Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Monsters with Triggered Abilities

Everything on this page (except for the gribbly) is meant to be accessory monster.  They aren't going to be the biggest monster in the fight; they'll be flitting around in the outskirts of combat.


I know I've written about wisps before, but this one is better.

Wisp

Keep them away from fresh corpses.

Lvl Def none  No Attacks
Fly slow  Int 10  Mor 10

Incorporeal Undead

Luminous -- Appears as a ball of light.  Illuminates as a torch, unless it wants to turn invisible.

Animate Corpse -- Can enter a Dying person or freshly killed corpse and animate it, creating a lantern ghoul.  When the lantern ghoul is destroyed, the wisp will exit the corpse.  The lantern ghoul will be hostile or neutral based on the table below.

Follow Me -- Roll on this table instead of making a reaction roll.

1 - Wisp will attempt to lead the party to a secret door or valuable treasure.  It may not be nearby.  (Neutral)
2 - Wisp will attempt to lead the party towards vulnerable enemies.  Perhaps the monsters in a nearby room are sleeping or distracted at this moment.  (Neutral)
3 - Wisp will attempt to lead the party into a trap.  (Hostile)
4 - Wisp will attempt to lead the party into an ambush.  (Hostile)
5 - Will just follow the party around, acting as a friendly light source.  (Neutral)
6 - Will just follow the party around, acting as a friendly light source.  (Hostile)

Wisps cannot speak.  Even the neutral ones hate you for being alive, just a little.

Lantern Ghoul
HD Def leather  Claws 1d8+agony
Move human  Int 10  Mor 10

Headlights -- Eyes shed light as a bullseye lantern (60' cone).  If it is looking directly at you, the glare gives you -4 Attack against the ghoul.

Neutral ghouls will give advice and accompany you as long as you are able to provide them with fresh corpses.  Hostile ghouls will try to kidnap someone, or at least kill someone.  It will use these fresh corpses to provide bodies for their fellow wisps.

Discussion

Whether or not they're trying to lead you somewhere, wisps will probably hang around for a while.  And as soon as they find a fresh corpse to inhabit, they'll dive into it.  If this happens during combat, it could quickly make things difficult for the party.  However it goes, I hope it'll be a memorable lesson.

The fact that a wisp can enter (and kill) a Dying PC can be a shitty experience, if the player was expected to survive an otherwise fatal blow.

Wisps are incorporeal, and are capable of turning invisible.  Parties may not have the tools to kill one easily.  However, you can always run away from a wisp--they fly slow.  And a wisp inhabiting a lantern ghoul can also be locked in a sarcophagus or something.

Don't forget that wisps can be encountered as lantern ghouls, with the wisp itself only becoming visible later.

by kreis-b
Flying Eyeball

Puberty is magical.

HD Def chain  Piercing Gaze 1d4 (50')
Flying fast  Int 10  Mor 2

Looks like a flying eyeball.  If it vibrates its pupil while looking at something, a puncture wound will appear.  Each one serves a terophidian, who sees whatever it sees.

Spell Eater -- Whenever a spell is cast within 50', the eyebat captures the spell and becomes an optical hound, forever capable of casting the spell that created it.

Optical Hound
HD 3  Def chain  Piercing Gaze 1d8 (50')
Move fast  Int Mor 6

Gaze Attack -- Anyone who meets the gaze of an optical hound must save or howl.  (An optical hound has no proper mouth, so this is how it must summon its packmates.)

Spellcasting (2 MD) -- An optical hound can cast whatever spell birthed it.

Discussion

Flying, ranged attackers are a rare niche in D&D, but an important one.  They either need to be shot by an archer, or lured into a hallway with a low ceiling.  Neither one is difficult, but it may still force the party out of their usual tactics.

An optical hound is a fairly beefy opponent.  If it picks up a good spell, it can be fearsome.

An eyebat also prevents the wizard from unloading their best spells on the first round of combat.

from Paper Mario
Gribbly

Rapidly multiplying menaces.

HD Def leather  Bite 1d6
Move human  Int 6  Mor 6

A small black hairball with beady red eyes.  It's got arms and legs hidden in there, along with one hell of a mouth.  They are only capable of one type of behavior: running around and biting things.  They're smart enough to open doors and break windows, but that's about it.

Making Friends -- Whenever it bites someone, the gribbly will shit out a new gribbly with HP equal to the damage dealt.  The new gribbly will look like the flesh donor, but mostly it will look like a gribbly.

Photophobia -- Save vs fear if they encounter a bonfire.  They will automatically flee from larger fires and bright lights.  They need to succeed on a Morale check in order to attack a group carrying a torch, and will preferentially attack non-torchbearers.  They can get bonuses on these Morale checks if they outnumber the party.

A gribbly can turn a human corpse into 16 gribblies in about 4 rounds.  Every 10 lbs of flesh can only yield 1 gribbly, even though the gribbly only takes a partial bite.

Gribbly King

Stats as a HD 2 gribbly, except that it has two MD and can cast darkness.  Formed when a king is eaten.

