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


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 “Fantasy Safari: More BECMI creatures”

Fantasy Safari: Creature Collection (BECMI), Part 5

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


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)


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.


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 “Fantasy Safari: Creature Collection (BECMI), Part 5”

Fantasy Safari: Creature Catalogue (BECMI), Part 4

Continuing the exploration of the Creature Catalogue with the chapter on “Monsters”.


The Aranea is a large intelligent spider with humanlike arms to the sides of it’s head. It’s a original creature from the Known World and though it had made it into the 3rd edition Monster Manual it didn’t see a lot of use outside of the setting to my knowledge. The arenea presented here is quite different from the one in the Monster Manual. It is highly intelligent and can cast spells like a 3rd level magic user, but it does not have any ability to shapechange into either a human or hybrid form. It also does look a lot more like a full spider and has no other humanlike feature except its arms. Interestingly its alignment is also Chaotic, which makes it basically evil in the 3rd edition alignment system.


A Baldandar is a creature similar to doppelgangers. However, they are not shapechangers but masters of illusion instead. They can create almost any illusion imaginable in a radius of 80 meters and their illusions will remain for 10 minutes after they stop directly controlling them. Their illusions are not simply deceptions of the senses but are partly real. A baldandar can even cast illusions of other spells, but creatures targeted by them can make a saving throw at a -4 penalty to recognize that they are fake and be unaffected. It also can make itself invisible and fly around at will, which makes them very difficult to catch or corner.


The Bargda is a creature related to ogres and trolls and usually found as the leader of a group of these monsters. In addition to their great strength and toughness, they are so horribly hedious that anyone who sees them must make a saving throw or suffer a penalty to attacks and damage. In addition to attacking with a huge club, a bargda can also bite, which transmits a disease that reduces the victims dexterity. Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Creature Catalogue (BECMI), Part 4”


Surprise, as it is explained in Dungeons & Dragons throughout almost all editions is a bit weird. In the TSR editions, it is usually explained that in the case of an encounter, both the players and the (potential) enemies roll a d6. On a roll of 1 or 2 they are not surprised, on a roll of 3-6 they are. If both sides or neither side is suprised, initiative is rolled to see which side goes first. If one side is surprised but the other is not, then the side that is not surprised gets to act in the first round and the other is not. After that round initiative is rolled as usual.

3rd edition ditched the d6 roll and only mentions in passing that a Spot or Listen skill check might be used to determine awareness, but it also explicitly calls the begining of the encounter a Surprise Round.

But when you think about how awareness and surprise would work outside of game mechanics, it doesn’t really make much sense. The flaw here is that the rules make it sound as if you have two groups running straight into each other and one realizes a bit faster what is going on than the other group.

Surprise Motherfucker
Surprise, Motherfucker!

But why does the group that has surprise only get one round during which the other side is still inactive? If you become aware of the other group before they do, you usually still have the option to not make your presence known to them immediately. If you are opening a door in a dungeon and there is an enemy on the other side, then yes. They may be surprised, but after the initial shock they would immediatly jump up and go for their weapons.

But unless you play a simple Hack & Slash game, that’s not what you’d usually be doing. You can become aware of another group before you are standing face to face. You silently creep through the dark corridor and reach a cave where an ogre is chewing on human meat with his back turned towards you. You hear voices talking around the corner or you might see the light of a lamp approaching from behind a bend in the corridor. In these situations you still have some time to extinguish all lights, find hiding spots, or run away before you are noticed at all. Depending on the distance you might still have a lot of time to prepare for battle. Once you jump out of your hiding places, then you are getting your surprise round during which the other group can not take any action.


Of all the editions of D&D I have here, only the Rules Cyclopedia even mentions this at all.

When one party is surprised, the unsurprised party notices the surprised party at the 1d4x10 (feet indoors, yards outdoors) distance rolled; the surprised party won’t notice the unsurprised party until they reach half that distance.

Thanks, Aaron Allston. If this was your own houserule, it’s a really good one. Maybe it had always been asumed, but to my knowledge it has never been explained like this anywhere else. Using this rule also makes a huge difference for thieves at low levels. Sneaking up on a guard to backstab it with 20% to Move Silently at 1st level is just suicidial. Nobody would ever do that, especially when you only have 1d4 hit points yourself. In combination with a surprise system that lets you turn around and back off to a distance outside the encounter distance, 20% is something to actually consider.

