Thursday 10 September 2015

PC Death

What PC Death often looks like from the DM's PoV
It's often suggested that PCs should only die when the death is a direct consequence of their decisions, as opposed to a run of dumb bad luck or a "save Vs death" trap or somesuch.

While I agree in the broad sense that PC death should not be whimsical; all PCs generally do share the same decision of "Let's go and face the danger" for whatever reasons. So in that sense no PC death is really the result of dumb luck etcetera any more than knowingly walking into a minefield and actually stepping on a mine is just bad luck.

Monday 31 August 2015

Monster: The Firebird 鳳凰

Frequency: Unique/V. Rare/special
No appearing: 1
Armour Class: 3 (AT 3)
Move: 24"/36" (Class C)
HD: 12
% In Lair: 90%
Treasure Type: Qx10, S, T, X
# Attacks: 3
Damage/attack: 1d8, 1d8, 2d8 (claw/claw/beak)
Special attacks: Fireball
Special defenses: Fire Resistance+non-magical weapon damage
Magic Resistance: 30%
Intelligence: Genius
Alignment: LN
Size: L
Psionic Ability: 240, C, D, I, J
Level/xp: X / 12850 +16/hp

The firebird comes from heaven on the ascension of a new eastern emperor, to inspect the state of mortal affairs, returning to report to the Celestial Emperor. Thus it will only be encountered in eastern nations within five years of a new emperor coming to the throne  (roll 1d6 when encountered to see which year of its stay it is in, then a d12 for the month. On an initial roll of 6 roll 1d8 for the number of days remaining in its current visit).

It makes its nest deep in a forest, mountain range or desert where it carries out interviews with spirits and fantastical creatures such as foo-dogs and lions, dragons, ogre magi, sylphs, and so forth to gather information for its report. There is a 10% chance that any encounter in lair will coincide with an audience of some such creatures (roll an additional encounter appropriate to the location ignoring inappropriate results). If encountered with a non-chaotic oriental dragon there is a 30% chance that the Firebird is in a relationship with the dragon.

If attacked, the Firebird can produce a 12 dice fireball-like effect centred on itself instead of attacking with its claws. It may do this once per turn. Additionally, it may perform any of the following once per round (as if at the 12th level of ability) instead of beak attacks: affect normal fires, cause blindness, continual light, dancing lights, detect evil/good, detect magic, fire charm, fire shield, fools gold, legend lore, mirror image, protection from evil/good 10' radius, and pyrotechnics.

And the following effects once per day in lieu of any physical attacks in the current round: ESP, command, detect lie, hallucinatory terrain, plane shift, polymorph self, protection from normal missiles, resist cold, teleport no error, wall of fire, water breathing.

The Firebird has the major science of Energy Control.

Elemental attacks against the Firebird are modified as per the entry for dragons in MM, but fire-based attacks do no damage and in fact heal one point of damage per die (or 5pts for fixed-damage attacks).

In combat (or any high passion) the Firebird's body glows with heat and although its metallic-seeming body can be struck with non-magical weapons, any such must save versus magical fire (use the worst score if there is a choice) for each successful to-hit roll or be destroyed. Successful open hand attacks cause one point of heat damage to the attacker.

The Firebird is a heavenly creature and as such needs no material sustenance and can understand and telepathically speak any language.

The Firebird's treasure will consist of gems and jewels it brings with it to pay for information which it deems useful, and magic items given to it in tribute by rulers hoping for a good report (i.e., items given to the Firebird effectively leave the campaign when it returns home, so this can be a good way to get rid of artefacts). If the Firebird polymorphs into an appropriate form, it will certainly use these items in defense. It will trade magical items on occasion, but will only give an item in exchange for one with at least 10% higher gp value, and even then it will haggle from a starting point of 100% higher. Easily offended by mortals, it will break off discussions at the slightest provocation. Initial reaction rolls for the Firebird are at -10% as it is a grumpy old bird, but it will never instantly attack any creature unless it is obviously a thief or of a race which is normally chaotic.

Description: because the Firebird can polymorph, reports of its appearance, and even sex, are jumbled but it seems that its natural form is that of a huge red, black, copper, gold, and yellow peacock some 20' long.

The Firebird is generally officious and uninterested in mortal concerns except where they impact the continuation or support of the harmonious rulership of the rightful claimant to a throne. In such cases, it will side with the claimant and aid them unless they are aligned with chaos, in which case it will oppose them; Good and Evil do not interest it. In other matters, it will stick strictly to the business of information gathering and in no case will it remain on the PMP for a day over five years.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Dave's Dungeons, a Worked Example

1 Introductory Introductory Note

This is the long post that Blogspot swallowed on me back in February, which dented my enthusiasm for the blog somewhat as it was a lot of work. I still had my original list of monsters but I lost the descriptive text which I've now re-written. I also still had the introduction, which follows. I've added some further design notes at the end too.

This reconstruction is also an experiment in using org-mode for blogging.

2 Introductory Note

So I decided to roll up a quick dungeon using the methods outlined a couple of posts ago, based on Dave Arneson's notes. Since I wanted to post the results here I thought I'd just do a single level and, because I'm really crap at making electronic maps of dungeons, I grabbed one from Tim Hartin's website Paratime Design, where he presents a range of Creative Commons dungeon maps. Specifically, I picked map 100 (see above). Although I wanted a single level, I used the steps in this map to simulate depth. So, the bulk of the map was generated as 1st level, but parts used a 2nd level mix, with secret rooms being treated as an additional level higher than the room/area they led off, so room 34 was generated as a 3rd level room, for example. Generating the monsters took about 15 minutes; treasure took about the same time, although I was using a program for that (sticking to BtB). That gave a very bare but playable map in about 45 minutes. I then went through the rooms trying to come up with a back story which could be reflected in the contents. I had rolled up some tribesmen as the level's "in lair" monster and since it was only a single level I decided to move them outside, as noted below, but I used some of their treasure in the rooms.

I decided that they would be living in a town which was obviously well above their ability to create, and that they would in fact be in the remains of a Greek town, with Greek dress and the remains of Greek culture. That idea (inspired by my current reading material) basically informed everything about the dungeon which became an abandoned temple complex devoted to the chthonic forms of several major Greek deities.

For the dungeon to be fully effective, I think, the Greek gods should NOT be active in the gameworld.

So, scribbling down the ideas for the rooms didn't take much longer but, oh boy, typing it all up for this post took an age. And it's not close to what I'd do if I was trying to publish it.

3 Pre-rolled treasure map

The whole dungeon was sparked by this roll for a treasure map:

"Dungeon treasure: 3000cp, 40000sp located in labyrinth of caves found in/near lair, in a lair with guard"

This treasure was spread throughout the dungeon but in fact the most valuable treasure came from the monsters that were generated as "guards".

4 The Adventure Location

4.1 Wide View

Currently I'm imagining this to be set in a tropical land, perhaps the tropical version of Greenland that I assume lies south of the main Greyhawk map, or some island to the east of the CSIO maps. In any case, if it's set on an island it should be a fairly large one (1600m² or more) with room for other settlements and towns.

4.2 Outside—The City of Cavemen

Tribesmen lair - 100 warriors, walled, 36 slaves, 2 tusks, 95 uncut gems

The village walls are far too big for the village and made of stone; there are no gates and the wall has clearly not been maintained for decades—it is covered in grass and even small trees.

Culturally, the village is a strange mix of hunter-gatherers and philosophy-spouting hoplite warriors with bones through their noses and pieces of bronze plate in their homes. The village used to be a town with walls but the current population occupy only the central portion of the site around the old market, agora, and baths etc. These buildings are all in a fairly poor condition and many of the rooves have holes in them which are either untended or patched up with banana leaves and straw.

Given that this is an adventure for 1st level characters, there's no real need to flesh the tribe members out any further—the point is that they are a formidable group. For higher level characters the villagers could be developed and factions noted. Additionally, this adventure assumes that the tribesmen have something of a taboo about the temple but do not object to the party entering it (see "Hooks", below). For a stronger party, that might change and become part of the challenge.

The chief and his family live in what was a smaller temple of Zeus, and his "throne" is an ornate wooden affair covered with leopard skins and other furs, but mounted on the back are what seem to be two large crossed elephant tusks. Closer inspection will reveal them to be carved into outstretched arms, one with a fist, and the other with the palm extended. These ivory artefacts are worth about 800gp each; 2000gp for the pair.

