Saturday, 30 April 2016

Armour of the Red Knight (magic item), and speculations on the notion of 'Gatekeepers' as game-fodder

The Armour of the Red Knight (also known as the Armour of the Gatekeeper) is a magical suit of plate-mail. Whether there is a single suit like this or several, is not known for sure. It was made by Dwarven artificers in the distant past and has had many owners. It seems to expand, contract and change to fit whoever is the current owner, providing protection for an Ogre or Centaur as comprehensively as for a Halfling. Down through the Ages, the wearers of the Armour of the Red Knight have tended to be solitary warriors guarding some mystical site - sacred springs, ancient tombs or similar, though they may be encountered at more prosaic locations such as fords and outside town gates.

Image from
fantasy_art_armor_castlevania_artwork_white_hair_swords_1920x1080_wallpaper_38304used without permission but I thought it looked cool. The address is so long I had to break it; you need to put an underscore back between 'alucard' and 'fantasy' to visit the page
The armour conveys the following abilities:

1 - allows the wearer to Save as a 10th-Level Cleric (this is the case whatever the PC/NPC's actual Level, even if this would provide better saving throws);

From also used without permission but again, it looks cool
2 - in the event of an attack on the wearer by any magical means, magical flames (as Fireballs, DAM: d6+1 x the wearer's Level) will shoot out at any being, friend or foe, within 30' and will continue to do so every Round until the targets move more than 30' away or are killed;

3 - every successful hit on the wearer that does not reduce her/him to 0hp allows her/him to increase the following statistics:
Level/HD +1, including hp adjustments, up to 10th Level/10HD;
STR +1, up to racial maximum;
DEX +1, up to racial maximum;
CON +1, up to racial maximum.

This hasn't been playtested as both my gaming groups are having sabbaticals; but I liked the idea of an antagonist that increased in power the longer the fight went on (EDIT: and it's similar to an idea I was kicking around for statting The Hulk, that I was kicking around some time ago). It has a mythic and Arthurian ring to it, like the mystical powers of Sir Gawain (link), whose strength increases and diminishes during the day. Thinking about Gawain, Arthuriana and challenges also suggested the idea of a knight as a guardian. This I think is a little-explored part of the 'source material' for D&D - we're used to the 'questing knight' theme where the hero(ine) goes to kill a dragon or find a holy/magical object or even rescue her/his lost love, but there is a large amount of Arthurian and other 'heroic' literature that mentions warriors who are fated or otherwise compelled to stand guard over something and issue challenges to those trying to pass or access it - to act as literal or figurative 'gatekeepers'. In the 1981 retelling of Morte d'Arthur, John Boorman's film Excalibur (link), Launcelot du Lac guards a ford and challenges those who want to cross to single combat. He duels with Arthur, is defeated, and swears allegiance to Arthur. The Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is (justly in my opinion, it's a great scene) one of the most celebrated examples of the type. The Old Man at the Bridge could also be counted in this category. Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad Dum, maybe not.

All hail the Black Knight

Gatekeepers make most sense as NPCs - an obstacle that the PCs have to overcome to continue on their journey (whether that is to, or already in, the dungeon). There is little 'gameable' adventure in this for a PC I think, which is why D&D is more geared to the 'questing knight' approach - wander about and have adventures, instead of staying put and seeing what the world throws at us - but it is something to consider perhaps.

What if... instead of 'hexcrawling' (for example) the PCs were forced through magical or legal means, such as working off a Curse, or punishment for a misdemeanour (my sell-check doesn't like that, I don't know why), to spend a period as Gatekeeper at a sacred or other important spot? In the legend of Diana Nemorensis (link), the successful challenger of the priest/king/guardian of Nemi took his place. This perhaps could be a danger to PCs whose general approach to NPCs is to murderhoboerise them, if the result of defeating that Gatekeeper and taking his magic weapons/armour, or generally doing the thing the Gatekeeper was trying to prevent, is to find yourself under a Curse or Geas, or just ordered by the Temple hierarchy/Town Council, to stand guard at the same place and challenge the next comers - maybe, even members of your own party.

Of course, like Lancelot in Excalibur, it could be a way of acquiring a follower - defeating the Knight of the Glade in some non-fatal way means s/he decides that the PC is a hero worth following and offers to serve as a hench-person, in perpetuity or until some specific time has elapsed or some event has been completed ('why, if you journey on to the Shrine of Artemis, I will accompany you there and offer thanks to the Divine Lady, and ask of Her where next my quest should take me').

This could all equally be in a dungeon context. If Room 3.16 has a fountain that dispenses water equivalent to a Healing potion, but the PCs need to defeat a Gatekeeper to access it, then they may find that one of their number (the highest-hp warrior, the PC that delivered the death-blow, the first to drink from the fountain, the one who fails most spectacularly to make a Save against spells) is Cursed or Geased to become the new Gatekeeper, either until defeated in turn or for a set period (a year-and-a-day, a month, a night) - or maybe the Keeper of the Fountain is released from the Curse that binds them, and is free to accompany the party for a time. This could all be tied to rumours known about the dungeon - legends that there is a healing fountain guarded by a succession of knights, or a single knight that never dies, or that a specific knight was cursed to serve as the Gatekeeper of the fountain.

I feel there is a certain amount to explore here, especially as it relates to the Fortunate Isles (a place rife with such things in my gameworld-in-my-head) and in general to Arthurian and Greek legend (which is basically the mythic background to most of the southern part of my game setting anyway).

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Obsidian Knife (magic item)

This knife has a blade made of obsidian and has a bone handle (what bone is not immediately clear), bound with copper wire. It is vastly older than most of the items in the campaign world, pre-dating the rise of civilised humanity by many millennia.

