AD&D Monster Cards Campaign

Because it's something I always did want (in fact, I hand-made some of my own back in the day), and thanks to some recent suggestions by commentators here, I picked up a full copy of the old AD&D Monster Cards product off E-Bay the other week. Just for a moment (since it's something we are wont to do), let's imagine running a campaign where the only monsters are those you can show to the players on these cards (organized OD&D-style by category and increasing Hit Dice):
  • Humanoids -- Kobold, Goblin, Gnoll, Lizard Man, Troglodyte, Bugbear.
  • Giants -- Hill Giant, Stone Giant, Frost Giant, Ettin.
  • Undead -- Ghoul, Mummy, Spectre, Vampire.
  • Dragons -- Black, Red, Silver, Gold.
  • Lycanthropes -- Werewolf, Weretiger, Seawolf.
  • Fey -- Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Centaur, Hybsil, Wemic, Sylph, Satyr, Korred, Treant.
  • Flyers -- Hippogriff, Peryton, Androsphinx.
  • Outsiders -- Wind Walker, Salamander, Efreeti, Succubus, Demon Type V, Barbed Devil, Nycadaemon.
  • Animals -- Axe Beak, Giant Weasel, Dire Wolf, Jaguar, Carnivorous Ape, Giant Constrictor Snake, Sabretooth Tiger, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
  • Insects -- Bombardier Beetle, Ankheg, Giant Scorpion, Thri-Kreen.
  • Chimerical -- Grippli, Blink Dog, Zorbo, Su-Monster, Displacer Beast, Leucrotta, Gorgon, Galeb Duhr, Stone Golem.
  • Aberrations -- Obliviax, Carrion Crawler, Land Urchin, Gelatinous Cube, Rust Monster, Mihstu, Umber Hulk, Will-O-Wisp, Tunnel Worm, Neo-Otyugh, Roper, Giant Slug.
  • Aquatic -- Ixitxachitl, Merman, Locathah, Sahuagin, Hippocampus.

I kind of like it; there's a nice mix of old/mythological "standbys" and more exotic/unique-to-D&D-play creatures. While there are some surprising things left out (no Orcs, Ogres, or Trolls, for example), I do like how many of the categories meet the "Magic Number Seven" rule, giving some nice texture while remaining manageable for the DM in world-building and play.


Friday Night Book of War

One of the more well-known products of the OSR movement is James Raggi's Death Frost Doom. Near the end of that adventure, there is the possibility of something rather... bad happening. (Well, more than one, but there's one in particular that I'll focus on). One thing that I've been wondering about is what it would take to stop it. (SPOILERS below: stop reading here if you want to avoid them!)

Specifically, there is the possibility in Death Frost Doom of an enormous horde of undead being "vomited" forth to raze the countryside. The total number is over 12,000 bodies, which is indeed a huge mass -- that's probably about as many as it took to conquer England in 1066; and it exceeds the total size of most middle-ages towns. By medieval standards you'd need a very large national army to meet it in combat and hope to defeat it (and if you lose: well, then that's probably a lot more ghouls being spawned).

Although we have previously presented statistics for the lesser undead present, the overall number is really larger than a 1:10 scale wargame like Book of War is set up to handle. Nevertheless, I wanted to see generally how this action would play out. Let's say a portion of the overall group, say about 1/20 of the total, has splintered off and wandered into an unknown far-east kingdom. This will be pretty close to 300 points value in Book of War, which is what I offered to my regular opponent to choose for an army. See below for how that played out (and more about the full force at the end):

Start -- 310 Points; Optional Rules for Weather & Morale in play. At the bottom of the table you'll see that I have a core group of 10 Ghoul figures in the center, with 10 Warrior Zombies (2HD) to the left, and another 40 Common Zombies (1HD) in groups on the wings & rear (thus representing individual 100 ghouls, 100 warrior zombies, and 400 commoner zombies).

At the top of the board, you'll see that my opponent has elected to take a group of almost all War Elephants, with archers on the back (plus a small group of Pikes for 10 points). This is somewhat surprising, since she tried to use War Elephants and Pikes the last time I threw an all-undead horde at her, and they were overwhelmed and destroyed rather handily in that engagement. (See that play here.) Here, the Elephants are an even sweeter target for the Ghoul's paralysis ability; while they normally have 6HD, any single hit from the ghouls will wipe out an entire figure immediately (as long as a follow-up roll gets d6≥3). But my opponent feels that she has a better idea on how to use the Elephants this time, so, hey, let her dig her own grave, I say. (Photos are a bit hazy from my overhead lamp being busted the other week, apologies for that.)

