D&D Did You Know’s: Using Turn Undead on Fiends (AD&D 2E)

September 4, 2016

Clerical turning – the ability for clerics to channel the power of their deity and force the undead to cower before it (or, for evil clerics, to be controlled by it) – is one of the defining powers for priestly characters in Dungeons & Dragons, druids notwithstanding. While the power manifests differently in different editions, in most it’s a built-in class feature for clerics (and classes with similar themes, such as paladins).

While clerical turning had already become standard by the time AD&D Second Edition had rolled around, the diversity found in the massive breadth of 2E products that were released over that edition’s lifespan meant that clerical turning would see some new options also…even if these were relatively few and far between.

Perhaps the best-known modification to clerical turning is the revised turning rules that came into use if you found yourself trapped within Ravenloft. In the Demiplane of Dread, clerical turning was far less efficacious…though it was arguably strange that for evil clerics, using their turning power to control the undead was similarly blunted.

Far less known is the ability to turn lycanthropes, a power commanded solely by priests of the Knorr barbarians (from Jakandor, Island of War) who take the shapeshifter kit. While this functions best against afflicted lycanthropes, it also gives the shapeshifter power over natural lycanthropes as well. (And if you’re a DM who read that and immediately thought “but I bet it doesn’t work against wolfweres” then kudos to you for your deviousness.)

But just as (if not more) obscure – and the real subject of this article – is the change that was made to clerical turning in the Guide to Hell, right at the end of AD&D Second Edition.

Released in December of 1999, when AD&D 2E had less than a year of life left, the Guide to Hell allowed classes with the the ability to turn undead to also use that ability on fiends (while the book was about devils specifically, it notes that this allows turning to be used on “devils, demons, yugoloths, and so forth”). This required no kit or other alteration to do; it was explicitly allowed to all clerics, paladins, and by extension any other class that could turn undead. It even provided its own table with which to chart the results. (And, of course, it noted that evil clerics and their ilk could also control fiends in this manner.)

Needless to say, this is a notable boost in power for clerics, since fiends tend to be one of the major categories of monsters for characters as they get into the higher levels. While this notes that fiends can’t be turned on their home plane, it’s still a not-inconsiderable buff to give priests the ability to turn them.

Except, as it turns out, that boost was there all along. Sort of.

You see, the Guide to Hell explicitly notes that the ability to turn fiends, along with the undead, is actually explicitly stated in the PHB…for paladins. In the class description, it notes:

A paladin gains the power to turn undead, devils, and demons when he reaches 3rd level. He affects these monsters the same as does a cleric two levels lower–e.g., at 3rd level he has the turning power of a 1st-level cleric. See the section on priests for more details on this ability.

And that was it. Insofar as I can tell, nowhere else in the PHB does it mention using clerical turning to affect creatures besides the undead (notwithstanding an ambiguous notation on the Turning Undead table which says that turning “special” creatures include “certain Greater and Lesser Powers” – “Powers” meaning “deities,” of all things!). It appears that the designers, along with everyone else in the wider gaming community, simply forgot that paladins were explicitly granted the ability to turn “devils and demons” as well, along with the implication that this power extended to clerics too.

So really, the Guide to Hell was simply giving clerics back an ability that had been there, forgotten, since Second Edition had debuted.

(Of course, what it doesn’t mention is the possibility of the inverse of turning fiends also holding true: namely, that evil clerics can turn celestials while good clerics can rebuke them. That would also make for an interesting dynamic, particularly if you were playing celestial PCs via Warriors of Heaven, which had just come out three months previous.)

D&D Did You Know’s: Dragonlance was the Original Ravenloft

August 28, 2016

“D&D Did You Know’s” is another open-ended series that I’ll be doing. In this case, it’s going to be short posts wherein I highlight tidbits of D&D lore that I think are interesting, quirky, or otherwise worth noting.

Ravenloft was always my most favorite of the AD&D campaign worlds. The gothic horror atmosphere of the setting was always very evocative to me, particularly with how it wasn’t afraid to rewrite the rules of the game to be less friendly towards the PCs. Fear and horror checks systematized how sometimes a character’s reactions aren’t under their control. Powers checks punished immoral behavior with physical corruption. And of course, magic was altered in ways that diminished the forces of good and heightened the powers of darkness.

But to me, one of the most iconic aspects of Ravenloft was that it could snatch you up at a moment’s notice…and once it did, getting out was almost impossible. Portals out of the Demiplane of Dread were exceptionally rare and always temporary (albeit typical fare at the end of the early Ravenloft adventures), meaning that characters that went to Ravenloft could usually count on being there for quite a long time.

…just like with Dragonlance.

It’s easy to miss, but if you look at the AD&D First Edition book Dragonlance Adventures – the first formal campaign setting for the world of Krynn, being published just after the original fourteen adventures that made up the War of the Lance – there’s a little note on page 12 (under the “Travelers from the Beyond” section) that reads as follows:

Those who come to Krynn from other worlds may find more than they bargained for. The gods of Krynn have secured their world against such incursions for fear of upsetting the balance of the world. There is a 1% per day cumulative chance that a character visiting Krynn from other worlds cannot return across the void to his home world. This percentage is checked any time an attempt is made. Those failing this check remain on Krynn. This percentage never gets any higher than 98%.

Now, that’s not quite the same as Ravenloft’s near-unbreakable ban on leaving, but it can be quite daunting to characters that spend weeks or months on Krynn before trying to leave. Especially when you consider that they have no way of knowing that this is a percentile roll rather than just a blanket ban; when the first five or six plane shift spells fail, is it really unreasonable to think that whatever’s going on is insurmountable, rather than just playing the odds?

Of course, all of this is only true in AD&D First Edition. No such provision shows up in the AD&D Second Edition or D&D Third Edition incarnations of the Dragonlance campaign. Heck, Second Edition even had an entire supplement about spelljamming there.

We can catch a faint glimpse of that old rule, however, in Chronomancer, an AD&D 2E supplement about time-travel. It has an appendix talking about how that works in specific campaign worlds, and notes that Krynn’s timeline has several points that branch off into alternate realities:

Should a chronomancer enter Temporal Prime at one of these “nodes,” he may be shunted into a reality other than his own (75% chance, or DM’s choice). When this happens, the trip becomes one-way, and the chronomancer cannot return to his original timeline, instead being confined to this new reality even if he returns repeatedly to the node.

