Friday, 25 October 2013

Evil Is As Evil Seems

I'm not bad, I'm just...actually, I am.
Evil is a real force in D&D and the stories it is based on - both traditional folklore and pulp fantasy (and high fantasy, for that matter) view Evil as something that has an effect on the world.

If a witch (hags are the closest that AD&D gets to traditional witches) sets up home hear a stream then you can be sure that the stream becomes filled with slimes and its banks become marshy and unwholesome; the local fauna becomes less and less colourful and fungus will spread. This is not a specific power of the witch, basilisk, or dragon - it is the effect of their Evil nature.

Evil in this sort of fantasy is a corrupting force which can alter nature, causing malformed offspring such as giant versions of normal insects, spiders, frogs, and so forth.

You can still tell it's a wig
I mention this only because it is so tempting to get into a "monster ecology" frame of mind, which I like fine but when the ecology is just real-world issues like predator to prey ratios and logarithmic analysis of female fecundity rates it starts to drift away from monsters being monsters. The term "monster" is in fact one that means something unnatural or outside of normal experience - often an impossible mix like the chimera, the type V demon, or the owlbear.

One aspect of this "fairy-tale ecology" that doesn't go down well in our post-modern world is the reverse of the coin: that Good is normal and normal is Good; indeed that beauty is Good. There is certainly a strong strand of this in folklore and the attitude often leads to real-world racism and xenophobia when the other party does not fit local ideals of beauty (hence all the Nazi head-measuring crap, for example). But over the centuries the inventors of these stories have seen the dramatic possibilities of subverting the trope - of making the beautiful step-mother be, in fact, Evil - that to a degree that has to a degree reversed the notion, so that a person who is too good-looking seems suspicious.

"You look shocking, my dear.
Shocking, geddit? Oh, please yourself."
Frankenstein is an interesting case where the hideous monster seeks a righteous revenge on his initially rather dashing creator, but ultimately he too is unable to really shrug off the burden of that word: "monster".

So there's a double standard here: we very rarely see honourable and upright heroes and heroines who are not good-looking and physically idealized before the 1960's (when the potential for ugly central characters to be "pure of heart" instead really took off), but the beautiful can be Evil.

In AD&D we can see the influence of this pre-modern attitude by a quick scan of the Charisma table on page 13: assassins are the only class with the possibility of Charisma below 6, paladins have to have a charisma of 17, and humans view half-orcs as never more than 12 CHA, reflecting the xenophobia aspect (not quite sure about the druid's place in this).

Tell-tale sign of Evil taint:
two right hands
Interestingly, although I encountered a few characters (either PCs or NPCs in printed material) with high CHA but who were not physically attractive, I don't recall anyone with a character possessing a low CHA but who was supposed to be good-looking, which is an interesting mirror of the asymmetry mentioned above.

When UA added comeliness, the modifiers involved meant that assassins really are uglier than average, and paladins more physically attractive on average. The comeliness rules even have a half-arsed attempt at suggesting that the sufficiently hideous is in fact attractive to those who are Evil. The assumption is that Evil tends towards ugliness and Good towards beauty. They are tangible forces that have effects on living things.

This all links to the central notion of D&D being about archetypes (classes) rather than the much more nuanced character creation of RuneQuest and its descendants (although, of course, there are very few physically attractive Mythos creatures in Call of Cthuthlu). For D&D, simulation is still a key to the rules - they're not intended to be abstract - but it's always good to remember that it's not a simulation of the real world.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Monster/Campaign: The Cuckoos

Aren't they adorable in their little suits?
Who's mummy's little alien seedling?
The Cuckoos are a strange race who's adult form is purely intellectual and is normally encountered only on the astral plane, where it is greatly to be feared. Fortunately for astral travellers, the adult form is the shortest part of the cuckoo's life cycle. Unfortunately for everyone, if the adult form is encountered it is because the cuckoo's are travelling from one world to infect another.

4-24 cuckoos (the number of adults in a normal encounter) will approach a world, spread out over it and each will start a new iteration of their life cycle by creating a psychic "egg" which is used to infect one populated site; the adults dying in the process.

The Cuckoo's Egg
Each adult will attempt to find a settlement of beings with no adult member possessing less than INT 5 which is reasonably isolated (basically, not part of some larger settlement) and capable of being encompassed by the cuckoo's "egg" - an invisible psionic sphere two miles across which has a number of effects.

The first one is somewhat like that of a sleep spell. Any creature within the volume of the egg will fall asleep. Those with less than 2HD get no save; others do and receive WIS modifiers.