Military Strength

The tribal leaders consist of the warrior class: 10 3rd level fighters, 3 4th level fighters, a 5th level chief; and the priest class: 1 3rd level druid, 10 4th level druids, 3 6th level druids, and a 8th level druid witchdoctor. Aside from the witchdoctor, these druids are rarely seen in the village and patrol the wilderness looking out for signs of serious monster incursions that could threaten the tribe.

In melee combat, the warriors will use part-bronze plate with large shields (AC 5, AT 3-2) and spears; they can additionally muster 30 shortbowmen. In mass combat, they will use a phalanx formation which allows the large shields to overlap and give each man an AC of 3 (AT 3). If space is limited they will take the opportunity to make two ranks. The tribal spellcasters are druids and will use their spells and abilities to support the phalanx, aiming to counteract opposing spellcasters and protect the right-hand end of the phalanx where the final warrior will not get the formation AC bonus.

The "Crown Jewels"

The chief loves gems of all sorts, and will attempt to claim ownership of any found during the adventure, preferring them to gold and particularly to tarnished silver and green-tinged copper coins.

  • The gem stash

    These gems are secreted somewhere in the chief's quarters in a chest:

    10sp Lapis Lazuli, 14sp Rhodochrosite, 1gp Tiger Eye, 2gp Blue Quartz, 3gp Tiger Eye, 4gp Moss Agate, 5gp Rhodochrosite, 5gp Azurite, 5gp Hematite, 5gp Turquoise, 5gp Blue Quartz, 6gp Bonded Agate, 6gp Tiger Eye, 6gp Obsidian, 8gp Blue Quartz, 8gp Hematite, 9gp Obsidian, 9gp Lapis Lazuli, 10gp Obsidian, 10gp Tiger Eye, 10gp Eye Agate, 10gp Malachite, 10gp Obsidian, 10gp Lapis Lazuli, 10gp Azurite, 10gp Turquoise, 10gp Lapis Lazuli, 10gp Tiger Eye, 10gp Obsidian, 10gp Azurite, 10gp Blue Quartz, 10gp Bonded Agate, 10gp Rhodochrosite, 10gp Turquoise, 10gp Malachite, 10gp Lapis Lazuli, 10gp Blue Quartz, 10gp Turquoise, 10gp Hematite, 10gp Lapis Lazuli, 10gp Tiger Eye, 10gp Rhodochrosite, 10gp Hematite, 10gp Blue Quartz, 10gp Bonded Agate, 10gp Tiger Eye, 10gp Moss Agate, 10gp Blue Quartz, 10gp Rhodochrosite, 10gp Turquoise, 10gp Lapis Lazuli, 10gp Eye Agate, 10gp Rhodochrosite, 10gp Bonded Agate, 10gp Moss Agate, 10gp Tiger Eye, 10gp Moss Agate, 10gp Obsidian, 10gp Tiger Eye, 10gp Rhodochrosite, 10gp Lapis Lazuli, 10gp Malachite, 10gp Rhodochrosite, 10gp Hematite, 10gp Eye Agate, 10gp Azurite, 10gp Blue Quartz, 10gp Eye Agate, 10gp Lapis Lazuli, 10gp Obsidian, 10gp Hematite, 12gp Hematite, 12gp Obsidian, 14gp Blue Quartz, 20gp Moss Agate, 20gp Lapis Lazuli, 20gp Tiger Eye, 20gp Azurite, 20gp Azurite, 20gp Rhodochrosite, 20gp Rhodochrosite, 20gp Rhodochrosite

  • The throne

    As well as the ivory arms mentioned above, the throne has these gems stuck to it with tree resin as decoration:

    20gp Obsidian, 50gp Chalcedony, 50gp Citrine, 50gp Zircon, 50gp Onyx, 50gp Moonstone, 50gp Chalcedony, 50gp Chrysoprase, 50gp Citrine, 50gp Smoky Quartz, 50gp Sardonyx, 80gp Smoky Quartz

  • The Ceremonial Mace

    The head of the ceremonial (but very much usable) mace which the witch-doctor uses is a polished piece of jade worth 100gp

The Druid View

If any of the player characters is a druid, then the witchdoctor will inform them that the temple they are going to explore was once the beachhead of an alien pantheon of gods bent on stealing the tribe's worship away from Nature. While he has no objection to exploration and further destruction of whatever is in there, he expects a report on any signs that these alien deities are still able to use it to access this area.

If the DM has already established the Greek pantheon on their world, the alienness should simply be that those gods had not been worshipped by the tribe before; otherwise it can be made to seem more cosmic as the DM sees fit.

4.3 The Dungeon

The ``dungeon'' is an ancient temple to Zeus Ktesios—Zeus in his chthonic form of a snake.

I would suggest that the temple itself be sited about 3 miles away through heavy overgrowth that would allow only 1 mile per day path-finding; with normal movement speeds over the (easily followed) path thereafter. If the players want to explore the coastline, a river mouth about a mile from the village leads back inland to a short distance from the temple and could be traversed in only a single day. Of course, that path will not improve substantially on subsequent trips but it will be out of sight of the village.

Wandering Monsters

Monsters are keyed by their originating room and the maximum number in the dungeon. If a roll indicates a monster who's supply has been exhausted, then there is no encounter.

Table 1: Main Table
d100 Monster Room #appearing Max
1 - 15 Ants, giant (MM) 9 1–2 78
16 - 26 Beetle, giant bombardier (MM) 17 1–4 4
27 - 36 Mongrelmen (MMII) 11 4 4
37 - 47 Rats, normal (MMII) --- 1–20 unlimited
48 - 73 Reroll on Subtable      
74 - 89 Vilstrak (MMII) 33 1–8 20
90 - 100 Wolfwere (MMII) 29 1–2 2

A Note on "Rats, normal": The rats in the dungeon are hungry but they won't normally attack active characters. A wandering monster roll that indicates rats will generally mean that the rats have tried to get at some equipment - a bag or some such. If the rats have surprise then assume they have been successful; otherwise that they have been seen. However, if any creature has been put out of action during a fight, the rats' first instinct will be to nibble on them with 1hp damage for every 5 rats and a 5% chance of disease per bite. The rats are quite capable of nibbling on wooden items such as wands, as well as cloaks, rope and so forth. Sadly, there is no item saving throw table entry for "nibbling", so use the owner's saving throw against paralyzation with the item save modifiers for magical items.

Table 2: Subtable
d100 Monster Room #appearing Max
1 - 13 Badger, giant (MM) --- 1 1
18- 26 Hobgoblins 14 1–3 3
27 - 46 Gnomes (MM) 3 1–3 3
47 - 59 Rat, giant (MM) --- 1 2
60 - 72 Snake, giant, constrictor (MM) --- 1 1
73 - 85 Snake, giant, poisonous (MM) --- 1 2
86 - 98 Snake, poisonous (MMII) --- 1–2 unlimited
99 - 100 Tribesmen (MM) 12 1–6 12

General Conditions

Beyond the first few rooms, the general conditions are of wrack and ruin, with smashed furniture, smashed plaster and stonework, corroded bronze light fittings, discarded weapons and long-dead bodies everywhere, including the corridors. Without light, quiet movement is difficult (roll 3d6 Vs Dex per turn) and fast movement dangerous (similar roll per round, if failed then save Vs paralysis, without Dex mod, to avoid 1d3 damage).

If players ask about the specific conditions in any corridor then there will be 1d3-1 bodies (ie, clothed skeletons) within 3" of their current position and 25% of these will have a usable weapon (1: dagger, 2: scimitar, 3: short sword, 4: broadsword, 5-6: spear); 10% have a usable shield (1-4: large, 5-6: med). There are no usable sets of body armour (thye have been removed).

Most of the rooms (3/4) have at least one corpse except where specifically noted with a similar chance of weapons and shields.

There are, of course, rats, lizards, bats, and mice all over the place, particularly near the entrance, but except as shown on the wandering monster table these will not normally play a significant part in the adventure.

Room 1 Entrance Hall and Lobby

The entrance corridor from the outside is 20' high with an arched roof and the lobby is a domed room 35' high at the mid point.