Adapted from here:
The Obsidian Knife has been used over thousands of years to kill sacrificial victims and is Cursed. A PC who possesses the Obsidian Knife will not want to part with it, and must contend with its baleful influence. It is usable as a normal dagger, which has no bonus to hit but does d4+1 damage; a PC who has the Obsidian Knife will want to use it in hand-to-hand combat (make a roll against WIS to use a different melée weapon).

It is not in combat that the Obsidian Knife shows its most insidious power however. If a PC is in a position of having a helpless human, demi-human or humanoid victim in her/his power (a bound prisoner, an unconscious enemy or even a sleeping friend), then the PC must Save v Spells or be compelled to slay the powerless individual with the Obsidian Knife. If the victim is a friend (another PC or NPC member of the party) they can Save at +2.

Should the Save be failed (or, if the PC just wants to kill the helpless individual), the PC automatically succeeds in killing the victim. The PC temporarily gains 1hp for every HD that the victim possessed, even if this takes the PC above their current maximum. Round to the nearest HD (ie, 1/2HD, 1-1HD, 1+1HD all equal 1HD; 5+5HD and 6-4HD both equal 6HD). These hp are the first to be lost in combat or through other injury and cannot be Healed. At the next dark of the moon, the PC will fall unconscious (and unable to be revived) at sunset, and lose d4hp (no Save is possible). When they awake at sunrise they will have a cut on their body as if from the Obsidian Knife. If by any remote chance they are naked and being observed during their catatonic state, a gash without any visible cause will appear on their skin during the night. The next night, the same thing will happen, and every night following until the full moon, or until they have lost twice the number of hp that they gained from the magic of the Obsidian Knife, whichever is sooner, even if the extra hp have already been lost. Because the 'attacks' happen every night, there is no respite allowing regular healing to take place. In order to heal properly, some healing magic must be used over the days after the dark of the moon - unless the PC can tough it out and let the Obsidian Knife's magic run its course.

Example: Jord the 2nd-Level Fighter (11hp) has used the Obsidian Knife to kill a captured Minotaur which has 6HD; he gains 6hp, taking his total temporarily to 17hp. He looses 5hp in a fight before the next dark of the moon three nights later, and is then on 12hp. Having gained 6hp in total, he 'owes' the Obsidian Knife 12hp. That night, he loses 2hp. The next night, he loses 3hp. The following night, he loses 1hp. The night after, he loses 4hp. He is now down to 2hp, and could die the following night. 

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

A System from Bits, part II

The early versions of D&D are deadly for low-level characters, and characters stay at low levels for longer than in later iterations of the rules. By and large, the OSR clones have kept this deadly aspect of gaming, with some attempts to mitigate things slightly. In D&D (not AD&D) PCs died at 0hp, and at low levels Resurrection and suchlike spells are almost unknown. When a Thief or MU can likely be killed by a stray arrow, a single spear-thrust from a Goblin, or an undetected blade-trap; Elves, Halflings and Clerics only have a 50:50 chance of surviving the same; and Fighters and Dwarves only slightly better than average chance, there is perhaps a case for making some provision for character survival to be slightly less difficult.

I originally came across this rule on one of the many, and wonderful, OSR blogs; however, having lost a load of links due to a fried hard-drive a few years ago I've been unable to find the original source. If this is your rule, I’d like to thank you for making the PCs in my groups (both my 'New Old Campaign' group and my 'Naked Gaming' group) a little less fragile, and I'm sure my players would be similarly (perhaps even more) grateful. Also, please link to it if you recognise where I found this - I make no pretence that this is mine, and would happily give credit where it's due.

The point of this rule is to make combat just a little more survivable - but not infinitely so, and  at a cost. One of my players, who was careless enough to die twice in three sessions, saw his CON drop from 11 to 9 and suddenly realised that the next time he reached 0hp (he only had 3hp as I recall) he was more likely to die than survive. So even with this rule, players should still be cautious.

Elementary Staunching, or surviving at 0hp

This rule is designed to provide a mechanism that gives a PC a chance of survival when they reach 0hp. It is based on the following principles:
1.                   CON is a direct measure of physical resilience and used for all calculations using this rule;
2.                   surviving comrades can administer emergency first aid to a 0hp character;
3.                   surviving a traumatic injury will have a permanent effect on a PC’s future health.

Can't remember where the image is from, but it's Beowulf.
When a character sustains an injury that causes them to reach 0hp, to give them a chance of survival, the party may attempt ‘Elementary Staunching’. The application of the rule follows three steps. First, CONx10 is the number of seconds before the PC actually dies of blood-loss (easiest if using 10-second rounds but not exactly hard in any case). If combat goes on too long or the rest of the party cannot quickly reach the stricken character – or are themselves killed or incapacitated – then there is no-one to administer first-aid and the PC dies in CONx10 seconds.

If other characters are available to perform battlefield first-aid in time, then the player of the injured PC must roll a d20. If this number is greater than the PC’s CON stat, the PC has died of system shock or blood loss in any case; if it is equal or less than CON, then PC has survived this major injury. One point of CON is permanently removed, and converted to 1hp. Healing may then take place as normal.

Additional suggestions:
Negative hp: The amount of damage the PC took in excess of the amount to take them to 0hp (so, if a character with 4hp takes 7 points of damage they are conceptually on ‘-3hp’) is the number of hours before the character comes round and begins healing (ie in the above case for 3 hours the PC would be still on the point of death). If this number is greater than the PC’s CON, another CON roll must be successfully passed, or the PC still dies.

Permanent Injury: the PC or DM determines a body-part to be permanently injured. This may involve a penalty on any ability score (due to injured limb, hideous disfigurement, brain injury etc) or a permanent penalty on ‘to hit’ rolls for either melée or missile fire.