Magical Marvels 20: The Skull Censer

Skull Censer by CBMorrie
Art by cbMorrie

The Skull Censer was crafted in mockery of the sacred incense censers used by goodly faiths throughout the world. Built by the hands of devil worshipers, and consecrated with the blood of an unbaptized child, it was used during Black Sabbaths to “bless” the faithful.

The chains used for handling the censer are affixed to a human skull–rumors disagree on who precisely the skull belonged to, but it was undoubtedly a man consecrated to the priesthood of a lawful god. Long gold bands mounted within the upper jaw support the incense dish. Oddly, regardless of the incense placed in it, the smoke which rises from it is always brilliantly green, luminescent, and smells of delicious cooking meats.

Though pleasant, this smoke has a predictably nefarious purpose. Those subjected to it for prolonged periods will slowly be drained of their vital essence. It will leave them frail, and they are more likely to succumb to disease or minor injury. Whilst the user of the device grows ever stronger, feeding on their essences before abandoning their congregation to find a new one.

In game terms, anyone who breathes the smoke from this censer for 20 minutes or more will lose 1 permanent hit point, which is transferred permanently to the on wielding the censer. This effect stacks, but cannot affect the same victim more than once per two week period. So an evil priest could use this in a ceremony with 5 other people, and at the end of that ceremony each of those 5 would have 1 fewer hit points, whilst the priest would have 5 more hit points than she had before.

The victims of this censer are entitled to a save v. magic after each encounter, with a bonus to their roll equal to the total number of hit points they’ve lost. If they succeed, they notice that they have grown steadily weaker ever since they’ve been around this censer. (Though it will not grant them specific knowledge of the cause. If they started eating more grains around the same time they started being afflicted, they could easily attribute their weakness to the change in diet).

Sample Initiative

Monster Hunter SwordAfter taking some additional time to ruminate on my three requirements for an initiative system, I decided to take a stab at making an initiative system specifically with those three requirements in mind. Something which maximized excitement, without requiring too much time or attention from the players.

Players roll initiative individually, based on the speed of the weapon they are using. Most weapons, and any character who is not using weapons, roll 1d6 for their initiative. Characters using slow weapons, such as the sword pictured, roll 1d4 for their initiative. While characters using fast weapons, such as rapiers, loaded loaded crossbows, or daggers, roll 1d8 for their initiative. Slow, Average, and Fast weapons align nicely with the great, medium, and small/minor weapons in Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

There are no modifiers to these rolls. However, characters roll their initiative die a number of times equal to their dexterity bonus or penalty (with a minimum of 1 die rolled). If the character has a bonus, they take the best result of the dice they rolled, and drop the rest. If the character has a dexterity penalty, they do the opposite. Using only the worst result.

So a fellow with a -2 dexterity modifier wielding a Zweihänder would roll 2d4, and whichever result was lower would be their initiative. Meanwhile, a fellow with +2 dexterity wielding a dagger would roll 2d8 and take whichever result was higher as their initiative. Characters with initiatives of 1, -1, and 0 would all roll only a single die.

What I Require of Initiative

Some D6sRecently, Courtney asked if he could experiment on those of us in his Saturday game. I like experiments, so I said yes. So did everybody else. Courtney sent us the rules he was brewing (specific references to which will be light, as I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask Courtney how he feels about having them posted), and we began setting up our characters. The system isn’t run-of-the-mill D&D by a long shot, and I liked a lot of what I saw, particularly the way equipment will be managed. My funds were limited, so I started out with nothing but a big-ass sword, which I noted had a -3 initiative penalty. At the time, it seemed like a fine tradeoff.

I arrived late to the game, so it was already well underway by the time I showed up. Sometimes the French revolution gets exciting, and you forget that you need to wake up at 5:30am the next day in order to get to the D&D game on time. I mostly watched and listened, since I wasn’t fully up to speed on what our goals were. Everything seemed to be going well, and we were soon preparing an ambush for a set of giant cats.

There has already been some discussion of what followed. Suffice to say that the players were confused and frustrated by the initiative system. I, in particular, didn’t like it at all. Once Courtney explained it, I saw how it was–on paper–an elegant and interesting method. Clearly it did not work in practice. Though, with refinement, I think it could be more engaging than other methods. Playtesting will tell in future sessions.