Discussion

Can be used to inject a little bit of chaos into a battle.  Gribblies are inherently destabilizing--either the party kills them quickly, or the party gets unlucky and finds themselves vastly outnumbered.  Once the players know what gribblies are capable of, gribblies become a threat even in small numbers, since they cannot be ignored.

Encounter design tip: give players a good reason to ignore the gribblies.  This creates an interesting choice, beyond "the gribblies are obviously the biggest threat, let's kill them first".

And if the gribblies get too numerous, the photophobia weakness gives clever parties a way to escape.

And you can also create destabilizing situations with gribblies.  What happens when a gribbly runs past the party, into the room where the pigs were tied up?

The gribbly king is essentially a Fuck You to parties that have been fighting gribblies for a while, and have developed an effective strategy for killing the poor things.  The darkness spell can quickly topple that strategy, and force them to come up with something new.



from the 2e AD&D Monstrous Manual
Still one of my favorites
Imp  

They'll eat your fumbles.

HD 1  Def chain  Claw 1d6
Fly fast  Int 6  Mor 6

Spells (1 MD) -- bedevil

Eater of Woe -- Whenever an enemy rolls a fumble, the Imp grows.  It gains 1 HD, 1 MD, increases its damage die, and heals for 1d6 HP.  It also loses the ability to fly and gains the firebolt spell.  These changes last until the imp rolls a fumble.



New Spell: Bedevil
R: 50'   T: creature  D: 10 minutes  [splittable]
Expands the fumble range of the target by 1.  No save.

Discussion

The Bedevil ability is interesting (no save) but has a good chance of never becoming relevant, if no fumbles are ever rolled.  The Eater of Woe ability has the same problem.

However, increasing the number of imps in a fight can exponentially make them more dangerous, since their abilities synergize with each other.  Imagine 20 imps all casting bedevil on the first round of combat.

Like the gribbly, imps are inherently chaotic, and randomness is its own special type of threat.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Bosses

Here's how you put bosses into your dungeon.

You Don't Need Bosses

The first rule about bosses is that you don't need bosses.  A dungeon can be an excellent experience without one.

Bosses are fun.  They can be the charismatic face of a dungeon, or they can be the thing that needs to be beaten in order for the good guys to win.  (If that's the kind of game you're running.)

But bosses can also be fragile.  They can be too easy (if they fail a roll) or they can be too hard (if the party fights them in a depleted state).  As far as emotionally-charged centerpieces go, bosses are pretty fragile.

If you must have an emotionally-charged centerpiece of a dungeon, may I also recommend: stealing a certain treasure, rescuing a certain person, or breaking something.

How to Keep Players From Fighting Bosses When They're Depleted

Show them the boss fight is coming, and give them a chance to prepare.  Don't spring it on them.

How to Keep Players From Steamrolling a Boss

You could use multiple enemies instead of a single foe.  The Shadow Council, instead of a dragon.  This spreads the rolls around, smooths off a lot of the statistical rough edges, and produces more reliable results.

You could make it a puzzle encounter.  Only a certain weapon can hurt the boss, it can only be defeated in a certain way, you need to avoid a certain attack, etc.

You could make it too powerful to defeat in a straight-up fight.  This is the simple method of doing what I recommended in the previous paragraph.  Bosses that are numerically impossible to beat cannot be overcome by running up to it and hitting it with your strongest attacks.  You'll have to scheme.  (That's what LaTorra does here.)

Dynamism

I've talked about dynamism before.  Essentially, you want the fight to evolve.  Every 1-2 rounds, the circumstances should change significantly enough that the players will have to re-evaluate their tactics.

If the circumstances never evolve, you're left with. . .

Turn 1: I attack.  I hit.  7 damage.
Turn 2: I attack.  I miss.
Turn 3: I attack.  I hit.  3 damage.

Dynamism in a boss battle can come from a few places.

The simplest place it comes from is just from resource depletion.  The fighter is at 1 HP, and must now change tactics and back away from melee.  The wizard is out of his best spells, and must now find a way to leverage her second-rank spells.

There's also some crude attempts at dynamism: enemies that unleash a very powerful attack when they're bloodied, or bosses that change form.

These are a step in the right direction, but oftentimes the people writing them miss the point.  A dragon that gets a free fire breath when its bloodied isn't dynamic unless the fire damage is enough to force the party to change tactics.

And anyway, HP damage isn't a very dynamic mechanic anyway.  (I'd actually argue that it's the opposite--HP exists to help players predict how much more risk they can accept.)  A player might not play very differently between 60% and 100% HP.  Only when they start getting low will they start thinking about changing their tactics.  And besides, you can only damage HP so many times before someone dies.  HP isn't ideal.

The dynamism in a boss fight should come from the same places as other fights: circumstances change in such a way that the players need to come up with new tactics.  They don't have to be fancy.

