tiistai 18. kesäkuuta 2019

Azdahag

This monster originates from ancient Persian mythology. There is no particular story behind this one, other than that I thought the vermin trick would make for a nasty OSR monster. It is also one of the critters I first encountered on the pages of Weird n’ Wild Creatures.

Azdahag (Zahhak, Azhi Dahaka)

● Hit Dice: 12 [52 Hit Points]
● Armor Class:
1 [18] or 9 [10]
● Damage:
1d10 × 3
● Saving Throw:
5
● Movement:
120 feet
● Morale:
10

An embodiment of all that is sinful, Azdahag is a gargantuan serpent with three monstrous heads. Along with its twin brother, Spitiyura, Azdahag is the sole of its kind. They might be able to assume the form of startlingly handsome youths, but possess no particular powers in this form, apart from extraordinary intellect and knowledge.

In its true form, Azdahag’s heads, back, and tail are protected by armor-like plates of bone; for this reason, it has two Armor Classes, the less favorable of which applies for its belly. To strike the soft spot, one must position between its elephantine legs, where it is possible to remain in relative safety.

Regrettably, Azdahag bleeds vermin—spiders, scorpions, parasites, and the like. Wider wounds bleed more abundantly. For example, if the monster was smitten for 8 points of damage, then everybody underneath Azdahag’s belly suffer 8 Hit Points worth of injuries unless a Saving Throw is made!

Azdahag can attack thrice per round. The monster regards humans as cattle and recognizes the need to maintain a healthy livestock. Accordingly, it intends to consume merely one in three foes and will not pursue the remainder, although it will defend itself from stubborn dragon-slayers.

maanantai 17. kesäkuuta 2019

Weird n’ Wild Creatures

Yesterday, I wrote about using authentic folklore as a basis for OSR monsters. Adhering to the firm principles established there, I feel an urge to present some homebrew material based on a source most venerable: Hirviöt (heer-vee-uut; ”Monsters”), which later saw an English-language run under the title Weird n’ Wild Creatures, by the Stockholm-based International Masters Publishers.

Unlike the knowledge cards that make up the W&W Critters –a terrific name for a retro-clone, by the way– the Scandinavian version comprised of hundreds of four-page booklets, each detailing a ”monster” real or imaginary. In addition to these, there was also collectible card game allowing kids to pit these beasts against each other. During the 90’s, it was a big thing in the small town where I grew up, but as I moved to a larger city I realized to my horror that no one had ever heard of it.

I won’t go into too much detail with an obscure Swedish children’s product, but I do think that the series in general was an awesome idea. This is exactly how you should teach biology and mythology to kids: by making it cool. The last page of each entry contained an illustrated story of how this particular monster may savage a human, or at least permanently ruin the wretch’s mental and physical well-being. I remember having been sufficiently afraid of the Mummy entry to have seriously considered burning it!

One must wonder whether the erudition presented therein was entirely accurate—the tidbits of information were quite often quite obscure, and sometimes in conflict with ”general facts known to all”. On the other hand, truth has the habit of contradicting common sense. I did some fact-cheking on Ghouls and Azhi Dahaka, and it seems that the W&W entries are actually pretty erudite. Go figure...

Were-Tiger (Monster)

Hit Dice: 8 [36 Hit Points]
Armor Class: 3 [16]
# of Attacks: 3
Damage: 1d10
Saving Throw: 8
Movement: 150 feet
Morale: 8

Some say were-tigers are feline spirits who have assumed a humanoid form; others say they are sinners who repented at their deathbed and were resurrected as predatory anthropophagi. Yet others claim evil men deliberately become were-tigers through acts of sympathetic magic and ritual cannibalism.

These monstrosities are human at day and bestial at night. In human form they resemble ordinary men and are relatively easy to slay, although they do retain their superhuman Hit Dice. In the animal shape these shape-shifters are identical to ordinary tigers, save for unnatural gigantism and the lack of tail. Whether in human or animal form, were-tigers have but a black scald where the tail ought to be.

In the animal form, were-tigers are voracious and lack human intelligence, although they retain the evil and rancor that dwells in all men. They are tremendously strong but are easily tricked or trapped because of their insatiable bloodlust.


Tigranthropy (Spell)

This spell is mostly known in the jungles of Southern Asia and Indochina, and is exceedingly rare in the regions boasting no tiger population. It is a wicked magic indeed, for both the ingredients needed and the effects sought after are wholly monstrous.

The magician must boil human entrails and drink the grotesque consommé while wrapped in tiger skins. At the time of sunset, he or she will transform into a Were-Tiger, employing stats provided above. Having no hands, Were-Tigers cannot wield weapons. Speaking is impossible, as is comprehending the speech of others. Special abilities of the class become unusable.

The Were-Tiger remains under player’s control, but must kill any living creature encountered; he or she is forbidden from retreating. If multiple potential victims are present, humans take preference over animals, and the innocent over the unjust.