Dragonlance is the sort of campaign world that, once you go there, you just can’t pull yourself away from it…literally.

Pantheons of the Multiverse: The Arthurian Mythos

August 20, 2016

The name really says it all here. While both editions of Legends & Lore refer to this as “Arthurian Heroes,” I’ve chosen to go with “mythos” since both books include characters of decidedly less heroic bent. Either way, this collection of characters can’t be referred to as a pantheon, as – alone of all the entries in this series (with the arguable exception of the “gods” of Eberron, if I ever get that far) – this entry lacks even a single deity.

AD&D First Edition

The opening text in the the 1E Deities & Demigods book spends a scant two paragraphs talking about the characters of Arthurian mythology, and the first is to overview the nature of chivalrous knights. It’s only with the second paragraph that it touches upon the difficulty of using these characters in one’s AD&D game, and even then it brushes this aside by suggesting that it might be fun to “take a trip” to Arthur’s Britain.

It’s surely just a coincidence that the text then mentions that more information can be found in TSR’s Knights of Camelot Fantasy Boardgame.

The characters that we are then given stats for are: The Average Knight of Renown, Knight of Quality (followed by a long list of names for which the previous two stat blocks can represent), King Arthur, Sir Bernlad De Hautdesert (aka the Green Knight), Sir Galahad, Sir Gareth of Orkney, Sir Garlon, Sir Gawaine, Sir Lamorak, Sir Lancelot Du Lake, Merlin, Morgan Le Fay, Sir Palomides the Saracen, King Pelinore, and Sir Tristam of Lyoness.

AD&D Second Edition

The 2E version of Legends & Lore expands on its predecessor by a notable amount where the Arthurian Mythos is concerned. For instance, all of the entries mentioned above are here as well – save only for King Pelinore, who has been deleted for some reason – but now also include Queen Guinevere, the Lady of the LakeMordredSir PercivaleSir KayBedevere, and Naciens. There are a few stylistic changes as well (e.g. changing “Sir Bernlad De Hausdesert” to simply “The Green Knight”), but for the most part everything in the 1E book is here and then some.

More notable is the supplementary information that’s given. For example, we now have monster stats for the White Heart and the Questing Beast. Both Excalibur and the Holy Grail have magic item stats. There are also three new spells: impersonation, revelation, and protection from death.

What I found to be more notable, however, was the large introductory section that came before this. Presenting an excellent overview of the story of Arthur, it also talked about how to role-play in an “Arthurian Setting,” what the duties of a Knight of the Round Table were, briefly overviewed the nature of omens, portents, and transgressions in such a setting, and introduced a new character class, the pious knight.

The pious knight class has access to some divine spellcasting, and so includes a list of clerical spheres to which they have access. While it’s easy to wonder if this should have been expanded with the introduction of several new sphere in the Tome of Magic book, the fact that the text – after outlining the spheres open to a pious knight – says that they “have no access at all to other spheres” makes it seem unlikely that they’d have received any others.

Interestingly, the section on how to use the material here with role-playing – now expanded to four paragraphs – sticks to the advice of its First Edition counterpart and recommends treating Arthurian Britain as its own setting, or at the very least as an adjunct to a setting that happens to have a similar backdrop. It then goes on to outline how the PCs could function in King Arthur’s court.

I found this dissatisfying, for two reasons. The first was that it essentially walls off all of these characters from the wider AD&D multiverse. Unless we’re to essentially place Camelot and the surrounding environs in a demi-plane or Alternate Material Plane, there’s really no way to use what’s here in your bog-standard AD&D game, even if it allows for all sorts of cross-campaign hijinks (a la Spelljammer and Planescape) to take place.

Secondly, I don’t think much of the advice to make the PCs squires and would-be knights working their way up through the ranks of the Knights of the Round Table. Even if we overlook the issue of so many character classes breaking the setting conventions of Arthurian Britain – just try to imagine playing a thief! – and that the players don’t chafe at the yoke that chivalry imposes on them, having the PCs be just another set of squires and wannabe-knights seems like an imposition. While not all of the PCs might feel this way, I suspect that most players want their characters to break from the mold, rather than conforming to it.

All of these complaints, however, underscore the real problem with these entries: that ultimately the story of King Arthur is its own tale, with its own beginning, middle, and end, as well as cast of major characters. Ultimately, this leaves very little room for the PCs, and so it’s hard to visualize them as doing anything except serving as a disruption. Ultimately, while AD&D can be made to fit into the mold of the tale of King Arthur, it does so awkwardly (especially compared to games that were explicitly designed to do so, such as Chaosium’s Pendragon RPG).

Miscellaneous Thoughts

When I sat down to write this article, I had thought that there were no elements of Arthurian mythology that appeared anywhere in Dungeons & Dragons outside of the two sources outlined above. However, much to my surprise, I did find two others.

The first was that there’s an entry for the Holy Grail in the D&D Master Set. The second was that there’s a new – and much more powerful – entry for Excalibur in Encyclopedia Magica Vol. 4 (right between the entry from Deities & Demigods (as part of Arthur’s writeup) and the entry from Legends & Lore). Beyond that (and Excalibur getting name-dropped in the entries for the Ravenloft domain lord Ebonbane) however, I’m unaware of any other instances of Arthurian material appearing in any D&D products. That’s not entirely surprising, given the issues with using such elements that I noted above, but is still perhaps somewhat disappointing.

Were it up to me, I’d have tried to sit down and somehow come up with a “post-Arthurian” method of approaching these characters. That would have had something to do with trying to make it so that everything from the Arthurian myths have already happened, and now brought those characters to a place where the future is uncertain, perfect for the PCs to appear on stage to set things in a new direction.

That would have required bringing back King Arthur, of course. But on the other hand, maybe not, in which case your characters could be arriving just as Camelot is in need of a new king…

Pantheons of the Multiverse: The American Indian Pantheon

July 30, 2016

“Pantheons of the Multiverse” is an open-ended series of posts I’ll be doing where I talk about the various D&D pantheons. This isn’t meant to provide any particular sort of holistic overview of a given pantheon’s material, nor present any new materials to use in-game (though I may do either of these on a whim). Rather, this is just me looking at each collection of deities and expressing some thoughts on them.

