Monday, July 30, 2018

Monster Monday - Iron Cobra

I have become a fan of this little machination in recent weeks. The iron cobra fills a design need for me. They are constructs (and therefore can be inert for centuries, even in airtight spaces.) They challenge low-level PC's.
The iron cobra first appeared in the Fiend Folio. The entry and stats are a mess, though. Let's take a look (These images were found on the web. I'm sure they are property of WotC, and only used here for comparative purposes):

As you can see, the description is all over the place. Why do they list who invented it (but, not actually?) Why are there only a dozen in existence? It can be a guard? Or assassin? So glad I had a book to tell me that. And how in the F*%$ do these things track by "psychic vibrations" when they a) don't have psionic abilitiy and b) aren't even alive?
The image above is from the awesome Tome of Horrors by Frog God Games, S&W version. As you can see, modern design has cleaned up the Iron Cobra a lot. All of the good information is there, without phantom psionics.

The iron cobra has an appearance in 1,2,3 and 4e D&D versions. In 5e it shows up in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. The only encounter I remember of an iron cobra was in The Sentinal (UK2.) There it was used to guard a library. Although, it looks like there are more. I just found Adventure Lookup.

I modify iron cobras slightly in my game. Their raw materials are 2000 gp worth of gems. Rubies need to be used for the eyes (to give the evil look.) 10 additional gems (all of the same type) must be implanted down the "spine" to conduct the magical energy for locomotion. 

(From my playtest of Mord Mar a couple of weeks ago:) In a secret room on a lord's manor, an evil temple hums with power. Its guardian, an iron cobra, stays inert until a living creature touches the altar, at which time it snaps to life and attacks.

The party recently defeated Lareth, the beautiful, the evil cleric of Lloth! With his dying breath he states the command word of his iron cobra. It follows the party back to the tavern, waits for them to be comfortably asleep, and attacks the armorless cleric!

Jackal, an evil fighter fell to ghouls. As his unliving eyes flickered open, his two thoughts were flesh and his beloved cobra treasure. Now, he and his iron cobra hunt the town in the darkness, retreating to the sewers before the sun rises. The town is baffled why some family members disappear, and others are found dead with apparent snake bites. The mayor is sure the snake-men from the swamp are responsible. 

A rogue iron cobra wanders the sewers of Redstone, its venom sacs long empty. It attacks any living thing within its eyesight. The leadership of the town knows of it, and leave it alone because it kills so many rats.

At the bottom of a wishing well an iron cobra lies inert. It was placed there a century ago by an evil wizard (now lich.) He promised revenge on the group who thwarted his first attempt at immortality, and now he moves toward the city, ready to awaken his pet, and kill the heroes' kin.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Monster Monday - Owlbear!

Tony DiTerlizzi covers the origins of the Chinasaurs very well here. I don't think I need to rehash his words, so I will get straight into the game talk!

The reason why I have chosen the owlbear this week is because I recently placed one in Mord Mar. And it is a problem. The party refused to go near it! They trudged off in another direction. And, really I don't blame them. Here's the Bounty Board Wanted Poster. The bad photoshop was intentional.

The owlbear is a tank. With three attacks, 5+ Hit Dice and a hug attack, these creatures are quite dangerous to low level parties. Most grognards remember the owlbear in B2 quite well. Usually that owlbear killed 1-2 party members on my expeditions.
This owlbear is a prime example of why older editions didn't use challenge ratings. This monster would kill everything it could. But, it had a weakness that could be exploited. And that weakness doesn't play well into a CR. That weakness: it is dumb. Did the party run into a pit trap on the way to the owlbear? Have it chase you back to the pit trap, and stab it from above. Did you just slaughter a few goblins? Give the corpses to the owlbear, and he may let you go on your way.

In the courtyard of the citadel, an owlbear has made a nest. As this is the main transition from one level to another, she has a steady supply of food. Even more appetizing for her are the goblins that keep coming out of the citadel to see if she is gone.

A dryad in the Bitterbark Forest has charmed an owlbear. She often has it attack the woodsmen from Redstone. The merchant's guild offers a 500 gp reward for dealing with the creature. But, if the adventurers kill the owlbear, the dryad will never forgive them.

Although unintelligent, an owlbear has figured out that rust monsters make things easier to eat. She has made a lair across the hallway in an abandoned castle from a rust monster clutch. They often ambush the 2-legged creatures together that enter their combined territory.

The goblins of the Palneal Swamp captured a live owlbear. Their leader had delusions of riding the beast, but it ate him. Now, the goblins believe the owlbear to be their leader, per tradition. It walks among them, occasionally eating a goblin. The clan fell into disarray without leadership, and sent their bravest warriors to the Oracle of Stone and Flame to ask for guidance. They returned with only the advice "bring the humans in to kill it." So a group of goblins has shown up at Redstone's gates pleading for "strong human warriors." They offer the tribe's greatest possession "The Stick of Boom" (a wand of lightning bolts, with 6 charges left.)

The good picture of the owlbear is by Dave Allsop, bought on RPGNow. Ironhead Arts is the publisher.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Old and New School - differences highlighted.