Before I go further, I should point out the rather important roll for weather (which happened right before army setup above). If the weather is Sunny, then my ghouls will be at -1 to hit in the light (for example: instead of hitting elephants on a 5, they'll need a 6). So: My opponent rolled a "7", which is the last possible number she could roll and still get Sunny weather.

Turn 1 -- My undead lumber forward at their full move rate (the ghouls a bit faster then the rest). Then my opponent makes half-moves with her forces, which allows the archers to take half-dice shots. I lose a few zombie figures on each wing. Normally this would trigger Morale checks, but of course, all of my undead forces are immune; so, that won't be any factor at all in this game.

Turn 2 -- My forces again lurch ahead relentlessly. (Tip: The opponent really appreciates it if you mumble "brains...." every time you push forward a stand of undead.) In response, the war elephants lower their heads and charge forward, crashing into my lines. Here's what happens there: the elephants get 2 attacks each, and they automatically hit my zombies (armor AH4, but elephants at +3 to hit, so they hit on any die-roll 1 or above). My warrior zombies have 2HD, but the friggin' elephants also get 2 damage, so they're automatically killed, as well. Plus the archers get some half-dice shooting as well. Holy crap, that's a lot of carnage! (Side note: This is actually toned down from how elephants are listed in the AD&D MM, where they would instead get five attacks for two dice each.)

Turn 3 -- My remaining zombies wrap around the enemy, and score between 1 and 3 hits each on the elephant units, and I've got more zombies coming down the hill on the far right. My ghouls in the center start wheeling to the left to threaten the main elephant force there, with more zombies behind. In response, the enemy throws her pikes forward, into the flank of the ghouls (scoring 1 hit). This is a pretty astute move, because it will prevent the ghouls from maneuvering unless they turn and flee directly away (back into the woods). Meanwhile, the elephants are mostly stamping out the remaining zombies directly in contact with them.

Turn 5 -- My ghouls had to take a turn to kill and devour the pikemen, then re-face and finally wheel out of the woods; the far-left elephants have turned and are shooting at them long-distance. Zombies on the far-right tried to attack the elephants there, but came up 3/8 of an inch short on the table (there was argument here, didn't go my way), and then half their numbers went down to trampling war elephants. Still more zombies in the woods waiting for a chance to attack their rear, however.

Turn 6 -- My ghouls charge the elephants at last, achieving contact by the slimmest of margins. I get 3 figures in contact, and thus 3 attacks; any hit is more than likely to wipe out an entire elephant figure, so this is the key moment that I've been eagerly awaiting. However, with the Sunny weather, I do need to roll a "6" on any attack die to succeed. My numbers come up: 2, 2, and 2. On my opponent's turn, her elephants come running at me and immediately smash the entire ghoul unit into a fine, gray paste. Well, holy damn.

Turn 8 -- My remaining zombies surge out of the woods on the far right, into the rear of the elephants unit there, and do manage to take down one figure (due to elephant's high HD, they would only fail morale on a 2d6 roll of 2, which does not happen). Then on the next turn, they wrap around and rack up another 5 hits (1 hit shy of eliminating another figure). But at this point the opponent has brought her units from the other side into the fray, and wipes out all my remaining figures. Victory to the Elephant Queen!

Commentary -- This play surprised the heck out of both of us; we really both went in thinking I had the advantage, and my opponent made my complete defeat look rather easy. A few thoughts: (1) If you add up the excess hits on the elephants, I was pretty close to knocking out two more elephant figures (about half her army), so perhaps it was a bit closer than it first seemed. (2) I might have made a terrible mistake sending my Ghouls into the central woods -- the idea being to protect them from missile-fire and permit them the threaten either side, but I guess they just don't have the movement to avoid getting bogged down there. (3) There's a bit of an open question if the War Elephants are possibly under-priced; that might need a bit more investigation.

