Saturday, April 15, 2017

Vornheim: An Anti-Eulogy For A Product that Should Have Been Buried Long Ago

PRODUCT REVIEW

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit (2011)

Author: Zak S.

64 pages

Retail Price: $19.99

Prefatory Note

Zak S. is a polarizing figure; people tend to love him or hate him. This is a review of a book that he wrote, not a review of him, his detractors’ opinions of him, or any of the controversies between them.

Introduction

Since its release, Vornheim has been much-lauded by the OSR community. Most of its reviews are very positive. Many of these reviews offer nary a word of criticism. It’s not that there are not positive reviews that note some shortcomings, or even the occasional negative review, but they are far rarer. I penned this review because I think that Vornheim is a product sure to disappoint most old-school gamers. Vornheim’s many flaws exceed its very modest virtues. It is poorly organized, too fragmentary to serve its stated purpose of providing a complete city toolkit, and its content is too eccentric to be of use to most referees. Vornheim deserves a fair-minded review that identifies these failings in detail. This is that review.

Overview

Vornheim states that its intended purpose is to provide a referee with the tools necessary to run a city adventure “with a minimum of hassle, so you and your players can get to the good stuff.” It is meant to be a “kit” to facilitate the creation of a city “even in the middle of the game.” But it does so within the context of a particular city, Vornheim.

The book gives some general notes on Vornheim and neighboring locales; details three specific locations in the city—a medusa’s lair, wondrous zoo, and library; provides rules or guidelines about navigating in a city, generating building floorplans, the law, non-player character contacts, chases, items costs, and libraries; and includes several random tables regarding aristocrats, books, non-player characters, random encounters, fortune-telling, searching corpses, magical effects, types of buildings, and other subjects. In addition to these contents, the interior of the dustjacket contains a map of a significant portion of the city. The front and back covers of the book contain charts for generating certain random results, such as the hit location of an attack, by dropping a four-sided die on the covers.

The dustjacket art is in color and depicts an androgynous figure battling a peryton with a flail. The dustjacket’s interior city map also is in color. The remainder of the book's art and diagrams are in black and white.

Some Specifics

Almost a third of the book—21 of its 64 pages—is devoted to three very specific locations within the city: the House of the Medusa, Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, and the Library of Zorlac. These are effectively three adventure locations or miniature adventure modules, for lack of a better description.

Vornheim has a sensibility reminiscent of dark, weird fairy tales. For example:

  • a nearby goblin city’s inhabitants are said to “speak backwards and walk on the ceiling”;
  • a horned goddess’s priesthood once built their temples in “colossal goat-like creatures”; and
  • there are scholars who can read the skins of snakes like books, some are cookbooks.

There is a section on superstitions, which are intended to flesh out the city’s culture. For example:

  • “Cows are considered indolent and undesirable. Anyone bringing a live cow into Vornheim will lose a shoe within a week.”
  • “Pigs must be present at all trials.”
  • “No dog will be faithful to someone who gives leftovers to a crow.”

There are two pages of “player commentaries,” which are observations about the campaign made by Zak’s players. These provide brief glimpses of their experiences in and perceptions of Vornheim.

The city map and building diagrams in the book are somewhat impressionistic in appearance. Readers accustomed to clean, precise maps and floorplans will find little that is familiar. The book does, however, include a shortcut method of generating rudimentary floorplans for ordinary buildings.

The book provides mechanics for “urban-crawling.” These are intended for situations in which adventurers are traveling through the city but their movement is hindered in some manner (e.g., chases, evasions, searches, hostile locals, civil disorder). These mechanics includes guidelines for creating neighborhood boundaries and determining street layouts and destination locations within the city on the fly.

Analysis

The overview should make plain that which is obvious from a quick perusal of the book—Vornheim is very incomplete. Most of the city is left undescribed and undetailed. Apart from the very few locations that are detailed, the referee is left to his own devices other than some thematic notes that often have no immediate game application and some random tables. Zak pitches the spare amount of detail as a virtue, avoiding the exhaustive treatment of the typical city supplement. But he merely replaces too much detail with not enough. The result is a setting too fragmentary to run as written.

