Random Thought Encounter: Giants and Rock Catching

January 10, 2022

One of the stranger monster abilities you’ll see throughout various editions of Dungeons & Dragons is the ability for giants to catch rocks.

Now, giants being able to throw rocks makes perfect sense. Giants are big, rocks are plentiful, and it saves them from having to spend resources on ranged weapons, which are typically disposable and would require more materials to be spent scaling them to giant-size. If there’s only so much steel to go around, do you want to waste it on huge-sized arrowheads or on a sturdy suit of armor?

But catching rocks as a special ability for giants makes a lot less sense to me. At least from a game design standpoint. This simply isn’t something I see coming up at most game tables. PCs tend to be human-sized characters who, when making ranged attacks, resort either to more sophisticated weapons (typically projectiles of some sort, e.g. crossbows) or spells. The only ones likely to be throwing rocks at giants are other giants.

Now, that could still come up in the course of play. A PC magic-user might polymorph into a giant, or the fighter might drink a potion of giant control, or the bard might convince a clan of friendly giants to help them attack a rival clan who’s been attacking human lands. But overall, that’s not much of a case for introducing a specialized ability into giant stat blocks.

For that matter, this particular quirk isn’t universal to giants in D&D. The original Chainmail game (1971) has giants being able to attack as with rocks per catapults, but there’s nothing in there about them catching them. Nor is there in Original Dungeons & Dragons (1974). Holmes Basic (1977), B/X (1981); giants in the Rules Cyclopedia (1991), which collects the first four sets of the BECMI iteration of D&D, lack this ability as well, as do giants in D&D 4th Edition.

Rock catching, as it turns out, only appears in AD&D 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, D&D 3.X, and 5E…and even 5E only keeps it for stone giants, whereas the earlier versions of the game assign it to most giants in some form or another. (Giants in Pathfinder 1st Edition, I’ll note, also carries this over from 3.X, and Pathfinder 2nd Edition has them retain it.)

So where does this ability come from in the first place? While it apparently started in AD&D 1E, what inspired Gary Gygax to write this particular ability into the monster entries for the giants in the 1977 Monster Manual? After some Googling, the best hypothesis I can find is that he wanted to mechanically represent what happens in this passage:

“Bilbo … saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang … they could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.”

The Hobbit, Chapter IV: Over Hill and Under Hill

Of course, it’s worth noting that AD&D 1st Edition also introduced a few instances where the players might very well be hurling rocks. For instance, the potion of giant strength on page 126 of the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) directly references doing so, as does the girdle of giant strength (p. 145). Not to mention the possibility that the PCs might, under certain circumstances, make use of catapults themselves (e.g. defending a settlement against a besieging army of humanoids, among whom giants might be found).

Interestingly, the mechanics behind rock catching also changed across the editions. While 1E and 2E gave giants percentage chances (which varied among giant types) of successfully catching rocks thrown at them, 3.X let them make a Reflex save once per round to do so, with the DC varying depending on the size of the rock. Given that Reflex is a bad save for creatures of the Giant type, and most giants had terrible Dexterity scores, this meant that even on the few occasions that giants in 3.X were called on t catch a rock, they likely wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

5th Edition, it should be noted, was a bit more generous in this regard. Although only stone giants can catch rocks now, as noted previously, they need only make a DC 10 Dexterity save to do so (and be able to use their reaction for the round). Since they have a +5 bonus to Dexterity saves to begin with, that makes them very likely to successfully catch any rock that comes their way, albeit not quite as certain as back in 1E and 2E (where stone giants had a 90% chance of catching a rock).

While I doubt that many players have anecdotes about this particular ability, I can’t help but wonder how this might have come up during play. If you have a tale about giants catching rocks in your game, please feel free to share it in the comments below!

Changes, Tweaks, and Other House Rules

November 13, 2021

One of the primary features of tabletop RPG games is that they’re inherently “hackable.” While house rules predate RPGs by a very long time – just look at various twists people have come up with for Monopoly, or even simple poker for that matter – the expansive (and quite often rules-heavy) nature of role-playing games means that there’s a greater variety of areas where players can alter things to better suit their tastes. While I’m sure there are some tables out there which keep everything by-the-book standard, my guess is that they’re in the minority by far.

To that end, here are five house rules (albeit comparatively modest ones) that my current group has introduced for our Pathfinder 1E campaign.

#1: Multiplying damage on a critical hit

We’d instituted this house rule before we even knew it was a house rule. You see, if you look at the various weapon tables, you’ll see that under the “Critical” column, they all have a multiplier listed; either x2, x3, or rarely, x4. So we took those literally, deciding that upon a successful critical hit, you totaled your damage (minus sources that used their own dice, such as sneak attack) and multiplied them by the listed amount. So if you dealt 12 damage with your greataxe on a critical, you inflicted 36 points of damage on an enemy. Seems obvious, right?

Except, as it turns out, that’s not how it works.

If you read the actual text regarding critical hits, it says “A critical hit means that you roll your damage more than once, with all your usual bonuses, and add the rolls together.” While it describes that as being a “multiplier” in the very next sentence, this is clearly a form of shorthand, much like the x2, x3 and x4 notations in the weapon tables’ Critical columns. So confirming a critical with a greataxe means rolling that d12 three times, adding your damage bonuses to each roll, and then totaling them up.