At the moment of sunrise, the magician returns to his or her true form, losing the extra abilities bestowed by the spell. From now on, the tigranthrope will shape-shift each night until the feline spirits possessing him or her are banished with Remove Curse or Dispel Magic.

sunnuntai 16. kesäkuuta 2019

Ghoul v al-Ghul: The Dawn of History


One thing I moderately dislike in the traditional Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons and its modern iterations is the habit of adopting mythical monstrosities, only to rehash these venerable critters as something vaguely reminiscent of the originals. Not that this is inherently bad—all great works of fiction take creative liberties with the source material.

Further, it is important that D&D monsters are not merely big, mean-spirited sacks of meat, individualized by nothing but the number of hit points and damage output. A worthy opponent always has a trick or two in its sleeves, be that a nasty way to deal some extra damage, or a surprising weakness in a Goliath seemingly invincible. Otherwise the combat will degenerate into a boring die-rolling contest, providing no challenge of player skill.

Nonetheless, the monsters of folklore have a tendency of losing their ancient, mythological flavor when re-intepreted as stat blocks and combat-related maneuvers. I feel particularly uneasy when, say, Arabian myths are clumsily absorbed into a wider fictional mythology that also incorporates cliches from other legends, each separated from the rest by thousands of miles and several millenia. This approach can work, but often it is just an indication of lacking creativity and intellectual laziness.

A major portion of the appeal of ancient literature and fairy tales stems from the fact they are not entirely logical and profess the notions and literary conventions of cultures long forgotten. This makes them surprising and dream-like, yet internally constistent.

Below is my take on ghouls, based on the descriptions given in Arabian folk tales and The One Thousand and One Nights. (By the way, ghouls rank among the most ancient monsters of myth, descending from the Sumerian gallu, a class of demons that hauled escapees back to the underworld.) Not that I am a specialist in ghoul-lore but –for better or worse– here it comes:

”Amine Discovered with the Goule.”
The one and only al-Ghul

Hit Dice: 3 [16 Hit Points]
Armor Class: 6 [13, leather + shield]
Damage: 2d6
Saving Throw: 13
Movement: 9"
Morale: 6

These demonesses assume many forms, that of a hyena being the most common. They haunt wastes, graveyards, and other desolate places and feed on human carrion.

Ghouls sometimes disguise as attractive damsels and tempt weary travelers to them. Alternatively, they can assume the likeness of the person most recenly consumed.

As cunning and mimetic they are, ghouls are betrayed by the ass’s hooves they have for feet. For some queer reason, one will not notice the aberration unless specifically inspecting the feet of the monster.

Ghouls have a habit of pilfering coins—if allowed to approach, they will steal the purse of the nearest character. A saving throw vs. Spells must be made to notice this vicious act of appropriation! If caught or pitted against overwhelming odds, ghouls prefer flight to fight.

perjantai 18. tammikuuta 2019

Feats & Flow Charts


I like the class-based approach of OSR. Not that I had something against traits, feats, skills, and the like. What troubles me is the eclectic approach taken by many games, namely the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, where you have dozens of different building blocks thrown together.

For me, the beauty of character class is the fact that characters are set apart from each other by their actions, not by their abilities. Traits and feats, on the other hand, are fun because the player can establish a character of their liking and specialize further along the way. In that scheme, classes are an unnecessary relic.

When players have plenty of power over the development of their characters, their principal focus tends to be the character rather than the game. Acquisition of levels becomes the nexus of the campaign, since choosing the next building block is by far the most satisfying element in the game.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but personally I do not enjoy that sort of gaming much. As such, I have favored strictly class-based systems, with little to no specialization. (Or Basic Role-Playing and the like, where advancement is slow and largely automatic.)

All the same, from time to time I have entertained the idea of a strictly feat-based OSR game. In its simplest form, players would have a list of feats and pick a new one each level. Class and race would be booted in their entirety.

That would be quite bland, however, and I have little faith in my ability to coin a satisfying number of roughly balanced feats. In all likelihood, characters would be more or less identical after a level or three.

A more intriguing possibility would include a flow chart, each level forcing the player to make a tough choice between two paths of further specialization. If shrewdly named, these feats would also replace level titles and imply a development in characterization besides the obvious, or development in mechanical ability.

This idea could be born dead, but here is a rough sketch for yours to enjoy. Yes, I know it looks hideous and is coarsely unbalanced, but, hopefully, will be sufficient to present the idea.

For the sake of argument, let’s say all characters have nil attack bonus (who enjoys summing all those numbers anyway?), and a Saving Throw of 1 in 6 at level I, 2 in 6 at level II, up to 5 in 6 at level V. Spells would be absolute rather than scaling with level – not “1d4 damage per level”, but “save or die”.


perjantai 21. joulukuuta 2018

Punching down

I had my first gaming session on the third grade. At that point, the label ”role-playing game” was only vaguely familiar to me, something associated with anime-inspired graphics and item inventories.

The game was a homebrew creation of an equally oblivious stablemate. I suspect him to have been inspired by the early installments of Final Fantasy and the like.

The core system was dead simple. Each character had but one stat: Toughness. When two characters battled, the one with lower Toughness died. Each time a character defeated an opponent, their Toughness increased by one. No random element was involved; it was diceless role-playing at its finest.