Examples:

  • The dragon takes off.
  • The dragon lands.
  • The dragon burrows underground.
  • The dragon sets the forest on fire.  (Always a favorite.)
  • The dragon leaves.  It'll come back and drop a cow on the party.
  • The drakencult arrives to defend their dragon.
  • The drakencult flees once the dragon is bloodied.
  • The giant grabs someone and prepares to throw them.
  • The giant overturns his bathtub, causing players to risk being washed away.
  • The giant blows hard enough to extinguish everyone's torches.
  • The wizard turns into a swarm of hornets with wizard faces.
Remember that it isn't dynamic unless it forces the player to re-evaluate their tactics.  A giant that stomps the ground (Dex check or fall prone) isn't very dynamic.  There's no chance to react (except a passive Dex check) and characters that fall prone will probably just stand up and resume their generic strategy: fighters swing swords, and wizards wiz.

Wind-Up Attacks

A big gout of dragon breath isn't very dynamic if it's just a Dex check, but how about this:
At the end of the first turn, the dragon takes a deep breath.  At the end of the second turn, it uses its fire breath attack.
See the difference?  The players have a whole turn to react.  Some players will choose to stay in melee, some will jump on the dragon's back, some will take cover.  We've given them an interesting choice, just by telling them that something big is coming.

You can have the wind-up attack trigger at the end of the next round, or on the boss's action at the end of the next round.  (One gives everyone an interesting choice.  The other gives players an interesting choice only if they succeed on their Initiative checks.)

Examples of Wind-Up Attacks:
  • A giant could literally wind up for a haymaker that will deal double damage next turn.
  • A giant could pick up a boulder, preparing to drop it on someone's head.
  • Tongues of fire could start licking up out of the ground.  Better get off the ground before the floor is lava.
  • The dragon starts beating its wings.  Next turn, it'll blow people away.
  • The dragon starts beating its wings.  By next turn, it'll be too dusty to see anything.
  • The dragon roars and stalactites crack.  They'll land next turn, and are especially dangerous to players who spend their turn ignoring the threat.

A Changing Landscape

There's also some subtle dynamism incorporated into regular fights against groups of enemies: enemy death.

A group of orcs becomes less threatening over time, as the players kill orcs.  They might fight three orcs the first round (taking at most 3d8 damage), two orcs on the second round (at most 2d8 damage), and finally a single orc on the last round, because orcs don't surrender (at most 1d8 damage).

This gradient allows players to (a) see their progress, and (b) react to a combat that is changing.

Bosses sometimes lack these nice benefits.  Be sure to give the players a constant update on how the boss is looking, so they can see their progress.  Is the boss sneering through a few cuts, or coughing up blood as they lean on their staff?  I always tell players when enemies are bloodied, and I think I've literally drawn health bars before (which is a bit dissociative, but doesn't really give them any information they don't already have, assuming that you're being very descriptive).

I've talked about dynamism in the sense of round-to-round changes, but you can also have gradual changing that force the combat to evolve.

Examples:

  • The boss gets weaker as it takes damage. (See also: wizards running out of spells, dismemberment)
  • The boss gets tougher as it takes damage.
  • The arena decays: gets smaller, floods, sinks, or catches on fire.
  • Reinforcements arrive each turn.
  • The party must fight the serpicant in a different room each round. 
A party that is kiting a serpicant throughout the dungeon might know that eventually they're going to get cornered and poisoned--unless they go through an unexplored passage that might give them they time they need to kill it.  See, interesting choices.

You can also have some dynamism come from unique arenas: maybe the arena is criss-crossed with enough acid streams that the party will have to change up their generic tactics a little bit.  (This is what people mean when they say "interesting boss fights need interesting environments".)

Dismemberment Rules

You can dismember monsters with crits or with combat maneuver rolls.  Generally, allow players to target whatever the hell they want.  It's a great way to evolve the combat and give a sense of progress, outside of regular HP depletion.

Want to shoot a manticore's armpit so it can't flap it's wing?  Sure.  Now it can't fly.

Want to shoot a dragon's armpit so it can't fly?  It'll make a rough landing, pull out the arrow, and take off again.  (Dragon's are tougher.)

Want to lop off a displacer beast's paw so it loses a claw attack?  Fine by me.

I don't have any hard rules for dismemberment.  It works for me.

Unlucky Saves

Players love telling stories about how they killed the boss in the first round, when the boss failed a save vs polymorph and got turned into a snail.

I honestly think that these stories are a feature, not a bug.  If a player wants to spend a round casting an unreliable spell, they are free to do so.  I like giving players that freedom.

However, that unpredictability still runs counter to many people's instincts, who think that a boss should be something that requires many rounds of combat and drops at least one character to 0 HP.

Well, for those who would to blunt the sword of RNG, I recommend Ablative Saves.

Ablative Saves

This is going to get compared to legendary resistance in 5e, so I guess I should start by talking about that.  This is legendary resistance (typical for epic boss monsters):
Legendary Resistance (3/day): if the dragon fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead.
They wrote this rule to insulate dragons against unlucky saves.  And as a rule, it sucks.

It sucks because it creates a separate track to victory, then forces the players to choose between them.  Do they try to damage the dragons HP?  Or use things that cause saves, hoping to whittle down the legendary resistance enough to fire off a polymorph?  


