying to go up a river and you come across forks where you have to pick going left or right.

I’ve been on a couple of canoe tours throughout my life, and I’ve been doing the navigation on most of them. Though I have to say that was on very easy rivers in Germany, on waters that have regular traffic and existing infrastructure and very good maps. And we were going to destinations that had been selected by people who knew that those routes would be very easy to follow even to amateurs. And even then, I’ve had many cases where I really had no clue if that big branch to the right is the already the third big branch to the right we need to take, or if one of the branches we already passed looked much bigger in person than it does on the map. The map has an accurate scale on it, but with no means to monitor your exact speed, that’s still only of limited help. Now imagine that deep in the wilderness, following a map drawn by someone with no access to aerial photography or surveying tools.

In my rivercrawl campaign, going to a site will almost always consist of going upstream all the way to your destination. And since all wilderness travel will be along rivers, going with the “you can’t get lost when you follow a river” approach isn’t going to cut it. (Though conveniently, getting back to base at the end of an adventure will be very easy, and going with the current also a lot faster.) Something else is going to be needed.

Making a complete map of an entire river system spanning hundreds of miles with all its little side arms really isn’t practical. You could theoretically let players give it a shot on a blank hex map with very small hexes, but I think that would be very tedious and not feel like it reflects the kind of maps actual river explorers would be using for their notes.

Instead, I want to go with an entirely skill check based system to navigate through the networks of small side branches that fork of from the main waterways that are depicted on the main overview map. My own GM map only shows branches up to the third order, and I intend to let players find their ways on those without navigation checks. It’s only for the rivers even smaller than that that this system comes into play.

Maps are items that characters can find or sell that have instructions on how to reach certain hidden places from an easily recognizable and unmistakable landmark. Every map has a dificulty based on it’s quality. Using a very good map is an easy task, while using a poor quality is a very hard task. The difficulty is further modified by how far the destination is from the clearly identified reference point on the main rivers. Since I have all my travel times in increments of 10 miles, (1 mile per hour times 10 hours per day), I increase the difficulty of the navigation check by +1 for every 10 miles that you try to follow the map.

If the navigation check is a success, the party reaches the destination in the shortest time possible given the distance and their travel speed. If the check is a failure, they still get to their destination, but for each number that the check fell short of the difficulty, the travel duration is increased to require one additional random encounter check. I do three random encounter checks for each day of travel, plus one check per night. So missing the difficulty by three adds a whole day on the water searching and backpaddling, and you also get another night to rest and potentially have another encounter before you arrive at your destination. Since I usually have random encounters at a chance of 1 in 6 for every check, getting two or three checks added to the journey generally shouldn’t be much of a problem. But for journeys deeper into the smaller rivers, having someone with a good navigation skill and paying for high quality maps can become really appreciated.

The fun part comes with the additional use for navigation checks to make your own maps of the unknown rivers you explore. These maps can be very important if you want to find a place again after having left it, and can be sold to other characters. To make such a map, a character makes a navigation check. The quality of the map and the difficulty to use it depends on the result of the navigation checks. For Worlds Without Number, I’ve decided to make it 20 minus the navigation check result, with the minimum difficulty being 6.

WWN makes skill checks with 2d6, so I think it’s a great idea to let the player roll one of the d6 either open or in secret, and the other d6 gets rolled by the GM. That way the player has a clue for the final quality of the map, but can not be certain how accurate it really is. The ultimate difficulty for using the map remains secret for the GM, at least until the players trying to navigate with the map have reached the destination and will have found out for themselves.

For players going to discover unknown sites by going into these small rivers blindly, one simple approach would be to simply roll a d20, and the result is the number of random encounter checks until the party finds either a small randomly generated site or a larger site whose exact location on the river has remained undefined until a party randomly discovers it. Since you might always need a monster lair or pirate camp if players try to track randomly encountered enemies back to their hideouts, it’s a general good idea to have a couple of those ready at hand anyway. And players can be required to tell the GM that they plan to go on a random exploration a few days before the game.

