Sunday, March 31, 2019

Death's door for NPCs and monsters

I posted a poll here on this topic after we discussed it following the last session, if anyone's interested in reading the responses.

For context, here's the official text of the [optional] 2e rule for “hovering on death's door” (DMG p. 75):

You may find that your campaign has become particularly deadly. Too many player characters are dying. If this happens, you may want to allow characters to survive for short periods of time even after their hit points reach or drop below 0.
When this rule is in use, a character can remain alive until his hit points reach -10. However, as soon as the character reaches 0 hit points, he falls to the ground unconscious.
Thereafter, he automatically loses one hit point each round. His survival from this point on depends on the quick thinking of his companions. If they reach the character before his hit points reach -10 and spend at least one round tending to his wounds (stanching the flow of blood, etc.), the character does not die immediately.
If the only action is to bind his wounds, the injured character no longer loses one hit point each round, but neither does he gain any. He remains unconscious and vulnerable to damage from further attacks.
If a cure spell of some type is cast upon him, the character is immediately restored to 1 hit point--no more. Further cures do the character no good until he has had at least one day of rest. Until such time, he is weak and feeble, unable to fight and barely able to move. He must stop and rest often, can't cast spells (the shock of near death has wiped them from his mind), and is generally confused and feverish. He is able to move and can hold somewhat disjointed conversations, and that's it.
If a heal spell is cast on the character, his hit points are restored as per the spell, and he has full vitality and wits. Any spells he may have known are still wiped from his memory, however. (Even this powerful spell does not negate the shock of the experience.)

Friday, March 15, 2019


By all reasonable accounts, Zeb probably should be dead. It wasn't a miracle of the dice that stayed him, but weak judgment on my part. At the last minute (after a failed save had been rolled), I called into question whether a blinded dragon could reliably direct its breath weapon at unseen opponents, even with their last known location unchanged. In the moment, I decided this was too contentious to stake a character's life on, so I allowed Zeb to avoid the cloud, even though the full breath weapon damage would have killed him instantly. Erring on the side of the PCs isn't the worst thing in the world, but I probably leaned too far this time. Zeb can rightly acknowledge this as Malar having spared his meager life.

In light of the above, I've given much thought to the prospect of characters dying and what a tragic event like the loss of Zeb would mean for the campaign. If I felt like allowing a PC to die would spell the end of the game, that would severely burden my judgment when it comes to adjudicating deadly situations.

Fortunately, I think we're all on the same page that the campaign can continue, even under the most dire of circumstances. For the benefit of everyone, here are some points to live by going forward. This is effectively a charter as to my long-term vision for the game.

  • If a PC dies based on dice rolls, I'm not going to intervene. It's hard, as DM, not to pull strings at times, but doing so deprives the players of a fairly run game and the experience of overcoming the death of a character.

  • I don't expect (nor should anyone else expect) the campaign to end if a character gets killed. Obviously a TPK may result in a break in continuity at the very least, but either way, life in the game world goes on, just like in the real world. I see our campaign as being greater than any individual character; there's no critical plot artery that hinges on the survival of Zeb, Audric, or anyone else. We're full-on Game of Thrones, here.

  • A player can either create a new character to replace a perished (or retired) one, or elect to take on a henchman as a full-fledged PC. New characters begin with the same starting XP as the original PCs and are expected to advance in level through play. This may mean that a new PC needs to be shielded from harm at times by the rest of the party in order to stay alive.

  • Despite entering the game at a lower XP total, a new PC can normalize in level over time thanks to the AD&D experience tables. For example, a 1st-level, 0 XP Fighter and a 5th-level, 16,000 XP Fighter will both be 6th level, 40,000 XP later. (It's also reasonable to expect that a low-level PC will advance more quickly in a high-level party, since the party's XP awards will naturally be larger.)

  • In the meantime, it's possible that other, established PCs will die/retire, or new players/henchmen cycle into the game. The original “new PC” may become a veteran before long.

  • Under this system, the total power level of the party is likely to fluctuate over time. Many of us are used to games where the party only ascends in level and ability as the game progresses, up until the point that everyone retires and the campaign ends. In my model, we could look back six months from now and recognize this point in time as the peak power level of the campaign. This allows for organic continuity across years of gaming, with the ability to re-experience the early and mid levels again and again. A high-level character that sustains through it all is truly something to be valued.

I could probably write a book on this stuff, but these feel like the most important points, so I'll leave it here for now. Happy to discuss further in the comments.

#20: By the Skin of Their Teeth

With Wyardt due to meet us in Grunwald, we depart Longsaddle with the knowledge that we’ll arrive a day or two in advance of our guide, assuming safe travels.  Though the tribe has expressed no love for the folk of Grunwald, we’d rather arrive early than potentially miss our window to meet Wyardt should something happen.  Oreiron consents to accompany us to Grunwald, if no further—he has business in Mirabar.