As an example of its fragmentary and disorganized nature, consider the Church of Vorn. One gathers that it is a significant force within the city, but the book gives little detail about it. We know only that:

  • its cathedral is a significant feature of the inner city, and there is an impressionistic diagram of it;
  • Vorn is a grim god of iron, rust, and rain;
  • the color brown “is reserved by Vorn, to use on rust” and thus wearing it is taboo;
  • the tenets of their faith require priests of Vorn to use edged weapons rather than blunt ones, as they regard attacking with the latter hypocritical, and they lose a memorized spell if they transgress this tenet;
  • the church may or may not be corrupt, prone to fanaticism, or in the grip of occult influences; and
  • the church administers trial by combat, in which the combatants fight in pools of waist-height rusty water.

These sketchy details are interesting. But they are more of a beginning, not the finished product that should appear in published work. A good referee would need to flesh these ideas out for use.

Moreover, this organized summary of the church also belies the haphazard presentation of this material. These details appear in various sections of the book across pages 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 32, and 59. Instead of getting an organized paragraph or two of material or a bullet-point summary, the reader has to search this information out and organize it for himself. A more useful approach would have been to place this information on the page opposite the diagram of the cathedral, so that it could be quickly read and later accessed for reference as necessary.

This haphazard presentation is a consistent feature of the book. Recall the inexplicable superstition that pigs must be present at trial? That appears on page 10 without context; on page 59 we learn that the people of Vornheim believe that pigs are the only honest animal. They sometimes conduct trials by a ritual known as trial by swine:

7 pigs are tied to the defendant by 10’ ropes and the defendant must go about his or her business in this way for 12 days. If the defendant cuts the ropes, leaves the city, or goes mad, s/he is guilty.

Set aside the silliness of this procedure, why are these details separated by 58 pages? Zak does not need this material to appear in one place; it’s his setting. But this disorganization is a nightmare for another referee who wants to run Vornheim. A referee who wants to make this material his own is going to have to devote a lot of time to this book.

This is not a minor fault. The haphazard presentation is exacerbated by other shortcomings—small font sizes, less than ideal formatting and layout, a hard-to-read table of contents, and lack of an index. The end result is that the book is a chore to navigate and its contents are hard to digest. All of this undermines the book’s stated purpose of assisting the referee to run city adventurers with “a minimum of hassle.”

Setting aside the manner of presentation, the contents are an odd hodgepodge for a supplement that bills itself as a “complete city kit.” As noted, roughly a third of the book is devoted to three specific locations that effectively serve as miniature adventure modules. In a larger supplement, this sort of material would be welcome. But if one only has 64 pages to provide the tools necessary to run urban adventure on the fly, the inclusion of this material is a mistake. The space is needed for other, more essential matters.

The particular locations included are creative. But Zak’s vision is an eccentric one. The inclusion of a medusa with a manor is consistent with the dark, weird fairy-tale sensibility of the book. Opinions will vary on whether this sensibility is an asset or a liability. It has limited appeal for me. More to the point, Zak’s creative vision is well enough outside of the mainstream of fantasy gaming—even broadly defined—that most referees will not share his sensibility. He references Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as inspiration for Vornheim’s legal system. That should suffice to give one a feel for how bizarre the setting can be and how out of step it is with most old-school campaigns.

Some of the material in the book is difficult to describe as anything more than filler. Inclusion of the player commentaries section is baffling given the space limitations. Consider these two comments:

  • On Vornheim’s taverns: “When I went out in Vornheim I had too much to drink. I had a good time, but I had so much to drink that I probably would’ve had a good time anywhere.”
  • On Vornheim’s NPCs: “Those random guys are fun. . . . I always end up having sex with them to get information and then there isn’t any information. Like I’ll have sex with the vet to have drugs and there’s no drugs.”