The entrance hall is lined with plastered walls painted to resemble pannels of wood like giant picture frames with nothing in them. Soil and leaf litter are scattered around the entrance but by about 30' in the floor (bare but unpolished rock) is clear. Light from the outside makes artificial illumination unnecessary.

The lobby area ceiling depicts various gods looking down on the room below—Zeus, Ares, Athena, Hades, Meope, and the twins Artemis and Apollo.

In the actual lobby there are four stone statues of warriors in Greek-style armour holding: a spear and large shield, a short sword and medium shield, a khopesh and large shield, and man naked except for Corinthian helm and a trident which he is about to hurl.

The shields and weapons are usable but the shield's leather straps will break if struck in combat (save Vs normal blow) and the weapons are ornamental and quite blunt (treat as -1 weapons) but they count as cold iron. In each case, the weapons and shields may be removed without harming the statues. If the statues are smashed wantonly then those that do so will suffer a -1 to saving throws within the temple (remove curse will lift this).

The southern exit is a rectangular corridor 15' high while the east and west are square.

Room 2 The Oracle Room

A huge stone disc with a carved medusa face on it dominates the south wall.

If anyone touches the stone disc the stone face will come to life, including the snakes (but there will be no petrifaction effect) and the medusa will instruct the party that she is the oracle of Zeus and will answer one question each; this is stated in Greek. At this point the DM should make a reaction roll for the person who touched the stone first and note the score.

If the party leaves the room the face will become dormant again and any individual may return as often as they like and the face will make its statement/offer again until such times as no one in the room has had a question answered. In no case will any individual receive more than one answer in their lifetime (what happens when raised from the dead is up to the DM).

The chance that the answer is accurate is equal to the score on the reaction roll which is made each time the face comes to life. Note that the same score is used for everyone from that point until the face goes back to sleep.

The face emits an aura of divination magic.

Room 3 Old Guard barracks

Beds and rags that used to be mattresses, rat-chewed and rotten.

3 Gnomes (3, 1, 1hp; 13, 11, 11xp), 44gp The gnomes are looking for a rumoured cache of gems. They are with the dwarves in room 5. They will be angry about hot illumination being brought in.

Room 4 Pilgrim Dormitory

More beds and rags in huge piles of wreckage. There has been a major fight/massacre in here and there are the bones of about a dozen people scattered about. An hour's searching will reveal 2d6 sp and 1d20 cp.

Room 5 Preparation Room

Hooks for coats, stone troughs for ritual washing.

3 Dwarves (2, 2, 1hp; 12, 12, 11xp), 70gp

Accompanying the gnomes in room 3, the dwarves are resting from searching for secret doors and passages. They will be angry about hot illumination being brought in.

Room 6 Main Congregation Area

  • a The east and west walls are painted with the same landscape of arid

    mountains with caves; the east wall is in daylight, the west wall at night. Neither the sun nor moon are depicted in either painting. In the centre of the room is a huge oak table, smashed in places but originally capable of seating around 50 people. It weighs about half a ton and was constructed in the room and can not fit through the doors.

    There are about twenty long-dead bodies here, several in bronze plate armour and a range of rusty or otherwise ruined mundane weapons, chiefly maces and swords, are scattered about.

    The long corridor to the south is constructed, walls, floors, and ceilings as an underground grotto with carved stalactites and stalagmites and bits of coloured glass embedded into surfaces to produce gem-like effects which dwarves and gnomes will certainly identify for what they are but others of Wis under 12 will not unless the player says otherwise.

  • b The bodies of two men lie here in a heap. Both are partially

    mummified and wear loose robes, one white and one brown. The stone flags are darkly stained. If searched, the heap also contains a sickle, a normal mace, some dried mistletoe and a wooden caduceus as well as 4sp and 8cp.

  • c Long benches covered in trenchers full of what used to be food line

    the east wall. Five charred skeletons and a bunch of wrecked weapons: axe heads with just a stump of a shaft; similar spears and such like.

Room 7 Magically Locked Room

A bronze door covered in dents. In front of the door is the wooden battering ram which caused the dents and the skeletons of six large men who were operating it when they were struck by lightning, leaving a huge scorch mark on the ram, the floor, and the door.

Inside the room are various silver cups and plate (2000sp worth and weight) and fifty copper bells, all different (2000cp).

Entering the room requires either two knock spells or a knock spell and a pick lock success. Dispel magic against a 9th level defence could replace the knock spell. Alternatively, the key (which also temporarily deactivates the magic) is with the body in room 8.

Room 8 Altar room

The doors are oak and are barred from the inside.

From left to right, looking from the door: A geode of dark rock crystal; a stone pillar with a human head and an exceptionally long erect penis, a coiled stone snake with its head raised, and a life-like fly carved from a piece of basalt.

These are statues of Hades, Hermes, Zeus, and Metis.

The alter is a single piece of white marble. In front of this is a crumpled corpse, a skeleton in what were rich robes. If moved, a slash and old blood stains will be revealed and good light will reveal a trail of blood back to the doors. Additionally, the corpse's hand clutches a bronze key.

Room 9 Ritual costume room

The room is full of wardrobes and large wooden chests containing a range of costumes and masks for enacting rituals. The chorus is represented by about 90 wooden masks in five different styles, and a similar number of fairly plain clothes, togas, and robes.

Each turn the party spend searching grants each member a 1 in 6 chance of finding the locked chest containing 10 silver masks representing various deities from the Greek pantheon, as well as a set of silver scale mail with eyes enamelled over the scales on the front (totally decorative; no combat value at all). The masks are each the equivalent of 20sp and the suit of armour about 500sp (i.e., it weighs 50lbs and is worth 25gp). The chest is not especially strong but the key for the lock is only available to a party who spent a whole day searching room 6 (or used some sort of magic).

2 giant ants (12, 10hp; 44, 40xp) have emerged from a hole in the floor where the rock is interrupted by clay; flagstones have been pushed aside.

If these initial worker ants are attacked and killed in the room, more ants will emerge to investigate the alarm scent they will release. The first group will be two more worker ants like these. If they are killed then the next group will be two warrior ants (3HD, 12, 13hp; 86, 89; poison sting).

A final group of 10 workers and 2 warriors will investigate if the second group are killed.

In each case, if the ants are left alone they will simply return via the mile long tunnel to their nest (78 workers, 15 warriors, plus queen and 18 workers/5 warrior bodyguard; Potion of Invisibility, Elixir of Life, Philter of Love, Oil of Fiery Burning; Topaz 500gp, Ruby 5000gp, Spinel, green 100gp, Blue Quartz 10gp, Spinel, red 100gp, Chrysoprase 50gp, Aquamarine 500gp).

Room 10 The Hall of Crimson Pillars

The ceiling here is 30' high and at each corner stands a smooth column of red porphyry stone. Potentially, this could be worth money if the party know a wealthy sculptor.

The walls and ceiling are painted to represent a crimson sky which graduates into a dark lake in grey mist (light from the outside will not penetrate here), with the floor painted as a strip of marshland that winds its way to each of the doors. The effect is powerful and the whole room radiates illusion and charm magic such that any character must make a save against spells (with WIS mod) to step off the ``marsh'' into the water. If they do, there will be no problem and the floor is simply a painted floor.

Any intelligent creature forced off the path and who fails their saving throw will drown in 1d3 rounds if they can not swim. If they can swim, they will find that no amount of swimming will bring the illusionary shore any closer. Encumbrance will make no difference; characters will not sink. Ropes may be thrown out, or those who have made their saving throw may simply walk over and carry the victims back to ``dry land''.

Should anyone somehow summon a charonodæmon here, every living thing in the room will be transported instantly to the uppermost Gloom of Hades where Charon himself, instead of the lesser dæmon, will await them for one turn before leaving them in the real marsh that the illusion reproduced. Those going with him are on a new adventure, but some of the items found in this dungeon may aid their passage.

12 tribesmen from village (1, 7, 7, 4, 1, 7, 2, 5, 1, 1, 8, 7hp; 10+hp xp) attempting to break into room 11.

Shield, spear and club (mace) x 4, shield and two spears x 5, shortbow and club x 3.

Room 11 High Priest's Public Room

Filled with smashed furniture and with large chunks of the plaster on the wall missing, this room was once the room the high priest of Zeus had private meetings, now it is a scene of chaos.