But it is true that the zombies and ghouls, with slow movement and no missile weapons, clearly have some weaknesses that can be exploited by a clever opponent. And apparently an excellent response is to bring about 60 War Elephants to the field for every 600 or so Lesser Undead. My opponent really did learn a major lesson from her earlier force of Elephants; against these undead, they're best used aggressively, smashing over the enemy lines and crushing them into powder at the earliest possible opportunity.

Speaking of the larger horror-show that can occur in Death Frost Doom (again; this was just 1/20 the total force), the overall numbers run approximately 2,000 Ghouls, 2,000 Warrior Undead, and 8,000 Common Undead (in round numbers); and that's about 6,000 points value in Book of War. By my calculations, an equivalent force might look like an army of 1,000 Heavy Cavalry, 2,000 Longbowmen, and 4,000 Pikemen. If your fantasy-medieval kingdom has those forces available, and you've got upwards of 2,000 miniature figures and a mammoth table, then you might consider playing out the whole thing in a titanic Book of War game. Or you can use action against smaller splinter-groups, possibly with high-level PCs leading the undead into favorable terrain or enveloping traps, somewhat as you see above. And may you always make your paralysis saves!


Conan and the Idol

From "Shadows in Zamboula" (1935) by Robert E. Howard:
They entered a court paved with marble which gleamed whitely in the starlight. A short flight of broad marble steps led up to the pillared portico. The great bronze doors stood wide open as they had stood for centuries. But no worshippers burnt incense within. In the day men and women might come timidly into the shrine and place offerings to the ape-god on the black altar. At night the people shunned the temple of Hanuman as hares shun the lair of the serpent.

Burning censers bathed the interior in a soft, weird glow that created an illusion of unreality. Near the rear wall, behind the black stone altar, sat the god with his gaze fixed for ever on the open door, through which for centuries his victims had come, dragged by chains of roses. A faint groove ran from the sill to the altar, and when Conan's foot felt it, he stepped away as quickly as if he had trodden upon a snake. That groove had been worn by the faltering feet of the multitude of those who had died screaming on that grim altar.

Bestial in the uncertain light, Hanuman leered with his carven mask. He sat, not as an ape would crouch, but cross-legged as a man would sit, but his aspect was no less simian for that reason. He was carved from black marble, but his eyes were rubies, which glowed red and lustful as the coals of hell's deepest pits. His great hands lay upon his lap, palms upward, taloned fingers spread and grasping. In the gross emphasis of his attributes, in the leer of his satyr-countenance, was reflected the abominable cynicism of the degenerate cult which deified him.


Ghoul Poll Results

Very interesting results for the polls on Ghouls I put up the other week; thanks to everyone who responded. The somewhat surprising overwhelming agreement (81%) was that ghouls should only get one paralysis opportunity per round -- whether that be done by limiting them to just one attack, or only the bite attack paralyzes, or just one save regardless of total hits, or something else. Similar agreement was reached on the idea of ghouls taking a penalty to hit in full sunlight (83%); but there was closer debate on the issues of ghouls being fearless/morale-immune (58% said yes), or how many total attacks they should get (32% said "one" as in the LBBs, 53% said "three" as in all later editions). Gratifyingly, the broad consensus (one paralyzing attack, penalty in light, morale-immune) matches the rules that I currently use in my home OD&D game, and also the Book of War statistics for ghouls that were posted not too long ago. I was expecting to go back and revise those profiles based on poll results, but it turns out that I don't have any work to do there (extra thanks! :-). I do keep ghouls at one attack roll as per OD&D -- but that's a minor matter, as the real punch comes from how many paralyzing attempts they get per round. So, that was really great feedback.


Request for Help

Here's the deal -- As is pretty well-known, the earliest versions of Chainmail and Original D&D were littered with explicitly called-out connections to the works of Tolkien. In later editions, those were removed (mostly) after the Tolkien estate made noises about intellectual property problems.

But I think that most of us (most importantly: me!) don't have access to those earliest editions, so exactly what is said there is unavailable to us. Some have compiled helpful annotations about where things changed (such as here and here; thanks for the links Zenopus!), but to date I haven't found exact quotes about what was said at the time (e.g., someone had to tell me last week that the Holmes "Nazgul now count as Spectres" text was initially in OD&D).

