Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Spellbook as Laws of Magic

Any sufficiently advanced
maths is indistinguishable
from magic.
There are various spells in the AD&D spell books (PHB, UA) which seem weirdly out of whack with their companions at the various levels of power. Many players and DMs' responses to this is to either change the level of the spell or its effects.

However, the other way of looking at the question "why does it take a 5th level spell to create a moonbeam" is "nobody knows". That is to say that the published spells are a qualitative description of how magic works. It's easy to put people to sleep, but for some inexplicable reason it's hard to make an ordinary arrow burst into flame. It's very hard to teleport without risk; it's quite easy to speak to animals.

It's inconsistent, but that's the nature of magic, or anything which is not actually well understood and has to be treated as a black box. From outside the box, the rules produce surprising results which are often unpredictable. Perhaps somewhere there's a class which finds flame arrow really simple; perhaps not. Perhaps the moon god had some sort of argument with the god of magic. Perhaps the goddess of sleep married the god of magic.

Or perhaps magic is weird and unpredictable and spell casters have to cope with that as best they can.

It's not like sleep being first level is really any odder how an electron works, is it?

Thursday, 27 December 2012


"Pigeons From Hell" By R. E. Howard
Frequency: very rare
No. Appearing: 1
AC: By Armour Type (Base 10)
Move: By Armour type (Base 6")
Hit Dice: By form (Base 1d6)
% in lair: 100%
Treasure Type: E (but see below)
# Attacks: 1
Damage/attack: By weapon
Special Attacks: Charm, Possession (1/day), Animate Dead
Special Defenses: Darkness 5' radius, Fear, Std undead immunities
Magic resistance: standard
Intelligence: low
Alignment: Neutral Evil
Size: M/By form
Psionic Ability: none
Level/xp value: II/40+1/hp but very variable; 5 special abilities and one exceptional ability.

The zuvembie is a type of undead created by an evil potion (see below). The thing so created is incapable of surviving sunlight and will therefore always be found haunting some place where it can retreat into darkness. Although it is capable of creating darkness in a 5' radius around itself (as often as it desires) this darkness will not protect it from direct sunlight.

The form of the zuvembie can be any humanoid, human, or demi-human and other than a ghastly palor and emaciation this form will be unchanged and substantial so that the monster can only walk, run, climb etc. as it did in life and is unable to pass through walls or suchlike. Similarly, it can physically attack as it did in life, using weapons or perhaps unarmed combat, but it gains no special physical attacks from its new form but it may retain some from its original body.

If the zuvembie had class levels or hit dice beyond 1d6 in life then it will have half of those levels or hit dice in unlife (round levels or hit dice down and 1d6 remains the minimum) class abilities will be retained only if the thing's new intelligence and wisdom scores allow. Similarly, armour may be retained although over the course if its long existence this may rot or rust away as the monster has no interest or ability to maintain such things.

The zuvembie's initial "attack" will normally be in the form of its eerie whistling. Any intelligent being (human or otherwise, evil or not) hearing this must save versus spells. Those who make their save will be unaffected. Of those who make their save, all but one (lowest wisdom; dice for ties) will be paralysed with fear. The remaining victim will be charmed and compelled to walk to the source of the song.

The charmed creature will be killed by the zuvembie in some secluded spot, usually using some normal weapon such as a dagger or hand axe. Since the victim is helpless, this requires only a roll on the assassination table and if that fails double normal damage will be done in any event. This attack will not break the charm, although it may buy some time for a rescue attempt as the monster can not attack and whistle at the same time, which releases any others from their paralysis.

However, those others who previously failed their saving throw must now make a second save (at +4) against fear or flee immediately and not return for 1d6 turns.

Once the victim is dead, the zuvembie is able to command it while the body is still warm (assume one turn for small, two for man-sized, or three turns for large creatures) and will (mentally) direct it to slay its companions. Anyone killed by such a corpse will not be animated in turn, although the zuvembie may itself kill and animate others in the meantime. Animated corpses should be treated as zombies or monster zombies as appropriate (ie, no class abilities, but they will use weapons - either their own or ones given by the zuvembie).

Although slow on its feet, the zuvembie can project or control non-intelligent normal creatures so that it can pursue or spy on a party in the form of a wolf, cat, or  pigeon etc. The creature to be possessed must be within 3" of the zuvembie initially and the control extends no more than half a mile from the undead's location. Possession ends immediately should the host leave this range, be killed, or enter daylight.