I suppose this is the kind of thing that is bound to happen in Zak’s game; his players are porn stars. But of what conceivable use is this information to other referees? The question answers itself.

Other material, if not filler, is still of no use to time-pressed referees and will not be of interest to players. Most of the superstitions fall into this category. By way of illustration: “All cakes must be tasted by the oldest person in the room first, or else they will taste like fish. Except fishcakes, which will taste like rye.”

The last half of the book is devoted to mechanics and tables that are supposed to assist a referee to run urban adventures off the cuff. The tables likely are the most readily usable by other referees. But they once again reflect Zak’s unconventional tastes. Two pages are devoted to generating random aristocrats, and supply details like: “has a peculiar fondness for injured women,” “compulsively shaves women bald,” “only finds joy in the sound of innocent women crying,” and “bathes in the liquefied bone of young maidens.” Not all of the results are this weird, but enough are that it reduces the usefulness of the table. The table devoted to the random generation of non-player characters is equally oddball, including results like: “is a random PC’s mother in disguise,” “is secretly a creative genius on the level of William Shakespeare,” “vomits often” for no reason, and “has an unusually well-maintained collection of doll houses.”

Doubtless this material suits Zak’s style. It is unsuited in most others’ though. The net result is that the tables—which span 17 pages—are of limited use to others. The best that could be said for these tables as a whole is that they might serve as examples to referees for the creation of their own tables. Regardless of differences in taste, however, a true “complete city kit” would have to include more tables on a wider variety of subjects.

Of the mechanics presented in the book, the “urban-crawling” rules have received the most praise. I think they could be used, but very little space is devoted to them—just two pages. This material would have benefited from a more expanded treatment, given how important it is to a city kit that does not feature a complete map of the city. These rules would be less useful, arguably not useful at all, for referees who have fully mapped their own city setting.

Zak’s decision to try to make the entire book useful, including its covers and dustjacket, is innovative. But not all innovation is good. One of the cover charts does no more than simulate a d20 attack roll and its corresponding damage (as well as hit location if desired) through the mechanic of dropping a d4 on the cover. How is this an improvement over just rolling standard attack and damage dice simultaneously? It is not, of course.

I have left the artwork for last, because an assessment of it is much more subjective. As a purely descriptive matter, it is not old-school. Zak's style has nothing in common with artists commonly associated with old-school gaming (e.g., Peter Mullen, Erol Otus). I find it crude and unappealing. But judge for yourself:

[Map of the House of the Medusa]

Whatever one thinks of its artistic merit, this is less utilitarian than a traditional map. Perhaps the best than can be said for this map is that you get what you pay for and the price point is relatively low.

Conclusion

Vornheim is creative, more creative than many other OSR products. But this is a two-edged sword. Its creative direction sharply diverges from what most old-school gamers will find to their tastes.

It is mislabeled. It is not a “complete city kit” by any definition. It utterly fails to realize its stated purpose.

If Vornheim is any indication, Zak has an artistic bent. Vornheim would have benefited from a critical, right-brained editor or collaborator. The absence of such input is apparent from the poor focus, disorganization, and inclusion of much material that is of little or no practical value game-wise.

Vornheim is not entirely bereft of merit. It could be mined for ideas. But mining is hard labor, and the gold in these hills is sparse indeed. A good supplement should save the referee time and work. Vornheim does not.

This book is a missed opportunity. A well-done book that is half city setting and half toolkit for running urban adventures there (and elsewhere) would be very useful. Vornheim is not that book.

April 16 Postscript

A version of Zak's "urban-crawling" rules are posted at his blog. Had I realized this, I would have included a link. Though the online version is not identical to the book's content, it will help readers understand the mechanics.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Blueholme Journeymanne Rules

This kickstarter for a Holmes-inspired retroclone spanning levels 1 though 20 seems very worthwhile.

I'm looking forward to seeing it in print.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Swords & Wizardry House Rules: Revised Retainer Tables

RETAINERS

Hiring Retainers

Retainers are 0-level hirelings that may be hired for their base salary, food and lodging, plus a percentage of their employer’s share of monetary treasure. They typically are available for hire in most civilized locales, such as cities, towns, and fortresses.