Given how this adds extra rolls to the process, slowing things down (e.g. the person playing the greataxe-wielding character probably doesn’t have 3d12 on hand in case of a critical), we weren’t too keen on it. There was also the fact that the official method made criticals less exciting. Once a critical hit is confirmed, the possibility of rolling the maximum value on the die is one that makes us all hold our breaths; that possibility is distinctly minimized when multiple dice are rolled, and the decrease in tension is one we were all very keenly aware of. For those reasons, we decided to keep doing it the way we had been, and we’ve yet to look back.

#2: Draw anything when moving (even just 5 feet)

The clause about drawing a weapon as a free action while moving (albeit only if you have at least a +1 Base Attack Bonus, which all martial characters had as of 1st level, and everyone else did after that) is one that we all found fairly easy to keep in mind from the get-go.

What we tended to overlook, however, was that this only worked with regard to a “regular move.” While not rigorously clarified, that phrase probably means “taking a move action to actually move” across the battlemat, as opposed to charging, running, or taking a 5-foot step. But my group overlooked this fairly early on, and so it quickly became a regular feature where we’d draw weapons while doing any of those things.

But while that was an unintentional reinterpretation of the rule on our part, we were far more deliberate about expanding what could be drawn beyond weapons. Simply put, the fact that you could draw a weapon – any kind of weapon, from a dagger sized for a halfling to a greataxe larger than your half-orc barbarian – as a free action while moving, but not any other kind of item, damaged our sense of verisimilitude. Was a wand really that much harder to draw than a shortsword? Is a potion more difficult to manipulate than a whip?

Ultimately, we couldn’t countenance such an artificial distinction, particularly when it was so punishing with regard to the game’s action economy. So now, moving any distance for any reason (unless the movement is involuntary, such as if you’re being bull rushed), allows you to draw an item kept on your person.

#3: No more Heighten Spell feat

Heighten Spell is a feat that we’ve done away with completely in our game. The reason for doing so isn’t because we don’t care for what it does, but because what it does shouldn’t be locked behind a feat to begin with. If you’re casting a spell via a slot that’s higher than the spell’s actual level, you’re already taking a drawback (since there are presumably spells appropriate to the slot being expended that would be more powerful/useful). So allowing for the spell’s DC to be adjusted according to the new slot, without requiring a feat to make that happen, seems like the least that can be done.

There are several other reasons for this change, most of which are comparatively minor in scope, but collectively make for a compelling point. For instance, Heighten Spell is a metamagic feat, which means that whenever a spontaneous spellcaster uses it to cast a spell with a casting time of 1 standard action now has to take a full-round action, punishing them further. It’s not like they can avoid this with a magic item either, since there is no metamagic rod of Heighten Spell. And of course, having the spell function as per the slot used to cast it without requiring Heighten Spell makes it a little easier to get through a globe of invulnerability, keeping spellcasters a little more relevant when that spell comes into play.

#4: Activating (most) magic weapon properties is a free action

If you take a look at the “Activation” entry in the overview for magic weapons, you’ll see that those weapons with properties that need to be deliberately initiated (as opposed to providing a passive bonus of some sort) require a standard action on their wielder’s part to do so.

This is far, far too high of a cost under the game’s action economy.

Since you only get one standard action in a combat round, and making a single attack is itself a standard action, this means you’re essentially losing an attack in order to activate your weapon’s flaming property. And if your weapon has the shock property in addition to being flaming, you’re now using TWO standard actions – essentially, giving up two combat rounds – in order to get the benefit of both properties. And if you’re dual-wielding a pair of flaming shock weapons, well…you might as well not even bother entering combat.

The above is why we’ve house ruled all such weapons to need only a free action to activate or deactivate. Doing so stops punishing characters for choosing particular properties (and also eliminates instances of people leaving their weapon properties active in perpetuity, claiming that just because they’re magic they won’t set anything on fire when put in a sheathe or laid down across a bedroll; I really hate that entire idea).

That said, this rule isn’t completely universal. If a weapon property grants the weapon the ability to act on its own (such as dancing weapons), then activating it still requires a standard action, since otherwise it’s essentially granting the wielder an extra action when invoked, as opposed to not wasting the single action they would otherwise have put to better use.

#5: Certain magical properties don’t cost extra when added to existing magic items

This one’s a little arcane (pun intended), so bear with me.

If you recall the 3.5 Magic Item Compendium, you might remember that there was a small-but-significant adjustment to the rules for creating magic items at the end of the book’s sixth chapter. While written in a fairly discursive manner, it dealt with the little-known rule for adding new abilities to extant magic items, quietly eliminating the x1.5 multiplier for certain “common effects.”

Most (but not all) of these effects were related to the “Big Six” of magic items; specifically, there was no longer a cost multiplier associated with adding armor, deflection, or natural armor bonuses to AC, resistance bonuses to saving throws, enhancement bonuses to ability scores, or energy resistance onto an existing magic item. This freed up a few thousand gp here and there for PCs to be able to afford magic items that were less mechanically helpful but were far more evocative in what they did. (From a narrative standpoint, I like to think that these effects simply “take” to being built into items easier than others, and that explains why they don’t cost as much to add into existing magic items.)

Unfortunately, coming so late in the life-cycle of 3.5, this rule never got added to the SRD, and so was never incorporated into Pathfinder 1E. But since it’s so easy to institute, we had no trouble implementing it anyway, and found that it helped to diversify our magic items in a way that the MiC’s designers no doubt hoped.

What house rules have you added to your tabletop RPG campaigns? Sound off in the comments below!