Hit point rolls in Worlds Without Number

Worlds Without Number introduces a number of modifications to the basic B/X system. Many of which are really great, while others are rather puzzling.

Among the later ones is rolling the hit points for mages and warriors. Mages rolls their hit points not on a d4, but on a d6-1. Similarly, warriors roll a d6+2 instead of a d10. The total averages are completely the same, but this changes the odds for extreme values.

Mages have a chance to roll a 0. To that you add the Constitution modifier, and if the total is still 0 or lower, you still get 1 hp for that level, as you see in basically all versions. They also have a chance to roll a 5, which isn’t possible when rolling 1d4.

For warriors, it works the opposite way. For them, the range of 1 to 10 is reduced to a spread of 3 to 8. They have a reduced chance to get very low hp or very high hp.

Now one could say that for both mages and warriors, these changes to the spread cancel each other out. And the average does indeed stay the same. But what we get is that extreme results become more common for mages, and less common for warriors. The important thing here is that warriors can much more afford very low hit points than mages do. A warrior with low hit points still has a somewhat decent cushion to survive a blow or two. A mage with low hit points can’t survive anything. Having very low hit points is more bad than having very high hit points is good. So as I see it, this change makes things harder on mages than on warriors. Who also get bumped up to d10 equivalents instead of getting a d8 equivalent. (Experts got also bumped up from a d4 for thieves to a d6.) Do we really want to give warriors increased survivability over mages?

The other thing is a very simple statistical phenomenon called the Law of Large Numbers. The larger your sample of numbers you have, the more likely is it to be close to average.  If you get large amounts of random numbers, it becomes more and more likely that the high numbers will cancel out the low numbers. If you have only two or three random numbers, the chance that you get all very high or all very low becomes much more probable. Once you get to 10th level, all characters of a class (with the same Constitution modifier) are going to have pretty similar hit points with only few characters being notable outliers. This means that the risk of getting very low hit points is much greater for low level characters than high level characters. Do we really want to have increased risk for low level characters?

As I see it, the move to have all classes roll a d6 with a modifier for hit points really only hurts low level mages the most by increasing their risk of being extremely fragile while increasing survivability for everyone else. What’s the point of that? This really seems like an awful change. That’s definitely something I’ll be changing back for my games.

At first I thought the change to only using d6 for hit point was because of the dual-classing mechanic, and it could be possible that this is where the whole idea came from. But the way dual-classing works now, you can absolutely replace those with d4s and d10s.

Ducks of Doom

What are they doing at night in the park?
Think of them waddling about in the dark.
Ducks! Ducks!

Sneering, and whispering, and stealing your cars,
Reading pornography, smoking cigars!
Ducks! Ducks!

Nasty and small, undeserving of life,
They sneer at your hairstyle and sleep with your wife!
Ducks! Ducks!

Wings of Watery Death

Most people agree that geese are evil spawn of the devil, and for good reasons. But there are far more sinister feathered fiends lurking in the reeds flanking the Great River. The gavir looks like a black and white duck from a distance, but nothing could be further from the truth. Its strong beak ends in a sharp point like a woodpecker, which it uses to impale fish, salamanders, lizards, crabs, and even the occasional other water birds or really anything that gets too close. Usually it will swallow its prey whole, but can also seen pecking away at the carcasses of much larger creatures like vultures.

They are always watching. Silently judging you.

When seen close up, which generally should be avoided, a gavir has many resemblances with cranes, as well as snakes and otters. But most striking about it are its red eyes that are filled with malice and hatred for all other living things. While even its head looks similar to that of an ordinary duck, its eyes are in fact forward like the predator it is. Its duck-like body also conceals its true size, which is closer to that of a swan.

Death on Silent Wings

Unlike ducks, gavirs are fast and nimble fliers and much more silent when they attack their unsuspecting prey. The only upside of gavirs compared to other birds of prey is that their feet are lacking the sharp claws found on hawks and owls. However, their duck-like feet make them excelent swimmers and they sometimes ambush their targets by leaping out from under the water when they are not in the mood to attempt chasing intruders away.