The egg's second function is to harass those intelligent beings who prove to be immune to its sleep effect, with the intent of forcing them away from the area. This will take the form of a psionic attack. The egg has 200 attack points, all attack modes and can not itself be psionically attacked. It does not recover attack points, however, so if it can be resisted then it will eventually simply give up.

The egg's primary function is the production of new cuckoos. This is done by causing all the females of child-bearing age to become pregnant. Individuals may make a save versus breath weapon, with WIS modifiers, to avoid this fate. Note that this effect may take some time to become apparent.

Those who are put to sleep by the egg will recall nightmares of a fairly unspecific nature but which in fact create a post-hypnotic desire to protect the young cuckoos when they "hatch" via normal childbirth. This will have a 50% chance of compelling the victim to protect the children both before and after birth, although the strength will fade away by 5% per month after the "happy events".

The future mothers, however, will be specifically targeted by their foetuses prior to birth using the minor psionic discipline of hypnosis and so will be totally incapable of knowingly allowing any action which would threaten the pregnancy.

The Children of the Cuckoos
The young will be born at more or less the same time (and this applies across the infected sites as well as the individuals within each site) but they will manipulate the labours in order to ensure the maximum chance of success viz-a-viz available midwives and other help. Other than this, the chance of a successful birth will be the same as is normal for the campaign world and the specific location therein.

It's easy to spot once you know it's there
Physically, Children will resemble their host race, although probably not their host parent, but will have some distinctive trait that they all share - albinism, violet eyes, long or missing tails if the host is a tailed race, different hair or plumage etc. The difference will be strong and distinct but it will not be physically handicapping.

The stats for the Children are more or less normal. However, they will all have INT, WIS, and CHA rolled on 10+3d3 and they will all be psionically endowed.

At birth, each will have one attack mode and two defence modes, however they will initially rely on their minor discipline of hypnosis.

Psionic strength base is calculated as normal (so there is a minimum score of 3 and a maximum of 84) but no percentile roll is made. Instead, each infant is born with a score equal to their base plus 10 and psionic ability is double this - so from 26 to 188.

Growing Up Different
As the Children grow they add 5 psionic strength points (and therefore 10 points of psionic ability) per year for 10 years. On odd Birthdays, each cuckoo will develop a new attack or defence form (at random but no re-rolls) and on even ones they develop a new minor discipline and add a general level of mastery.

The development of the minor disciplines is such that any particular group of Children will only have a maximum of two examples of each type. On the Birthday, roll for the strongest Child first and then down to the weakest, with later members of the group simply not developing any new ability if they roll one that has already two examples in the group.

It's like Russian Roulette, but
with less uncertainty
No member of the group will willingly stray further than a mile from the others during this period and they will use their hypnotic power to protect themselves and ensure that they are well fed and looked after by their hosts. They will attempt, probably very successfully, to remain hidden from the outside world and strangers will be well-treated initially. Only if they show signs of staying too long or nosing about will any trouble occur.

On the 12th Birthday, the stronger members of the group will decide upon the weeding out process. Any Child with less than 3 minor disciplines, or less than 3 attack forms will be "consumed" in a ritual which results in their psionic points being drained and divided evenly among the "strong" members. If all the surviving Children are classed as weak, they will all die and the infestation will be over. This process is part of their life cycle and individuals will not resist - indeed, can not resist. The host bodies of weak members do not survive this process.

Village of the Damned
The survivors will now have psionic ability scores roughly in the range of 126 to 288 (perhaps slightly more if there were weak members to absorb) and as part of their 12th Birthday development all survivors gain two major psionic disciplines: Mass Domination, and Telepathic Projection. Mastery levels for all psionic effects will be raised to 8th and all the Children make a final roll on the minor table, limited as before to 2 examples of each ability within the surviving group.

The next phase lasts for another 12 years during which the Children gradually dispense with those members of the host community of no use to them - starting with the elderly and those under about 4 years-old. Anyone able to resist the cuckoos in any way will also be eliminated and there will be much less fuss about hiding from the outside world.

Breeding will commence with the adults around them, which will result in cuckoos rather than normal host children, regardless of whether the mother is a cuckoo or a host. Cuckoos can not breed with each other.

Once there is a new generation of 12-year-olds ready to breed, the first generation will leave the area to find new locations where their powers can be used to create ever more cuckoos. Back at the original settlement, once all the host adults are beyond breeding age they will be dispatched (probably at their own hands) and the place abandoned.

Ever Onward
Host bodies will live a normal lifespan, albeit one that has all the advantages that can be obtained by such a species' use of its powers over those around them. When the host body dies, the adolescent (ie one that is more than 11 years-old; young cuckoos simply die if their body is destroyed) is finally released to become an adult without physical form. This adult can produce a new "egg" - perhaps with a new target host race. If no viable sites are available then the adults will form into packs of 4-24 before leaving to find new worlds to consume. Adults gain 4 levels of mastery (ie, 12th) and an additional 20 points of psionic ability.