4 Mongrelmen (1HD; 5, 8, 4, 6hp; 23, 26, 22, 24xp) Attempting to prevent the tribesmen from room 10 getting in.

The mongrelmen (actually 3 men and 1 woman) ducked in here for shelter while travelling but were spotted by a hunting party from the village who pursued them here and think they have them cornered.

With the door barred, the mongrelmen are preparing to use the ruined furniture and slashed carpets and wall-hangings to set an ambush using their camouflage ability. The plan is to let the tribesmen come into the room and then rush out and try to get further into the dungeon and away from what they believe to be a dead end.

Room 12 The high priest's private chamber

A carved wooden statue of a rearing snake (worth perhaps 30gp to a collector but weighing about 400lbs) occupies the alcove, a camp-style bed the north east corner and little else other than a chest with normal clothes and another with robes.

Room 13 VIP Greeting Room

The room is strewn with torn and mouldy tapestries and curtains, as well as smashed wooden furniture (couches and divans). Nothing of worth remains.

Room 14 Henchmen's Room

  • a Burnt Room

    3 Hobgoblins 53cp, 18gp

    The room was where the henchmen of visitors waited while their masters were in discussions with the temple priesthood. The whole place has been incinerated, the walls, floor, and ceiling blacked by soot. Some charred remains can be discerned. The wooden chest is fairly new and missing its lock. If surprised, the hobgoblins are sitting on it facing into the room having a snack from dirty sacks containing both foul food and their cash. Eating the food is an Evil act.

  • b Old Passage

    This secret entrance/exit is unstable and if either door is opened there is a 30\% chance of the passage collapsing doing 3d6 damage to anyone inside, leaving them trapped and slowly suffocating (1d4 damage per round). The doors open into the passageway and if the opener is simply pushing them then they can avoid damage/trap with a simple save against breath weapons, with dexterity bonus applying. Anyone rushing into the passage receives no saving throw at all.

Room 15 The Interval Bar

Empty except for a heap of smashed glass dishes and bottles. The glass is multicoloured and very expensive looking.

Room 16 Meditation Room

This room contains several skeletons which have suffered sever head traumas, a few broken swords and some corroded bronze sickles. The walls were once painted with scenes of Arcadian hills and light woods but are now peeling and splattered with long-dried blood stains.

Room 17 The Audience Room of the Great God Pan

The door of this room is automatic from both sides, opening (and locking) of its own accord. The door can open in either direction and is thus very difficult to "lock" using mundane methods.

4 Giant Bombardier Beetles (15, 12, 8, 15hp); aggressive.

There are heaps of clothing in the NW and SW corners which on inspection are the crushed remains of at least half a dozen men mixed with broken scimitars. Careful inspection will reveal some dried mistletoe.

Carved 5' wooden statue of Pan on a dias. The god is dancing while playing his iconic pipes. In the three niches are similar statues of frolicking nymphs. Careful examination of the nymphs will reveal that their hands and forearms seem to be bloodstained. All the statues radiate summoning/conjuration magic.

The central part of the room is an inverse domed with the appearance of the full moon which bathes the room in its soft glow. Projected onto the walls (although there is no projector) is a complex weave of lines and dots which slowly move over time. If studied, multiply hours spent by Int-2 or Wis; once 40 points are accumulated, the character understands that this is a calendar of some sort and shows the positions of at least the planets (but not apparently the sun). There are many other marks and the DM can decide what they represent but certainly some sort of divination effect will be part of it.

The ``moonlight'' has the inverse effect from normal on lycanthropes other than werebears (who are unaffected) but including wolfweres (who are not normal lycanthropes) in that it causes them to return to their human forms in the round following their entry.

If any such creature enters the room in their animal form the door will then shut and lock behind them and the statues of the nymphs will come to life and brutally kill the intruder(s) with their bare hands while the statue of the god will caper and play its pipes from the dias while shadows like clouds scud across the ``moon''. Once all such were-creatures are dead, the nymphs will return to their niches and the door will operate normally again. Interfering with the nymphs while they are animated, including trying to prevent them returning to their positions, will result in combat to the death.

Wood Nymphs: AC 6, HD 3 (17, 10, 15hp), +1 or better to hit, 2 attacks (fists or kicks), 1d8 damage per attack, 50% magic resistance, Lv/xp: III/105+3xhp

The wolfweres in Room 29 are completely unaware of the effects of this room, or even its existence, having only recently entered the complex.

Room 18 Phantom Replay

The phantom of the high priest replays his death at the hands of a huge bear.

Room 19 The Theatre

A theatre auditorium, with stepped seats. The stage at the north side is only 15' deep by 30' wide. The ceiling is 20' high and has ventilation chimneys which lead to the outside. These are big enough for a gnome but have anti-rain baffles near the surface which are now clogged with dirt.

Room 20 Principles' Dressing Room

6 Baboons. The baboons wandered in here through a small hole in the door and will attempt to flee if anything else enters. If a party blocks their exit, they will attack. They have excellent ultravision and can see well even in the little light that reaches this room during the day.

The broken furniture here contains a great deal of smudged coloured wax, powders, and what were once expensive cloaks and gowns. Most of it is simply rotten, and the rest is burnt or charred. Smashed mirror shards are everywhere.

Room 21 Chorus' Dressing Room

Wooden masks are scattered over the floor in heaps and between the broken furniture and slashed clothing. There are also props such as staves, wands, swords, spears, crowns, necklaces, and amulets etc made of paste and costume jewellery. Detecting for magic will reveal it all to be junk.

The masks are in 4 batches of 16 identical designs each. They depict, rather abstractly, old men, old women, young men, and young women. They have eye- and mouth-holes to let the actors see and speak. The female masks have less wear.

Otherwise nothing of interest.

Room 22 The Safe Room

The secret door opens by means of a simple stone `click' release which is currently hidden behind a pile of ruined garments.

Inside are 16 emaciated mummified bodies of actors arrayed in costumes, but without masks, which make them resemble a group of city elders but any expert eye will reveal the jewels and gems to be fake gilded metal and paste while the clothes are cheap cloth dyed and embroidered to look good at a distance.

Room 23 Ritual Room

Tapestries depicting arid hills hang to the east; snow-covered mountains to the west. Much dried blood and bodies scattered around.

Room 24 Purification Room

Empty, whitewashed (and peeling) walls marred by black damp spots.

Room 25 The Communion Room

Two stone chairs face each other with the remains of statues on them (all one piece originally). The missing upper torsos, arms, and heads lie scattered about the mosaic floor. If the heads are examined there is an obvious similarity between the male and female faces. Both statues were of archers and the mosaic floor, if cleared, can be seen to depict two archer deities killing a group of people around a distraught female.

If either or both of the statues are repaired (a difficult task) then they will commune through dreams with two members of the party (clerics for preference, then rangers, bards, fighters, illusionists, magic-users, 0-level types. Never druids. Humans preferred over demi-humans, and higher charisma over lower) and offer a limited wish in return for a commitment to worship the deity (Artemis or Apollo). If refused, the character will suffer a psychic blast delivered a close range from Apollo, or a curse from Artemis. Those that agree will become 1st level clerics of the deity that has contacted them (dual classing, multi-classing, or switching deity as applicable) and may at some point in the future call on their new deity to fulfil a limited wish on their behalf. Artemis's curse: no natural animal will be friendly, even via spell-use, and such creatures received +1 to hit and damage against the PC. Treat any remove curse as if it were a dispel magic against a 14th level caster.

Room 26 Upper Guest Room


Room 27 Lower Guest Room


Room 28 Guard's Room

Empty, Trap, gas, save Vs poison or death (Dex mods apply if the player says something along the lines of `I try to hold my breath and duck out'. Each PC who attempts to do this gives a penalty of one to all the saving throws of other characters who try the same thing). The trap has two charges remaining and there is a catch in the door frame to disarm it.

Aside from bunks, there are a dozen spears, half a dozen large shields, and a dozen broad swords.

Room 29 The Music Room

The room was once a tastefully decorated room for relaxing before, or coming down from, the activities in the rooms to the west. Now it is a dark, damp, mould-covered cavern which stinks of death and fresh blood due to its new inhabitants.

If the room is searched the party will find various pipes, rotted drums, and tambourines etc. as well as the usual assortment of incinerated bodies, smashed shields and discarded or broken spears and scimitars.