Appearance: When newly created, the zuvembie will not be obviously changed in appearance, although of course its behaviour may be radically different. Only over time does the body become more and more like that of a (normal) mummy - gaunt and blackened with age and unwashed dirt and filth.

Notes: The zuvembie can not generate fear other than as a by-product of its whistling song and is turned or controlled as if it were a shadow. However, due to the nature of the creature's body and origin, it is unaffected by holy water.

Treasure will be incidental based on past victims or possibly the zuvembie's past life. If in doubt, use E as a default.

The zuvembie is a weak monster when pitted against a party, where there is a good chance that someone will make their save and it will strive to split the party so that it can attack only one or two at a time. Similarly, elves with their 90% resistance to charms will be avoided if the zuvembie is able to recognise a character as one and they will be singled out for attack by any re-animated corpses.

Against one or two characters, the zuvembie is a very dangerous monster because of the strength of its charm, which is powerful enough to force the victim into obviously lethal situations such as putting a noose around their own necks and stepping off a chair etc.

Killing the zuvembie instantly releases any charmed characters and returns animate dead to their proper state.

Potion of Zuvembie Making
This potion will turn one being (human, humanoid/giant class, or demi-human) into a zuvembie. If the drinker is unwilling then they receive a saving throw when the liquid first touches their lips to realise the inherent evil of the potion.

However, the potion can be administered over the period of a month in doses small enough to be hidden in food. If this is done then the whole process should be treated as an assassination attempt using the appropriate table.

If the attempt fails, roll a second time on the table to see if the attempt went undetected; if so then the failure was one of dosage or delivery.

If the attempt was detected, randomly determine when in the process the error was made (d30 is useful for this) and what action the victim may take.

This potion has no effect on the undead.

value: 4000gp (Consider the alignment of potential buyers!)
xp: 400

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Players Handout

Quick post as I'm distracted by getting a new job and probably having to move house.

In relation to last week's post, I've become less enamoured of player handouts of late, particularly for new (or rusty old) players. The PHB has plenty in it to be digested without handing out a pile of further details.

So, I've been thinking about what the implied world of AD&D is like and if what is implied in the PHB is directly contradicted by the implied world of the DMG, I'm tending to go with the PHB because both the players and I know what's in the PHB while the players generally do not have or want access to the DMG. Basically, the PHB is an enormous handout all on its own.

In particular, the tables in the DMG for the frequency of the classes seem pretty unlikely to me unless they are seen as special cases. For example, the chance of a particular class looking for employment as a henchman is for some reason not the same as the proportion of characters who take up that class generally, or the chance of having an "interesting" encounter with a class is likewise not reflective of how many such NPCs there are. Either of these may be valid, of course.

Some of the problems with the clash between the implied reality and our personal models of what mediaeval society should look like can, I think, be fixed by saying that most NP classed characters are in fact unable to attain a certain level on their own steam. This is something I've tried in some recent game settings - basically only extra-special characters can be hero level (ie, 4th) or above and so there are very, very few NPCs generated even in large towns and cities who are capable of throwing lightning bolts, raising the dead, or even curing disease.

This seems to have helped to keep the games grounded in a pretend-AD1200 English setting while leaving room for some substantial opponents here and there.

I wanted to get into other ways of doing this but I've got flights to book and forms to fill and other non-interesting things to do. Maybe next week.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Your Local Representative

In case of Law,
break glass
Butterfly Effects
When running a game in AD&D's default "pseudo-mediaeval" setting there is always a tension between drawing on historical information about day-to-day life (such as how drains work, social classes, the value of a good horse) and accounting for those things in the game which are not historical.

A very typical example is the presence of magical street lighting in larger cities. Continual light is not a high level spell and any reasonably successful adventuring party could pay for significant numbers of castings in a year (or cast it themselves) in order to light up some district of their home city or town. This would make a huge difference to the life of people in mediaeval times who were very limited in their outside activities in winter because of the lack of light.

Light Wand
How Many Clerics Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?

Continual light is, of course, available to magic users and clerics alike and many Good-aligned religions would seem likely to encourage this sort of communal service (for a price, of course. Specifically 9sp per person per month in "trade, taxation and tithes" [PHB p20]). So it's hard to justify the lack of such lighting if a player moots it (which generally happens early on with any given group of players), although naturally there will be people in society who oppose this sort of thing and a dispel magic isn't hard to get either.