The number of retainers that can be hired by a single employer is limited by the would-be employer’s charisma score; consult the Table 5 on page 8 of the rulebook for these limitations.

If potential retainers are available, the DM should determine the number present based on the locale and circumstances and then determine their type on an individual basis by rolling 2d6 for each individual and consulting the following chart:

Roll 2d6 Result
2-7 Combatant
8-9 Non-Combatant
10-12 Specialist

Once the general type of retainer—combatant, non-combatant, or specialist—is determined, consult the appropriate table below to randomly determine the potential retainer’s specific profession, qualifications, or skills.

If an adventurer then wishes to hire this particular individual, he should roll 2d6 and consult the following chart for the potential retainer’s response to his offer:

Roll 2d6 Result
2-6 declines offer
7-8 asks for greater compensation
9-12 accepts offer

If a potential retainer asks for greater compensation, his potential employer must increase the offer in some fashion, such as the ways listed below for attaining bonuses to the hiring roll.

The preceding chart assumes that the adventurer offers the standard terms of employment. He may increase his odds in the following ways:

  • buying the potential retainer strong drink—beer, mead, liquor—at the outset of negotiations results in a +1 bonus to the hiring roll
  • offering to increase the potential retainer’s daily salary—by at least double the usual amount—likewise results in a +1 bonus to the hiring roll
  • offering to upgrade the potential retainer’s equipment in a significant manner, such as the purchase of better armor, results in a +1 bonus to the hiring roll
  • offering to increase the potential retainer’s percentage of their employer’s treasure by 5% results in a +2 bonus to the hiring roll
  • the preceding bonuses are not exclusive; they are offered by way of example and are cumulative of one another—i.e., more than one may apply to a single roll

Combatants

For each potential retainer who is a combatant, roll on the following table to determine his particular profession, qualifications, or skills:

# Type Hit Points Equipment Cost/Day
1. Weapon Bearer d3 short sword, leather armor 1 Silver Piece
2. Shield Bearer d3 short sword, leather armor, large shield 1 Silver Piece
3. Archer d3 short bow, 20 arrows, dagger, leather armor 2 Silver Pieces
4. Spearman d3 spear, leather armor 2 Silver Pieces
5. Mercenary d3+1 long sword, ring mail, shield 5 Silver Pieces
6. Man-at-Arms d3+1 long sword, lance, chain mail, shield, horse 1 Gold Piece

  • combatants—those who will be directly involved combat—are entitled to a 10 percent share of their employer’s monetary treasure
  • a weapon bearer may immediately hand his employer a weapon whenever necessary—e.g., if the employer is disarmed or his weapon is broken or disabled
  • a shield bearer protects his employer, increasing his AC by one; however, the shield bearer does not gain the benefit of the shield to his own armor class when doing so

Non-Combatants

For each potential retainer who is a non-combatant, roll on the following table to determine his particular profession, qualifications, or skills:

# Type Hit Points Equipment Cost/Day
1. Porter d2 backpack, 2 large sacks, litter 1 Silver Piece
2. Cook d2 pots, utensils, foodstuffs, spices, tinder box 1 Silver Piece
3. Guide d2 knife, walking stick 2 Silver Pieces
4. Torch Bearer d2 tinder box, torches or lantern, leather armor 2 Silver Pieces

  • non-combatants—those who generally will not be involved in combat—are entitled to a five percent share of their employer’s monetary treasure
  • porters provide muscle for carrying equipment and treasure; each may carry up to 300 pounds subject to ordinary rules regarding encumbrance and movement
  • cooks permit those who eat their meals to recover 1d2 hit points per night of rest even in the wilderness; their hot meals also increase the morale of other retainers
  • guides are locals familiar with the terrain; parties traveling with a guide move five extra miles per day and only have a 1-in-6 chance of becoming lost regardless of terrain
  • torchbearers may kindle a flame, light a torch or lantern, and keep them lit under difficult conditions; they are allowed a saving throw of 10 to do so in most cases