2 Wolfweres (12, 11hp; 547, 541 xp)

The wolfweres' den is filthy and contains the remains of several humans as well as a couple of vilstraks from room 33. The remaining vilstraks have learnt the lesson that they can't harm the wolfweres and the wolfweres are not particularly interested in creatures they can't eat and which can simply melt into the ground to avoid their attacks.

The wolfweres' human forms are of two teenagers and they may represent themselves as brother and sister twins unless they are surprised by a party. In human form they fight as 0-level types.

They have a battered backpack of old blankets and clothes within which are hidden the few bits of treasure that have caught their eyes:

8000gp silver with gems statuette exceptional gem 2200gp platinum clasp

Potion of Animal Control (reptile/amphibian) Potion of Animal Control (mammal/marsupial) Elixir of Life Potion of Water Breathing Potion of Diminution

Scroll of protection from all lycanthropes

The scroll will not work against them; they are keeping it in case of werewolves. The previous owners of these things explained what they were before they died and the potions are marked with sigils of their own devising.

Room 30 The Vaulted Room

A single skeleton is the only immediate sign of trouble in this room.

The walls of the room are painted light blue; the floor green, and the semi-cylindrical ceiling is white. The doors are panelled with plaster to make them blend in when closed, but not to such a degree that they are truly secret.

The paint is augmented by illusion so that the surfaces of the room are bright yet cast no light on anything in the room, so that characters will be silhouetted against the walls unless they have their own lighting. If not, then all to-hit rolls are at -2 for characters without infravision.

The room is a trap, however, to those that do not worship any of the Greek gods. Any such intelligent being must save Vs magic in order to want to leave the room. Any who fail should be treated as victims of a charm person spell for the purposes of re-rolling. If forcibly removed, the character will attempt to return by any means possible in order to enjoy the bliss the illusion grants them. This bliss will cause them to forget earthly cares such as wounds, disease, the need to eat and drink etc. without actually helping with them in any way.

Dispel magic or remove curse will lift the effect of the room permanently from a victim.

Room 31 Library

The remains of the books (both scrolls and codices) have been pulled from their shelves and cubbyholes and burnt in the middle of this large room, along with the lecterns, desks, and couches that were the furniture.

Room 32 Bacchanalian Pleasure Dome

Four pillars support the domed roof and between them is a pool of dark-coloured liquid, which is simply magically preserved/cleansed very high-quality red wine (about 400 gallons of it). Each pillar is carved to represent vine leaves in different seasons - bare, flowering, budding, and heavy with grapes. In the centre of the pool stands a cross with two masks hanging from it: the one to the east smiles and the one hanging on west side is crying. These are the masks of Comedy and Tragedy and together are the Masks of Dionysus.

The Mask of Tragedy causes men to become insane and women to become maenads, so long as the mask is worn.

The Mask of Comedy causes men to become women and vice-versa, so long as the mask is worn. Neuter beings - including those which have polymorph self, change self, shape change and similar spell-like powers - are not affected. Affected or not, the creature should be treated/played as if greatly intoxicated until the mask is removed, at which point they will suffer 1d6 hours of illness. Neutralize poison will negate this effect. Generally speaking, the intoxicated character will not want to remove the mask but the degree of resistance is up to the player.

The masks radiate alteration magic and both require a save Vs spells to remove; one attempt may be made at the start of each turn and WIS modifiers apply but each failed attempt garners -1 (cumulative) to all future attempts, including ones made after a subsequent donning of the specific mask. Masks may be removed from unconscious characters without difficulty.

Maenads are female berserkers who fight exclusively with their bare hands, pummelling and grappling any non-female creature they can reach (and any hostile female too).

If possible, a maenad will cast off armour (certainly discarding any helm, weapon, and/or shield at the least, regardless of value; cloaks and similar items of normal clothing will be retained) and have a base AC of 7 (AT 10+3), attack at +1 to their normal ability, and make two attacks per round for 1d2 damage plus strength bonus; strength is increased by 3 (points over 18 count as 10 percentage points, so 16+2 is STR 18, 16+3 is 18/10; 18/50+3 is 18/80, the maximum possible. Exceptional strength is available regardless of normal class). If they are wearing non-bulky armour they have the special attack of rending.

When a maenad strikes a target twice in the same round, or two maenads strike the same target at least once each, they may rend the target during step H of their initiative. The damage done by a round of rending is determined by rolling the maenad's hit dice and adding their current strength bonus (do not add CON modifiers). If two maenads are rending a target, both roll and damage is equal to the higher total.

A maenad not in melee range of a target will, in order of preference: use missile weapons to target any and all legitimate targets in range of her weapon, charge any target reachable in a single such charge, or attempt to close range with some possible target(s). If multiple targets are available, any who have harmed the maenad are chosen for preference, then men, then random selection is used.

In the absence of legitimate targets, the maenad will head for high ground and mountains as quickly as possible to kill wild animals.

Room 33 The Temple of Zeus

20 Vilstrak (3,1,5,1,4,4,5,2,3,2,5,5,5,5,2,3,5,4,2,2hp; 10+hp xp) 1000sp 3000ep

Room 34 The Sacrificial Pit

5 Violet fungi & 1 shrieker

Life-sized Statue of Zeus with thunderbolt raised to throw and two more held in hand - body is silver (hollow over wooden frame, 2 tons, of which 3000lbs is silver), each bolt is copper (75lbs - 3¾gp as scrap).

The statue appears to be black with green bolts due to tarnishing and patina formation.

If the party can get the statue home intact it will be worth 3000gp, but it is very hard to transport.

The pit is ¾ full of bones. Animal bones.

5 Hooks

5.1 The Patron

The characters are hired by a merchant collector of ancient art who has seen some small samples of the Grecian-style carvings in the village. In addition to his art collecting ambitions, the merchant wants to see if there's any trade possibilities with the recently discovered island/land on which the adventure is set.

The party will be carried to the island on board a ship that the merchant provides as guards for his brother who will be negotiating with the tribe (0-level merchant as per DMG p100).

The crew can be generated using the MM entry for buccaneer, with a base crew of 60 men. The captain and officers will not join any expeditions and will remain close to the vessel at all times; they will not sleep ashore unless drunk or captured for some reason. Aside from the crew's personal cash, the ship carries 200gp in gold and a further 500 in gems and 1,000 in goods (furs, weapons, pots, pans etc.) to try to establish some sort of trading arrangement but the main negotiation will be carried out by the patron's brother.

On arrival, the party find that some younger members of the tribe have gone missing and that they represent an opportunity to explore the dungeon without any member of the tribe having to break the local taboo on the place.

If the DM wants to roleplay the journey there will be a chance to recruit crew members as henchmen but in any case there will be a few tribe members (relations of the missing) who will volunteer to join them as well as a few sailors looking for adventure onshore so that any party should be able to get as many "hirelings" and men-at-arms as there are PCs without any difficulty.

If the PCs return to their patron with details of the temple's contents, the merchant will pay them 200gp each in cash and cover their training costs for their next level. He will also act as a purchaser of the treasure they may find. Otherwise, non-gem jewellery will have to be sold for scrap value of 1d6gp each rather than the "book" values given here (they may find another high-paying buyer, of course, but this is likely to create friction with the original patron).

5.2 The Locals

As an alternative, the Patron adventure can be run from the tribe's side on the assumption that the foreign vessel is not there and so the locals have no choice but to mount a substantial search of the dungeon.

Magic users in this setup can be excused as part of a youngish self-taught group who have found some magical texts somewhere in the remains of their village. The leader of this group, and mentor for training purposes, might be only 3rd level, or even just 2nd if the DM allows him to accompany a party as an NPC helper. In the longer term, the players will have to come up with some other source of training.

5.3 The Hunters

A smaller party of slightly higher level characters (3rd at most) might be seeking a bounty on the wolfweres' heads. To make this slightly more challenging, the locals might not have suffered, or realised that they have suffered, losses to the pair and so will not be as co-operative.

5.4 Explorers

A modification of the merchant hook. A new land has been discovered and a merchant interested in opening up trade has offered passage for "only" 10gp per person each way. In fact, the return fare will be 100gp.

