Monday, January 23, 2012

Book of War Expansion: Lesser Undead

I didn't include any undead in the published Book of War rules. There are a few reasons for that (like: they're not classically in the D&D men-at-arms tables available for hire), but nonetheless, let's fix that right now. Here are some undead you might think about fielding in your campaign (text between the rules is Open Game Content, per the OGL):

Unit Cost MV AH HD Notes
Skeletons 4 6 4 1 Fearless
Skeletons, Archers 7 6 4 1 Fearless, shortbows
Zombies (1HD) 4 6 4 1 Fearless
Zombies (2HD) 6 6 4 2 Fearless
Ghouls 9 9 5 2 Fearless, paralysis, −1 in sun

Undead, General Notes: We assume that all undead are fearless (no morale checks ever), and also immune to death spells.

Skeletons and Zombies: Note that skeletons and zombies are indistinguishable at this scale! (Assuming stats of HD 1/2 and 1 respectively.)

Ghouls: These hideous creatures are likely to paralyze and consume their targets. On hits against mass creatures, check 1d6 ≥ HD/2 to convert any hit to a full figure kill. Against 1HD heroes, attacks roll 3 dice; against HD2+ heroes, attack rolls are as normal, but any such hit is a hero-kill. Elf targets are immune to this effect.

Commentary: Note that skeletons and zombies actually have different hit dice in OD&D (½ and 1 respectively) versus anything that came after that (1 and 2 respectively). Now, for skeletons, it turns out that there's no statistical difference at BOW scale between their having ½ or 1 Hit Dice, so the numbers above are applicable in either case (more on that in the future). But zombies will present a difference, so I've included both types above, appropriate for whichever variety you prefer. Another thing: Advanced D&D bumped the skeleton move up to 12", whereas Basic D&D instead accelerated zombies up to 12", so pay attention and modify for whichever edition you're playing under. (Myself, I prefer them both to be slow as in OD&D.) I don't think that the zombies-attack-last qualifier in those later editions makes any statistical difference in sustained mass combat; and I've also included and priced skeleton archers above, because a lot of people have miniatures of that type.

Ghouls are a uniquely odd (and dangerous) unit type; the mechanic above took quite some time to nail down. The thing is, the chance for paralysis (and subsequent auto-hits or however you play it) is almost totally inconsequential against basic 1HD troops -- a single hit usually kills them anyway, so succumbing to paralysis on top of that is just academic. What the ability is really deadly against is higher-HD types, who might get paralyzed from one hit, effectively lose the benefit of all their higher HD, and wind up horribly consumed. So against mass troops at BOW scale there's a die-roll to turn any hit into a full figure kill, regardless of HD. And against hero troops there are either additional dice, or an automatic figure-kill, depending on how strong they are. Damnation! That's pretty scary, if you think about it, and accurate to how D&D would play out against a whole slavering army of ghouls in melee; in some sense, ghouls have the special ability to dissolve the value of opponents' higher hit dice.

Finally: I include the −1 to hit in sunny weather for ghouls in the tradition of OD&D and Chainmail saying that they, and other types, are weaker in sunlight (e.g., "... must subtract 1 from any die roll they roll when in full light" [CM, p. 37]). I think that's a nice segue into the higher-level undead who are totally incapacitated in light (spectres, vampires), but you might disagree and wish to strike that out. Also, if you want to include the possibility of victims killed by ghouls rising again later as undead themselves (OD&D/AD&D), then you should do that yourself in post-hoc fashion (and outside the scope of an active battle, I would recommend).

Postscript: Skeleton/zombie hit dice are confusing.

[Photo by zen under CC2.]


  1. Very nice! What's a fantasy battle without some shambling hordes of zombies and quick moving skeletons? :)

    Players might not be able to hire them but wizards and clerics can amke 'em! ;)

  2. You could increase the AC of skeletons, making them easier to hit to account for their HD difference. In CM this is the difference (perhaps) that kobolds are lightfoot, orcs heavyfoot and hobgoblins armored.

  3. UWS Guy -- I did consider that, but it turns out that based on D&D it's not statistically justifiable (somewhat surprisingly). In short: At either 1/2 or 1 HD, a hit kills them about half the time, so there's not much difference. I'll have a post next week or sometime crunching the numbers on that point.

  4. What about skeletons taking half-damage from edged weapons? Was that just an AD&D thing, or is it just statistically insignificant at this level?

  5. ^ Thanks for the reminder; yes, it's only in AD&D (not OD&D or B/X, etc.), so I didn't include it here.

  6. What perfect timing. My group has unleashed a zombie/ghoul horde that's descending on their little wilderness keep. I had to guess costs - I got it pretty close.

    Your Ghouls are much nastier. I think I'll use them.

  7. Rob -- Sweet! Glad I could be of (dis-)service. :-)

  8. I'm surprised that the "fearless" ability doesn't increase the point cost. I've had more than one BOW battle turn because the undead wouldn't break, especially when massed with 15+ figures.

    Were ghouls given "fearless" intentionally? In B/X they can fail morale checks, but I don't know if that notion appears before Moldvay.

    In my experience with B/X and AD&D, a ghoul's multiple attacks often eclipse the paralysis since PCs are often dead from hit point loss before even considering the save.

    1. Good observations. If I recall the simulator results, (I'm a bit hazy) part of the issue is that due to slow movement, the undead here were pretty susceptible to being shot to pieces by archers on the approach, especially through any kind of rough terrain. Plus they're being balanced against all other fantasy types, many of whom are effectively fearless anyway due to high hit dice (giants, etc.) I agree that against normal melee types in open terrain the undead are pretty horrific.

      I did make ghouls fearless on purpose; it's a place where I'm negotiating different takes in B/X and AD&D. In the AD&D Monster Manual it is written, "Ghoul packs always attack without fear." So I took that as Gygaxian intent, and also conveniently synchronized with the other undead, which won out over the Moldvay B/X rule that gave them fallible morale.

      I also agree that ghoul multiple attacks (with paralysis) are hellacious and really make them punch above their weight class. In OD&D I'm happy for them to still have just one attack per round! (Although this also allows me to throw more ghouls at my players.)