Specialists

For each potential retainer who is a specialist, roll on the following table to determine his particular profession, qualifications, or skills:

# Type Hit Points Equipment Cost/Day
1. Bard d2 dagger, musical instrument, leather armor 1 Gold Piece
2. Surgeon d2 surgeon’s tools, medical supplies, smock 2 Gold Pieces
3. Holy Man d2+1 sacrificial dagger, holy symbol, robes 3 Gold Pieces
4. Hedge Wizard d2+1 staff, spell components, robes 3 Gold Pieces

  • a bard is a musician and poet; adventurers who travel with a bard receive a five percent experience bonus for all activities the bard witnesses, if the he survives to tell the tale
  • a surgeon may treat the physically injured once after each combat; the injured person saves and if successful regains d2+1 hit points; a surgeon may treat someone who otherwise would be dead
  • a holy man is an itinerant priest or prophet unaffiliated with an organized church or cult; see the table below for sample holy men and their abilities
  • a hedge wizard is a self-taught or poorly educated freelance magic-user; see the table below for further details on hedge wizards and their abilities

Holy Men

The following are eight examples of holy men; others exist. Holy men will not accept long-term employment. Most often they either do not care about the money at all—accepting employment because their god instructed them to do so—or have a charitable purpose in mind.

Each of the example holy men below have three abilities: (1) an innate characteristic; (2) an ability that they may use once per day; and (3) an ability that they may use more than once per day based on a d6 mechanic. However, they generally may try to use this last ability only once in a given situation or combat.

# Type Description and Abilities
1. Dervish A dervish communes with his god via ecstatic religious rites.
– he has a bonus of 2 to his AC due to his agility
– once a day, he can make another ecstatic (+1 bonus/1d6 rounds)
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he can cause a target to dance for 1d4 rounds
2. Elementalist An elementalist invokes the jinn, ifrit, or other desert spirits.
– any fire he kindles is smokeless and burns ten times longer than usual
– once a day, he can assume gaseous form for 1d6 rounds
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he may summon a minor spirit for a round
3. Exorcist An exorcist protects against and banishes demons and other extraplanar beings.
– he has a +4 bonus to all saves against these beings
– once a day, he can cast a protective circle against them in a 20-foot radius
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he can banish a demon to its place of origin
4. Hermit A hermit is a recluse who wears a coarse hair shirt and has taken a vow of silence.
– he may walk over any solid substance without incurring injury or damage
– once a day, he can silence a 10-foot radius for 1d6 rounds
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he can seal a target’s mouth for 1d4 rounds
5. Sadhu A sadhu renounces worldly things and travels nearly naked but for his holy spear.
– he has a +3 bonus to attacks/damage with it
– once a day, he can allow an additional save against disease
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he can negate an effect suffered by another
6. Snake Handler A snake handler interacts with venomous snakes to prove his divine favor.
– his pet snake may attack any foe that engages him in melee (1d2 damage)
– once a day, he can grant an additional save against venom
– on 1–2 on a d6, he can charm 1d4 snakes or 1 giant snake
7. Wonder-Worker A wonder-worker performs miracles to demonstrate the power of his god.
– he has a +2 bonus to all saving throws and non-combat rolls
– once a day, he can heal another for 2d4+2 hit points by touch
– on a roll of 1–2 on a d6, he may multiply or purify food/drink
8. Yogi A yogi pursues the divine through contemplation, meditation, and reflection.
– he is immune to mind-affecting spells and effects
– once a day, he can levitate for 1d4 turns (see spell description)
– on a 1–2 on a d6, he may grant 8 hours’ rest for 1 of meditation

Hedge Wizards

All hedge wizards have a staff. Whenever attacked in melee, they may imbue their staff with magical energy and try to parry by rolling 1–2 on a d6. The staff is non-magical though and no one else wielding it will have the ability to parry with it.