We were enthralled by the game. We split into cliques to play the game at home and grind our scores to the heights; the next day we would compare our stats to see who was the best.

The fun ended quite abruptly when the children in possession of some real-life toughness declared us gamers ”Indians” (as in the Wild West — don’t ask), and the sole game-designer of our class renounced his creation.

Rules-wise, the game was abysmal. But the core mechanic haunts me to this day — not because my campaigns have been above similar tendencies, but because they have not.

Honestly — I bet there is no gamer who has not participated in a campaign with exactly the same premise. Punch down to grow more powerful to have more critters to punch down. The entire third edition of Dungeons & Dragons was built around the premise, and the fourth edition took it even further with its carefully balanced fights designed to challenge — but not to jeopardize — the player characters.

Players love to be the bullies. They cherish the Dionysian heat of combat, but abhor the idea of losing their beloved alter egos. Kicking the dog is almost as fun as taking chances with the three-horned dragon king, and considerably less dangerous.

Some players enjoy impersonating great white hunters, killing monsters for sport. I detest that sort of action. It offers no challenge whatsoever, and becomes awkwardly dull after a safari or two.

Therefore I have come to believe that all combat encounters should be designed to leave player characters with less than 50% chance of winning. All monsters would have a trick or two that made them a grave danger to even the most powerful player characters. Powers like dragons’ breath weapon or ghouls’ paralyzing touch.

As for ordinary folks, I’ve began to understand why their ”numbers appearing” amount in hundreds. Why not? Only the murderhobo of murderhobos would want to grind through 300 zero-level peasants. Even if the fight was winnable in theory, it would require such a nasty amount of book-keeping and die-rolling that no sane person would be willing to slave through all the accountancy.

torstai 20. joulukuuta 2018

Arabian Nights: Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis

Bondservants learn of Nur-Ed-Din's
and Enis-El-Jelis' affair.
Ali Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis, also known as Nur al-Din Ali and the Damsel Anis Al-Jalis or Two Wezirs and a Persian Woman, is among the core tales of The One Thousand and One Nights, found in the oldest surviving manuscript. It features many elements common for the early Arabic strata of the collection, including a relatively down-to-earth narrative with no supernatural element, and an extended cameo by Caliph Harun Ar-Rashid.

The king of Basrah has two ministers, one honest and honorable, the other evil and deceptive. The decent vizier is given ten thousand gold pieces and tasked to obtain an odalisque for the king to enjoy. After visiting the slave market, the vizier takes Enis-El-Jelis, a Persian damsel of great beauty and compassion, to his home.

The good vizier has a son Ali Nur-Ed-Din, as comely as the damsel. The convivial youth cannot resist alluring maidens, and, unavoidably, catches a glimpse of bathing Enis-El-Jelis. His urges immediately aroused, the two fall in love.

Learning that Enis-El-Jelis has been deflowered, Nur-Ed-Din’s father surreptitiously refunds the king, who seems to have forgotten about the entire matter. But alas! The good vizier dies of old age and Nur-Ed-Din goes on an endless squandering spree that does not stop before all of the inheritance has been coughed up.

Seeing his nemesis’ fall from grace, the evil vizier resumes his mischievous plots and the newlywed must escape to Baghdad. The two invite themselves into Caliph’s parterre and throw a party with a benevolent elderly gardener, consuming copious amounts of wine.

The Caliph is most perplexed to find out that his gazebo has been occupied by unknown celebrators. His servants concoct a desperate series of fibs — including a cohort of pious mendicants praying overnight — to protect the poor gardener. What follows is a delightfully absurd sequence of misunderstandings and irony.

Of course, the story concludes happily, with Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis returning to Basrah and growing into respected and responsible members of the society. The evil vizier orders Nur-Ed-Din to be beheaded, but the Caliph makes a timely appearance and installs our hero as the new king of Basrah.

Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis is a simple but entertaining tale. What it lacks in terms of plot and action, it makes up with likeable characterization and witty humor. By far its most memorable scene is the extended comedy in the nightly garden, joyous enough to make me laugh out loud.

The young couple make for an agreeable pair of protagonists. They seem like folks that would be fun to know in person — not without human weaknesses, but honest and jovial nonetheless. They are young, foolish, and reckless, but never in a way that would leave innocent in danger. Their naive, maddening love and enduring friendship in the face of misfortune rings true.

One final note. I may be over-interpreting the tale, but something in the history of Ali Nur-Ed-Din is vaguely reminiscent of the Passion Play.

Our hero is an unselfish (if a little rakish) benefactor, yet the townsfolk refuse to help him when he falls upon hard times. A crooked bureaucrat twists his words and arranges him to be executed for bogus charges; all of a sudden the townsfolk find this a tragedy most dreadful and a weeping congregation crowds the streets. In line with the Islamic tradition — that Jesus was not crucified, but someone more deserving of torture was executed in his place — Nur-Ed-Din is saved at the last minute and his persecutor is punished instead.

The tale of Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis, with the illustration above, can be found here.

Azdahag

This monster originates from ancient Persian mythology. There is no particular story behind this one, other than that I thought the vermin...