I once wrote a class that didn't deal HP damage, and instead attacked enemies' Morale score, defeating them by destroying their will to fight.  It might be fun if the whole party was attacking Morale, but if not, you're just splitting your attention in two directions.

So dragons are effectively immune to casual polymorph attempts.

Here's mine:
Ablative Saves (at-will): if the monster fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead and take 20 damage.  Alternatively, it can take 10 damage and suffer from half the effect.  All Level 9+ creatures have this ability.
Now everything is back on the same track.  Failed saves now damage the HP total.

Fiction-wise:

The dragon shudders as power word: kill rips through its body.  It slumps over, gurgling out a death rattle.  But the party's cheers die on their lips as the great wyrm somehow staggers to its feet, a few seconds later.  Black blood leaks from its furious eyes.

OR

The wizard could feel their polymorph spell twist as they cast it, warping around the psychic bulk of the dragon's soul.  The dragon didn't deflect the spell entirely, but neither did it suffer from the full brunt of its transformative energies.  Instead, some sort of snail-dragon now faced the party, with huge claws pulling its coiled rump around the cavern, green slime dripping from its once-fiery maw.

GLOG Rule: Affecting High-HD Enemies With Spells

A spell cannot affect a target if the [sum] is less than the target's HD.

I've been using this rule in my home games for a while, but I forget if I've posted it on the blog.

Action Economy

Bosses also sometimes get held up by the sheer number of actions that they need to take in a turn.  5e solves this by letting bosses take extra actions over the course of a turn, in the form of legendary actions.

This is perfectly fine.  It smooths out the damage curve, removes some variability, and gives the party more flexibility to respond when an ally is injured.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with letting the dragon take all of it's turns at once.  Spikier, traditional damage.  And besides, if the dragon is using wind-up attacks, it's effectively making two attacks each turn anyway, which has much of the same function.

Threat

Bosses who focus fire on a single character should have no problem killing them in one or two rounds.  On the other hand, bosses that focus fire usually ignore the rest of the party.

One solution to this is to make enemies dumb.  Dumb enemies allow the players to choose who will be attacked.  The barbarian bangs on his shield and waggles his genitals at the harpies--they're guaranteed to attack him next turn.

Another solution is to make enemies slow (this is often a good way to make boss encounters escapable).  Slow enemies allow the party to retreat wounded party members.

This isn't a flaw.  Yes, it makes the encounter easier, but more importantly, it gives the players more control and more options.  You can balance it out by having the enemy deal more damage.

Intelligent enemies with a high damage output can (and should be) especially threatening.  You'll have to deploy them more carefully (and players will have to engage more carefully).

I highly recommend giving bosses attacks that hit multiple targets at once, such as everyone in melee range.

GLOG Rule: Focus Fire

You can never make more than two attacks against the same target in a single round.

Interesting Boss Mechanics

Look them up.


by Paolo Puggioni
Dragon

Usually accompanied by 1d6 drakencult barbarians, who will be riding the dragon if necessary.

I put a lot of bells and whistles on this dragon, but you can dial it back if you want.  Every round, just pick who it's gonna attack, and what wind-up attack it's going to do.  It only knows one spell, and it unlikely to use it except to mess with players.  Don't forget the Aura of Heat.

Level 10  Def as plate  Attacks x3 1d12
Fly fast  Int 10  Mor 6

Gold Sense - Dragons always know if something has been taken from their hoard.

Aura of Heat - Anyone who ends their turn adjacent to a dragon takes 1d4 damage.

Spellcasting (MD 3) - control fire

Wind-Up Attacks

At the end of each turn, you announce the one that will occur at the end of the next turn.  You cannot use the same wind-up attack twice in a row.

Fire Breath - 4d6 fire damage, 50' cone, Dex for half.
Smoke Exhalation - As fog.
Wing Flap - Unsecured objects/creatures will be blown 50' away.  50' cone.
Pin - Grapple target, bite them in half next turn (2d12 damage and +4 to hit).

Combat Start

Roar - Save vs terror.  Free action.

When Bloodied

The earth itself casts heat metal is cast on 1d3 metal objects.  (Whatever will make life hardest for the players.)  Free action.

Upon Death

All fires in 1 mile extinguish, and cannot be relit for 24 hours.

Dragon Tactics

Basically, just remember that dragons can fly and have little incentive to fight to the death.  They'd rather stay in the air and make strafing runs (fire breath, graps, fly-by attacks).  They can drop objects on the party if they need to.  Most dragons don't mind starting forest fires.

Dragons in their lairs are easier, since they must fight on the ground.  However, their lairs usually have loops (dragons hate getting cornered) and more drakencult barbarians.  And of course, getting stuck underground without any light will probably present some problems, too.

And lastly, remember that dragons are just as smart as we are.  They will use their abilities to the fullest.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Mummies

It is possible for slavery to persist into death.  This is, essentially, what separates mummies from other undead.

There are many types of mummies within this definition, but let us begin with

The Mummy

When certain aristocrats die, it is common for their household to follow them into death.

Their finery will be heaped into the tomb alongside him.  Their spouses will poison themselves at the announcement of his death.  Their slaves will drugged and sacrificed at his funeral.  Even prize racehorses are not exempt.