6 Design Notes

As mentioned in the introduction, the generation of the monsters was very quick and I've tried to write the rest of the dungeon more or less as if I were making it up as a party explored it at the table. Because of having to redo it after Blogspot ate it, some of that spontaneity has been lost and the text is now somewhere between a "real" adventure and a published module. But, in theory, this could have been generated on the fly during play using just the map.

The hardest part was probably coming up with something for the two thrones marked on the map, which was also the most specific thing marked on the map. As I said in the previous post, this method works best if the map is done last and such problems are avoided by making the features fit what you have invented to explain the monsters.

I'm not a great one for magical traps and puzzles. The "mad archmage" trope is fine once in a while but having lots of magical tricks is not something that I particularly enjoy as a player or a DM; hence there's not much of that sort of thing here.

Sunday 2 August 2015

Encounter: Olaf the Golem

Olaf is a flesh golem who shuffles around the wilderness, homeless and haunted by his past. His creator used the brain of a blacksmith recently killed by a kick from a horse. Olaf awoke to find himself in a new, horrible, body but still endowed with his original intelligence and free-will. Disgusted by his creator, he smashed the door of his cell, killed the guards and escaped into the stormy night.

But the necromancer did not give up all his hard work so easily. Seeing that magical control did not work, he resorted to more traditional methods, taking the blacksmith's wife/widow hostage and using that threat to command Olaf's special talents towards his dark goals and instigated a reign of terror over the course of five long years.

Olaf, however, suffered from the same red rage that other flesh golems do, and in one berserk episode he slew not only an assassin sent to kill the necromancer, but also the necromancer himself and his own beloved wife. He fled into the wilds, swearing never to harm another, except in self-defense - a clause that many have given him reason to invoke in the 30 years since that fateful night of blood and despair.

In AD&D terms, Olaf is a normal flesh golem except that his Int is 12 (and Wis 11). He speaks a language which is regional but not the Common tongue of the campaign (for example, Bulgarian but not Latin or French, in Mediaeval Earth terms - not unheard-of but somewhat rare). He knows that most things in the wilderness can not really harm him, although many try. He will tolerate almost any creature but is wary of all. Adventurers, on the other hand, he knows can (and have) hurt him and although he will not be the first to attack, he will be especially wary if he is encountered by humans or demi-humans. If he surprises a party, he will take the opportunity to flee, possibly through them. Otherwise, he might be approached carefully. He dislikes horses and will try to keep his distance from them.

Most parties will have nothing he wants and thus he will not aid nor join them unless some common threat pushes them together. If he does join a party, he will not join in any attacks against any creature of any sort that has not already tried to harm him. Despite that, he could be a very powerful ally for a party in extremis. No matter what, he will leave a party after a single adventure and seek out solitude once more so that he can nurse his grief - his only constant companion.

Olaf has no treasure and no interest in such things.

Lv/XP value: VII / 2480

Saturday 1 August 2015

Go Away

Is there any game which is played by large numbers of people so badly designed as "Go"?

The rules are ambiguous (or, rather, illogical) and the scoring systems are all united by the common attributes of being unclear and difficult to apply.

It looks great, of course.

Monday 15 June 2015

Macho Women with Hit Locations

Here's a hit location system a friend and I designed years and years ago (about 1988).
The idea is that instead of having specific hit location tables for each monster, the DM imagines a square area in front of each figure representing the possible areas they could strike. When a hit is rolled, the location is determined by rolling for the type of weapon (1-handed, missile etc.) and the using that on the appropriate hit location display. The DM then makes a subjective call as to what specific part of the target has been hit. With higher skills, characters had the option of adjusting the hit location die. Initially we had a RuneQuesty system for assigning hit points to locations but after seeing the system in Macho Women With Guns, where hit location adjusted the damage dice (e.g., from d6 to d8 or d3), we switched to that.
Hit Location Tables (d20)
or 1-edge
or 2-edge

Hit Location Displays
Left Handed
Right Handed

Friday 27 March 2015

Spell: Khel al'Shem's Ultimate Contraint

Art: Mauro Bonaventura

Khel al'Shem's Ultimate Constraint (Alteration-Evocation)
Level: 7
Components: V, S, M
Range: ½"/level
Casting time: 7 segments
Duration: 2-4 rounds/special
Saving throw: special
Area of Effect: 1" diameter sphere maximum.

Explanation/Description: This spell causes a sphere of force to be created, centred and sized such that it is big enough to contain the target. The target must be a single object or creature not more than 1" across its largest portion. Other objects may be caught up due to being in close proximity but anything other than the target will not suffer any effects from it and the sphere will pass through them with no ill effects.

Immediately on appearing, the sphere contracts to a singularity, crushing the target and any possessions literally to nothing. The creature or object may attempt to save—objects save against crushing blow, and creatures with strength to-hit bonuses may apply them to their save (against spells). Each save holds the sphere at bay for a round. If the target can make enough saves to outlast the rolled duration of the spell then they/it will be unharmed. If the target has magic resistance it is checked once at the start of the spell's effect only.

The material component is a small brass vice (costing 4gp from an expert instrument maker or similar) which is used up only if the target succeeds in resisting the spell (or it is negated in any other way, such as a dispel magic spell) and a hard-boiled egg which is crushed in the vice.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

A Square Wheel

Where are you?
Cut out and keep!
When the Players Handbook finally came out it contained some information which had previously only been available in the impossible-to-find Dragon magazine: the Outer Planes. A slightly odd thing to include in the PHB, but it did follow on from the previous right hand page which was filled with the almost-never-used Alignment Graph, so there was at least a slight visual linkage there.

This visual linkage was analogous of the linkage between alignment and the afterlife and it had two important differences with the illustration that would appear a few years later in Deities and Demigods: 1) it was square, and 2) the middle was not occupied by an outer plane of existence. The so-called "Great Wheel" of later times was not a wheel at all in the beginning and for very good reason.

The major problem with the circular image is that it conflates the axes which are cleanly separated in the original diagram, leading to the belief among some that the intent is for Neutral Good to be more Good than Lawful Good or Chaotic Good. Similarly, Lawful Neutral seems to be more Lawful than Lawful Evil is. Indeed, if one superimposes the Alignment Graph on the circular map of the outer planes, this is an almost inescapable conclusion.

But the most subtle issue is the addition of the extra plane—called the plane of Concordant Opposition. This served the function of being where the neutral deities resided but it had the side effect of changing the fundamental relationship of the druids to the outer and inner planes.

In the PHB version of the planes there was a clearly defined path for the souls of dead characters who were not neutral: they simply went to the plane most appropriate to their alignment. For neutral characters—the great bulk of human kind—there was no such place, but there was the druids and their doctrine of reincarnation. The implications are many but the one I picked up on was that the "natural" order of things is for the human soul to reincarnate and the goal of whatever it is behind the alignments is to gather souls out of that circular current and recruit them to some other purpose. From this it is obvious that the druids would hate and oppose all such deities with a passion, Good and Evil, Lawful or Chaotic alike.

But the cycle need not be immediate. Perhaps the souls of the dead have other options than returning directly to the Prime Material Plane. That central spot in the diagram was not occupied by Concordant Opposition, but it was occupied by a space representing the Inner Planes where the elemental energies of D&D were to be found; another link to druidism.

There's a lot of interesting possibilities there, albeit perhaps ones which are too specific for some campaigns. But no more specific than the whole idea of Outer Planes linked to one's alignment, surely?

In any case, Deities and Demigods put paid to this scheme by plugging the gap with its new neutrally-aligned outer plane (and four slightly questionable "spokes" too, in the diagram). And while I can see the desire for a residence for neutral gods, I think I'd rather that such a place was a little different from the other planes and perhaps based in the Astral or even Ethereal Planes; or such deities could be wanderers or restricted to the PMP.

It is interesting, perhaps, to note that Gygax's most famous hero, Gord, becomes steadfastly neutral and as a result ends up opposing all the deities, much as Elric does when he decides to support The Balance between Law and Chaos. I also feel that there is some inherent incompatibility between gods and neutrality as such, although Boccob the Uncaring (or Crom, if you prefer) do have an attraction as well.

Be that as it may, I no longer use the DDG system and stick with the PHB one which seems to be to offer more dramatic metaphysical options than the more simplistic and neat Great Wheel rolling through its multi-dimensional ætherspace.