While I’m not limiting this to any particular edition of D&D, there’s likely going to be a noticeable presentation of AD&D Second Edition resources here. That’s due to that edition having the most material where deities are concerned, as well as personal preference on my part.

What I find most striking about the American Indian pantheon is how completely they were forgotten. They currently have the dubious distinction of being one of the least-utilized pantheons in the whole of D&D lore. While it isn’t the most ignored collection of gods in the game’s history, you can count on one hand the number of game books in which gods from this pantheon appear, even in the latter days of AD&D 2E, when the holistic multiverse was given the greatest focus.

AD&D First Edition

Initially presented in the AD&D First Edition book Deities & Demigods (later renamed Legends & Lore), the American Indian pantheon has nine deities: Raven, Coyote, Hastseltsi, Hastsezini, Heng, Hotoru, Shakak, Snake-Man, and Tobadzistsini. Several heroes (Hiawatha, Qagwaaz, Stoneribs, and Yanauluha), and a single monster (Thunder Bird) and magic item (sacred bundle) rounded things out.

But after this, the pantheon disappears from the pages of 1E. The sole exception is an appearance by Raven in a single adventure in OP1 Tales of the Outer Planes, where he butts into a love triangle between Enki (Sumerian pantheon), Lliira (Faerunian pantheon), and Hecate (Greek pantheon). His appearance there is fairly ironic, considering that OP1 is the unofficial adventure supplement to the 1E Manual of the Planes, which didn’t feature any American Indian deities. (To be fair, that can be partially explained by most of the American Indian deities living, according to their entries, on the Prime Material Plane, which the Manual of the Planes ignored. This is an imperfect explanation, however, because the book also overlooked those deities that did live on other planes, such as Raven being on the Elemental Plane of Air.)

(EDITED TO ADD: One of the most interesting aspects to the pantheons found in Deities & Demigods is how they’ll introduce particular alterations to the priests who worship them. For instance, the opening paragraphs of the American Indian pantheon tell how symbolism is so important to Indian priests that they must have part of something to control it, such as sprinkling water to summon rain, or needing a fire in rituals involving demons or devils. Conversely, anyone wanting to cast any kind of charm spell on an Indian priest must know the priest’s name in order to affect them.

These flavorful alterations are largely absent in AD&D Second Edition, presumably because the introduction of specialty priests made this level of distinction unnecessary. Still, there’s something to be said for having particular quirks that are representative of a pantheon as a whole.)

AD&D Second Edition

When AD&D Second Edition released its own Legends & Lore book, the American Indian pantheon was presented again…but with several changes. A number of gods had been deleted, while a few others had been added, and several more had been renamed. The new pantheon looked like so (gods who had a different name in 1E have that name listed in parenthesis): Great Spirit, Sun, Moon, Earth, Morning Star, Wind (Hotoru), Fire (Hastsezini), Thunder (Heng), Raven, Coyote, Snake (Snake-Man), and Spirits. The same four heroes were also listed, while the Thunder Bird monster was gone (though there was a brief note in Thunder’s listing saying that it was an aspect of him), replaced by three new monsters: big head, gahonga, and ohdowa. Finally, the sacred bundle magic item was still there, along with two new spells: spirit animal form and bad medicine.

(EDITED TO ADD: Like all of the deities from Legends & Lore, the information for priests of the American Indian pantheon does not include listings for spheres from the Tome of Magic, as that book wouldn’t be published until almost a year after L&L came out. Skip Williams would later start writing unofficial updates for these spheres in his “Sage Advice” column in Dragon magazine. The update for the American Indian pantheon appears in Dragon #197.)

This is the single largest shakeup that I can recall for a pantheon, with the new presentation has a much more pantheistic/shamanistic feel to it. While this is presented in the 2E Legends & Lore as a complete retcon, I can’t help but wonder what an in-game explanation for why the pantheon is so different now would look like.

Such an explanation would require a history and presence in the game world, however, and without that there’s little that can be done based on the minimal presentation given here. Probably the best that can be done with that is to present a fantasy analogue of the European colonization of the Americas; that would probably have the American Indian pantheon being the original pantheon of humanity (or at least a large part of humanity) before other human gods came in and took over, marginalizing them. That could certainly explain why, in 2E’s Legends & Lore, the American Indian gods are now said to live in a demiplane that connects to the Happy Hunting Grounds (e.g. the Beastlands), rather than on the Prime Material Plane.

Of course, that’s just an off-the-cuff idea (and probably not a very good one, since I suspect that quite a few people would find offense in that). More likely, the easy way out would be taken: that both the First Edition and Second Edition presentations are said to be incomplete, and that the “full” American Indian pantheon consists of the aggregate list of gods from both.

Interestingly, there’s one more product in AD&D 2E that mentions at least some of the American Indian gods. Surprisingly, it’s not a product from the campaign-crossing settings like Planescape or Spelljammer. Rather, it’s found in the Forgotten Realms: FOR5 Elves of Evermeet. In chapter 4, it mentions that the green elves (e.g. the wild elves) of Evermeet worship Thunder (though they call it Eagle), Raven, and Spirits from the American Indian pantheon. More notably, they also have two other deities who – while not expressly said to be part of that pantheon – seem like a perfect fit for it: Bear and Wolf. Neither have priestly information given, unfortunately, instead having a brief description and abbreviated avatar stats.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

I recall being quite intrigued when I first read the listing for Spirits in the 2E Legends & Lore book, as that entry was a catch-all for pantheistic demigods that were all around. As such, that seemed like a great “canon” way to have divine spellcasters based around local deities, rather than better-known gods. Unfortunately, the Spirits entry said that they didn’t have normal clerics, instead granting temporary powers to those who made a genuine plea with a sufficient sacrifice.

While disappointing, there turned out to be other entries that were closer to what I was looking for. But those are for another post.

Demographics in D&D – Another Look

July 16, 2016

Demographics in your role-playing games is one of those subjects that people either love or hate. Or rather, they tend to either find it to be either fairly useless (and probably rather boring) or a very engaging facet of world-building. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably one of the latter individuals.

In 3.X d20, demographics were baked right into the rules. Specifically, there were a series of tables in the 3.0 and 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide that allowed for settlements of various sizes to be created, with subsequent tables allowing for determining how many members of various classes were present, and what their levels were. Unfortunately, these rules weren’t added to either SRD, but we can still discuss them in general.