So here's the request: Could someone with early editions of OD&D actually write out in full the text passages referring to works of Tolkien? (Entries in random tables aren't needed so much; I'm thinking actual sentences or parenthetical passages that mention Tolkien creatures. Surely that would count as fair-use.) Or point us all to a link where someone's already down that? I think it would be a great help to many of us.


In Which I Play Dwimmermount

So this past Saturday night I was kindly asked by Tavis Allison (of MuleAbides, Adventurer-Conqueror-King-System, Kickstarter-extraordinaire fame) to participate in a sneak-preview playtest of James Maliszewski's Dwimmermount megadungeon setting at a local gaming venue. What an opportunity! Rarely do I get to sit in the player's seat, and man did I need a break from furiously writing math lecture notes all day and night the past few weeks.

Tavis may have more courage than I do, because he had something of an open call out to players, and once we had dinner, piled into the Brooklyn Strategist, and set up to play around the custom gaming table there, he had no less than nine players ready for the session. Sadly I don't think I caught everyone's name, but among the players nearest to me were Pete, Miguel, Ben, and Eric. Paul Hughes was there (the creative force behind the mind-bending dungeon-map-random-dungeon-generator poster, currently on Kickstarter). And so was Stefan Pokorny, master sculptor and founder of Dwarven Forge, who provided an eye-popping array of miniature terrain to play with. And we were all here to pillage Dwimmermount. Now that's a game!

Tavis was pretty generous with how characters were procured, rolled, or flat-out stolen from someone else. On a whim I'd brought my little sheet for a 2nd-level dwarven fighter named Garrick, who previously saw action in a Google+ game run by my gaming-expert friend Paul. Since most PC's were being generated at 4th level, about the first thing that Tavis said to me was, "You can have 4 henchmen, does that appeal to you?" Does it!? (I'm semi-infamous for gleefully playing multiple characters. Here I would get to play a whole crew of 5 dwarven plate-armored fighters. This was a very good sign.) With similar rulings around the table, we had a total of eighteen characters assembled and marching up to Dwimmermount.

On the slopes outside the dungeon entrance, we were trying to negotiate our way over a treacherous rockfall, when part of the cliff above us fell away and we found ourselves facing several frickin' gorgons in a newly-revealed cave. After some not-very-effectual missile fire (and my dwarves not having any long-range weapons at all), some clever soul hooked onto the crumbly cliff face with a grappling hook and brought it down on top of the cave entrance -- which was then locked in place with a web spell. Thus saved, we continued to the entrance and into the dungeon.

An earlier explorer had a pretty complete map of the first level, and it seemed like the area to the east looked promising, so we assembled in good marching order and proceeded in that direction (this was nontrivial with our numbers, but Stefan wrangling terrain and miniatures helped immensely). We traveled through a hall of statues, and broke through an orc-assembly area, lighting an enormous fire to keep the way clear (I think). Then we made our way into a room of seemingly-trapped fixtures on the walls. Here someone points out a corpse that preceded us:

Some of our elven compatriots felt that the lone room to the north should be cleared first (I think they were reading from a book of notes from earlier adventures: "Ack, never trust anything written on paper", says I). So this precipitates a rather hair-raising fight with undead. There is a standard-weapon-immune, energy-draining creature involved: since almost none of the party has magic weapons, Garrick calls for a general dwarven charge to batter the creature and get some desperate licks in with his one silver dagger; meanwhile, a fellow party member pulls out a magic sword and joins in. Unfortunately, more undead attack the party from our other side, and the casting of a web spell goes awry, trapping some of the party and cutting off the rest. What a mess!

The cut-off members of the party try to hold off the undead host, throwing flaming oil at the chokepoints and fighting furiously. Unfortunately, several members are cut down, and our cleric Father Roy is caught up by a gang of them, slain, and then carried off to parts unknown. But his sacrifice allows the rest of us to re-assemble and locate a sizable amount of treasure. (Sorry about the magic item the dwarves smashed in their fury. Our bad!)

We explore some more rooms further south, but hear the sounds of numerous creatures that seem to be stalking us with violent intent. So we turn about and decide to meet them in combat -- and our aggressive posture pays off. Sleep + 5 dwarves rushing in with spears and hammers = totally wiped out group of kobolds.