Variations on a Theme

October 6, 2021

One of the more notable aspects of the d20 System (i.e. D&D 3.X and Pathfinder 1E) is how much magic item creation is not only formularized, but put into the hands of the PCs.

Earlier editions still allowed PCs to make magic items, of course, but the process was not only much more arduous in terms of what was required, but the actual ingredients involved were left up to the GM to determine. So if you wanted to create a wand of fire, the GM would come up with whatever list of fire-themed materials they felt was appropriate, at which point it was then up to the PCs to track down, purchase, steal, or otherwise acquire the necessary components, at which point the spellcaster(s) would need to undergo the lengthy process of constructing the item they wanted. And even then, there was no guarantee that it would turn out precisely the way they’d envisioned.

In the d20 System, once you take the relevant item creation feats, it’s simply a matter of expending the necessary time and money (and XP in D&D 3.X), along with an (easily-passed) skill check or two. In fact, in Pathfinder you don’t even need the prerequisite spells to make (most) magic items, simply raising the skill DC for each one missing instead! Doing so allows characters to not only tailor their gear to an unprecedented degree, but also allows for potentially unlimited variations on a theme.

To that end, here are a few variant magic items that take advantage of this flexibility to fill a few gaps among the magic items found in the Core Rules.

BRACERS OF MARKSMANSHIP, GREATER

Aura moderate transmutation; CL 8th

Slot wrists; Price 25,000 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION

These wristbands function as greater bracers of archery, but with crossbows (including wrist launchers, but not ballista or other siege weapons) instead of bows.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Craft Magic Arms and Armor, crafter must be proficient with a crossbow; Cost 12,500 gp

BRACERS OF MARKSMANSHIP, LESSER

Aura faint transmutation; CL 4th

Slot wrists; Price 5,000 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION

These wristbands function as lesser bracers of archery, but with crossbows (including wrist launchers, but not ballista or other siege weapons) instead of bows.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Craft Magic Arms and Armor, crafter must be proficient with a crossbow; Cost 2,500 gp

BRACERS OF SHARPSHOOTING, GREATER

Aura moderate transmutation; CL 8th

Slot wrists; Price 25,000 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION

These wristbands function as greater bracers of archery, but with firearms (not including cannons or other siege weapons) instead of bows.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Craft Magic Arms and Armor, crafter must be proficient with firearms; Cost 12,500 gp

BRACERS OF SHARPSHOOTING, LESSER

Aura faint transmutation; CL 4th

Slot wrists; Price 5,000 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION

These wristbands function as lesser bracers of archery, but with firearms (not including cannons or other siege weapons) instead of bows.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Craft Magic Arms and Armor, crafter must be proficient with firearms; Cost 2,500 gp

Given that bows are already the optimal ranged weapons in most games, there’s no reason why a magic item that makes them even more potent can’t be reskinned in service to less-common choices of distance-fighting weaponry.

ELIXIR OF CLIMBING

Aura faint transmutation; CL 5th

Slot none; Price 250 gp; Weight ––

DESCRIPTION

Imbibing this liquid grants the drinker an uncanny knack for scaling difficult surfaces (+10 competence bonus on Climb checks for 1 hour).

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, spider climb; Cost 125 gp

Given that there are elixirs that provide an hour-long +10 competence bonus for all of the other physical skills, such as Acrobatics, Perception, Stealth, and Swim, this one rounds out the gap in coverage.

GLOVES OF NIMBLENESS

Aura faint transmutation; CL 5th

Slot hands; Price 4,500 gp; Weight ––

DESCRIPTION

These leather gloves grant the wearer a +3 competence bonus on Dexterity-based checks. Both gloves must be worn for the magic to be effective.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, cat’s grace; Cost 2,250 gp

This is essentially a circlet of persuasion, except keyed to a different ability score and set in a different body slot. The choice of Dexterity for this item was because of the number of skills that ability affects, which (under the Pathfinder rules) is seven: Acrobatics, Disable Device, Escape Artist, Fly, Ride, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth. Charisma affects the same number – Bluff, Diplomacy, Disguise, Handle Animal, Intimidate, Perform, and Use Magic Device – so long as you count Perform as only being one skill.

HELPFUL HAVERSACK

Aura moderate conjuration; CL 9th

Slot none; Price 6,000 gp; Weight 20 lbs.

DESCRIPTION

This backpack functions as per a handy haversack, save that its side pouches each have the storage capacity of a minor bag of holding and the central portion can hold as much as a type I bag of holding. Regardless of how much is stored in it, the backpack only ever weighs 20 pounds.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, secret chest; Cost 3,000 gp

The benefit of a handy haversack isn’t that you can retrieve items faster than you could from a bag of holding (which is more spacious in what it can contain), but that it allows you to do so without drawing an attack of opportunity. Given how that’s far more important to most players than staying under their encumbrance limit (when they pay attention to that limit at all), it’s something of a surprise that improved haversacks like the one above aren’t more common.

INCENSE OF REFLECTION

Aura faint enchantment; CL 5th

Slot none; Price 3,200 gp; Weight 1 lb.

DESCRIPTION

This small rectangular block of sweet-smelling incense is visually indistinguishable from nonmagical incense until lit. When it is burned, the special fragrance and pearly hued smoke of this special incense are recognizable by anyone making a DC 15 Spellcraft check.