Personally, what I found frustrating about these rules was that you could only use them to generate populations – and, more importantly, the class-and-level breakdowns – for a single settlement, instead of a larger area such as a country. To my mind, what we got was a bottom-up level of world-building that stopped at the halfway point. But recently, I’ve hit upon an idea that’s made me reconsider the population tables in the DMG:

Specifically, look at Table 5-2: Random Town Generation on page 137 of the 3.5 DMG (Table 4-40 on page 137 of the 3.0 DMG). What if the percentage listing for each town on that table was the breakdown of how many settlements of each type were in a given country? For example, there’s a 10% chance of rolling a thorp on that table…so 10% of the country’s people live in thorps. The 1% chance of rolling a metropolis means that only 1% of the population live in metropolises, etc.

Now, that still doesn’t tell us how many people live in a given country. For that, we need to take a top-down approach, which means picking how many people we want there to be in total and then plugging that into the various percentages.

Once we do that, we just pick a suitable number of people per settlement size (using the ranges given on the table in the DMG), and divide that by the number of people who live in settlements that size, and voila! Now we know how many settlements of that type are found in a given country.

For example, we want to make a generic kingdom with a total population of 5,000,000 people. As such, 10% of them, or 500,000, will live in thorps. Since thorps are listed as having 20-80 people live in them, we’ll assign an average of 50 people to a thorp. Ergo, our generic kingdom has ten thousand thorps in it.

One thing to keep in mind is that these numbers are meant to provide a framework, rather than a mandate for how the population breakdown needs to be. If you’re using this method to make a campaign world, then once you’ve plugged in the various numbers at the various levels, go ahead and start making edits based around how you want various countries to look. What’s here is to help inspire, rather than present a straitjacket.

One question that often arises when looking at a game world’s population is who does it count among its people? Does it only look at the core races (e.g. humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, half-elves, and half-orcs)? Or are all Humanoids part of the count?

Insofar as the tables in the DMG are concerned, this is decidedly the former. Only the core races are listed on the Racial Mix of Communities (p. 139 in the 3.5 DMG; Table 4-46 on p. 140 in the 3.0 DMG). As noted above, you should feel free to disregard or alter that as necessary to suit your world-building.

Let’s go ahead and take the “Generic Kingdom” from the previous example and flesh it out using this method. With five million people, its settlement breakdown will look like so:

  • 10% of the population (500,000 people) live in thorps. Presuming about 50 people to a thorp, then the kingdom has 10,000 thorps within its borders.
  • 20% of the population (1,000,000 people) live in hamlets. Presuming about 250 people to a hamlet, then the kingdom has 4,000 hamlets.
  • 20% of the population (1,000,000 people) live in villages. Presuming about 800 people to a village, there are 1,250 villages in the kingdom.
  • 20% of the population (1,000,000 people) live in small towns. Presuming about 1,600 people to a small town, then the kingdom has 625 small towns.
  • 15% of the population (750,000 people) live in large towns. Presuming about 3,500 people to a large town, then there are 250 large towns within the kingdom.
  • 10% of the population (500,000 people) live in small cities. Presuming about 10,000 people to a small city, then the kingdom has 50 small cities.
  • 4% of the population (200,000 people) live in large cities. Presuming about 20,000 people to a large city, then there are 10 large cities within the kingdom.
  • 1% of the population (50,000 people) live in a metropolis. Since there’s no upper limit on the population of a metropolis (minimum 25,001 people), it’s easiest to say that this will give us a single metropolis of 50,000 people.

Profession (cartographer)

A DC 10 Profession (cartographer) check will produce a map of the kingdom that has the metropolis and large cities marked on it. For each additional +5 to the DC, the map correctly notes all of the settlements one size smaller. For example, with a DC 25 Profession (cartographer) check, a map will accurately place the kingdom’s metropolis, large cities, small cities, large towns, and small towns, but will not have the villages, hamlets, or thorps.

One thing to note about the above aid for world-building is that this will cause problems if you have a kingdom with a population of 2,500,000 or fewer. That’s because, if you take 1% of the population for a metropolis, you won’t hit the necessary minimum for a settlement that size according to the DMG table (e.g. a metropolis has 25,001+ people living in it).

In this case, simple create the country using the method outlined above, and when you hit a point where the population assigned to a particular settlement size doesn’t meet that settlement’s size prerequisite, simply redistribute them among the next-lowest settlement.

For example, if you’re making a country with only 2,000,000 people, the 1% of the people that would go into a metropolis (20,000) are instead added to the 4% of the population (80,000) that would live in large cities. At that point, we decide to make five large cities of 20,000 each.

Overall, this method of fleshing out the number of settlements in an area helps to provide a basic overview of a particular country – though it should be noted that this doesn’t need to be for a country per se. Rather, this can function for any region that has multiple settlements within it, whether political, geographic, or whatnot.

At that point, if you want further inspiration, you can start using the supplementary tables, specifically the ones for Community Modifiers and Highest-Level Locals. Obviously, I don’t mean that you should use these to generate every single NPC in every single settlement! Rather, a few random rolls can help to generate ideas about who the power-players are in a given settlement (or larger area, if you think they’re high-enough level to warrant it).

Unsurprisingly, the DMG tables only deal with the Core PC and NPC classes. In the same vein as the rest of this article, we can presume that tells us something about the state of the rest of the game world. Specifically, that these classes are far and away the most common, with classes from other supplements being exceptionally rare, as per your needs.

The Dark Young and the Restless

May 9, 2016

I mentioned several months ago how Overlord is one of my favorite light novel series out of Japan. This remains true, and with nine novels to date, I was quite excited to hear that the long-awaited tenth volume is releasing at the end of this month. To celebrate, I’m posting a conversion of one of the most powerful spells used in the series to date.

While I’ve tried to keep them minimal, please be aware that there are some spoilers here for later in the series.

My previous post on Overlord talked about how its magic system is heavily inspired by D&D Third Edition, having ten “tiers” of spells, metamagic, and even a skill-like “super tier” magic which is clearly epic-level spellcasting by another name. The story further clarifies that super-tier magic has certain rules and limitations for when it’s used. In effect, these are the world laws that are specific to using epic spells:

  1. Doing so is highly conspicuous, creating large rings of glowing sigils around the caster for several feet in every direction.
  2. The casting time for these spells is described as being lengthy (though there are cheap one-shot magic items that can make them near-instantaneous).
  3. After casting super-tier magic, there’s a “cool-down” period before another super-tier spell can be cast.
  4. This cool down period applies not only to the spellcaster, but to all allied characters as well.