Hedge wizards have a spellbook, which is unreadable gibberish to others, including those who can read magic. The book contains two spells—randomly determined by rolling on the chart below. Hedge wizards may cast both spells once per day.

All of the spells below permit a saving throw when cast on an unwilling recipient, unless the spell description indicates otherwise. If the description does not state a specific range, treat it as effective within visual range so long as it’s reasonable.

Hedge wizards may read any magical text by rolling a 1 on a d6; if they fail, then they cannot read that text and cannot try again. If they use a magical scroll, there is a 1 in 6 chance that the spell is miscast in some manner or fails to operate.

# Spell Spell Description
1. Acid Rain He can summon a rainstorm for 1d4 rounds in a 200-foot radius; range of 200 feet; does 1 point of damage to all within it each round.
2. Blood Bond He can create a link between himself and another creature such that damage to one does an identical amount to the other for 1d6 rounds
3. Bug He can infest a single target with bugs for 1d6 rounds; he must save each round until he successfully saves or be preoccupied by the bugs
4. Combust He can cause an object or creature to spontaneously combust; range 100 feet; 1d4 damage first round and 1 damage for the next two.
5. Docility He can render 1d4 animals quiet and docile but not charmed; domesticated animals do not get a saving throw, but wild animals do.
6. Enervate He can reduce a humanoid’s strength by 3d6 for 1d6 rounds; if reduced to 0 or below, the humanoid is immobilized and helpless.
7. Identify Object He can identify an enchanted object’s magical properties by handling it for 1d4 rounds; he is permitted a saving throw against ill effects.
8. Ironskin He can make a target’s skin damage-resistant for 1d6 rounds; the target suffers two less damage per die while this spell is in effect.
9. Magic Manacles He can conjure a pair of manacles that bind the hands or feet of a target for 1d4 turns; these bonds cannot be broken except by magic.
10. Photon Bullets He fires 1d4 orbs of light the size of sling bullets from his fingers; multiple creatures may be targeted; each orb does 1 point of damage.
11. Play Possum He can allow a target to pass for dead for 2d6 rounds; the target appears to be a corpse and the fact that he is alive is undetectable.
12. Portal Password He can assign a password to a doorway or other portal that lasts 1d4 days; to pass, one must say the password or save with a -2 penalty.
13. Reverse Gravity He can reverse gravity in a 30-foot radius for 1d4 rounds; range of 50 feet; rate of ascent within the radius is 10 feet per round.
14. Servitude He can force a single target to serve him for 1d4 days; the target is aware of his servitude but cannot resist; the wizard can only have one servant at a time.
15. Shadowstep He can step into and move among the shadows for 2d6 rounds; he is incorporeal and imperceptible as anything other than a shadow.
16. Shrink He can shrink an object or person for 2d6 rounds; range 150 feet; roll 1d10 to determine the percentage reduction in size (1 = 10% etc.).
17. Spellbind He can target a spell-caster; next time the target casts a spell, he must save to finish casting or else keeps casting each round till he saves.
18. Spore Cloud He creates a thick cloud of spores in a 200-foot radius for 2d6 rounds; range 200 feet; all in it must save to attack or pursue another.
19. Translocate Object He can teleport an inanimate object from one location to another 2d10 x 10 feet in distance; the object may weigh up to 35 pounds.
20. Transport Circle He draws two circles within 2,000 feet of one another; people can teleport between them; each time, roll 1d10; the circle ceases to work on a 1.

Terms of Employment

Most retainers hire on for a single adventuring session and then go their own way. An employer may try to re-hire a previous retainer using the ordinary rules outlined above.

If a retainer is killed in service, his employer is obligated to pay his salary, if not already paid, and his share of treasure to the retainer’s next of kin. If reasonably possible, a deceased retainer’s personal possessions also should be returned.

Advancement

Combatants usually become first-level fighters after completing an adventure; they should reroll their hit points (but cannot have less than their current total). As first-level fighters, their daily salary increases to 2 GP/day and they now receive 20 percent of their employer’s monetary treasure.