Critical Role recently permanently killed a character (gasp!) and this has caused me to think about character mortality in the OSR, vs character mortality in post circa 2000 games. Although D&D has a long, storied and significant lineage, it has drastically changed the way character deaths are handled.

In 0E, 1E, 2E and BECMI, character death was a foregone conclusion. It was expected that party members would die. The rules encouraged this. Save or die was a common theme. Poison, petrification, spells and traps all had the ability to kill a character at any time, usually without warning. Even falling from a moderate distance could end a character's life. Combat was fast, brutal and final. 

In 3E that all changed. Insta-kill poisons were rare (or downright unheard of in some places.) Negative hit points became a thing. This alone took a lot of danger out of spells, traps and falling. Character deaths became more and more rare as the editions evolved. With 5E, you have to fail 3 death saves after hitting 0 hp, before making 3 in order to die.

Its obvious that these are vastly different schools of thought. But, why? I have a few theories on this. First, generating a character eats more time in later editions. With more abilities, classes, races, and spells than the earlier editions, this is a fact of life. Poring through the books to make that perfect character changes how the character is viewed. They become more than just a fun diversion. They are work. And nobody likes to see their work wasted or destroyed.
Second, death feels like failure. Failure to keep that paper person alive. In video games, that failure is okay. You just re-load a save, and try again. But, in RPGs, that failure is possibly permanent. In OSR style games, it is even likely.

The likelihood of death is to the detriment of current games. If players don't feel like their characters can die, there is no true risk. Sure, there can be setbacks, like being captured or robbed. But, the players know they can hunt down whoever hurt them or captured them. They can take revenge. And all will be well again.

Earlier editions would punish characters for not playing intelligently. Open a door without searching for traps? Save or die. Learn from a success or failure. Know that your paper person was 2 numbers away from death. Or did die.
In post-2000 games, this is not as true. Players usually suffer a temporary setback for not playing smart. They take some damage, and may need to use a short rest to recover. There is no learning curve.

Story Trumps Rules
This statement is true in new editions, but not in the OSR. Again, this is because of deaths. If a central character to a story dies, that story unravels. In early editions, the over-arching stories were familiar archetypes that could plug-and-play the heroes. The Temple of Elemental Evil doesn't care which heroes came in. Only if they could be stopped. Llolth, the drow and the Giants had a plan that had nothing to do with the heroes. But, heroes came anyway. Because of the stakes to the world around them. 
Largely, WotC does the same heroic story archetypes. And they are a lot of fun. But, the villains machinations continue on regardless of the heroes who attempt to intervene. The heroic tale is generic. It has to be to mass market.
Video RPGs like Critical Role or Jordoba can delve deeply into the characters' desires,goals and motivations. Because they are highly specific campaigns that deal only with the characters in question. But, do they need to? Would the DMs of these videos be worse DMs if they used a generic script like Temple of Elemental Evil?
Why then, does story trump rules? If story does trump rules, why play a game at all? There are games available that writing the story is the rules, like Dungeon World. If story is the goal, the rules should facilitate it fully. Vampire, The Masquerade did this in the nineties and it has evolved over the intervening years.

There is enough room in the design space of RPGs for both schools of thought to co-exist. They are both great ways to play, although vastly different. If you have tried one style but not the other, I would recommend playing the untried type. You may be surprised by the results! To paraphrase Matt Finch, "whatever version you play, imagine the hell out of it!"


Monday, July 16, 2018

Monster Monday - Best Day Ever!

Today, I have a very special Monster Monday for you. Well, me. The PDF of Tome of Horrors for 5E was released late last week to the backers of Rappan Athuk. Well, in that ToH, there is (for the first time) a monster that I created. I mean, in the Undying Orbs Omnibus, I had a monster (leopard grippli) but that was self-published.

The Hsagrath is a construct that lives only to inflict pain. It does not want to kill, instead keeping its victims alive to torture for as long as it can.

I don't have a comparison history for these things, as they are new to 5E. But, they (like a few other monsters in ToH5e) can fill a fun niche in a dungeon.

When using a creature like the hsagrath, I would foreshadow with it. It was once a demon's weapon, so place it in a room with a few demonic tapestries.

A hsagrath was gifted to a human torturer in Rappan Athuk. Only the skeleton of the torturer remains, but his magical chain waits coiled in the corner of his torture room. It wants a new toy to torture, but it waits patiently. When adventurers do come, it hopes to separate the last one leaving the room from its friends (with the hidden portcullis in the doorway.) Then it will enjoy ripping flesh again.

When its demon master was banished back to hell, the hsagrath fell to the ground inert. Knowing any who can banish its master is too powerful. After they left, it slunk its way to a forest glade. Now it tortures deer, turkey and anything else that enters its glade. A local druid asks for help finding what keeps hurting his woodland friends.

A chain demon has filled a small area of Mord Mar with chains to capture playthings. A hsagrath has been captured in this trap. The chain devil is curious about this thing, and brings it to the Great Bazaar. It begins attacking everything within reach. The chain demon, knowing it will be blamed and killed for this, so it begs the party to stop it, even promising them a favor if they do.