When a divine spellcaster lights a block of incense of reflection and then spends 8 hours praying and meditating nearby, the incense enables him to either prepare all his spells (if a preparatory spellcaster), or use each of his spell slots (if a spontaneous spellcaster), as though affected by the Empower Spell feat. However, all the spells prepared in this way are at their normal level, not at two levels higher (as with the regular metamagic feat).

Divine spellcasters who are able to use other types of spellcasting do not gain any benefit for their non-divine spells from incense of reflection.

Each block of incense burns for 8 hours, and the effects persist for 24 hours.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, Empower Spell, bless; Cost 1,600 gp.

A scaled-back version of incense of meditation, this item has some additional text added to cover gaps and ambiguities that the original item doesn’t address, such as spontaneous divine casters and multiclass characters.

IRONGLAZE

Aura faint transmutation; CL 5th

Slot none; Price 250 gp; Weight ––

DESCRIPTION

This gummy substance is a deep red in color, and can be applied to a weapon as a standard action. It gives the weapon the properties of cold iron for 1 hour, replacing the properties of any other special material it might have. One vial coats a single melee weapon or 20 units of ammunition.

CONSTRUCTION

Requirements Craft Wondrous Item; Cost 125 gp

While various types of weapon blanch have become the go-to for most groups that need a quick way to overcome material-based damage reduction, silversheen remains viable, despite being more expensive, thanks to its longer duration. As such, there’s no real reason why there couldn’t be a cold iron version as well (whereas an adamantine version could potentially bring up issues of bypassing the hardness of other objects).

These are just a few potential variants; even overlooking the possibility of completely original items (or simply combining the properties of various items), there are many more possibilities. A horn of law/chaos really isn’t that different from a horn of goodness/evil. Neither is a cube of heat resistance much of a change from a cube of frost resistance. Or scale up your boots of teleportation to boots of greater teleportation.

When it comes to magic, there’s no reason to stick to the standard stuff.

D&D Did You Know’s: The Witch Spell List (D&D 3E)

May 29, 2021

As a character class, the witch has had a hard time getting off the metaphorical ground in Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, it’s notable that the most famous instances of a witch class come from various third parties, such as Mayfair Games and Paizo Publishing.

But, in a bit of sleight of hand that a lot of people overlooked (helped by it never getting included in the SRD), D&D slipped a witch class into its Third Edition, right there on pages 26-27 of the 3.0 Dungeon Master’s Guide and page 175 of the 3.5 DMG (the latter of which is depicted below).

Okay, so that’s just a spell list rather than a full class presentation. Indeed, this is the example that’s presented as what a customized spell list could look like; the section on developing entirely new classes (though it largely discusses this in terms of variations of an existing class) is actually the one right after that. Still, the text accompanying the witch spell list says that a witch “[…] casts spells as a sorcerer, using the sorcerer’s Spells per Day table […] and her spells are based on Charisma.” From there, it’s not hard to make the leap that in 3.5, a witch character uses the sorcerer class in all ways, save for using the above spell list instead of the standard sorcerer/wizard one in the Player’s Handbook.

It might have been a bit of a bait-and-switch, but the witch found her niche.

The 3.0 Witch Spell List

One thing that’s interesting to consider is how the witch spell list in 3.0 differed from its 3.5 counterpart. For the most part they’re identical (or at least, they are after you apply the errata). However, there are a few differences between them, which you can reintroduce if you want a witch character to feel slightly more different from her spellcasting counterparts.

Make speak with animals a 2nd-level spell.

Make baleful polymorph a 4th-level spell.

Add animal growth to the witch’s 5th-level spells.

Make greater scrying a 5th-level spell.

Finally, consider deleting the spells crushing despair (4th), good hope (4th), and rage (3rd), instead replacing them with emotion as a 4th-level spell. Emotion was removed from the 3.5 version of the game (with several of its effects becoming their own spells), but bringing it back just for the witch can be a good way to make the class a little more unique.

For pricing the witch spell list as a magic progression in Eclipse: The Codex Persona (page 11), I’d recommend making it equal in cost to the bard, cleric (no package), and druid progressions.

Third-Party Support: Multi-Dimensional Strike

May 14, 2021

It’s a sad truth that, even in the realm of digital publishing, things can go out of “print” and be lost to the public. While we tend to think of electronic products as being enduring, it’s all too easy for them to vanish, with no hope of them turning up on secondary markets the way used books do. This is the case for plenty of smaller RPG publishers; while many leave their catalogue up on DriveThruRPG and other storefronts, there are some who quietly take their products down and disappear from the face of the Internet.

One of those companies was Silven Publishing. Formally formed in 2004, they published a handful of supplements, but stopped putting out new products right around the time D&D 4th Edition came out. Exactly when they folded is unclear, but eventually their products were picked up by another publisher called 12 to Midnight. While they still have an active storefront, and an extant webpage, most of their products no longer available, including almost all of the Silven Publishing offerings.

I bring all this up because, even years after reading it, I recall a distinct product that Silven Publishing put out called NPCyclopedia: Psionics.

As the title suggests, this was an NPC book, one containing eleven different characters, each with a full stat block for them at each level from 1 to 20. A GM’s resource, it allowed you to pull out a particular type of character at whatever level you required. Nor was it limited to psions, psychic warriors, or other psionic classes. It had monk characters who multiclassed into the psychic first prestige class. Wizard/psion cerebremancers, and several other interesting combinations. They were quite useful if you wanted something a little unusual without being too outre.