Gavirs are extremely agressive and territorial, attacking everything getting close to their nests. While their beaks can’t get through the hides of large ubas or crocodiles, gavirs will often resort to attacking their eyes to drive them off. The presence of large one-eyed predators is often an idication of gavirs in the area. As often as not, such confrontations end with the gavir getting eaten, but that doesn’t appear to deter these rampaging birds. The only other creatures they tollerate are other gavirs. Fortunately, gavirs are rare in the warmer waters of the Lower River, but they are a serious threat to travellers going up the Green River.

Their terrifying red eyes and raging demeanor has many people regard gavirs as demons, but their fury is obviously not fueled by the fires of the Underworld. Like all aquatic monsters, gavirs are spirits of the water, though such violent agression is rarely seen in any others of their kind.

Gavir chicks are no less lethal than fully grown adults.

Gavir: 1 HD,  AC 12, Atk +2 (1d4; 1/15), Move 60, ML 10, Skill +1, Save 15. Gavirs are unnaturally resilient in a fight and completely shrug off smaller injuries, making them immune to suffering shock damage.

Peace was never an option.

Doing Drugs, for Fun and Profit

After having started with metaphysics, philosophy, and the undead, I’m continuing the introduction to Planet Kaendor with drugs. Perhaps a somewhat unconventional way to open with, but perhaps this might be indicative of the kind of setting this world is morphing into.

Skok

Skok is a thick black liquid that looks and smells like burned plum jam and has a faint but burning taste of bitter roots. It’s often mixed with water to make it possible to drink without sticking to your mouth for the next half hour.

Skok keeps people marching when they would otherwise collapse from exhaustion and there are many stories of people crawling half-dead from the wilderness who would never have made it nearly as far without their bottle of skok. The extra boost that it gives the body has to be paid back later though, and the lingering exhaustion can last for weeks.

Drinking skok immediately recovers two points of System Strain, but at the cost of one point of Constitution, which reduces the character’s maximum System Strain by one. Characters who have lost Constitution this way can recover one point of Constitution when resting instead of one point of System Strain (player’s choice).

Characters about to die from suffering System Stain beyond their maximum can save their lives with skok, but their recovery back to full health will take longer.

Blue Juice

Blue juice is really more like a very dark red, though when mixed with goat milk or staining cotton or hemp cloth, it turns into a slightly bluish purple color giving it its name. Blue juice comes from the tiny fruit of a swamp plant and tastes like unripe berries which is quite revolting to drink, which is why it’s often mixed with goat milk and a bit of kesk honey. It’s quite a potent painkiller and in larger amounts causes severe drowsiness to the point of making people nod off while having severe injuries getting treated.

Characters drinking a good amount of blue juice roll twice for all Mental saving throws to resist manipulation for the next hour (6 turns), but also treat any skill checks as untrained, suffering the usual -1 penalty to the roll instead of their skill level. At the end of the duration, the characters have to succeed on a Physical saving throw or fall asleep, though they can be woken up by others as usual.

Row, row, row your boat, bravely up the stream

So, if you have a setting idea that is not centered around kingdoms and cities, what other reference frames can you use to give structure to the peoples and societies of a vast wilderness setting? How about rivers? All the earliest civilizations of the Bronze Age first appeared along the largest rivers in the old world because big rivers are really really useful. They provide a steady source of water, which in the sub-tropical zones where you find these civilizations can otherwise be quite a problem. But they are also extremely useful for transportation. Rivers allow you to transport large quantities of cargo just as easily as by rail. Load all the stuff on a boat, add a sail or go with the current, and wait until you’ve reached your destination. If you have goods to move, rivers are the way to go. Or to float. While water isn’t as much a problem in Central Europe, the region between Germany and France has been constantly contested for many centuries because it’s the origin of the Rhine, the Seine, and the Rhone, having easy access to the North Sea, Atlantic, and Mediterranean.