This leads to a related question about the availability of magic in the baseline AD&D society. This is a little tricky but there is one interesting thing about the definitions of the classes in PHB: it is easier to qualify for the cleric or magic user classes than it is for the fighter class. The first two require only a single '9' score while the fighter requires both the 9 and a 7 in constitution.

How you extrapolate this to NPCs depends on how much you feel the books' rules for player characters define the workings of non-player characters but certainly there are hints in the DMG that the normal qualifications are needed. It says nothing about ability score generation methods, however.

When I want a town or village I generally run a computer program that rolls up everyone in the place using 3dA (averaging dice) in order with a 1% chance of a particular person being "special" and such characters get 3d6 in order instead and may have a class, with the program then deciding what class, if any, they pick out of the options their scores give them.

For this general pool of NPCs, then, there is a 0.63% chance of qualifying for the Cleric class (and an equal chance of qualifying for the magic user or thief classes). So, in a population of 1000 we would expect to see 6 people capable of casting clerical spells and 6 capable of casting magical spells (there may be overlap between these groups and I'm talkig about adults here, of course).

So, if an NPC qualifies for either magic user or cleric, which isn't too unlikely, which would they go for? Simple answer: cleric. Everyone wants to be a cleric.

Back to Reality
In the real world, "the church" was immensely powerful in most nations and especially so in the West where the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim churches had their centres. The reason for this is simple: people don't want to die and those religions offered a very clear message of "you won't really die".

Quite simply, people could and did give up everything they had in order to ensure that they would qualify for the promise of eternal life even though they had, for the most part, almost no evidence that the claims were true. They didn't need evidence; they needed hope because they had plenty of evidence of the inevitability of death and any chance of escaping that would naturally be leapt on, and was.

Now look at our fantasy world. Here, there is the same message of living on but there is loads of evidence, including people raised from the dead not in some distant Rapture but right here and now and often in front of many witnesses. If you have the cash you can actually speak with the dead (only a 3rd level cleric spell) and get very specific information like "where did you bury the treasure?" instead of vague statements about how much the departed loved Uncle Harry (or was it Uncle Billy? how about Aunt Jane? Some sort of relative, or maybe a friend who was like a member of the family? A favourite car, perhaps? The veil's getting thick; put some more money in the meter).

As if that wasn't enough, look at the cure and heal spells. 6 clerics, even Acolytes, would transform the lifestyle of any mediaeval town, particularly in war time.

The First Dalek Pope
So, if you think the mediaeval churches were powerful, think about what they would be like if they literally could return kings from the dead or cure the myriad of diseases which routinely ran through whole countries.

Imagine, also, the effect of excommunication in such a world? The withdrawl of all healing spells in itself is a major threat to anyone who crosses the church. If the church says "smite this person or we will withdraw our protections from you" then that person had better be fleet of foot because pretty well the whole of society will turn on them rather than face such a loss.

At this point, our pseudo-mediaeval setting isn't looking very mediaeval any more, really, is it? There's little reason to have monarchs and those that do exist will be puppets (not radically different, I know), the populace will have decent health and be safe from the fear of disease and injury while going about their business in the brightly-lit towns with their 24hr lifestyles organized around religious duties. Almost every country will be a de facto theocracy.

Populations will be much more urban, too, as the numbers of clerics suggested are probably still too low to take these benefits out into a scattered rural hinterland, so town life will be more attractive because that's where you're most likely to have clerics on hand. Agricultural output will probably be higher for several reasons (health of farmers and the availability of long-term weather forecasting via divination spells, as well as some perhaps non-adventuring spells for blessing crops which are not listed in PHB) so the lower farming population level will not be a problem.

Good, Innit?
The Duke of Slyonnia
Of course, this all assumes that the dominant religion is basically Good aligned and wants to spread the benefits of clerical magic throughout society. But that's actually a pretty safe bet because those are the sorts of religions that will prosper. If Slyonnia's clergy offer nothing to the peasants and support only the rich elite, while neighbouring Bennifica's clergy support everyone, then Bennifica's population (and therefore its army) will be stronger and healthier and the border regions will see a continual flow of deserters from Slyonnia to Bennifica. With a certain degree of irony, Darwin will ensure that Evil religions will struggle to become dominant in the face of Good.

Evil cults will tend to attract the powerful excommunicated characters from other religions, as they will offer them the healing and so forth that they have lost. The weak can go jump, of course, because Evil despises weakness by definition (AD&D definition). So such cults will be small but with a disproportionate number of high level characters. Zero-level types will still exist because every Evil religion needs its cannon-fodder.