Imagine a the maximum encounter distance of 40 feet inside a dungeon. Both the thief and the monster make their surprise roll at 40 and if they are both surprised, they will notice each other at 20 feet. If the thief is succesfully Moving Silently, he will automatically detect the monster at 20 feet, but the monster will not notice him at either 40 or 20 feet. If the rest of the PCs stay 25 feet behind the thief, the thief will reach auto detect distance to the monster before the main party reaches possible detection range. The thief then can give a hand signal to the other or return back to them and tell them what he saw. Then the entire party knows the monster is there, make a descision whether to approach or not, and if they do they will have surprise on their side. The monster still has to roll surprise again to see if it will notice the party at full encounter distance or half encounter distance (which might be as close as 5 feet on the roll of a 1 on the d4). Even if the Move Silently roll fails, there is still chance to get regular surprise on the monster and the thieves friends are right behind him. It’s a lot less stupid than trying to walk up to a monster that might know you’re walking straight into the reach of its attack.
This is another one of these cases where an odd old rule mostely went ignored for being irrelevant though it does serve an important function: Encounter Distances. You don’t have to roll it and you could always decide on an appropriate value yourself, but any surprise system worth using should have the option to retreat undetected or prepare an ambush. Just a single free round of action before combat automatically starts isn’t cutting it.

Roll 3d6, in order

One of the things I noticed about the Dungeons & Dragons Basic rules is that the game uses the same modifiers to rolls for all six abilities just like 3rd edition does and which is quite different from the chaos that is ability modifiers in AD&D. However, the modifiers are smaller and more spread out than in 3rd edition, giving only a +3 for a score of 18 instead of a +4.

The actual ability scores in Basic are almost meaningless. As far as I am able to tell, everything really comes down to the modifiers. The reason that you have ability scores at all is that you can easily generate them with 3d6, but they are really just the first of two steps to get your ability modifiers. In theory, once you have the modifiers written down, you could erase the ability scores from the character sheet. They are no longer being needed for anything.

The super oldschool way to generate ability scores is rolling 3d6 six times and applying them to the six abilities in the order you roll, with no moving around to suit your taste. In 3rd edition, but also AD&D, that was pretty brutal and you could very easily end up with crap. When I generated 16 sets of ability scores, all but the first one looked pretty bad. (It was 13, 16, 10, 14, 16, 16! I wish that one was for an actual game.) But when I wrote down the actual modifiers you get from these scores and added them up, it almost always came down to a total between +1 and -1, which really is very average.

So I went ahead and made this graph to show the chances not to get the ability scores but only the ability modifiers:

snapshot107(It’s not entirely accurate because I took a shortcut and did not convert the 17 data points into 16 ranges, but it should be pretty close, with only the blue area being a slightly bit wider in reality.)

As you can see, the chance to get a modifier of +/-2 or 3 are actually pretty small. The chance to get a modifier of 0 or +/-1 is 86%. The chance to roll a 3 or 18 is under 0,5% each. That is not too bad and even if you do end up with a -2 or -3 in a stat, it often doesn’t hurt a lot. Only the Wisdom modifier is added tone one of the five saving throw types and there are no skills to which modifiers would be added. Even thieves don’t get any bonuses or penalties to their thieving skills. Also no skill points, so low Intelligence doesn’t hurt much. Strength is only added to the chance to hit but not the damage you do (and no +50% bonus when using both hands and any Power Attack shenanigans). Minimum ability scores to play a class exist, but only to play a dwarf, elf, or halfling, and then that minimum score is just 9 (everything starting from the line at “8” on the graph). Even a low Intelligence wizard or low Dexterity thief still works just fine, they just would level up somewhat slower than usual.

So I think in Basic, 3d6 in order really isn’t any bad. The odds to get truly terribly stats that make your character really suck or make you unable to play your prefered class are pretty low and when it really doesn’t work I probably would let a player roll again. (Better then to wait until the character charges heroically to his suicidal death in the very first encounter.) But a character with lots of 9s and 10s and another 6 really are no reason to complain in this game. May not be great, but still would be perfectly playable.

Now AD&D on the other hand is completely different story. Even the Player’s Handbook says that it is essential that any character has at least two 15s. Except for the one set I generated with the three 16s, I don’t think I had any 15s in the other fifteen.

Fantasy Safari: Creature Catalogue (BECMI), Part 3


The Phanaton is described as a creature that looks like a cross between a racoon and a monkey and also a flying squirrel. They are about as big as halflings and only slightly less intelligent than most humanoids. They build their villages in the branches of large trees and as lawful creatures are usually friendly to most adventurers. They are also friends of elves, treants, and dryads. A normal phanaton is pretty weak and have only 3 hit points on average, but a village is usually led by a king with 8 HD and 50 hp who also has a bodyguard of warriors with 6 HD and 30 hp, which can easily be much tougher and stronger than players would expect.


Rakasta: All I have to say it Khajiit has wares, if you have coin.


Shark-kin seem very similar to sahuagin but with a few unusual differences. In their normal form, shark-kin are unable to walk or survive outside of water and their alignment is neutral. However, any time the king of a tribe dies the legs of the shark-kin grow stronger and they become able to breath air and they come to land for a ritual to select a new leader. During those times they are extremely hostile and agressive, seemingly behaving just the same way as sahuagin do.

Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Creature Catalogue (BECMI), Part 3”