Oreiron is hungover and costs us the better part of an hour in delays, but we eventually depart back north along the road heading towards Grunwald.  The skies are grey, the air cold—a herald of wintry weather to come.  After some time, we discover that we were followed out of Longsaddle by a horse-drawn wagon, which clops towards us from the south.  Its riders are three men, and the wagon appears laden with supplies.  We decide to make way for them, and besides a cordial greeting, they depart with no other words, and they eventually disappear in the hills to the north.  The rest of the day’s travel is uneventful.

Oreiron explains that Grunwald can be wary of outsiders, and with it being in the Lurkwood and somewhat difficult to find, we decide to camp for the night.  The watches are uneventful, serene and cold, and we awaken the next morning refreshed and ready to head into Grunwald.  In the daylight, Oreiron easily guides us on the right path, and before highsun, we arrive.

The village is completely surrounded by forest, its homes resembling mounds or barrows constructed of large stones, covered in mud, the larger part of each residence resting below ground.  Thin plumes of smoke rise from chimneys atop the mounds.  Open fires are visible in front of many of the residences, and we see villagers walking about.  We spot the wagon that passed us the previous day.  Based on the warnings of Oreiron, the tribe’s admitted distaste for the folk of Grunwald, and the looks our ragtag band gets from the villagers we’ve encountered thus far, we decide to have the Anaithnid camp outside the village with Selben while we investigate.

The folk of Grunwald are barbaric, for lack of a better word, their languages a mix of various local dialects interspersed with the common tongue.  We assume, and Oreiron confirms, that the leader of the village is usually a warrior chieftain, though he doesn’t know who the specific leader is at present.  Fortunately, we don’t have to investigate long before we find Wyardt, who greets us in good spirits, having arrived yesterday.  Oreiron chooses to part ways, and we head back to the tribe camp.

Wyardt intended on arriving early, having come to the realization that it wouldn’t be easy for our group to find much comfort in Grunwald.  He also came into possession of a trail map of the area, having purchased it off a down-and-out local trapper, and lays out the next couple legs of the journey.  He anticipates two days of travel through the Lurkwood, then another day in the rocky hills and wilderness leading to Griffon’s Nest.  The map only covers the Lurkwood paths, however, so Wyardt says we must rely upon signs of other travelers and perhaps the guidance of the tribe to find Griffon’s Nest itself.

Imaginations run wild...
There is, however, an issue.  The trapper that Wyardt encountered explained that the hunting around Grunwald is currently suffering from the predations of some other creature or band of creatures.  Deer, bugbears, and even large animals such as bears have been found mauled in the wood, which seems to indicate the presence of some manner of apex predator.  The locals have personified it as a demon and refer to the predator as “Niohoggr.”

Audric asks if the flayed men we found in the woods outside Xantharl’s Keep might be related to this demon, and Wyardt doesn’t think so.  He spoke with Helder after our departure, who seemed to think that a barbarian from Grunwald may have done the deed, placing the flayed men as a sign of some settled dispute.

Revelation of the violent nature of the folk of Grunwald leads us to the decision to leave immediately and seek to put some time between us and the village.  There is risk of whatever the mysterious predator may be, but we decide to take that possible risk against the seemingly probably risk faced by staying too close to Grunwald and its barbarians.

We depart in the afternoon, hoping to strike upon a trail and put a few hours distance between us and the village before breaking for camp.  Wyardt’s map proves to be extremely helpful, which is fortunate as darkness begins to set in rather early in the day.  We don’t encounter any signs of threat, so find the most defensible place to set up a camp.  We find a small hill topped with trees and set a bonfire with several large branches that can be used as torches or burning brands.  We set watches, but the night passes uneventfully.  Before breaking camp, I make a quick scout of the camp perimeter for signs of anything, but find nothing.

With a difficult day of travel through the Lurkwood ahead of us, we prepare hastily and depart.  Not long into the morning, we see signs of a large, furry and very dead creature in the woods ahead, and I veer off from the group to investigate.  It appears to have been a bear, perhaps even a feral breed of dire bear, but it’s difficult to judge as the creature has had its upper body removed.  There are signs of blood around the slaughter, but oddly no tracks or anything else that stands out.  It’s as if there was not a struggle at all, as if something deposited the carcass in the wood from the sky.  We leave in haste, not wanting to encounter whatever it was that killed the beast.