It’s been one of the design elements for Planet Kaendor very early on that all civilization has to be on rivers or the coast, with the deeper forests being more or less inaccessible for heavy cargos. When I was thinking of city states, I was mostly thinking about the coasts and large ports, but that’s not where the adventure is. Adventure is deep in the forests where the ancient ruins are hard to get to. I am now thinking about moving all the pieces on the map to correspond to three huge river systems and one archipelago of islands of the coast. I really like ocean beaches, but Planet Kaendor is meant to be a forest world foremost. While there won’t be any along the major rivers, there’s more than enough in the islands region. While I have plans for a sub-arctic and a tropical forest set in Kaendor, for practical reasons it makes the most sense to only go with the temperate-subtropical one for now. I think any single campaign is best served by being based entirely on a single river.

The Setting

Since this first river is located in what I used to call the Dainiva forest, I’m going to call it the Dainiva river here for convenience. And since nothing is a permanent as a temporary fix, that’s probably now going to be its name forever. The great Dainiva river has been the home to many great civilizations over the ages. Cyclopean castles of the giant Rock Carvers overlook the river from cliffs towering over the meandering courses of the upper rivers, with the lower river being home to many old Naga cities. Ruins of the sorcerous Tower Builders rise above the dense trees flanking the river banks, as well as the magnificent living citadels of the Tree Weavers. All these civilizations have long ago faded from history, and it was many centuries after the Naga retreated to the jungles of the south that mortal peoples began settling on the lower banks, gradually but cautiously moving into the abandoned palaces of the serpentmen. Among the ruins they discovered the arts of casting bronze and mastering the secrets of alchemy, leading to the rise of the first mortal civilization. Over many centuries and generations, explorers ventured further up the waters, but even a thousand miles upstream, there were still no signs of the headwaters of the major branches. Only more water and trees, and the wrecks of explorers who had gone before them. And more ruins and monsters.

The Map

A setting of this type is perfectly suited for pointcrawls. Since travel is basically linear along the river branches or their banks, and ruins have to be visible from the river for characters to have any chance to find them, using a hexmap would not provide any actual benefits. Instead, a map showing the various main branches can show the distance between any fork, settlement, and ruin right next to them, and you can also use color to mark different types of water. For example, the common speed for rowing a canoe with no current is given in most places as 3 miles per hour. Currents of 1 or 2 miles per hour also don’t appear to be anything unusual, and while many rivers are much faster, the current generally is slower when you stick close to the shores where it’s more shallow. So you can mark the river conditions in three colors. Dark blue for the slowest water, in which rowers go 2 mph upstream and 4 mph downstream; medium blue for faster water, in which rowers go 1 mph upstream and 5 mph downstream; and light blue for waters too rapid to paddle against, that require continuing on foot. But you could still build a single-use raft from trees and go downstream at 6 mph. If you want to, you can also convert straight from miles per hour to miles per day, if hourly precision isn’t desired, but if you don’t have to deal with things like traveling 2.33 hexes in a day, I think tracking distances by the mile isn’t really any nuisance. On the major branches of a river of this size, there is easily more than enough room to navigate large cargo ships like a junk. With a slightly more sophisticated sail than just a plain square cloth, it is possible to sail up a river against the current, even with quite moderate wind coming from the sides. Merchant ships like these would replace the trade caravans seen in many land-based settings.

Settlements are all either directly on the river or at least have an accessible pier that connects to the actual village by a short path. Since they would want to be visited by traders, such piers would be clearly visible. But you could also have lairs of rivers pirates or secret cults hiding in barely visible side branches much too small for larger merchant ships. With civilization being based along the lower river near the coast, settlements become more scattered and smaller in size as one travels upstream. This can be used as a great indicator for players about the dangers they can expect to encounter. In civilized areas on the lower river, big monsters have long been driven out, but all the best ruins have been picked completely clean generations ago. But on the upper river, few mortals have ever set foot and there are both more dangerous monsters and much greater treasures to be found.