This last point stretches suspension of disbelief, being rather “game-ist” in its lack of in-character reasoning for how it determines who an “allied” character is and why they can’t use super-tier magic because someone else in their party did. Amusingly enough, this is ignored due to the fact that, in the story, this magic is originally from an MMORPG anyway, making it something of a moot point.

In the Overlord anime, the only time we see super-tier magic being cast is when Ainz uses the spell fallen down (twice) during his battle with a brainwashed Shalltear. As far as spells go, it’s rather boring, simply being a massive-damage area-of-effect spell. While it’s strong enough to create a crater that’s several dozen feet in diameter, that’s about all that can be said about it.

A far more notable use of super-tier magic comes at the end of the ninth novel, when Ainz casts the spell Ia Shub-Niggurath – Sacrifice to the Black Harvest. With just that one spell, he kills an army of almost a quarter-million people.

More specifically, the spell causes 70,000 people to drop dead (actually more, if you count the horses), which serve as a “sacrifice” to summon five of the Dark Young of the Black Goat, which then begin rampaging unstoppably through the remaining soldiers. So what would such a spell look like in the d20 system? My guess is something like this:

IA SHUB-NIGGURATH – SACRIFICE TO THE BLACK HARVEST

Necromancy [death]

Spellcraft DC: 2,098

Components: V, S

Casting Time: 2 minutes

Range: 3,000 ft.

Area: 800-ft. radius burst

Duration: instantaneous and 20 minutes (see text)

Saving Throw: Fortitude partial

Spell Resistance: Yes

To Develop: 19,170,000 gp; 384 days; 766,800 XP. Seeds: slay (DC 25), summon (DC 14). Factors: change from target to area (20-ft. radius; +10), increase range by 900% (+18), increase duration by 900% (+18), increase area by 3,900% (+156), +37 CR creature (+74), aberration type (+10), four additional creatures (x8), increase casting time by 1 minute (-2), requires 10,000 Hit Dice of creatures to be slain for each creature summoned (ad hoc -500).

When this spell is cast, each creature of 80 Hit Dice or less within the area of effect must succeed on a Fortitude save or die. On a successful save, a creature takes 3d6+10 points of damage instead. For each 10,000 Hit Dice worth of creatures slain by this spell, 1 Dark Young of the Black Goat will be summoned, to a maximum of 5 Dark Young.

A Dark Young is a mountain-sized conglomerate of mouths and tentacles that moves on five stubby legs. It cannot speak, but makes a bleating sound from its many mouths. It has the statistics of a devastation centipede, with the following changes:

  • The creature type is aberration.
  • Instead of one bite attack it may make up to 6 slam attacks per round, all as primary natural attacks that deal 20d10+11 damage.
  • Reach 60 ft.
  • Intelligence 3.
  • Replace the poison special ability with trample (20d10+16 damage, DC 85).

Figuring out the base statistics to use for the Dark Young took some eyeballing. In the novels, the level system for characters tops out at level 100. At this level, characters that use super-tier magic can cast four such spells per day. In the d20 system, where you can cast one epic level spell per day for every 10 ranks in the correct skill (and can have total ranks equal to your level +3), this means that level 100 characters, such as Ainz, are somewhere between levels 37 and 46. Normally I’d presume that Ainz’s incredible prowess would put him near the top of this range, but it’s more convenient to place him at level 40, since that sets a baseline of dividing the levels by 0.4 to come up with their d20 equivalent.

In the novel, the Dark Young are described as being creatures that are “above level 90,” and that have no powerful special abilities but are extremely tough. Given that, devastation vermin in general, and the CR 39 devastation centipede in particular, seemed like a perfect fit (albeit after a few changes).

Of course, the casting DC for this spell is eye-poppingly high to the point where it’s essentially impossible to cast. Even positing that Ainz is a level 40 character, this spell is likely far beyond his reach. While we could tweak the spell’s parameters (likely dumping a lot of the extended range, as well as some of the extended duration, and piling up more mitigating factors), it’s probably far easier – and more effective – to convert the entire spell.

More specifically, we’re going to use Eclipse: The Codex Persona and The Practical Enchanter to rebuild this from the ground up as a high-level spell.

In order to do that, we’ll want to take a look at each of the spell’s components separately. Luckily, the epic-level writeup above nicely lays out (via the two spell seeds used in its “to develop” line) that there are two basic effects going on here: the sacrifice, and the summons.

The sacrifice is essentially a finger of death (level 7) spell whose area can affect an entire battlefield (+8), and its range extended from close to extreme (+3). That’s +11 levels of metamagic, but since they’ll be built into the spell we can subtract 20% of that cost, for a +9 modifier, making a level 16 spell.

The summoning is an instance of grandiose summoning (Eclipse p. 125). Since this spell is summoning specific creatures, rather than having a list of creatures that the caster can choose from – and since said creatures are CR 39 – that makes this a 21st-level spell. We’ve already paid to extend the spell’s range (e.g. when we combine the sacrifice part of the spell with this one), so we don’t need to do that again. Finally, we can lower the spell level by 1 due to changing its 1 round casting time to 1 minute.

So that leaves us with a 16th- and a 20th-level spell. As per Lerandor’s Rule from page 116 of The Practical Enchanter – it takes 2 spells of level “N” to equal 1 spell of level “N + 1” – combining these gives us a 21st-level spell. Finally, we’ll throw back in the limitation that you need to slay at least 10,000 Hit Dice worth of creatures for each Dark Young summoned, presuming that that’s worth another -1 spell level (that might seem far less generous than the -500 to the Spellcraft DC in the epic spell writeup above. However, the net effect is the same; both are an overall minor reduction to a stratospheric requirement to cast).

As such, we end up with a 20th-level spell which looks like the following:

Ia Shub-Niggurath – The Sacrifice to the Black Harvest; conjuration, necromancy, transmutation (summoning) [death]; level 20; components V, S; casting time 1 minute; range extreme (800 ft. + 80 ft./level); Target 1 battlefield and 1d4+1 Dark Young (see below); duration instantaneous and 1 min./level (D) (see below); Saving Throw Fort partial; Spell Resistance yes.