The terrain begins to become difficult the further out from Grunwald we travel, as the lands turn truly wild.  Fortunately, the fallen leaves provide good visibility, and combined with the map and Wyardt’s efforts, we seem to have a good hold on our bearings.  While scrambling down a ravine, we hear the sounds of crashing trees in the woods nearby.  We decide to continue into the lowlands as quickly and quietly as possible, hoping that we can avoid any encounter, when suddenly the sky darkens as if a cloud passed quickly over the sun.  My fears about a predator in the sky, while not yet confirmed, force us to the cover of trees.  There are several loud crashes from the wood behind us, and we quake in terror as an extremely large winged reptile, perhaps 50 to 60 feet in length, hammers through the trees.  Niohoggr is upon us!

With defense in mind, my first instinct is to summon a cloud of fog between us and the creature, in the hopes that it will pass us by.  Unfortunately, it is faster than I give it credit for, and while the fog does seem to help, it is in our midst before I’m able to ready any other defenses.  Its body, huge and covered in emerald green scales, lunges into the sky, where it turns and begins to dive towards us.

Before making perhaps one of the rashest decisions of my career, I command Selben to gather Wyardt and the Anaithnid, and run.  There is no time to discuss a plan, and I draw upon the powers of Malar to taunt the mighty Niohoggr, in the hopes that it will focus on me and allow the others to escape.  As I cast, I step into the fog, hoping to draw it in.  The dragon swoops towards me, clawing at Audric as it passes, but fortunately the warrior is able to dodge out of harm’s way.  Niohoggr dives into the fog and attacks, its maw wrapping around my shoulder, teeth tearing at muscle and rending flesh.  Whether I’m thrown or it drops me, I’m tossed several yards away into the fog.

Audric brings his own magic to bear, summoning forth a glimmering cloud to blind the creature, and it launches itself into the sky once again.  The dragon shakes its head back and forth as if trying to shake off the effects, turning towards us to spew forth a stream of toxic gas.  Effectively blinded, its breath weapon misses us both—the gods must have been looking upon us then, for to be caught in its path would surely have meant death.

I begin to layer on protective magics as Audric summons a band of goblins, intending to use the creatures as a distraction to provide a chance to escape.  Turning our backs to the great creature, we run after the others, leaving the goblins to leap and howl to distract Niohoggr’s attention.  In another turn of good luck, we catch up with the group, take a minute to catch our breath, then continue on as hastily and quietly as possible, hoping the distraction worked. 

We don’t get far, however, before we see the shadow overhead again, and it disappears into the clouds ahead of us.  I summon a ward to prevent the attack that I know is coming, hoping to protect us, but the dragon dives in again and ravages Omgrath, sweeping him aside.  Niohoggr mauls Audric, its great maw closing over his torso, nearly rending and crushing the life from Mystra’s warrior.  Somehow, both Omgrath and Audric survive.

With few other resources at our disposal to assault such a threat, Audric & I throw our magical beads at the creature, each of us with a prayer to our respective gods upon our lips.  Malar was listening this day, as was Mystra, and both of our beads strike the creature, exploding in flame and driving it off back into the sky.  Flight is our only hope, and we flee onto the path ahead, scanning the skies for any sign of Niohoggr’s shadow.

A few hours pass without incident, and we stumble upon a cave.  We decide that having cover, such that we can have a fire not visible from overhead, outweighs the time lost, so we decide to camp for the night and tend our various wounds.  The night passes in near silence, as if no one is quite willing to speak about the encounter with Niohoggr just yet, and while we find little rest, the night passes without any further encounter.

Pressing on in the morning, we emerge from the Lurkwood and into the plains beyond, knowing that we have another day or two of travel to Griffon’s Nest through open tundra, then rocky hills.  As Wyardt’s map no longer of any use, we scan the plains for landmarks, hoping that the Anaithnid can help guide us through this part of the journey.


Behold an intentionally crude sketch drawn in preparation for our next session. It's futile to try to discern meaning from this now, but I expect that it likely will become relevant before long.

Find familiar ruling

The question arose last session of whether Audric could use find familiar without satisfying the [exorbitant] material component requirement (from the 2e PH, p. 134):

When the wizard decides to find a familiar, he must load a brass brazier with charcoal. When this is burning well, he adds 1,000 gp worth of incense and herbs.

I'm going to rule “yes.” Material components in 2e are treated as optional, and thus far I've made little effort to enforce them. In the case of find familiar specifically, there are already lots of strings attached to this spell (only cast once/year, chance of no familiar in area, consequences if the familiar dies), and there seems to be a solid base of 2e-ers who agree that the cost in this edition (as opposed to 100 gp in 1e) is too over-the-top.

Going forward, assume that material components for spells are not being used, though I reserve the right to “opt in” if it seems appropriate enough for a particular spell. I don't plan to make such decisions lightly, though.