Of course, there was some new crunch in there too. Not much, bit still a few items that weren’t found anywhere else. A psionic feat that let you pay extra power points to keep your psionic focus when enhancing a power with a metapsionic feat, for instance. Or a ring that allowed you to treat your manifester level as being +2 greater, but only for the purpose of calculating how many power points you could spend when manifesting a psionic power. But the one that stuck with me most was the book’s sole new power: multi-dimensional strike.

Fortunately, the declaration of Open Game Content for the book was quite generous, and it includes the entirety of the power. As it stands, the below corrects a typo or two, and fixes some minor formatting issues (e.g. a line break between the last line of statistics and the first line of the description), but is otherwise the full text of the power:

Multi-Dimensional Strike
Psychoportation (Teleportation)
Level: Nomad 5, psychic warrior 5
Manifestation Time: See text
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Target: You
Duration: Instantaneous
Power Points: 9

You instantly teleport yourself to several places in succession each time stopping just long enough to strike an enemy. You must be able to see all the location you want to reach, and will always arrive at the desired local. You cannot manifest multi-dimensional strike through a solid object; even a curtain will stop you. If you attempt to manifest this power in a way such that it would take you through a solid object without realizing it, the power fails, but your power points are expended as normal. You cannot bring along more than a medium load carrying capacity, nor can you bring more than 20 pounds of living matter.

Manifesting this power can only be used in conjunction with a full-round attack. You make up to one jump before, between each, and after every attack you make (including attacks granted by multiple weapons, magic effects and the like). While using this power you may effectively flank a target by yourself. You must be able to appear in two squares that would be considered to flank the foe. The first attack made in conjunction with this power is not considered to be flanking, but all successive attacks effectively flank the target, and all the benefits of flanking apply. You only run the risk of provoking an attack or opportunity in the space where you initiate this power. All jumps must be in range from your starting location. Thus a 14th-level psion could not make two jumps of 50 feet each in a straight line, because the second jump would take the psion 100 feet away, out of the powers range. While it does not function exactly as a swift action, it does count towards your limit of one swift action per round.

Personally, I think the idea of a character teleporting rapid-fire around an enemy, delivering lightning-fast attacks is a very cool image! One that’s stuck with me for quite some time, despite this product being over fifteen years old. It’s the sort of thing that makes a psionic combatant feel different from other types of “sword-and-spell” characters, and it definitely deserves to be remembered instead of quietly fading away.

Adornments and The Practical Enchanter

April 17, 2021

Unique magic items have always been part of the fantasy tradition. Thor wields his hammer Mjolnir, not a generic hammer of thunderbolts. King Arthur is the rightful king because he commands Excalibur, not because he has a +5 holy sword. This continues into modern fantasy as well, where even among ubiquitous magic items, heroes will have special versions found nowhere else. Just look at what we’re told about Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility in “Deathly Hallows” for an example of this in action.

As the above card (from the 1992 set of AD&D Trading Cards) illustrates, D&D used to do this fairly well. While the magic item lists in the Dungeon Master’s Guide described generic versions, unique twists on “standard” magic items were not uncommon. While these were sometimes mysterious artifacts of great power, more typically they had a few unusual twists that helped drive home how this particular item was unlike any other.

However, the push for normalizing magic item powers via gp costs is not without merit either. Regardless of the issues surrounding “Wealth by Level” in game-play, having a comparative scale with which magic item powers can be measured is useful. We shouldn’t need to ignore that in order to add distinctiveness to magic items.

The Practical Enchanter introduced the idea of “flourishes,” where any permanent magic item worth 10,000 gp or more had small abilities too minor to grant any sort of game bonuses, such as self-cleaning or having soft-glowing symbols. These come at no extra cost, since the abilities in question possess no actual powers in terms of mechanics. But what it we expand on this a bit? Consider a package of minor abilities, allowing for some random elements that are collectively minor enough that we can cover them all with a small surcharge.

We’ll call these “adornments.”

Adornments: Adornments are suites of abilities that may be added to any permanent magic item. An adornment costs 2,000 gp, and can only be added to items worth at least 10,000 gp. If the crafting process involved materials of unusually high quality, an extremely high check result when creating the item, or some other improvement over the normal enchantment process, then this cost may be waived, and the item receives the adornment for free (though its market price is still treated as being 2,000 gp higher).

A magic item with an adornment receives the following improvements, which are always tied to the theme of the item. An item may only have one adornment, with its abilities functioning at the item’s caster level. The specifics of each adornment are always chosen by the Game Master.

  • One 1st-level spell that can be used at will, but always has a limitation beyond that of the normal version of the spell.
  • A +3 circumstance bonus to 2d3 different skills. A particular skill may have a bonus as low as +2 or as high as +4, but the average should still come out to +3 per skill. These bonuses will only apply to certain uses of these skills, rather than all checks involving them.
  • 1d3 0-level spells, usable at will.
  • Has the functionality of 1d4+1 pieces of mundane equipment, typically with small upgrades (such as being usable slightly faster, increasing a bonus to an ability check by +1 over what the base item would offer, etc.). These will never be as per weapons or armor, though the base item may have those functions normally.