Non-combatants and specialists generally do not advance in level. However, a DM may at his discretion assign a returning non-combatant increased or additional abilities or hit points.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Great, Genderqueer Elves

Sex
You can play a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior. . . .

You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon's image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being a mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.

Fifth Edition D&D Player’s Handbook, page 121.

This is one of the sillier passages ever written in a role-playing game. In fairness, the bit about Corellon arguably has a basis in the history of the game; AD&D's Deities & Demigods stated that Corellon "is alternately male or female, both or neither." Otherwise, only the first sentence of the material on sex concerns mechanics; the rest is just politics or virtue-signaling.

Does anyone really need this guidance? In the almost 35 years I have been playing D&D, these issues have never arisen at the table. And if players or the referee were inclined to raise these issues, they would not need this guidance, which only states the obvious. My character’s sexual orientation is up to me? Thanks for clarifying that Wizards of the Coast.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Swords & Wizardry: Standard Adventurer's Pack

I usually hand out a character creation cheatsheet: a single sheet of paper that walks players through character creation step by step with references to the relevant pages of the rulebook. Its purpose is to speed up character creation for new players. For whatever reason, buying equipment seems to take a fair amount of time. So as part of the cheatsheet, I created a standard adventuring pack that players may opt purchase for 20 gold pieces in lieu of buying their gear item by item.

Standard Adventurer's Pack
backpack bedroll
waterskin iron rations, 7 days
2 bottles of wine large sack
crowbar 5 torches
tinderbox pint of oil
hammer 10 iron spikes
hemp rope, 50 feet grappling hook

This may seem like a fairly limited amount of equipment, but it actually is 75.7 pounds (or 757 coins) for purposes of encumbrance. That's a manageable pack for a strong, physically fit male. But it is a substantial burden nonetheless. It highlights the need to either hire porters or other retainers to help carry equipment or carry far less equipment, perhaps dividing up essential equipment between members of an expedition.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

New Swords & Wizardry Character Class: The Witch

For my Shattered Kingdoms campaign, my plan is to detail the area around the Hyrcanian Sea as a desolate land of witches and make the witch (or warlock) available as a new character class. Below is my tentative draft of that new class.

The Witch

Witches are lawful or chaotic spellcasters who receive their powers by daily petition in the same fashion as clerics and druids. But whereas clerics pray to the gods and druids venerate nature itself, witches supplicate primeval elemental beings or lesser nature spirits, such as:

  • Notos, the South Wind—a spirit of the air who is a harbinger of storms and father of the fallen leaves;
  • The Faerie Queen—a fey demigoddess who presides over a court of nymphs, sprites, and other woodland beings;
  • Ningal, the Lady of the Reeds—a water spirit who safeguards marshlands with a retinue of naiads and fishes;
  • The Horned God—a demigod associated with the wilderness and wild places who is served by an army of fauns;
  • Old Worm—a chthonic entity associated with decay, decomposition, and the despoilment of nature; and
  • Odqan, the Prince of Cinders—a fiery spirit who lights the way for his chosen and incinerates all unbelievers.

Witches use the Druid Advancement Table for level progression and that class’s saving throw, spell progression chart, spell list, and hit dice, but they do not gain access to fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh level spells due to the limited power of the beings that they serve. To offset this significant limitation, witches gain the following abilities:

Expanded Spell List. At each level, including first, a witch may select one spell from the magic-user spell list and add it to those she may cast. The spell must be of a level that the witch can currently cast. She receives these additional magic-user spells in the same manner as any other—by supplication of the elemental being or nature spirit she worships. This expands her magical repertoire, but she remains subject to the memorization limits imposed by the Druid Advancement Table.

Cantrips. Twice a day, on a roll of 1–4 on a d6 the witch may cast a cantrip—a minor spell that may not do damage or have combat effects. Witches may use these to do things like clean, dry, fasten or tie, freshen, palm, polish or shine, spill, sprout, stitch or sew, or warm objects or persons. If used to affect others—such as making them nod or sneeze—no save is allowed.