In some cases, this is a mere embalming.  When a potent cleric is involved, this is something more.

A slave will pressured into swearing eternal servitude.  It does not seem like such a terrible deal--the slave receives preferential treatment in exchange for a mere ritual.  But like many magical oaths, this one is binding.

If the contract does not require an eternity of servitude (as most of them do), then the duration is usually for ten thousand years.

The body must be preserved if the mummy is to persist.  The only thing that unified the souls was their service to the flesh--without the flesh, they begin to unravel.  Imagine seven birds that were huddled together in a nest during a storm.  As the storm stops, each bird begins to realize that they are not a seven-beaked creature whose lower half is a nest; they take flight.  This is what happens when a body decays.

For these mummies, the lowest of servants, beasts, and wives, their existence as a mummy is a living nightmare.  Brief flashes of existence, a half-life inside a tomb, separated by oceans of darkness and lost time.

WARNING: Pictures of mummies ahead.
This one is King Tut.
Their memories are usually scrubbed away.  The clerical embalmers use long hooks to pull the purple soul out of the nose of the recently deceased.  What need does a servant have for a full memory?  The only knowledge they need is how to serve, and that lives in the belly, not the head.  A servant without memories is a stable servant, one who will not change with the long eons.

Instead, the soul(s) are bound in certain strictures.  This occurred during the binding ceremony, but the bustle of life keeps the servant from ever noticing the net being woven around their soul.

Not all mummies are hostile.  Depending on the instructions that they have been given, they grovel on their bellies in order to welcome you into their tomb, or they may be trembling things that curl up in a corner and await their demise.  Or they may be shuffling things that flee in order to rouse their brethren, and return at the head of a horde.

If you ever come across these damned things, know that destroying them is a the greatest kindness you could ever provide.

Mummy
Level Def leather  Claw 1d6+rot
Move human  Int 10  Mor 10

Mummy Rot -- Half of the damage that a mummy deals is cursed damage, and will not heal normally.  You can remove this curse by visiting a church, or by appeasing the mummy.

Appeasing the mummy involves sacrificing one of the mummy's enemies at the local altar and begging for forgiveness.  The enemy can be a tomb robber, a particular ethnicity, or the mummy across the hallway.

Lindow Man
The Mummy Lord

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the clerics themselves, who bound themselves according to the same covenants, in order to serve their lords on the far shores of death.

Unlike the lesser mummies, they retain a great deal of memory and free will.

Their existence is not much better.  Their behavior--and even thoughts--are confined according to the same covenants which they made prior to their death.  While they might appear to have agency, their limitations are just as present, and possibly more painful, since they may remember what they've lost.

Their duties usually entail the guardianship of the tomb, but their most important role is ceremonial.

An entombed pharaoh might still arise every morning in order to command the sun to rise.  A mummified warlord might still want to have his army paraded through the tomb every fortnight, and their weapons presented for inspection.  A peaceful queen might still wish to hold mass, her bells ringing out underground, week after week, year after year.

The tomb of a mummy, then, is far from an inert.  This is not an oddity--this is why these people were desperate to become mummies in the first place.

Tombs are not happy places.  Eventually the candles burn down and the books become unreadable.  Eventually the weapons chip and corrode.  Eventually, the memories rot out of the skull, and the souls become unglued.  What a mummy loses can never be regained.  They have slowed entropy, but they have not halted it.

Those who were waiting for a long-promised messiah or armageddon are disappointed.  Where is the apocalypse where they would be crowned eternally?  All there is to do is to lie alone in the dark, feeling the hard tissue of your limb becoming thinner every century, grasping at your fleeing memories as your mind hollows itself out.  You remember having sons: what were their names?  You are waiting for ragnarok: what were the words that you must greet the gods with?

And so the minds of mummies slip into something sullen and foreboding.

Mummy Lords usually have either clerical spellcasting, a powerful magical weapon, and/or an Aura of Majesty.

Aura of Majesty

You must succeed on a Save vs charm in order to approach the mummy lord, and you must succeed on a second Save in order to harm them.  You gain a bonus on this check according to your social standing: +4 if you are aristocracy, -4 if you are a murderhobo without any title.

The Great Royal Wife Tiye
The Shabty

Erroneously called "least golems", the sad creatures known as shabties are even more wretched than the lesser mummies.

They were made from slaves that were despised, or known to be untrustworthy.  They were made to swear the same binding oaths as the other mummies, but their bodies were disassembled after death.

A shabty resembles a small figurine, about 3d6 inches tall.  They are made from clay, hair, bone, and paint, more-or-less assembled into a pleasing shape.  You will find them inside a small sarcophagus or bag.

Shabties will obey any command that they hear, and so smart owners will usually bind their ears closed with cloth (which may be discovered with the shabty).  They make poor combatants.

Every time a shabty accepts a command, it bows.  Every time a shabty completes a command, it shrinks an inch.  When it is less than 3 inches tall, it becomes inert.

Shabtys are usually carved with exaggerated servile features, such as hunchbacks and small feet.  Their faces never look up from the ground, and they will twist their heads to avoid meeting the gaze of anyone inspecting them.