Since traveling on water is relatively simple and allows for the transport of great loads with little effort, I think a campaign of this type works best if you make it really big. Make it a river as big as the Volga, the Mekong, or the Columbia, where characters can go exploring for months between the end of the spring floods and the onset of winter. With the help of rafts, parties will be able to return with huge hauls of treasure, so the journey back to civilization should be a long one to compensate. Bigger hauls should translate to fewer hauls.

Basing a sandbox around a river system is also really convenient for a GM. By its nature, its close to a fractal, allowing you to just keep expanding it with more and more side branches as the party continues exploring upstream. A river map does not have to bother with mountains or elevation, and generally there’s no need to be exact about the width and depth of the water. And if you should end up with a branch that gotten too narrow and shallow to continue on, the party can always go back downstream a couple of miles and go up another branch. Now for the lower river, I think the players should have a map of the main branches and major side branches, as those are areas frequented by river merchants making their regular round. But once you leave civilization behind, there’s no limit for how far you can continue.

Similarly, it’s very easy to create villages and ruins in a vacuum and just plop them down on the map wherever the players decide to go. That goes a bit against the common ethos that players should have control over where they go by making informed choices, but I think in a setting like this, there really are not a lot of choices to make. Check it out or continue up the river? And given how many branches a river system of this size has, I don’t think working with fixed locations would actually be feasible. You’d end up with a lot of “this branch gets too narrow to continue and you’ve not seen any signs of a ruin”. That’s not player agency either. You could very well establish some facts about a ruin when the party stops at a village or trade post and gets a tip from the locals. But there wouldn’t be any need to establish any of this before the party arrives at this part of the river.

Encounters and Sites

I think for a campaign of this type, random encounters might actually the bread and butter of many adventures. Ruins are cool, but when slowly travel up a river for hundreds of miles, you’ll be doing a lot of encounter checks.

In a world with river merchants, you’d also get river pirates. Those pirates would know not to bother explorers going up the river in the spring, unless they are desperate for supplies, but be waiting to pounce at any explorers coming back down the river in the fall with their big hauls of loot. Merchants might invite the party to get a free ride with no paddling on their ships in exchange for protection against pirates while they have the same route. On the upper river, you can have encounters with aquatic and semi-aquatic humanoids, who could either be friendly or hostile to rare visitors from downriver with goods to trade. There can be the wrecks of failed expeditions, which might even be salvageable and be sold for a huge profit if floated down the river without sinking. Or repaired and used for further expeditions the next year. Or there could be ancient crumbling dams from the old civilization that threaten settlements downstream with disastrous floods, allowing for some variation between dungeon crawls.

And then there’s of course the river creatures. Obviously crocodiles and big snakes, but I’m really giddy at the idea of giving players a paralyzing phobia of hippos. Someone suggested to me adding dire beaver dams to block of some rivers and require hauling boats over land to continue. I also really like the idea of creatures in the trees following the players in their boats from shore, waiting for an opportunity to attack.

It really is a fairly simple concept for a sandbox setting, but one I think has huge potential, while looking very manageable at the same time.

The Burning Dead

The undead creatures of Planet Kaendor, with stats for Worlds Without Number.

While fire has a part in the natural world, its true origin lies in the Underworld and is the animating energy of demons. Forests have adapted to survive fires and adjust their natural cycles to deal with it, and ancient mortals of ages past have learned to harness it as a powerful tool and weapon that makes civilization possible. The ability to contain the fire and to use it what sets them apart from the beasts of the Wilds. But even though fire is useful and potent, it remains a power fundamentally hostile to life. Usually fire simple kills and destroy any living things it touches, but under the influence of sorcery, the two can merge together, creating horrifying and unnatural abomination, neither living nor dead.

Charred Husk

Charred Husk: 2 HD, AC 11, Atk +2 (1d8), Move 20, ML 12, Skill +0, Save 14.

As undead, husks are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness.

Charred Husks are the most basic of undead creatures. They are corpses burned by the flames of sorcery and demons, which continue to smolder even after there’s nothing left to burn. Nothing of a living creature remains in a husk other than its charred bones and flesh. They commonly arise from creatures killed by sorcerous fire or demons, but can even be created when old corpses are consumed by the flames of sorcery. The animating energy within a husk is driven to spread itself to other living beings, and they typically attack all creatures they sense with blind ferocity.