Bless or Curse. At second level, a lawful witch gains the power to bless and a chaotic witch gains the power to curse, which may be invoked once per day. To bless, the witch rolls a saving throw; if she succeeds, her target is blessed for 1d4 +1/level rounds. While blessed, the target makes two rolls whenever a die roll is required and always takes the most favorable result. Conversely, when a witch curses another, the target must make a saving throw; if the target fails, he is cursed for 1d4 +1/level rounds. While cursed, the target makes two rolls whenever a die roll is required and always takes the least favorable result.

Familiar. At third level, a witch gains a randomly chosen familiar—a spirit in animal guise that aids her. These come in many forms, four of which are detailed below, and confer various abilities on their mistresses as they advance in level. If her familiar is slain, a witch takes 1d2 damage and must save or faint for 2d4 rounds. A slain familiar reappears in a week’s time.

  1. Owl. HD 1d4 hit points +2/witch’s level; AC 2; Atk talons (1d2+1/witch’s level); Move Fly 15; Save and THAC0 are the same as the witch. The owl confers the following abilities:
  2. Level Ability Conferred by Familiar
    3
    darkvision 60 feet—the witch may always see in non-magical darkness
    4
    acute hearing—the witch may hear sounds as a thief of the same level
    5
    camouflage—the witch is invisible while motionless in natural cover on 1–4 on a d6
    6
    fly—once per day, the witch may fly like the owl for one round per level

  3. Wolf. HD 3d4 hit points +2/witch’s level; AC 4; Atk bite (1d4+1/witch’s level); Move 18; Save and THAC0 are the same as the witch. The wolf confers the following abilities:
  4. Level Ability Conferred by Familiar
    3
    lupine movement—the witch has movement rate of 18 and may leap 16 feet
    4
    acute senses—the witch may make a saving throw to avoid being surprised
    5
    wolfsight—once per day, the witch may see through the wolf’s eyes for 1 round/level
    6
    howl—in the wilderness, the witch may summon 1d4 wolves once per day

  5. Rook. HD 1d3 hit points +2/witch’s level; AC 0; Atk beak (1+1/witch’s level); Move Fly 18; Save and THAC0 are same as the witch. The rook confers the following abilities:
  6. Level Ability Conferred by Familiar
    3
    secret wisdom—the witch gains an extra first- or second-level magic-user spell
    4
    messenger—the rook may carry messages of 50 words or less to and from others
    5
    location—once per day, the witch may locate an object per the clerical spell
    6
    truesight—once per day, the witch may see through illusions and see invisible things

  7. Serpent. HD 2d4 hit points +2/witch’s level; AC 3; Atk bite (1d3+1/witch’s level); Move 10; Save and THAC0 are same as the witch. The serpent confers the following abilities:
  8. Level Ability Conferred by Familiar
    3
    snakeskin—the witch has a base armor class of 7 [12] and her skin is waterproof
    4
    serpentine metabolism—the witch need only eat every 1d4 days and may feign death
    5
    shed skin—once per day, the witch may significantly alter or disguise her appearance
    6
    venom—a target hit by the witch additionally loses 1d4 hit points/round until it saves

Wand. At seventh level, a witch acquires a wooden wand which permits her to focus her concentration and will when invoking the power of the being she supplicates. For every 1d4 hit points expended, she may increase by 50 percent the area of effect, duration, or range of a spell cast. Alternatively, the witch may impose a -1 penalty to a target’s saving throw for every 1d4 hit points expended. The witch must choose how many d4s she will roll before seeing their results.

Magic Items. Like druids, witches are able to use any magical item usable by clerics with the exception clerical scrolls.

Coven. At eleventh level, a witch may found her own coven by building a place of worship and consecrating an altar there. This may consist of a circle of standing stones, a sacred grove, a chapel, a cavern complex, or some other edifice appropriate to the power the witch serves. A witch who does so will attract lesser witches and other followers.