When this spell is cast, each creature within the area of effect must succeed on a Fortitude save or die. On a successful save, a creature takes 3d6+25 points of damage instead. For each 10,000 Hit Dice worth of creatures slain by this spell, 1 Dark Young of the Black Goat will be summoned, to a maximum of 1d4+1 Dark Young.

One its face, this doesn’t seem like it’s done very much to make this spell more feasible for actual use. After all, what’s the practical difference between a Spellcraft DC in the low thousands and a spell level that’s in the low twenties? For an epic-level character, however, the latter is going to be far easier to reach than the former, particularly if using the Eclipse rules rather than a strict 3.0/3.5 build.

Henry’s Hardcore Heroics

April 23, 2016

Earlier in the week, some friends and I managed to catch Hardcore Henry on the last night of its theatrical run. No one else was in the theater with us, giving us free reign to whoop and holler while the movie was playing. This turned out to be fortunate, because this movie was so over-the-top, so absolutely insane in its first-person action scenes, that keeping quiet would have been an exercise in futility anyway.

Needless to say, we absolutely loved it.

Of course, being a nerd of considerable proportions, I can’t think of impressive or interesting characters from fiction without wanting to quantify what they can do. Since role-playing games in general – and Eclipse: The Codex Persona in particular – are the best ways of doing that, I naturally wrote up stats for the movie’s titular protagonist. (Some mild spoilers for the film are below.)

Hardcore Henry, ECL 5 Implacable Hero

Cyber-Soldier (63 CP/+1 ECL race)

  • +4 Str (24 CP).
  • +4 Dex (24 CP).
  • +4 Con (24 CP).
  • Bonus Feat (6 CP).
  • Fast Learner, specialized for half-cost/skills only (3 CP).
  • Speak Language and Read/Write Language (2 CP).
  • Immunity/Endurance (common/minor/major) (2 CP).
  • +1 BAB (6 CP).
  • Proficient with all simple and martial weapons (9 CP) and small arms (6 CP).
  • Martial Arts (3 CP).
  • +1 AC (dodge bonus) (6 CP).
  • 1d10 Hit Die (14 CP).

This entire race is specialized for one-halt cost/need to have a charged power cell without which they can only function for a half-hour before dying, can have their brain hacked to block or implant memories as well as upload malware into systems they connect to, have their cyborg nature revealed on mechanical scans or if they take sufficient damage (e.g. half their hit points or more).

The use of Speak Language and Read/Write Language here is to explain why, when the characters speak Russian, we see subtitles in a movie that’s entirely from Henry’s point of view – he’s actually seeing those subtitles! If not using the d20 Modern skills, go ahead and remove the Read/Write Language listing; it won’t actually change the net CP total for this race.

Available Character Points: 120 (level 4 base) + 12 (levels 1 and 3 feats) + 6 (bonus feat) + 10 (disadvantages) = 148 CP.

Henry’s disadvantages are Accursed (Henry cannot speak, never having received his voice modulator), History (presumably there’s a backstory for how Henry ended up where he was at the beginning of the movie), and Hunted (the course of events in the film pretty much define this disadvantage).

Ability Scores (32-point buy)

Ability Score Base Racial Bonus Level Bonus Total
Strength 14 (6 points) +4 18 (+4)
Dexterity 16 (10 points) +4 20 (+5)
Constitution 15 (8 points) +4 +1 (4th level) 20 (+5)
Intelligence 12 (4 points) 12 (+1)
Wisdom 10 (2 points) 10 (+0)
Charisma 10 (2 points) 10 (+0)

Unlike most d20 Modern characters, Henry receives a 32-point buy instead of the usual 25. This is because he’s just that hardcore, going through a very tough adventure solo (save for a recurring NPC helping out).

Basic Abilities (99 CP)

  • 4d10 Hit Dice (24 CP).
  • +4 BAB (24 CP).
  • Fort +4, Ref +4, Will +1 (27 CP).
  • 24 skill points (24 CP).

Superhuman Determination (15 CP)

  • Acrobatics (6 CP).
  • Action Hero/Stunts (6 CP).
  • Reflex Training/when a ranged weapon runs out of ammunition, specialized for one-half cost/may only take a move action, only to reload (3 CP).

The use of Action Points over the course of the film is likely to be extremely high. Henry is doubtlessly buying multiple instances of Luck, Grant of Aid, Block, etc.

Hardcore to the Extreme (34 CP)

  • Stoic with Ferocity (9 CP).
  • Berserker with Enduring and +8 Bonus Uses and Controlled (21 CP). Odinpower and Odinmight, corrupted for two-thirds cost/requires adrenaline injections (4 CP).

Henry’s use of Berserker will normally grant +2 Str, +2 Dex, +4 Con. When using a surge of adrenaline, these will rise to +6 Str, +6 Dex, +6 Con.

Derived Stats

  • Hit points: 20 (2d10 at 1st level) + 16 (3d10) + 25 (Con bonus) = 61 hp.
  • Speed: 30 ft.
  • Init: +5 (Dex bonus).
  • Saving Throws:
    • Fort: +4 (base) +5 (Con bonus) = +9.
    • Ref: +4 (base) +5 (Dex bonus) = +9.
    • Will: +1 (base) +0 (Wis bonus) = +1.
  • Armor Class: 10 (base) +1 (dodge) +5 (Dex bonus) = AC 16, touch 16, flat-footed 10.
  • Attacks:
    • Melee: +5 (BAB) +4 (Str bonus) = +9.
    • Ranged: +5 (BAB) +5 (Dex) = +10.
  • Total skill points: 24 (24 CP) + 7 (Int bonus) + 7 (racial bonus) = 38 skill points.
Skills Ranks Ability Score Bonuses Total
Balance 2 ranks +5 Dex +7
Climb 2 ranks +4 Str +6
Demolitions 2 ranks +1 Int +3
Disable Device 2 ranks +1 Int +3
Drive 2 ranks +5 Dex +7
Escape Artist 2 ranks +5 Dex +7
Hide 1 rank (2 points) +5 Dex +6
Intimidate 1 rank (2 points) +0 Cha +1
Jump 2 ranks +4 Str +6
Knowledge (tactics) 2 ranks +1 Int +3
Listen 1 rank (2 points) +0 Wis +1
Move Silently 1 rank (2 points) +5 Dex +6
Navigate 1 rank (2 points) +1 Int +2
Search 1 rank (2 points) +1 Int +2
Spot 1 rank (2 points) +0 Wis +1
Survival 2 ranks +0 Wis +2
Swim 2 ranks +4 Str +6
Treat Injury 2 ranks +0 Wis +2
Tumble 2 ranks +5 Dex +7

Henry’s class skills are the twelve skills on the above table which have their ranks bought at a 1:1 skill points. The others are cross-class skills.