Ghoul

Ghoul: 3 HD, AC 13, Atk +4 (1d8), Move 30, ML 10, Skill +1, Save 14.

As undead, ghouls are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness. Unlike husks, ghouls never actually died and resemble the living in many ways. The fire consuming them manifests itself not as flames, but as a slow smoldering corruption that eats away their bodies and minds. Many ghouls are the close servants of sorcerers who have been exposed to demonic magic for many years, but they are also found frequently haunting the ruins of cities destroyed by sorcery, from breathing in the ash of buildings, trees, animals, and people consumed by demonic flames.

Ghouls can often be mistaken for living people or beasts, but they soon develop a sickly appearance, with their skin and clothing smeared with ash and soot, and eventually developing burn-like scars all over their bodies. The mental state of ghouls can vary widely, regardless of the visible corruption of their bodies. Some act like slightly unhinged but otherwise sane people, while others are ravenous beasts. Like living creatures they still have to eat, and those surviving in the ashen wastelands rarely are particular about the kinds of meat they eat and hunt people just the same as animals, or will feed on old meat, unaffected by disease or poison. But not being truly alive, ghouls are unaffected by extreme heat or cold, but they still instinctively spend the nights huddled around fires if they can find something to burn. Eventually, most ghouls are consumed by the slow fire within them over the course of many decades and end up as charred husks. Though in some cases they also transform into wights.

Wight

Wight: 5 HD, AC 15, Atk +4/+4 (1d8; 2/15), Move 30, ML 10, Skill +1, Save 13.

As undead, wights are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness. They automatically stabilize at 0 hit points and require decapitation or similar destruction of their body to be permanently killed. Living creatures hit by a wight must make a Physical saving throw or be paralyzed for 1d4+1 rounds.

All wights began their transformation into undead as ghouls, though the exact conditions that turn only some ghouls into wights and not understood even by most sorcerers. There appears a strong connection to sorcery, as ghoul sorcerers rarely end up as husks, and they are often accompanied by the wights of their most loyal guards and servants. In other cases, wights have risen from killed ghouls who have been laid to rest in tombs and ruins highly corrupted by sorcery. Most wights appear to be sane, but also very hostile to living things with no interest in any kind of talk. They almost always attack any intruders into their lairs, but usually wait for an opportunity to ambush them instead of charging blindly into a fight.

Shade

Shade: 1 HD, AC 13, Atk +1 (1d6), Move 30, ML 12, Skill +0, Save 15.

As undead, shades are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness, and can only be harmed by obsidian or iron weapons. Living creatures hit by or walking through a shade take a -2 penalty to attack rolls and -1 penalty to damage rolls, shock damage, and skill checks for every hit, which remains until the end of the scene.

Shades appear as vague outlines of people made out of hazy smoke and shadows. They are not actually remnants of the dead, but rather the lingering remains of the demonic flames that consumed them. They appear somewhat related to charred husks, but the bodies that created them have been entirely reduced to ash, with nothing left for the flames to possess. Shades are just as mindless as husks, but show even less awareness of their surroundings. Shades often stand nearly motionlessly in the very spots they were created, not moving from their place for decades or centuries. Though they are created by fire, they have nothing left to burn, and instead draw in any warmth from their surroundings. Places haunted by shades are often unnaturally cold and touching them seems to drain the very life out of living creatures. Shades may attacking living creatures that are getting very close to them, though they might just as well completely ignore people walking straight through them.

Wraith

Wraith: 4 HD, AC 20, Atk +5 (1d6; 2/-), Move 30, ML 12, Skill +1, Save 13.

As undead, wraiths are immune to poison, disease, sleep, and unconsciousness, and can only be harmed by obsidian or iron weapons. Living creatures hit by a shade (but not when taking shock damage) take a -2 penalty to attack rolls and -1 penalty to damage rolls, shock damage, and skill checks for every hit, which remains until the end of the scene.