Here’s an example of an item with an adornment:

Staff of Sol Invictus: This staff is a (Pathfinder-style) staff of fire with an adjusted market price of 20,950 gp. Its adornment grants the following abilities:

  • The bearer of the staff is continually protected by endure elements, but only aboveground and during the daytime. Water deeper than 200 meters counts as being underground for the purposes of this ability, as does being in outer space or in a realm that does not naturally receive sunlight (such as the Astral Plane, the Elemental Plane of Air, etc.).
  • The bearer receives a +3 circumstance bonus on the following skill checks: Diplomacy checks against creatures with the fire subtype, Intimidate checks against creatures with the cold subtype, and Spellcraft checks to identify spells with the fire descriptor.
  • The bearer may use dancing lights, light, and flare at will.
  • The staff can start fires as per a flint and steel from a distance of 5 feet, and may generate heat (but not light) as a candle, inflicting 1 point of fire damage by touch. Both of these require a standard action that provokes an attack of opportunity.

Normally, the cost of the individual benefits that make up an adornment add up to more than 2,000 gp. A 1st-level spell that’s usable at will (presuming the caster level is 1st) would cost 2,000 gp, with an ad hoc multiplier of x0.6 for the restriction, totalling 1,200 gp. Likewise, a +3 circumstance bonus to a related group of skills, also with restrictions, would cost the same. An at-will 0-level spell (with an average of two on a 1d3) would cost 1,000 gp each. Finally, equipment functionality costs the same as the equipment in question, with a small surcharge for the upgraded usability (call it +50 gp per item).

Overall, that comes out to roughly 4,500 gp worth of abilities on average. So why are we cutting it in half (and rounding down slightly)? Because of the notation that the GM always determines what powers an adornment consists of. This minimizes the impact that adornments have on treasure budgets for magic items that the PCs locate, ensuring that the “rule of cool” that these powers represent doesn’t come at the expense of utility, while still making sure there’s a measurable impact to what they’ve received.

Of course, an item with an adornment should have its own name, and possibly a backstory to it as well. Fortunately, those can be added for free.

Third-Party Support: Binary Poison Compounds

April 11, 2021

“Third-Party Support” is a series where I take a look at a particular idea, rule, or other notable tidbit from a third-party d20 product (i.e. not from Wizards of the Coast or Paizo) that I think deserves more recognition. While I won’t rule out looking beyond d20-based RPGs, expect those to receive the bulk of the focus.

Knowledge (Current Events) #2

Knowledge (Current Events) was a series of free PDFs released by Ivory Goat Press. Each issue was only a few pages long, referencing topics from recent headlines that it offered d20 conversions for. The topics were eclectic, but delightfully so, as they covered things from unusual diseases to private space shuttles to man-eating leopards, showcasing how they could be used as inspiration for an interesting bit of mechanical crunch. It’s a shame that it seems to have disappeared from the Internet.

One item that I found particularly noteworthy came in issue #2, where it covered the use of a binary compound as part of a terror attack, using it as a basis for the following rules for “Binary Agents”:

The concept of binary weapons began to take shape in the 1980s. Binary weapons refer to the concept of developing nontoxic precursors that can be loaded in munitions. Once deployed, the precursors mix and develop the nerve agent.

As a concept, it is useful even in fantasy settings — the chief benefit being that the binary agents are not themselves toxic, and thus are not detected by spells and effects such as detect poison and neutralize poison. You can also poison someone with a half now, half later strategy.

For any poison listed in the SRD or MSRD, an equivalent poison can be produced in the form of a pair of binary agents. This increases the Craft (poisonmaking or chemical) DC by +5. The poison costs twice as much as usual to purchase or produce.

The usual 5% chance that a character has of exposting himself to the poison whenever he applies it to a weapon is reduced to 1%, as the precursors are safer to handle. However, he still risks poisoning himself on a natural 1 on an attack roll.

This strikes me as being one of those “how did no one else think of it?” ideas. Poisons are an under-powered threat in most d20 games – largely due to them being downgraded so that they tend to work as a mild debuff more than something which can put characters in serious peril – so anything that gives them a boost (ideally without requiring characters to take feats, levels in a prestige class, etc.) is a much-needed boost. Moreover, this particular augmentation is fairly intuitive: most gamers, I’d wager, know what binary poisons are.

The one critique I have with the above, from a rules standpoint, is that it doesn’t mention how long a single compound stays in the body. If you manage to get one of the two poison agents into someone, how much time do you have to slip them the other half before it’s no longer viable? There are probably various factors that go into it, but for ease of play, I’d recommend that a particular compound is broken down and metabolized out after 24 hours.

That final paragraph, about applying binary compounds to weapons, warrants further examination. As the article correctly notes, the major game use of using two-part poisons is that they’re not subject to poison-specific effects until they’re combined, typically in the body of the target. While that’s good for avoiding detection (or neutralizing agents applied ahead of time), it’s hard to see why anyone would do that in combat.

That portion of the rules seems to assume you’re using both compounds on a single weapon, hence the reduced chance of poisoning yourself during the application but the standard chance of doing so in subsequent combat. An alternative idea, if you’re fighting with two weapons (or a double weapon), is to put each agent on a different weapon. In that case, you still have the 5% chance of poisoning yourself, but it’s checked separately for each application (meaning that you’d only poison yourself if you failed both rolls, effectively a 0.25% chance). Likewise, you’d need to roll a natural 1 with each weapon while in combat in order to be at risk of poisoning yourself.

Finally, note that the above rules don’t change the delivery method of the compounds. A pair of binary agents that create a poison whose normal delivery method is ingestion must themselves be ingested to take effect; you can’t have one part be ingested and the other be delivered via an injury. (At the GM’s option, consider allowing the delivery method of one compound to be changed by increasing the Craft DC by an additional +5, cumulative with the increase for making the binary compound to begin with, and increasing the cost to triple what the poison normally goes for. Only one agent can be changed in this manner.)