Sunday 22 March 2015

d8 Book Club: The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles

Boy, this was a long haul. I picked these up because the first play (Œdipus Rex) is well known and until I saw the book on a shelf in Waterstones I had not heard that there were two sequels. Any sort of script generally reads several times faster than a performance so I didn't think it would take too long to get through them. I was wrong.

Oedipus The King threw me off almost immediately by defying my expectations to the point where I had to stop and start again with a different attitude and it was this that prompted my post about history being 3D and real life being 2D.

We have a very complacent idea of our own understanding of Ancient Greece; because it runs through almost everything we consider even slightly culturally significant it seems as if there must be, in a sense, an awful lot of Ancient Greece in our world. But there isn't. Obviously there used to be an awful lot of it but 99.99% or more of it has gone, lost. Ancient Rome is slightly less eroded by the river of time, but not much.

The reality is that every word written by an ancient Greek that has survived to the present day would happily fit onto an antiquated CD-ROM from the 1990s. Even printed out the whole lot would probably not fill one of the 6 bookshelves I have in this small London flat. That's not a lot, really.

So this is our 3D view of Greek History: a huge collection of glass slides packed up and stored at ground zero in Hiroshima. From the fragments we've recovered after the Bomb, we have tried to imagine what the ancient world was like. The Greeks' own version at the time is what I called 2D - they have an idea of history only in the sense that they have heard that some things happened in the past; the grasp of how long in the past is beyond loose, it is hardly even a consideration whether a king did some famous thing 10 years ago or 300 years ago, and myths are likely to be regarded as factual accounts.

Nearer home, temporally speaking, we also have Sigmund Freud's use of the Oedipus name as a label for some of the incest fantasies that he projected onto his victims/patients. Foolishly, I assumed this would have some sort of connection with the mythological figure.

Oedipus the King

So on starting Oedipus the King I had some expectations: that Oedipus's destiny would be revealed through the story and that we, the audience, would sit in creeping horror as we realised that this man was out to kill his own father in order to take his place not only on the throne of Thebes but in the bed of his mother. This is not that play.

For a start this play assumes that the audience knows who Oedipus is and that they know that he was raised by strangers and has, at the opening of the play already unknowingly killed his father years ago and has married a woman (Jocasta) who he has no idea is his own natural birth mother.

Basically, the play is a retelling of a story that was probably so well known that today we would probably refer to Sophocles' "reboot" of the Oedipus story. Everyone in the audience knows these characters, they're just waiting to see what this writer can do with them that's new.

Well, actually, that's bollocks too. As I read around the subject a bit I started to realise that I had to ask more fundamental questions about what a play is for. I had, in fact, to ask "what has this to do with Dionysus?"

Aside from my more specific expectations, I realised that I had another more generalised and harder to spot expectation in that I assumed that, pretty well by definition, a play was for entertainment. I think I can safely say that these three plays have cured me of that modern notion!

Bearing in mind my analogy with the nuked slideshow, it seems to me that these plays were aimed at moral titillation with a leavening of moral instruction, all wrapped up in a sort of ill-defined homage to Dionysus, the god of wine and madness.

The Greeks seem to have loved being morally outraged. The Amazons are  a good example of this - "Women warriors!? How horrible! Tell us more! They cut their own breasts off! How absolutely awful! Don't stop..."

The Amazons feature in a range of stories which invariably end with the major female characters either dead or married and settled down. In other words, the horrible threat to the natural order has been overcome and everyone can sleep peacefully again. The Amazons are in fact in exactly the same category of "monster" that the Sphinx  is. The Sphinx doesn't make an appearance in Oedipus the King, by the way — she was seen off years before and only gets a mention.

The situation in the play is another example of the "natural order inversion" seen in the Amazons. Killing your father and marrying your mother is not the natural order of things, unless you're from the rougher parts of Strabane, so there's this little bit of immoral thrill which seems to have been the Greek version of Hammer Horror. But the moral titillation has to be accompanied by the moral instruction in the form of "The Gods Set Things Right". Thus, by the end, the killer (Oedipus) has been revealed and the horrible marriage dissolved (by Jocasta's suicide) and punishment meted out (Oedipus is blinded, albeit by his own hand). All is right with the world again. Yesss, well...

"The first shall be last and the last shall be first" said Jesus, but he was quoting Dionysus. Inversions of fortune seem to have been the core of Dionysus's "message" and it's easy to see the connection with wine which causes the supposedly natural social order to disintegrate as the King gets more and more pissed with his servants. But the notion has a slightly more philosophical depth to it than simply observing that drunks have no dignity.

In his Histories, Herodotus tells the story of Croesus (a by-name for wealth and possibly genuinely the introducer of the idea of coinage to the western world) who has one of the Seven Wise Men of the ancient greek world around for tea one day and basically gives him the tuppenny tour of his house and asks "don't you wish you were as rich as me?" to which Solon (for it is he) replies, "I'll let you know when you're dead; until then the evidence is not all in".

Now Herodotus was writing in about 440 B.C. and the story is set about 120 years earlier (although Herodotus probably didn't know that). We have no way of knowing if the story is true - Croesus and Solon did exist but whether they even met is probably beyond a definite answer either way - but it does seem clear that Herodotus was simply re-telling a well-known story which had been around for a while.

Sophocles was a contemporary of Herodotus and the same Dionysian message runs through all three of the plays in this collection: Don't say "my life is great" or "my life has been wasted" until it's over.

In the first play, the great king Oedipus, saviour of the city loses almost everything - his parents, his wife, his eyesight - and is left to wander as a beggar aided by his two daughters (who are also his sisters, of course). In the second play, the beggar Oedipus is redeemed and actually ascends to heaven leaving behind an empty tomb. Finally, in Antigone, the new King of Thebes - Oedipus's former friend Creon - is in turn brought down and loses everything because of his persecution of Oedipus's daughters. The only constant is change and these plays are carrying at their cores a religious message.

So, with all that context in place, we're back to the play; how is it? Well, not good, I would say.

All this structural context eliminates any real drama in the modern sense. The characters are mostly clockwork automatons we find wound up at the start of the play, and they clunk through their parts in a fairly unconvincing way. Sophocles starts us off with the natural order upset and we simply watch as it rights itself.

For the modern reader, the thing that I think is most obviously missing is any sense of Justice. None of the events that unfold are really Oedipus's fault. The worst thing he is guilty of from a modern point of view is that he killed an arrogant old man on the road one day when the latter set his bodyguards on Oedipus for basically not treating him with the respect he deserved as king of Thebes - a position he neglected to inform Oedipus of. That event happened years before the play started and was not itself the initial cause of what came afterwards.

The real prime mover for the play comes from Delphi (perhaps an example of Pascal's wager gone wrong?*) and the issuing of a pair of prophecies by the Oracle - the first one to Jocasta and her then-husband Laius that Laius would one day be killed by his own son.

So, Jocasta sends her baby son to be "exposed" in the countryside, left outside to die. But the shepherd tasked with this can't do it and instead gives the baby to a friend and eventually the baby Oedipus ends up being adopted by the king of Corinth (as you do). The prince of Corinth is then "warned" in turn by another message from the Oracle that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He packs his bags and leaves Corinth, vowing to stay away as long as his father and mother live. On the road, he meets an arrogant old man and his servants and in the resulting fracas he kills the old man. Some years later, he marries the queen of Thebes who has finally admitted that her long-lost husband must be dead.

So what we have here is a classic "Judge Child" situation - the only cause of the events is the prophecy that they would happen. The evil of what follows is directly attributable to the Oracle and, through her, he deities Apollo and Zeus.

Yet the play actually criticises Jocasta for her impious declaration that the Oracle's decrees can be undone (as she believes she has managed by the murder of her own son) and there is almost a perverse pleasure taken in showing how completely caught in the Oracle's net Jocasta in particular is.

There's a hint of awareness in the plays of this passive-aggressive nature of divination in the form of the old man Tiresias, a blind seer who arrives early on in both Oedipus the King and Antigone where he plays out almost the same scene. Tiresias is a master of the art of telling the future. The problem is, he's also a dickhead who keeps all the important information to himself until it's no longer any use to anyone. And then he get's pissed off if anyone points out how utterly useless he is because of this trait. In the first play, it is Oedipus who tells him to get lost, and in the third one it is Creon but Tiresias is only really doing, in small, what the Oracle at Delphi is doing when she issues information which is quite literally worse than useless.