Wraiths appear somewhat similar to shades in that they look humanoid beings made of smoke and darkness, but their nature and demeanor is completely different. A wraith is the spirit of a highly corrupted being that has been so completely consumed by the fires of the Underworld that it burned its own bones and flesh into ash, leaving behind only a spirit of fire, smoke, and hatred. Like ghouls and wights, wraiths appear to retain much of the memories of their former lives and their intelligence, but all the trappings of a mortal life have long lost all meaning to them and the only thing driving them is a blind rage against all living things.

“I strangled him on his throne the night I took the royal city”

“Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man —like this!”
– Shadows in Zamboula

While thinking about a discussion about how you make adventures feel like Sword & Sorcery, it came to me that the Howard and Frazetta style in particularly is extremely physical and and greatly in love with the body and muscles. Fighting is not all about hacking and impaling, but often at its most intense and memorable when it comes down to a pure contest of Strength. I think that’s why large apes and giant snakes are so popular in Sword & Sorcery. They are the most spectacular incarnations of pure muscle.

Sword & Sorcery often has strong elements of swashbuckling and bravado, and when you think of pure all-out badassery, things that should come to mind are wrestling with snakes or breaking the neck of a lion with bare hands. So when it comes to picking a system for your Sword & Sorcery campaign, one thing it’s really going to need is a solid mechanic for wrestling and unarmed combat.

My current darling among the many B/X variants is Worlds Without Number, and that game has my favorite system for wrestling in any iteration of D&D and its retroclones. 3rd edition was particularly infamous for having a grappling mechanic that nobody could ever remember, but when you look at say 5th edition or the Rules Cylcopedia, I still find it difficult to truly get a full grasp of it just by reading, and remembering any of it once I turned to the next page. The WWN system is both simple and easy to remember and also has a neat little tweak to make it actually look attractive.

To start a grapple, the attacker has to first make a successful attack roll, and then both attacker and defender make opposing Strength checks. This means starting a grapple is more difficult than making a normal attack and dealing damage, since you have to make two successful rolls instead of one. But if you succeed to get a hold of the defender, the results are pretty nice.

The defender can use a Main Action on his turn to make another opposed Strength check, and if he succeeds, he gets free and may use his Move Action to get a few steps away. Otherwise, the only thing that both attacking and defending characters in a grapple can do is making unarmed attacks. If the attacks hit, they deal unarmed damage to their opponent. But now here comes the really cool tweak that I’ve never seen in any other grappling system. If the round ends with the defender still being grappled, the attacker automatically deals unarmed damage to the defender without an attack roll. Assuming the chance to land an unarmed attack is 50% for both fighters, the attacker will deal 1.5 times unarmed damage per round on average. However, the defender will deal only 0.5 times unarmed damage per round if he tries unarmed attacks, or 0 damage if he tries to break free of the grapple. The attacker is clearly at a major advantage if succeeds on the risky initial attack that requires two successful rolls to do anything.

Alternatively, the attacker can also choose to end the grapple and attempt another opposed Strength check to drag the defender 10 feet, or throw him for 5 feet.

You know what this is.

It may not be the best way to attempt fighting an ogre, but if you’re a big beefy barbarian with a few ranks in the Punch skill and the Unarmed Combatant focus, you probably can obliterate sorcerers very easily, unless you you’re dealing with another bronze god with muscles like steel. Even if making regular attacks with weapons might cause more damage, a grappled sorcerer can’t cast any spells or use magic items.

We’ll steal down through the top of the tower and strangle old Yara before he can cast any of his accursed spells on us.
– The Tower of the Elephant

An Expert starting with a Strength of 13 can learn the Developed Attribute and Unarmed Combatant foci, increase his Strength to 14, and gain a Punch skill of 2 by 3rd level, giving him an unarmed damage of 1d10+2. That’s an average of 7 damage, at a point where the average Expert has only 3d6 hit points, which is an average of 9. Unarmed combat has the potential to really fuck you up.