Other than noting his racial ability to strike for 1d4 + Str bonus points of lethal damage, the above listing doesn’t go into what weapons Henry typically uses. That’s because he changes them quite rapidly over the course of the film, using pistols, automatic rifles, shotguns, a katana, a grenade launcher, and quite a bit more over the course of the movie!

Further Development

Henry’s stats match his depiction in the movie, being a character with incredible physical abilities but very little else. Given that he actually managed to survive the film, and utterly annihilate the bad guys who were gunning for him, Henry might be able to focus on some non-combat abilities going forward.

…unless, of course, there’s a sequel.

Removing Alignment From Pathfinder – Addendum: Core Prestige Classes

April 16, 2016

Several years ago, I wrote a brief series of articles about removing alignment-based mechanics from Pathfinder, focusing specifically on the Core classes, spells and magic items, and monsters. Since then, these posts have become some of the most popular parts of Intelligence Check, getting regular hits even after all of this time.

It’s because of that that I’m a little chagrined to have only recently realized that there’s an area of the Pathfinder Core Rules that I overlooked in my original series: the prestige classes found in the Core Rulebook.

Of course, the fact that no one ever bothered to point this out to me says, I think, something about how prestige classes are viewed these days. Even back during the heyday of 3.X, most prestige classes tended to be regarded with suspicion – at least insofar as their balance went – and a vague sense of frustration for how they seemed to nod in the direction of in-game story potential even as they were typically used for purely mechanical purposes.

Throw in the issues that come along with multiclassing, and it’s easy to see why archetypes – as introduced in the Pathfinder’s first major splatbook, the Advanced Player’s Guide – quickly replaced prestige classes as the go-to for how to customize your character (besides feats, races, etc.). But that doesn’t mean that they’ve gone away entirely. Should someone want to make use of a prestige class, whether for the mechanics or the story potential or both, the basic PrCs are right there in the Core Rules.

Now let’s see what they look like shorn of alignment.

Core Prestige Classes

Below are the changes necessary to remove alignment-based mechanics from the prestige classes in the Core Rulebook. Those PrCs that aren’t listed here have no such mechanics, and so require no changes.

Arcane Archer: Delete the “enhance arrows” ability gained at 9th level, replacing it with the following:

“At 9th level, every nonmagical arrow fired by an arcane archer gains the keen and bane weapon qualities. The keen quality functions even if the arcane archer fires arrows that deal bludgeoning damage. The creature type to which the bane quality applies may be changed once per day as per the arcane archer’s elemental and elemental burst qualities.”

The goal here is to grant the arcane archer a total of +2 weapon qualities to replace the alignment qualities he’s losing. Bane is the obvious choice to replace alignment-based additional damage, and since this narrows the range of foes that will be subject to extra damage, we can ameliorate this (at least somewhat) by adding in keen as well (along with a note so that the arcane archer isn’t penalized if using blunt arrows).

Arcane Trickster: Delete the alignment requirement for this prestige class.

Honestly, this particular restriction is so flimsy I’m surprised that it’s there at all. If rogues can be lawful, and wizards and sorcerers can be lawful, then why exactly can’t a rogue-wizard mashup be lawful? As such, we can get rid of this requirement without a second thought.

Assassin: Delete the alignment requirement for this prestige class.

You have to admire this particular restriction, as it managed to tick off both the story-gamers (who wanted to roleplay being a professional contract killer) and the power-gamers (who wanted the death attack power this PrC offered) by requiring an alignment that most GMs disallowed as a matter of course.

Shadowdancer: Change the second sentence of the “summon shadow” description to read as follows:

“Unlike a normal shadow, this shadow cannot create spawn.”

This removes the clause about the shadow having the shadowdancer’s alignment, which while a minor change (particularly with the removal of all other alignment-based effects), might still be significant if you want to place more emphasis on the shadowdancer having an undead familiar like this.

Conclusion

There wasn’t much to change here, but hopefully these alterations will be worthwhile if you’re looking at taking a Core prestige class in an alignment-free game. After all, why can’t the good guys have assassins too?

Thaumaturgical Enchantment

April 2, 2016

Thaumaturgy (and dweomer, its statistically-identical discipline) is one of several new d20 magic systems introduced in Eclipse: The Codex Persona (pg. 100-106). More specifically, it’s one of the magic systems that’s based around skills, giving that particular d20 subsystem some much-needed teeth.

In thaumaturgy, a particular magical discipline is divided into eight sub-disciplines, each of which has its own associated skill. If a practitioner of that style of magic wants to create an effect, then he has a make a successful skill check with the relevant sub-discipline (and pay the associated cost), and on a success the spell is cast.

There’s actually a bit more to it than that, but that’s the basic outline of how the system works.

The best part of this style of magic (at least to me) is that coming up with the eight associated skills for each particular discipline is something the player does. That means that each player is likely to come up with a different set of particulars, so that even the same theme will have different particulars depending on who uses it. Between that and that the effects generated are free-form, this means that no two users of thaumaturgy will be alike.

To whit, below is a sample field of thaumaturgy, based around a particular type of enchantment.

Enchantment

Manipulating emotions is a particularly insidious way of controlling others. Rather than subverting someone’s will, enchantments change how they feel about things while leaving their responses intact. The results can often be profoundly confusing, if not disturbing, for the victim long after the actual effect has ended. Wielding such invasive magic can come with a high price, however; few people can bring themselves to fully trust someone who can tamper with the most intimate parts of them.