The Evil perspective on all of this is that they are marginalized because the sheep have banded together to thwart the "natural" order where the weak perish and the strong rule and prosper (see previous note about Darwin and irony).

In-Joke for Smalltalkers
The Ivory Tower
I said that everyone who can be either a magic user or a cleric will want to be a cleric. Why? Why are the magic users not ruling the world from their collages of magic instead of the clerics ruling from their churches?

The simplest answer is that first level magic users are rubbish. They certainly offer society at large very little that would work as a seed of a power-base, unless it is a society of insomniacs. Compared to an 18-Wis 1st level cleric with his/her 3 cure spells per day, the 18-Int magic user with one sleep spell is on a hiding to nothing in the popularity stakes.

Cultural values will naturally see the cleric as more useful, and therefor more valuable than magic users and there's an obvious snowballing effect here as the clerics are more respected and therefore have more secular power so more people want to be clerics and the church grows in power and gains respect, gaining more applicants etc.

Meanwhile, people may hear tales of world-shattering arch-mages and army-destroying wizards but the path to that level of power is "back loaded" in terms of reward.

So, while it's certainly possible to imagine isolated cities or maybe nations that are dominated by cadres of magic users, the implication of the rules is, to me, clearly in favour of magic users being loners looking, if at all, for that rare dedicated apprentice who is willing to trudge through the grind of the low levels for the big payoff. A payoff that itself has implications for the numbers of magic users compared to clerics.

When Two Tribes Relax Go To War
The relationship between magic users and clerics also has a bearing on why I weigh NPC generation towards clerics. Basically, I see AD&D as having a built in rivalry between the two classes. There is an inherent challenge to the gods in the way in which the magic user class works.

Clerics get their power from their deities; they may even have to take different spells from the ones they want if the deity disagrees with their choices.

Magic users take what they want, when they want it. Of course, they have to find it first but that's a minor detail. There's a clear statement here that the magic user doesn't need gods.

Clerics, druids, and illusionists get 7 levels of spells; magic users get 9. As I've mentioned before, this is not an accident nor is it some odd design error in AD&D - it's quite intentional. A power word kill is two full levels above a Holy Word in power. This has implications for daemon magic resistance but also various magicks which block spells and effects based on level. In any case it is also an implication that magic users ultimately gain knowledge witch is either denied by the gods or unavailable to them. Neither is something that a cleric would, I think, find a comfortable inference.

So, there is an implied rivalry between the two classes and even mages and clerics of the same alignment must to some degree regard the other as "doing it wrong". And if clerics are in the ascendancy in society then the implication of this is that magic users will find life a bit easier outside the areas where clerics operate. So, it's off to the lonely tower in the middle of nowhere to get on with unpicking the secrets of the universe without some priest constantly saying to leave the universe alone, thank you.

All this stuff flows more or less naturally from material contained in PHB and as such the DM is likely to face questions about it from players in a long-term campaign.

The Big Picture
As I see it, the implied reality of the PHB and DMG is one where magic is both common enough to have an effect across the whole of society (it doesn't take many raise deads to transform people's attitudes) and mostly clerical in nature.

The Friendly Face
of unspeakable
Magic users are likely to be viewed with suspicion by normal people who see clerical magic as something that offers them day to day aid and the possibility of long term salvation from personal death while the wizard has no heal spells and no cure spells, but does have animate dead, disintegrate, and fireball. They may well be of great value when danger threatens, but perhaps with something of the air of nuclear weapons about them - "wouldn't it be better if we got rid of all of them?" may well be a sentiment that gets bandied about from time to time.

The dominant church in an area will generally be Good aligned, but in isolated nations where it is harder for people to simply vote with their feet, a Dr Doom or Dracula might be able to keep people under their control with a religion based on doling out favours to those who tow the line. Such nations, of course, make excellent places to set adventures in.

Similarly, magic users will dominate only where the churches are weak, and that probably means out of the way places which have managed to develop more or less independently of the mainstream cultures.

Fighters will be outnumbered by clerics and thieves, but will probably outnumber magic users by a fair margin in most places. The fighter class will tend to be represented more by the lone hero rather than by a ruling warrior caste.

End of Part One
All this is very simulationist, of course. But role playing is by its nature simulationist in that we're trying to simulate a character in a story which emerges from group play (aren't we?)

The DM can certainly fix anything with the above picture that they don't like by fiat but there are alternatives. But this post is long enough and I'll come back to this next week.