They are treasure.

Gallagh Man
The Mandrogi

Erroneously called "grass golems" or "debtor golems", these are bundles of grass shaped like men.  They are employed by the merchants of the Pashetso as a labor force.

The merchants tell people that they little grass men are made from grass that has been bound together and animated with the breath of an industrious horse.  This is a lie.

In truth, each mandrogi contains the soul of a debtor, who died while owing money to a Pashetso matron.  After the death of a debtor, it is up to the young men of the clan to crack open the coffin and extract a single tooth from the mouth of the deceased, wherein hides the terrified souls.

This is all part of the standard terms of a loan.  Few bother to read all of the fine print.

Mandrogi are not rare.  Most people do not repay their loans to the Pashetso.  Why would they?  The strange clan has little ability to collect.  And of course, everyone dies.  If the Pashetso do not operate the graveyard, then they are owed money by the people who do.

After all, gravedigging is ignoble work, best left to those itinerant outlanders.

Sidebar: the Pashetso

A tremendously insular clan of merchants, magicians, and charlatans, the Pashetso are rumored to be ruled by a cabal of demonic cats.  They shave their daughters in order to make them unappealing to outsiders, and their sons are ritualistically blinded in one eye for the same reason.

In most caravans, it is only the elders who are allowed to speak to foreigners.  This taboo against speaking with outsiders is sometimes dodged through the use of puppets.  Despite these oddities, they Pashetso are well-known cosmopolitans who are involved in minor mercantilism, moneylending, and horse racing of all types.

Despite their social buffers, they have more than their share of runaways, and the streets of Shangalore are filled with eyepatched acrobats and short-haired scribes.

Excavating some ogodai.
This might also be Pompeii.
The Ogodai

Sometimes a jail sentence exceeds the lifespan of the condemned.  For these poor souls, there is the Ritual of the Ogodai.

Unlike the other covenants that are used to bind a person's soul to their body, the Ritual of the Ogodai is very explicit, and is always achieved through torture.  The prisoner usually relents in order to stop the suffering, and then lives out the rest of their days knowing that death is only the beginning of their sentence.

The ancient empire of Cheox built several prison-tombs to house their ogodai, and it is from their records that we know that the sentences range from one lifespan (100 years) to eternity (in the case of pretenders to the throne).

After they die, their body is compressed under a layer of burning ash.  For a year they are left buried.

When they are excavated, the trembling thing is half-mineral, a faceless manikin of ash, heat-reduced flesh, and (deep inside) a blackened skeleton.

An ogodai is only capable of kneeling and bowing.  Cheox interred vast numbers of them in their prison-tombs, and faced them towards Coramont, so that they could pray for forgiveness.  The ogodai with eternal sentences (imperial pretenders, serial killers) were instead hung upside down inside tiny cells, which were then bricked up.

Cheox believed that the ogodai would remain trapped in their corpse forever.  With the passage of centuries, we now know that they are wrong.

The enchantments decay at the same speed as the body.  Moisture, movement, heat, and vermin all contribute.

After a hundred years, an ogodai might be able to turn its head to the side, in order to look at a new wall.  Another hundred years, and it might be able to crawl.  A few hundred more, to walk.  A few hundred more, perhaps to speak--who knows?  But what would a man speak about, after so many long centuries in the dark?

The Rendswühren Man on Display

Monday, November 11, 2019

Golems

Bad Golems

At their most boring, a golem is a big stone dude that punches you to death.  You will note that this is not very different from earth elementals, and the in many games, the two are sadly indistinguishable.

In D&D, golems have a couple of wrinkles.  First, they may go insane and try to kill you.  Since you will usually be meeting golems in combat, the party may never even notice.

Golems also have different interactions with spells, like clay golems getting tossed around by move earth in some editions, healed by acid, etc.  These vary depending on the type of golem, and are sort of like the different resistances of oozes--the party just has to learn them.  This type of stuff is fun.

Subtype Dilution

D&D has a tendency to take an evocative monster and then create spin-offs until all the magic is gone.  Even if you like the green acid dragons, you might not like the brass dragons, and you probably don't like the shitty little guard drakes.  It dilutes the brand.

Part of it is a need to create different CR versions of a monster in a game with a long power curve, part of it is just a failure of creativity.

The same thing has happened to golems, with the different material golems.  Even scarecrows and Frankenstein's monster have been squeezed onto the same shelf.

So, let's fix that.  The original conception of the golem was a uniquely Jewish myth, probably the most clearly Jewish mechanism in the machine of D&D (moreso than phylacteries, I would argue).  Have you familiarized yourself with the original golem of Prague?

Miloslav Dvorak, Le Golem et Rabbi Loew près de Prague
Fixing the Golem

Golems are not made by wizards.  Golems are clerical productions, created when one of the secret names of the Authority is written on clay.  (They are not inherently clerical, but most of the secret names are in the hands of the Church.)

This recreates (and honors) the creation of mankind from the primal clay.

Each golem has a glyph written on its body, a set of instructions in a grid surrounding the secret name, which cannot be read while the golem lives.