  • Anger: Creating not only surges of adrenaline-fueled rage, this magic can also induce lasting hatreds and deep enmities. This can also curse an individual or location to become an object of scorn for certain groups, or even – at high levels – for everyone.
  • Anticipation: The opposite of surprise, anticipation causes something to seem to be more noteworthy than it otherwise would be. Not only can this boost situational awareness, granting combat bonuses and tactical insights, but it can be used to grant insight into mysteries and dilemmas that have no obvious solutions.
  • Apathy: Not just boredom, apathy can be the complete lack of an emotional response. It can negate most emotion-based magic, as well as shield from pain or alignment-based effects. At the higher levels, this can be used to induce catatonia or hibernation.
  • Fear: Not just immediate panic, this type of magic can produce anything from low-grade anxiety to bouts of fear so strong as to be lethal. This magic is often placed on an area, causing it to be avoided by the locals.
  • Joy: Bringing forth happiness can not only counter fear and despair, but also creates powerful bravery and morale-boosting effects. This particular field of magic can become highly addictive to those that are regularly subjected to it.
  • Love: This creates any sort of positive fascination. It can range from basic charm effects to powerful obsessions. Ironically, actual love is very difficult to create, and tends to be short-term.
  • Sadness: Feelings of loss can be used to sap a person’s will to fight, saddling them with morale penalties or even forfeiting actions as they lose the will to carry on. Severe sadness effects can cause a target to become suicidal.
  • Surprise: Surprise deals with being unaware of something, resulting in penalties to reactions. This can also be used to make parts of the immediate area seem subconsciously “unimportant” to the point of being unnoticed, while stronger spells make it so that key connections and revelations are overlooked or ignored.

As with all free-form systems of magic, what’s above are merely suggestions. The ultimate arbitrators of what can be used with any particular system of magic are the player’s imagination and the GM’s administration.

Baby Got Backlash

March 27, 2016
Flurry Heart

Cutest engine of destruction EVAR!

The premiere of the sixth season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic introduces baby Flurry Heart, the daughter of Princess Cadence and Shining Armor. It also reintroduces a particular quirk that infant unicorns – or, in this case, infant alicorns – have in the show: that they’ll manifest powerful magic at random.

This idea was first brought up with the introduction of the Cake twins, way back in the show’s second season. While it makes for some amusing antics, and creates the conflict in the current season’s premiere, this particular quirk of unicorn physiology is somewhat awkward to model in d20 terms. As Thoth put it:

Even counting Twilight Sparkle as an exception, Pumpkin Cake can break chains, dimension door or teleport, phase through matter, move and animate objects, and fly around – at one month old. In the comics, Sweetie Belle, who certainly doesn’t seem to be a magical genius or exceptionally powerful, accidentally transforms half the ponies of Ponyville into animate fruit, apparently irresistibly. Yes, that seems to be mostly cosmetic (and so could be considered an illusion or a rather minor transformation rather than a major one) – but it’s still pretty impressive for someone who can barely levitate a broom.

Characters that get weaker as they grow up don’t fit into d20 as easily as most. Sure, you can just handwave it in a lot of games – but even if child PC’s are uncommon, kids are very common indeed. It makes it kind of hard to raise tension with a monster attacking a village if the smaller local kids panic-response can be expected to include blasting it with horrific spells. Given that that doesn’t seem to happen, it seems likely that very young unicorns only have mighty magical powers when it’s cute and funny for the audience.

Now, at least part of this problem is solved in the latest episodes, since there’s a line that Sunburst rather off-handedly (off-hoofedly?) tosses out when discussing what spells to use to solve the problems that Flurry Heart’s random magic has created:

“…and a little Fledgling’s Forbearance for the parents… Heh. That should curb the little one’s power fluctuations.”

Those two sentences help to provide a great deal of needed context with regards to how pony society deals with this problem. A spell designed to safely curtail the random discharges of magic that baby unicorns experience is one of those things that not only makes sense in-and-of itself, but helps to explain why, for example, Pumpkin Cake doesn’t seem to be running amok anymore.

But while that provides for an in-universe explanation for how this particular problem is dealt with, it doesn’t answer the question of how we’d model it in the first place. The underlying issues that make this difficult to manage in a d20 game (what with baby unicorns being, at least temporarily, stronger than the adults, and their magic being more disastrous than dangerous) are still present.

To answer the first problem, I’m of the opinion that the best way to model this is via a template. Since templates are a discrete aspect of a stat block, and can be added on top of a character, they can also be removed from said character (even if that is much more rare). Hence, we can simply create a template that includes whatever mechanics we’ll use, with the condition that it’s removed as the baby unicorn grows older (or has the appropriate spell cast on them).

Insofar as the second issue – that these magic surges tend to be troublesome more than truly hazardous (though they can be that too) – we’ll just make that into an aspect of the magic itself. That’s not particularly hard because only NPCs are going to have this template anyway, and so if we introduce a random element into how their magic works, that just creates more latitude for the GM.

In d20 terms – using Eclipse: The Codex Persona, of course – the result would probably look something like this:

Wild Child template (9 CP/+0 ECL)

  • 4d6 mana with Unskilled Magic (24 CP), specialized and corrupted for increased effect/caster level is equal to the user’s highest mental ability score (Int, Wis, or Cha) and maximum spell level is equal to the user’s lowest mental ability score, spells cast do not need to meet caster level minimums; subject to involuntary random spellcasting, when a spell is cast roll 1d6 – on a 1-2 the spell functions as intended, on a 3-4 the spell’s parameters (e.g. effects, targets, duration, etc.) are randomized, and on a 5-6 a different spell is cast instead.
  • Rite of Chi with +4 Bonus Uses, specialized and corrupted for one-third cost/does not allow for additional uses of Rite of Chi at the cost of negative levels, requires at least a short nap to use (4 CP).

In addition to what’s above, the entire template is specialized and corrupted for one-third cost/this template can only be applied to a character at the “infant” life stage (level -2), and is automatically removed when they advance to “child” (level -1), or if a casting of fledgling’s forbearance spell is used on them.

Given that it’s a spell with no applications beyond removing this template, there’s not really any need to write up fledgling’s forbearance. At most, we’d only need to know its spell level, which I’d presume is 1st.

With a total cost of 9 CP, this template is one that’s fairly cheap to apply for what it offers. Of course, the cost is somewhat academic anyway, as there’s really no way to apply this to any character that’s remotely likely to be a PC. But if you want to make sure that your plot hook has stats, this should do the trick.