Hopefully this will make poison a little more useful in your campaign.

D&D Did You Know’s: The God That Grants Access to All Divine Spells (AD&D 2E)

March 21, 2021

One of my favorite aspects of AD&D 2nd Edition was its introduction of specialty priests.

Specialty priests were essentially religion-specific sub-classes of clerics. While they still used the cleric XP table, and usually the same save progression, Hit Die, and THAC0 (though exceptions existed), most everything else varied depending on which god they served. Proficiencies earned, allowable weapons and armor, granted powers, and access to spells all varied for each type of specialty priest, sometimes wildly. While not always balanced, these were always flavorful, and went a long way to making each religion unique in a way that the generic cleric didn’t (though I’ll note that the religion-specific cleric kits found in FOR10 Warriors and Priests of the Realms helped make the cleric a lot less generic).

It’s the issue of spell access that’s worth further discussion here. In AD&D 2E, cleric spells were grouped into arrangements called “spheres.” Similar to wizard schools such as enchantment or necromancy (and indeed, divine spells also had those listings as well), spheres were thematic groupings of spells, such as Animal, Combat, Summoning, Weather, or quite a few others (with the Tome of Magic adding several more when it was released). Different gods granted access to different spheres, with that access denoted as being “minor” (only granting spells of levels 1-3 in that sphere) or “major” (granting access to all levels of spells in that sphere).

Naturally, this leads one to ask which gods are most generous with which spheres they offer their specialty priests; after all, while there are other salient considerations when looking at specialty priest abilities, spell access is a rather large one. And if you flip through Legends & Lore, you’ll find that the various deities there have a notable range in what spheres they grant, with one in particular being generous to an unbelievable degree.

On a brief read-through, you might think that was Ometeotl of the Aztec pantheon, whose sphere listing says “all.” However, that’s not the case. In fact, “All” is the name of a single specific sphere, one that grants a comparatively small series of spells which are considered to be universal for most divine spellcasters (“most” because it excludes rangers and paladins, who are essentially warriors with a smattering of specialized spells). Even if you look at the listing for the All sphere in the final volume of the Priest’s Spell Compendium, which collects divine spells from a wide variety of AD&D 2nd Edition resources, the number of that spells that sphere offers are few in number, meaning that specialty priests of Ometeotl actually don’t receive many spells overall.

The same cannot be said for specialty priests of Quetzalcoatl, also of the Aztec pantheon, however. That god’s entry states that his specialty priests receive access to any sphere! Unlike with All, “any” isn’t a name of a particular sphere, meaning that Quetzalcoatl’s specialty priests apparently do receive access (and major access at that, since the book’s use of an asterisk (*) to indicate minor access isn’t used there) to any sphere they want!

It’s interesting to consider why this was done. The text of Legends & Lore gives Quetzalcoatl a messianic presentation, noting that he’s preparing to return and confront the evil deity who forced him away from the land of his worshipers – so this is possibly in service to that, as it gives his specialty priests a considerable edge – though this posits something more akin to a “fantasy Earth” than the wider AD&D multiverse. Indeed, it’s notable that AD&D 2nd Edition sources that contextualize various deities as part of the Great Wheel cosmology, such as On Hallowed Ground, make no mention of the Aztec pantheon.

Still, given that the original presentation of this god mandated that his worshipers be good-aligned (the god himself is Chaotic Good), and could use any type of weapon (and a comparatively-light restriction on armor, being limited to non-metal armors only), along with use of a whispering wind-like power and modest ability to turn undead, PCs inclined to play divine spellcasters could do worse than to play a specialty priest of Quetzalcoatl!

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D&D Did You Know’s: Multiple Abjurations in Third Edition

October 21, 2020

One of the oft-noted idiosyncracies of earlier editions of D&D is how the books tended to leave relevant rules scattered throughout their text. It’s not unusual for players to mention how some salient rule on a particular topic isn’t located in the same section as other rules on the subject. Often these stories come up as part of the need for a subsequent edition, where things are consolidated, as Third Edition often is.

And yet I recently came across an interesting item in the 3.5 PHB (which also appears in its 3.0 counterpart), from Chapter 10: Magic, under the description for the abjuration school:

If one abjuration spell is active within 10 feet of another for 24 hours or more, the magical fields interfere with each other and create barely visible energy fluctuations. The DC to find such spells with the Search skill drops by 4.

Now, to give Third Edition credit where it’s due, it did restate this in the description of the Search skill itself, showing that some lessons from older editions had been learned (though oddly, it’s listed there as a bonus to the roll, rather than lowering the DC; you just know that someone somewhere tried to claim both of those applied). But although this particular rule was likewise present in the SRD, and even in Pathfinder First Edition (although it didn’t get reprinted in their description of the Perception skill), it seems to have gone near-totally overlooked.

I suspect that’s likely due to the requirements being so stringent, i.e. a certain category of spells, within a certain distance, after a certain amount of time. Of course, the fact that this fell within the “find a magic trap” aspect of the Search skill, which only rogues could use (though I seem to recall a few other non-Core classes and prestige classes getting that ability as well), no doubt helped make this even more obscure.