Thinking about it, Initiative is odd. Every rule has permutations between various systems, and house variants besides, but the sheer number of vastly different methods of running initiative, and the effects those have on play, is kind of fascinating. It can be rolled individually for each combat participant, which takes more time, but maintains a clear order of operations. Alternatively it can be rolled for each ‘side’ of the combat (typically players / things players want to be dead), which keeps combat moving at a much faster pace, but might be a bit jumbled, with more confident players inadvertently edging out quieter players. Some people roll initiative only once, as Pathfinder does, which keeps things moving along, particularly when initiative has been complicated in other ways; whilst games like LotFP re-roll the initiative every round, so you’re never sure if your next turn will come before-or after-the thing that’s trying to kill you. Some games apply all manner of modifiers to initiative, while other keep modifiers simple, and still others use no modifiers at all.

And then there are some who run initiative in phases, as proscribed by the AD&D DMG. Spells must be declared at the start, then missile attacks take place, then melee attacks take place, then spells go off. This one consistently confuses me, and various GMs have frequently needed to tell me that I can’t perform an action, because if I’d wanted to do that I needed to declare it during an earlier phase. And then, of course, there are those who don’t use initiative at all. I’ve never tried this myself, but those who have seem perfectly happy with it.

It occurs to me that my ideal initiative system serves three functions, in descending order of importance:

  1. It does not require me to think too much. I want to focus on what my next action is, not when the rules allow me to take said action.
  2. It is fast. If the forward momentum of the game has to pause to figure out who is going next, then it is taking too long.
  3. It adds some amount of excitement to combat, beyond merely establishing turn order. If points 1 and 2 were all we cared about, why not move in descending order of dexterity?

The most basic system I first encountered when I started playing OSR style games is a good example of an initiative system which fills all of these criteria. Roll 1d6 for each side of combat, rerolling each turn. It requires zero thinking on my part, takes perhaps 10 seconds to resolve, and keeps everyone on their toes because you never know if the bad guys will get two turns in a row. That doesn’t mean the system is perfect. Points 1 and 2 are more or less pass/fail requirements. If a method fails either of them, then it’s junk and needs to be improved. Point 3 has a lot of room for creativity, though.

The goal of brewing a good initiative system is to maximize the excitement it adds to combat, without failing the other two tests.

Dissecting Monsters: The Defiler’s Creature from “Better Than Any Man”

Defilers Creature Illustration by Jennifer Rodgers
Art by Jennifer Rodgers

=The Defiler’s Creature=

Armor 17, 3 Hit Dice, Movement 180’  ground  240’  leap,  1 bite  attack  doing  1  Hit Point  of  damage  per depth level plus swallows whole, Morale 12.

The Defiler’s creature is the size  of  a  pit  bull  dog  and  hops along  on  its  two  legs.  It  can  only attack with its lower mouth (its barbed tail is a sexual organ which it will not use in this dimension, while its upper mouth merely recites  Chaucer’s  Canterbury  Tales  in  Spanish). On a successful hit, the creature will do 1 Hit Point of damage and swallow its opponent whole, no matter the size difference between them.

Inside the creature, a swallowed victim will find an identical creature with the same starting stats. This creature will do 2 Hit Points of damage on a hit and swallow the victim whole, which will result in facing another creature inside which will do 3 Hit Points of damage on a hit and swallow the victim whole, and so on and so on.

Killing a creature after being swallowed causes a character to be vomited up to the next higher level to face a new creature doing  one  less  Hit  Point  of  damage  per  hit  (unless  vomited back  into  the  real  world,  in  which  case  the  original  creature will be the opponent). The creature has infinite stomachs, so multiple  characters  swallowed  by  the  creature  will  face  their own individual “creature trees.”

If the original creature in the real world is killed, the creature indeed  dies,  but  all  of  its  internal  organs  vaporize,  killing  all who were still within it.