Find the 5E Tome of Horrors here! I love FGG's DM stuff, and they have brought their books to the next level for 5E! (The pic above was taken from the pre-release PDF. It is owned by Frog God Games

Monday, July 9, 2018

Monster Monday - Lammasu

Today I wish to talk about lammasu. Or more specifically, lamassu. Going down a rabbit hole, I found these listed as a type of "bovine creature." I had always known them as lion-like. From there I did some digging.

Assyrians worshiped Lamassu as a god (a good and protective deity.) Over time, lamassu statues were placed throughout cities, as watchful protectors.

As you can see from this image, they could be depicted as having bullish bodies. This image is far different than the ones seen in 1E and S&W.

The lammasu seen on the left is the 1E Monster Manual version (used here to highlight the historical and fantasy differences between the two.)

There are significant differences between the historical and RPG versions. It is important to note that the historical version could also be depicted as a lion, but most images when searching show the cow/bull body.

My best guess for the lion version being the RPG version: Lions have claws. Lions are predators, and therefore "scarier." (However, I don't want a bull to kick me any more than I want a lion to rake me.)

I don't ever remember running across a lammasu in a published module. In fact, I don't ever remember coming across a lammasu while adventuring. Now that I am looking at them closely, I feel this is a shame.

From Matt Finch's Monstrosities: "Lammasu are akin to angels . . . serves as temple guardians and agents of divine law. . . but because they are ogten pledged to guard particular places, people or objects, they will often engage other servants of Law to pursue such threats." (Page 285, S&W version.)

So, lammasu are akin to sphinxes in some aspects. They are protectors and watchers. Building off of this I present the following ideas for using lammasu/lamassu/ shedu in your OSR adventures:

A lammasu flies into town, roaring and screaming. The tomb of an ancient king has been desecrated. This tomb was so ancient, not even elves remember the king's name, only the lammasu. He promises that any pure of heart that find the king's grave robbers may use the king's sword (a holy avenger) for their lifetime.

Mistaken information on the location of a lich's lair has brought the party to a museum lost to time. As they interact with the ancient technologies, a lammasu awakens wondering who is disturbing their site.

Deep within the accursed mummy's pyramid, the adventurers are exhausted. They seek refuge from the undead onslaught that blocks their exit. Nearby, in a hidden room, a lammasu who had been tasked with keeping the evil at bay has noticed the heroes' plight. He escorts the group to his holy ground for respite.

Eve's Garden, long thought to be a myth has been found. None have been able to pass the guardians. The two lammasu who guard the Font of Immortality will only let the most pure within. A dying king, who knows he is not pure, fears his evil son's ascent to the throne. He knows the people will suffer, so he tasks the party to enter Eve's Garden and bring him a flask of the water from the Font.

Picture by Tyler de Noche - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Lammasu stat block from Monster Manual (1978), by Gary Gygax, TSR original publisher. Now owned by Wizards of the Coast.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Monster Monday Returns!

Cover for City of Brass, by Casey Cristofferson.
I don't know the artist's name.
Owned by Frog God Games. 
Used with permission.

It feels like forever since I've had the chance to sit down and write a blog. NTRPG, camping, and real life issues have been in the way. Enough of that! Back to blogging!

Because Michigan has been around a 100 degrees, today's monster is the Efreet. This monster has been made famous from two sources: the Qur'an and 1001 Arabian Nights. Both of these make Efreet to be powerful beings able to tempt mortals. Neither mentions them granting wishes. 

But, what is an efreet (ifrit, afreet, afrit and other variations)? The dictionary defines it as: a powerful evil jinni, demon or monstrous giant in Arabic mythology. In the AD&D Monster Manual, they are powerful beings from the Elemental Plane of Fire.

They gain a number of abilities and interpretations from Gygax. They can be forced into servitude for 1,001 days (wonder where that came from ...), they can grant 3 wishes, although they always try to pervert the wish. Efreet can become invisible, detect magic, assume gaseous form, enlarge themselves, polymorph themselves, and create a wall of fire. Hence, they are a formidable foe, regardless of level.

Monstrosities calls them "type of genie." Most of their magical abilities are not listed in that book (only creating a wall of fire is.)

An efreet's heart was once used to power a forge within Mord Mar. Once it is found, the party has 3 choices: 1. Bring it to the efreet statue, hoping to gain wishes (although death is a possibility from an angry, recently resurrected efreet), 2. Bring it to the city forge to help create more powerful weapons for the guards and city or 3. Return it to the family who was forced to leave it behind. 

The great pyromancer, Abd Al Alim, has not been seen in weeks. The local royalty begs the party to find out what happened to him. They find an efreet in his inner sanctum, still within the summoning circle. Abs Al Alim's body lays burned just outside the circle.

A cryohydra has nested near the town of Crow's Reach. The king, a retired adventurer is owed a favor by an efreet. So he asks the party to bring the Efreet Bottle to the cryohydra's lair to destroy the many-headed beast. However, the efreet once released, believes he has been sold to a new master, and his services are again required three times before freedom.

A lot more about efreet can be found on Kickstarter right now! City of Brass by Frog God Games is funded and continuing to grow.