In fact, it’s such a specific notation that it almost seems pointless, until we recall that the Search skill openly notes several spells that could meet the criteria, such as explosive runes, fire trap, and glyph of warding. Clearly, someone at WotC was worried about rogues setting off several magical traps that had been layered on top of each other if they failed their Search check.

What’s most notable, however, is that the rules provides an in-game description of what’s happening. “The magical fields interfere with each other and create barely visible energy fluctuations.” That’s actually fairly evocative, and it’s not even for the evocation school! Imagine a high-level (13th or above) wizard that used Extend Spell on both endure elements and nondetection; once the 24-hour mark had been passed, the two spells would start to create “barely visible energy fluctuations” around the recipient of those spells. That’s a rather cool image, even if there’d be no need to use the Search skill to find them!

That’s one of the fun things about those older editions of D&D. While it can be annoying to go hunting for those half-remembered references, stumbling across them out of nowhere can make for an intriguing new twist on the game we thought we knew so well.

More Blood of the Coven: Moon Hags and Lunar Changelings

September 14, 2020

As a tweaked version of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, the first edition of the Pathfinder RPG built on its predecessor’s strengths. However, it also shored up many of its predecessor’s weaknesses. One of the ways it did this was by continuing to provide supporting material for new PC races and classes after they were introduced, ensuring that they wouldn’t miss out on new developments over the life of the game.

However, over the course of a decade it was inevitable that some things would fall through the cracks.

One instance of this was seen in Blood of the Coven, a supplement for the Pathfinder Player Companion line that was released in late 2017. The book focused heavily (though not exclusively) on changelings, the daughters of hags that had initially debuted – as both a monster and a PC race – in Pathfinder Adventure Path #43: The Haunting of Harrowstone in early 2011.

One of the expanded options presented in Blood of the Coven was that there were subraces of changelings based around what type of hag their mother was, with each having a slight twist on a few of their racial traits. Given that there were ten different types of hags across the myriad Pathfinder products, all of which were referenced there, it allowed for quite a few different options to be presented in an impressive display of comprehensiveness.

Except that it didn’t stay comprehensive, at least not completely. While Blood of the Coven made sure to reference esoteric hags from far-flung products, such as dreamthief hags from the Occult Bestiary, or ash hags from the Cheliax, The Infernal Empire sourcebook, it couldn’t reference products that hadn’t come out yet. That meant that when the moon hag debuted in Planar Adventures just over eight months later, changelings born of such creatures didn’t have the same set of options as others of their kind.

Now, to be fair, the moon hag entry does provide basic information on changelings specific to them. They just don’t get the half-page of expanded information that other kinds of changelings received in Blood of the Coven. So the oversight was an altogether minor one.

Still, it’s a shame that changelings of moon hag parentage won’t get that same expanded write-up, as Pathfinder has since moved on to a second edition. But tabletop RPGs have always had a do-it-yourself element to them, particularly where house rules and homebrewed content are concerned. So in that spirit, here’s my take on an expanded presentation of moon hag changelings, following the format in Blood of the Coven:

MOON-BORN CHANGELING (LUNAR MAY)

Willowy and pale-skinned, lunar mays are among the least outgoing of their kind. Suspicious and slow to trust, they’re unforgiving toward anything they regard as threats to themselves, often lashing out at perceived danger preemptively.

Moon-Born Changeling

Ancestry Moon hag (Planar Adventures 242)

Typical Alignment CN

Ability Modifiers +2 Wis, +2 Cha, -2 Con

Hag Racial Trait Moon-born changelings gain a +1 insight bonus to their AC but take a -2 penalty on Will saves. If a moon is visible, the bonus and penalty each increase by 1.

Cautious to the point of paranoia, anxiety is the hallmark of lunar mays. Considerations of potential hazards and worst-case scenarios come easily to them, and they’re frequently unable to ignore these persistent worries, to the point of dreaming up elaborate (and usually impractical) responses to imagined situations. Oftentimes, they’re driven to proactively neutralize that which frightens them, which can range from clandestine attempts at manipulation to outright murder.

While lunar mays are as likely as other changelings to be heterochromatic (i.e. each eye having a different color), many also suffer from subconjunctival hemorrhages, where blood fills their sclera, turning the white part of their eyes red. While harmless, this often happens during moments of peak fear, anger, or other emotional extremes, in some cases being so intense that the ocular bleeding overflows, causing them to cry tears of blood. Rarely, the hemorrhaging becomes permanent, leaving the lunar may with sclera that are perpetually reddened.

Between their persistent anxiety and the reactions that their ocular peculiarities provoke, most lunar mays grow up to be socially maladjusted. Many develop persecution complexes, and comfort themselves with fantasies about being exiled fey princesses, wayward daughters of deities, or reincarnations of ancient personages of power. For many, finding out the truth about their parentage is a source of more stress than their already-strained psyches can bear, leading to madness that serves to catalyze their transformation into moon hags.

AWAKENED HAG HERITAGE

You have a 10% chance of negating a critical hit or precision-based damage (such as a rogue’s sneak attack), taking normal damage instead. This stacks with similar abilities, such as armor with the fortification property.

Moon Hag Coven Powers

One additional bit of information that wasn’t present in the moon hag monster entry was what spells (or rather, spell-like abilities) they contributed when they joined a coven. This was something that had been present in previous entries for new hags, such as storm hags and winter hags, making its omission there slightly more egregious. As such, let’s go ahead and make an entry for them also, as per the list on page 13 of Blood of the Coven:

Moon Hag: confusionphantasmal revengeprimal regressionphobia.