The most notable thing about the Deflier’s creature is how funny it is. The mouth that recites Chaucer in Spanish, and the scary barbed tail which is completely useless as anything other than a sexual organ are both pretty funny. Although from a play perspective, they’re unlikely to come up, so they’re mostly intended to amuse the reader / GM, rather than the players. (Though I suppose the GM should mention that one of the mouths is constantly speaking, and if any character speaks Spanish, that could make for a pretty amusing revelation). A pit-bull sized creature swallowing humans whole is also pretty funny, and also serves as a useful misdirection. If the players have encountered any of the other monsters from this module, they’ll know to expect some kind of treachery.  But they’re unlikely to expect quite what they get.

Really, this creature is quite easy to defeat. It has good movement speed and could easily escape from the players, but with a morale of 12 that’s unlikely to occur unless the creature’s mistress recalls it. Its AC is on the high end, but is hardly un-hittable, and with a measly hit dice of 3 it won’t survive more than a few solid attacks. The strength of it lies in its ability to divide the players.

On any successful hit, a PC is separated from her fellows. If the creature is in single combat against a mid level fighter, that’s no problem. The fighter’s HP pool, armor class, and ability to hit consistently will make short work of the creature. But if the fighter’s party is nearby, the creature’s 240′ leap ensures that no one can easily escape from it. Less martially oriented characters have much less chance against the lower iterations of the creature, and the encounter against this otherwise simple enemy could quickly turn ugly. Divide et impera.

Dissecting Monsters: The Watcher’s First Creature from “Better Than Any Man”

The_Watchers_First_Creature by Gennifer Bone
Art by Gennifer Bone

=The Watcher’s First Creature=
Armor 12, 6 Hit Dice, Movement 30’ fly, no attacks, Morale 12.
This is a tendril-growing eyeball imprisoned in an electrified gelatinous shell in the shape of a seven foot cube. And it flies.

The cubic creature can read the thoughts and memories of anything it looks at, including knowing what inanimate objects have done and what has been done to them. It is not able to communicate with humans however, so when it learns something that The Watcher (or anyone else) should know, it has no choice but to mime its message… difficult when one’s body is an eyeball surrounded by a mass of flailing tendrils and encased in a large cube.

As  one  might  expect  by  the  lightning  constantly  striking  across its insides, hitting the cube with a metal mêlée weapon is a bad idea. However much damage is inflicted on the creature, the attacker also takes that much in electrical damage (save versus Magic for half damage).

When struck, the creature also shoots a tendril out at the attacker (which  plugs  the  hole  in  the  shell,  preventing  caustic  liquid  from escaping). The attacker must save versus Paralyzation or the tendril wraps around both the weapon used to attack and the arm(s) holding the weapon. This will not only immobilize the arm(s) and prevent the attacker from making any more attacks, it will also prevent the character from moving away. Anyone entangled in the tendrils like so will also be affected if the creature is attacked and discharges electricity.

The tendril itself is Armor 17 (and metallic, so striking it causes a discharge), 1 Hit Die.

Those attacking the creature with missile weapons will also have tendrils grab them, but the tendrils grow thicker with distance; add 1 Hit Die per 20’ distance of the attacker.

The creature will let its tendrils loose only when those entangled have dropped their weapons, have surrendered, and there are allies waiting to take the prisoner into custody.

If the creature is destroyed, it will explode doing 6d8 damage in a 10’ radius, 5d8 damage out to 20’, 4d8 to 30’, etc. Save versus Breath Weapon for half damage.

Something I really love about Raggi’s publications is the way he skillfully integrates a sort of nonsensical silliness into everything. Sometimes it’s overt, as it is with Twinkly in “Fuck for Satan,” or as it is with The Defiler’s creature, which I’ll get to soon. Here it’s a little more subtle, with a creature who can know everything about anything it looks at, but is completely incapable of sharing that information reliably. I can just imagine how frantic it would look trying to get someone’s attention. “These aren’t just random tentacle wigglings, I’m trying to tell you something!” I would have a lot of fun explaining weird tentacle motions, and watching my players try to decipher their meaning. I may need to come up with a reason for a similar creature to appear in one of my games as an ally of the players, just so I can have that opportunity.