Golems are as intelligent as a human, but their minds are limited by the confines of their glyph.  They are unable to conceive of a broad interpretation of their instructions, and will instead interpret their duties according to the narrowest possible interpretation.

A golem that has been told to "prevent anyone from entering this room" (and nothing else) will stop caring about people that successfully run into the room.  After all, it has no instructions about what to do with unauthorized people that enter the room.  They will still fight in self-defense, though.

All golems will rest on Sundays.  Forcing a golem to work on a Sunday risks madness.

All golems are made from clay, and filled with an inner fire.  (Suggesting that other cultures might have golems of their own is only mildly heretical--who knows what the benthic demons of the merfolk are capable of?  But whatever it is, it isn't a golem, even if it seems similar.)

Clay Golem
Level 7  Def chain  Fist 2d6+grab
Move slow  Int 10  Str 20  Mor 10

Immunities - Bludgeoning weapons deal normal damage, while other types of weapons deal 1 point of damage.  Immune to magic except for magic which specifically affects stone (which always has a maximized effect against the golem, and never allows a save).

Grab - On a hit, target must make a Strength check (-4 penalty) or be grabbed.  If they are still grabbed on the clay golem's subsequent turn, roll a d4. 

1 - The golem squeezes, automatically dealing 2d6 damage to you, and possibly crushing your skull.  If you die or fall unconscious, it drops you.
2 - The golem throws you at someone else.  On a hit, you both take 2d6 damage.  On a miss, only you.
3 - The golem crushes your weapon and breaks your wrist (gain the injury).  If you are not holding a weapon, roll 1d2 instead.
4 - The golem crushes your armor.  You take 1d6 damage, and your armor value is reduced by 1d4 points.  If you do not have any armor worth crushing, roll 1d2 instead.

Inner Fire - Visible fire burns behind the golem's eyes and mouth.  Throwing a bucket of water on it deals 1d6 damage, and submersion deals 3d6 damage each round.

Glyph - The golem's glyph is usually hidden.  If the glyph is destroyed, the golem instantly dies.  If the text is altered, the golem's directives can be overwritten or corrupted.  Attacking the glyph (once its location is known) is as difficult as attacking plate.  Golems are smart enough to know when their glyph is being targeted, and will take steps to protect their weak spot.

The location of the glyph can be observed in combat--a character in melee range can take an action to look.  They'll observe two locations with a successful Wis check, but only one location with a failed one.

Alternatively, you could just watch the golem as it walks around.

It is simple to recover the secret name from a dead golem.  You can even make your own golem--all you need is a decent sculptor and a full command of the heavenly tongue.

Locations of the Glyph
  1. Left Palm - visible when the golem attempts a grab.
  2. Right Palm - visible when the golem attempts a grab.
  3. Sole of the Left Foot - visible when the golem ascends a ladder, or walks through mud.
  4. Sole of the Right Foot - visible when the golem ascends a ladder, or walks through mud.
  5. Inside of the Left Thigh - visible when the golem jogs past you on the left.
  6. Inside of the Right Thigh - visible when the golem jogs past you on the right.
  7. Left Armpit - visible when the golem raises its left arm (e.g. throwing).
  8. Right Armpit - visible when the golem raises its right arm (e.g. throwing).
  9. Behind the Left Ear - visible when you are behind the golem.
  10. Behind the Right Ear - visible when you are behind the golem.
  11. Inside of the Mouth - visible when the golem takes water damage.
  12. Navel - visible whenever anyone cuts off the golem's belt.
Discussion

As a straight-up fight, a golem should be a bigger challenge than a giant.

However, a golem has a plethora of weaknesses that can be exploited.  The inner fire should prompt most parties to ask, "what happens if we extinguish the fire?"

This is nice, because then the expectation matches the reality.  You don't have to teach the players anything before they can start scheming.

The glyph also gives a smart party of level 0s a way to defeat a much tougher enemy.

The different follow-ups for a grabbed enemy keep the golem feeling diverse, without loading it down with a bunch of abilities.

And lastly, I envision the golem as the type of enemy that players will come across early in their careers.  It's the boss of level 1 or 2, and as such, it's important that the players have an easy time escaping, hence the slow Movement speed.

Golems are puzzle-monsters, and like all good puzzles, they can be brute forced (if you brought enough sledgehammers).

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Secret Names of God, and the Wizard Trap

Lashiec and the Stylite

In the mornings, Lashiec would milk his goats, check his duck traps, and then eat breakfast with his mother.  If there was any food left over, he would bring it to the stylite, who lived on top of a column.

In exchange for onions and sour cheeses, the wise man taught Lashiec everything he knew.  

In the beginning, these were mundane things: the organization of the spheres, the seven souls of man, the color of Zulin's teapot.  It took a great deal of time for the wise man to tell Lashiec everything he knew, for he had learned a lot by communing with the upper air, but it eventually came to pass.

In the end, the elder even told the boy the secrets of heaven.  On the seventh day, the stylite told his last secret.  Lashiec was astounded, and stared at the horizon.  "I understand my place in the world," he said.