Partly as a result of Tiresias's too-late revelations, Oedipus and Jocasta start to unravel the mystery of what is going on but the final nail in the coffin comes when a messenger arrives from Corinth who seeks out Oedipus to inform him that he is now King of Corinth too, now that the man Oedipus thought was his natural father has died. By an amazing stroke of luck, the messenger knows all about the fact that Oedipus was adopted and can trace back the story to the shepherd who took him from Jocasta and could not leave him to die. When the shepherd arrives, Jocasta knows the game is up and takes an early bath, leaving Oedipus to learn the truth and poke his own eyes out in shock prior to taking up the life of a wandering beggar. The end.

As a religious tale of misery and you-must-not-doubt-the-gods it's on a par with the story of Lot and his daughters - morally repugnant with a lacing of incest and a complete disregard for justice. As drama, it assumes a complete lack of any sense of tension insofar that the audience knows what's going on from the start.

As a social mirror, it's interesting because of the message that it is selling which, one presumes, is a message that the audience wanted to buy. The "last shall be first; and the first last" message is an easy sell when life is unequal and social mobility tough—if you have decent hopes of moving up the ladder then revolutionary change isn't terribly interesting. But if social change is rare, then you can sell a lot more tickets this way. There's a lot of poor people to sell to than rich, and the poor will always be interested in dreams of the big time.

Were the priests and other rulers cynical enough to see this as a way to keep the rabble happy so that they enjoyed life in the lap of luxury, in much the same way as modern day politicians view cheap consumer goods? It's not obvious from reading these plays, although there is perhaps an interesting note connected with the second play.

Great painting; shit play
Oedipus at Colonus
Colonus was a small town just outside of Athens and just so happens to be the hometown of Sophocles. Does this mean that the writer had Democratic sympathies? Does that tell us something about the suffering of the great and the good in these three plays? No idea; I've only read these plays and I don't really have any insight into the man except that he seemed to know what the market wanted. But it's a thought.

Colonus is the weakest of the three plays, although it's not a strong field. It mostly consists of a creaking post-factual rationalisation of why Athens once won a battle against Thebes in the nearby fields.

The overarching theme of don't-count-your-chickens continues here with the crippled Oedipus the focus of a rivalry between his old adopted city of Thebes and the nearby Athens due to a prophecy that a great battle will be won by the city where he is buried. A fairly odd prophecy, but that's all the plot we get.

To say that this is badly written would be to take understatement to new heights. Nothing in it rings remotely true or seems rooted in real human experience. It's just another paint-by-numbers morality play without even the benefit of the first play's human drama of unknown incest being revealed. Oedipus arrives, sits down in a grove sacred to the Erinyes, the locals send for the king of Athens (Theseus - whether this is the Theseus or not I don't know, nor did I much care) then Creon arrives and demands Oedipus come back with him, Oedipus refuses, Theseus says he will protect Oedipus, and then one of Oedipus's sons arrives and tries to get him to go back to Thebes; Oedipus refuses. Blah blah blah.

Eventually something interesting does happen, however, just before the end. There is a clap of thunder and Oedipus announces, apropos of nothing, that it is Zeus's call for him to enter Hades. Furthermore, he is guided to the spot where his tomb will be (i.e., the spot in Sophocles's time which was supposed to be Oedipus's tomb) and apparently (it's not 100% clear) vanishes into the ground to leave an empty "tomb". The connections between Jesus and Dionysus have been talked about (and often overstated) in many places but this particular image is something I so strongly associate with Christianity that I was a bit surprised to find it here in what is basically a Dionysian tale of how those brought low can find themselves with the greatest gifts by the grace of the gods. So at least something worthwhile happened.

Back to the action: everyone cries. The end, and good riddance.

The copy I have (see first illustration) states that these three plays can not be treated as a strict trilogy in the modern sense and this is clearest in the first two plays. The Creon of Oedipus Rex is not the Creon of Colonus. In the former play, Creon is the noble friend who is unjustly maligned by Oedipus who accuses him of putting the toss-pot Tiresias up to utter his dire post-facto predictions of woe and horror. At the end of Rex, Creon begs Oedipus to stay in Thebes and be looked after but Oedipus, overcome by shame, refuses and departs. In Colonus the back-story is revised and Creon instead had thrown Oedipus out after his shame had died down a bit. This Creon is a greedy arrogant man wholly unrelated in character to the previous one. Oedipus's sons, too, are now firmly cast in the villain mould whereas before they were more ambiguous and shady off-stage characters with no firm leanings.

It's hard to know what audiences would have made of this. Today, we take this sort of minor character reworking as part of the process whereby a new writer looks again at an old subject. To see it in the same author is jarring, but if Oedipus at Colonus smells of anything it is of "contractual obligation". This is a piece churned out for a quick buck if I ever saw one, and characterisation is discarded in favour of getting through the page count in a hurry.

The third play is the middle one in terms of quality. It centres on Oedipus's daughter Antigone's attempts to arrange for a decent burial for her dead brother Polynices who we had last seen being a dickhead in Colonus where Oedipus roundly berated him as a hypocrite and a liar. Be that as it may, he's still Antigone's brother and when Creon (now played by Dick Dastardly in full panto-mode) decrees that Polynices (who has led a failed attempt to overthrow Creon) should be left out for the vultures to eat, she vows to give him the minimal rites even if it means her own death.

[BTW: there is another sister—Ismene—who does nothing in any of the plays and I can only assume was needed to allow some theatrical patron's daughter to get a credit on her CV.]

So the plot unfolds, this time with the virtue of some actual human motivation at the centre. A sub-plot appears to spoil this somewhat in the form of Haemon, Creon's son. Haemon was going to marry Antigone and is upset when his dad sentences her to death.

The problem is that it's not at all clear from the text whether Antigone has even heard of Haemon. She certainly gives no indication that anyone had told her that she was going to marry anyone. She does a bit of soliloquyfying about all the things she won't be able to do when she's dead and getting married is one of them but she never specifically says that marrying Haemon is something she was expecting to do.

Antigone is locked alive up in a tomb to starve and Creon goes about his business when who should appear but old no-eyes himself, Tiresias. Tiresias proceeds to point out that Creon is doomed, doomed I tell you, if he doesn't allow Polynices a proper burial. Creon points out that, if this is the case, then Tiresias is a right twat and should have mentioned that earlier, like during the several days while the whole thing played out, for example. Tiresias rebuts this by saying that he doesn't write this stuff and shuffles back off to his cottage in the countryside - "Donetellin".

Creon rushes off to release Antigone and discovers that she has hung herself (in a cave - not easy, but she's a bright girl and managed it) and the play starts to transform from a load of clockwork people into something resembling an attempt to portray real regret and guilt. As the gods shit all over Creon, Haemon commits suicide, leading Creon's wife to kill herself too, he realises too late that his pride has cost him everything and Sophocles manages to convey this in a text which is actually quite moving in places.

There's a strange sort of meta-play here in that Creon's lamentation about what has happened seems almost to put the playwrite in the place of the gods; the character has suffered at the hands of an unyielding plot rather than through the acts of unyielding gods and I was reminded of Pharoh in Exodus who wanted to let the Jews go but was prevented from exercising his free will by the unexpected and unreasonable intercession of Jehovah's Jedi-mind-tricks. The mental state of these characters paints them  in the end as victims of some outside force rather than as pure villains and in a strange way that makes them more human, sometimes more human than the heroes.

It's always tricky rating a play by how it reads. Plays are not supposed to be read, they're supposed to be watched. And Greek plays with their masks and particularly their choruses are very unusual visual experiences compared to, say, Death of a Salesman. But it's hard to see Oedipus at Colonus as anything other than a pile of crap whacked out by a writer under some sort of deadline pressure no matter how much leeway we give Sophocles.

The other two plays have some elements which even today are interesting or affecting but their fundamental nature as religious morality tales constrains the characters and plots in ways that make it hard to express any truth about how life is and we're left with expressions of why life is instead — because the gods decree that it should be so. In a world where that "why" is no longer even remotely acceptable, that doesn't leave very much for the modern reader.

The scores reflect my view of the plays as entertainment not as historical artefacts or even as illustrations of Ancient Greek beliefs. I would be quite keen to watch a production of Oedipus the King; I don't think I'd bother with either of the others.

d8 score: 3/1/2