Violent death of a host body is likely to be accompanied by enough psychic distress to kill the cuckoo itself, unless a save against death is made. If the cuckoo has no class levels (all have the potential to gain levels, but need to find a mentor before the age of 12 in order to fulfil this) then they save as a 4HD monster. The cuckoos will not normally risk suicide unless they have infected a long-lived species, in which case they will end their own lives at the age of about 100. Naturally, they will do this in a way that avoids violence and the need for a saving throw.

Frequency: V. Rare (astral plane only)
# Appearing: 4-24
AC: 10
Move: 24"
HD: 4
% Lair: nil
TT: none
# Attacks: none
Damage: none
Special attacks: Possession, psionics
Special defenses: +2 or better to hit
MR: std
Intelligence: 10+3d3
Alignment: Lawful Evil
Size: M
Psionic Ability: 142+4d4x10
Attack/Defense Modes: var./var.
Lv/xp: V/ 230+4 per hp

For random encounters with adults, assume 1d3+2 attack forms and 1d3+1 defence forms. All adults will have hypnosis, mass domination, and telepathic projection as well as 1d6 other minor disciplines at the 12th level level of mastery.

The adult forms will attack anything they encounter, in order to prevent any warning of their movements. Although normally invisible, the adult form resembles a fuzzy ball which propels itself through the astral plane by will force alone.

Intellectually, the race is detached and aloof, considering all other intelligent PMP races as farm animals to be used as tools and discarded when they are no longer useful. Although not a hive mind as such, they are completely devoted to the survival of the race and will willingly sacrifice themselves for the good of the group and, of course, many will actually have abilities that allow them to work in concert. Although evil, they are not sadistic - they don't care enough about their hosts to engage in that sort of behaviour - although their treatment of the host parents will certainly be cruel.

Children are difficult to stat out as normal monsters as their abilities vary by the host race to some extent. However, they do appear in lair 100% of the time (with treasure appropriate to the location and host) and of course they have psionic abilities which add to the xp value but even these vary with age.

Working together for
a more ordered tomorrow
It is worth remembering that psionics can work together in chains, and even when young the Children will do this in order to maximise their ability to resist any threat to their uncanny "kindergarten". Adults will do this too, of course.

The older adolescents who have moved on from their original homes are more stable and will have the same number of attack modes as the adults, no major disciplines and mastery of their minor disciplines at the 8th level.

Yet another example of my belief that something interesting can be done with the psionic rules even if they are badly written and explained. The monster is of course based on the Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, which was made into a movie called "Village of the Damned" in 1960 (and, bizarrely, remade just four years later as "Children of the Damned"). It also inspired many comic book adaptations and variations, including "Freak Angels", a modern "what if the children had grown up?" look at the idea.

The monster can be used as a one-off, but it also has potential to kick off a major development in a campaign world as various sites are infected, discovered, and tackled while the cuckoos use puppets and possibly their own powers and class abilities to counter any resistance.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Magic Item: Potion of Regeneration

Come Prepared
A potion of regeneration contains 3 draughts. A single draught grants one point of regeneration per round for 3 turns; a double grants 2 points per round for 2 turns and consuming the whole potion grants 3 points per round for 10 rounds.

Taking draughts in overlapping stages increases the regeneration ability from that point onwards and shortens the duration, but time already used counts towards the time limit. So, if a character took a single portion and 5 rounds later took the other two, they would have 3hp/rnd regeneration for only a further 5 rounds.

The regeneration is limited to returning the user to the state they were in when the first draught was taken, but otherwise is fully effective. So, for example, if a one-armed man drunk the potion they would not re-grow the arm, but if a person lost an arm while under the influence of the potion it would regrow (in 1 round). Similarly, if a character is reduced from 72hp to 10 before taking the potion, it will only regenerate further damage suffered; it is not a healing potion.

Unlike troll regeneration, the potion will heal any damage even from fire and acid.

The potion will not protect against poison (unless it does hit point damage), nor against effects such as disintegration. A severed head will grow back from the neck down (if the head is destroyed, say by being put into a Green Devil's mouth which is actually a sphere of annihilation, then the potion will fail) in 3d6 rounds. Other than these limitations, any amount of damage which does not reduce the drinker to ash or similar will be regenerated, time permitting.

Other healing magic will work in conjunction with the potion of regeneration, but healing potions use at the same time will require a roll on the potion miscibility table (DMG p119) and any damage done as a result of that roll will not regenerate.

The active ingredient is troll-blood (which is generally very hard to obtain).

XP value: 500
GP value: 1200