But the old man was looking around in confusion and horror.  At his hands, at the ground below, at nothing.  "What is this horrible place?" the old man asked.  There was nothing left of him, for his spirit had departed.

-From the Seventh Sermon of Lashiec, Son of Heaven

In Lashiec's seventh sermon, he is explaining the nature of non-commutative knowledge, which is knowledge that cannot be shared.

We could say that the act of telling causes forgetting, but this is an oversimplification.

Non-commutative knowledge breaks from regular semiotics, because the signifier is the same thing as the signified, and yet neither has any meaning in the regular sense of the word.

In Centerra, these are called the Secret Names of God.

The Secret Names of God

They are believed to be the true names of the Authority, or perhaps just fragments of it.  Each is too powerful to be splintered among many minds.  They are described as an iron orb, sinking through the oily sea that is the world. 

If I tell you one of the Secret Names, it will leave my mind. 

If I write down one of the Secret Names, it will leave my mind.

If I read one of the Secret Names, I will gain it, and the ink on the paper will become meaningless.  (There are scholars who study these empty cocoons.  Each one is different, and bears little resemblance to each other, or any known language.)

If I die while I hold one of the Secret Names, it will remain in my brain, and later, my skull.  Different methods are required to retrieve the Name from these locations.  (Grand hookah, skull player.)

I've printed six of the Secret Names below.  They belong in your dungeon, like any treasure.  A character who holds a Secret Name gains the listed power for as long as they hold it.

A secret name can also be used to create a golem.

Secret Name: Shaimok

When you fire a bow, range penalties are turned into bonuses.  This doesn't affect your maximum range.

Secret Name: Phacops

At any moment, you can choose to die.  Your body rots into dust immediately.  The next morning, you will be reborn from the dirt beneath the location where you last awakened from sleep.  The word remains in your old skull, and must be retrieved.

Secret Name: Deiphon

You can walk on water.  The bottoms of your feet still get wet.

Secret Name: Destra

You can learn what spells someone has prepared by looking in their eye.

Secret Name: Zhuul

A character who holds this secret name can turn invisible whenever they close their eyes and hold their breath.

Secret Name: Amkala

If you sit in someone's warm spot, people will believe you to be that person.  Lasts until you stand up.

The Wizard Trap

So here's the problem:

We look at our fantasy world and classify the contents into the non-magical and the fantastic.  Fine.

The problem is that we use the real world as a the yardstick for measuring what is magical, and what is not.  This limits our creativity, and it limits how our players interact with the world.

Wolves exist in the real world.  Therefore they are not magical, right?

Gelatinous Cubes do not exist in the real world.  Therefore, they must be magic.  (Or at least, be capable of things that real world monsters are not, such as super-acid.)

If you pick away at this dichotomy a little bit, the flaw becomes apparent.

Why shouldn't there be something fantastic about the common wolf?

Why shouldn't our imaginary monsters be more mundane? (e.g. The psuedodragon would be a stronger concept without the tail sting.)

When the line between magical and non-magical creatures is blurred, it strengthens the setting, and by extension, the game.  (Scrap learned this long ago.)

This same flaw extends to how we see wizards.  It's a mistake I've made in the past: allowing only wizards to identify scrolls.  It extends far beyond that, though.

Many people will look at a force field and say, "this doesn't exist in the real world, therefore it must be magic, therefore it must be something that only the wizard can interact with." 

And this is a shame, not only because it shuts fighters off from a huge portion of the game, but also because it limits us in how we interact with magic.

The Secret Names of God escape the wizard trap because they can be used by anyone.

Bad:

  • Only the wizard can get us past this force field.
  • Only a wizard can read this scroll.
  • Only a cleric can raise the dead.
Good:
  • We can break the force field if we hit it really, really hard.
  • We can shatter the force field if we play a really high music note.
  • We can set the force field on fire.
  • Anyone can read a scroll as long as they're really drunk.
  • Anyone can read a scroll with the right training.
  • If the scroll is inside your body, you can cast the spell.
  • Anyone can raise the dead by sacrificing 77 people to the 7th Satan (provided that they aren't in Heaven).
  • Anyone who is level 10 can become a lich as long as they are willing to sacrifice everything they love.  There are fighter-liches and thief-liches.
Challenge your goddamn assumptions.


You may rightly note that some of these things require the players to know stuff.  Many people will assume that a magic scroll needs to be deciphered by a mage, but the flammability of a force field is more ambiguous--which just means that you'll have to work harder convey it.

Maybe the force field has a bit of squish when you touch it.  Maybe it has a crack in it already.  Maybe the force field vibrates and makes a single note.  Maybe it is common knowledge in your setting that force fields are flammable (based on a popular myth).  All of these ideas work.

And let me state, for the record, that these are not chores that my players perform in order to get back to the game.  These sorts of things are the game.  Figuring out how to set a force field on fire is rad.  Having the wizard make an Arcana check to identify (or paying a sage to cast identify) a scroll is lame.  If identifying a scroll isn't fun, why even have it in your game?  If a forcefield isn't interesting, why is it blocking the hallway?