In combat, this is perhaps one of the more straightforward beasts described in this series. “Hit it until it is dead” is a perfectly viable strategy. And while there are roadblocks which prevent that task from being easy, none of them are liable to overwhelm the players immediately. Players foolish enough to use metal weapons will take damage equal to that they inflict, but unless they’re low level they’ll probably survive this once. And even then, it’s the consequence of a mistake, and they receive a saving throw. So that’s quite generous.

The entangling attack the creature has similarly tame. It restricts the players actions, which could lead to the player being harmed by others, but is not in itself directly harmful. It would be a small matter to stop, destroy the tentacle, and retreat. Interestingly, the tentacles are much more challenging for those who attack from range, which is a great trick. It turns the tables on what is often assumed to be a ‘safe’ strategy.

The explosion when the creature dies is somewhat problematic for me. It’s also the only real threat this creature poses. It functions like a trap. One which can easily be deadly, and the player receives no sufficient warning of. Add to that the fact that the players are incentiveized by the mechanics discussed above to move into melee range where the damage they take will be greater. Note also, however, that every single way in which this creature causes damage is reactive. If the players leave it entirely alone, then at the very worst it is a spy who cannot effectively communicate with its master. Bearing that in mind, it could be argued that the PCs deserve whatever fate they bring upon themselves.

None the less, I think it’s important to describe the creature’s appearance and actions in a way which hints at the potential danger of destroying it. It’s (essentially) a glass cube filled with acid.* When that glass is cracked, and a tentacle shoots out to plug the hole, I would say something to the effect of: “One of the tentacles inside the cube moves impossibly fast, shooting out to plug the hole and grab at you. But it’s not fast enough to stop a squirt of green liquid from leaving a smoking black mark on the ground.”

*At least, this is how I read it. The initial description makes it sound as though the gelatin which surrounds the creature is of a single consistency: a gel. Later, though, it’s stated that the outer shell needs to be plugged by tentacles to prevent “caustic liquid” from escaping.

Deadly Dungeons 29: The Weathered Door

Weathered DoorOf late, I’ve been trying to work on creative tricks and traps which don’t rely quite so much on magic. Which isn’t to say I don’t like magic. A look back through previous deadly dungeons posts will show just how much I love the idea of insane wizards making fucked up nonsense because they don’t have anything better to do with their immense power. But I feel as though I’ve relied too heavily on magic as a crutch in my game design, so I’m trying to push myself to create interesting challenges which could be crafted by thieves, or primitive peoples.

This door will probably make the most sense if it is in a windswept, possibly sandy location. Somewhere that wood would be stripped without being damaged to the point of being structurally unsound.

This is a wooden double door. It is clearly dilapidated, the wood has deep grooves in it and splinters easily, but is still quite sturdy. Each of the two doors has horizontal metal handles. On each door, above the handles, are two vertical strips which are clearly discolored from the rest of the door. It’s obvious something was once there but is not any longer.

A cursory examination of the handles will reveal that there is blue paint on the parts of it which are protected from the weather. Closely examining the discolored vertical lines on the door will also reveal small flecks of blue paint there. They are small enough that a person would need good light to see them, and cannot be rushed.

If pulled, the handles do not open the door. In fact, they are not even connected to the door. They are instead fitted to small panels in the wood. These panels are well crafted enough that only a successful search roll will find them. Once removed, the panels release small gas canisters which instantly blast anyone standing within 5ft of the door, requiring them to make a save versus poison. Fortunately, this gas is very old and should have been replaced long ago. On a failed poison save, roll 1d6 to determine the effect:

  1. Death.
  2. A permanent 1d6 reduction of a random stat (roll 1d6).
  3. A permanent reduction of 1 to a random stat (roll 1d6).
  4. The character becomes violently ill, and becomes completely incapacitated for 2 weeks. After this time, no ill effects are suffered.
  5. The character spends 10 minutes being violently ill. The noise, and the smell, attract a nearby monster.
  6. The victim’s body actually reacts well to the aged poison, and they heal 1d6 damage.

If the characters instead turn the handles before pulling them–so that the horizontal handle is instead vertical, the panels will lock in place. This will allow characters to open the doors safely. The fact that the handles can turn is not immediately obvious, as the pivoting point has become jammed with debris. But once the characters decide to make an effort to turn the handle, it can be done with only minor difficulty.

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