After this, it was time to head back to town with our treasure, experience, and a map to a discordant subterranean area located near a frontier fortress. A successful exploration! We cleaned up and left the area in the Brooklyn Strategist for the next adventurers who might try it.

A few notes: An immensely enjoyable game run by Tavis, with all the players involved. I'm also pretty happy with how I'm playing these days, actually -- I didn't lose a single one of my dwarven fighting squad, even though they were all 1st level (plus Garrick at 2nd), and composed most of the front two rows of the party (so as protect the rest of the group with their heavy armor, and allow shooting over their heads and whatnot). And we benefited from a most generous split of the treasure (seeing as together we were one-third of the whole party left at the end).

In my short play experience, it seems that James Maliszewski's Dwimmermount is a whole lot freakier than I expected -- and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Of course, we were dealing with things like orcs, kobolds, and skeletons -- but no element appeared that wasn't corrupted in some deep and disturbing way. Not even the dungeon doors escaped being of bizarre function and construct. It looks like a very memorable place to adventure.

Initially, I was a little bit worried about presenting pictures and notes from our explorations this weekend (I don't think that James has any idea that I was playing the adventure with Tavis this weekend, nor did he have advance knowledge that I'd be writing this) -- but as I checked his blog today, it turns out that his own players from the prior night explored the exact same part of the ruins that we did, and he even posted a map that they constructed along the way (compare to photos above). So I'm guessing it's okay. High kudos to everyone involved in the production!


Wraiths Through the Ages

Or: When Did Wraiths Become Incorporeal?

Nowadays, Wraiths in D&D are understood to be incorporeal (not physically present or touchable; able to pass through doors and walls, etc.), but that hasn't always been the case. How did it happen? Let's open our dusty tomes of forbidden knowledge and look into the distant past:

Pre-Chainmail Fantasy 

A really interesting article by Gygax appears in the Wargamer's Newsletter from October 1972 (preserved at Grognardia). Here, Gygax describes his games with Tolkien-themed creatures, using the Chainmail rules, and promoting the upcoming expanded release with the Fantasy section. He doesn't yet use the generic word "wraiths"; at this point they're just simply Nazgul:

The Balrog has caused considerable problems, and right now we are using a giant sloth from an assortment of plastic prehistoric animals, which (converted) makes a fearsome looking beast, albeit not quite as Tolkien described it. Nazgul, like the Balrog, are also difficult. Presently we are employing unconverted 40mm Huns on black horses, but we would like to put wings on the steeds and cloak the figures riding them.

Chainmail Fantasy

When Chainmail Fantasy does get published, the text for Wraiths looks like this:
WRAITHS (Nazgûl, etc.): Wraiths can see in darkness, raise the morale of friendly troops as if they were Heroes, cause the enemy to check morale as if they were Super Heroes, and paralyze any enemy man -- excluding all mentioned in the Fantasy Supplement -- they touch during the course of a move (not flying). Paralyzed troops remain unmoving until touched by a friendly Elf, Hero-type, or Wizard. Touch means either actual contact or coming within 1" of. A Wraith can either move normally or fly, remaining in the air for as many turns as desired. They melee as either two Armored Foot or two Medium Horse, and they are impervious to all save magical weapons or combat by other fantastic creatures.

Note the explicit parenthetical sub-name here of "Nazgûl" (this was removed after the second printing of Chainmail). And there's something else pretty interesting if you look closely at the Fantasy Reference Table [CM p. 43]: the listing for the type is given as "Wraiths (mtd)". Which is to say, wraiths are assumed to be traveling mounted on undead horse-creatures -- just as they're described in the Wargamer's Newsletter earlier on ("40mm Huns on black horses, but we would like to put wings on the steeds..."). And of course that's also consistent with the Ringwraiths' alias name of the "Black Riders" or "Dark Riders" in Lord of the Rings. Can Wraiths only fly by means of their (possibly winged) horses at this point? Perhaps so.

Original D&D

Pretty short text here:

WRAITHS: These monsters are simply high-class Wights with more mobility, hit dice, and treasure. Hits by silver-tipped arrows will score only 1/2 die of damage, and magic arrows only score 1 die of damage when they hit. [Vol-2, p. 9]

Of course, Wights and Wraiths now have their feared energy-drain ability, replacing their earlier paralysis capacity in Chainmail (maintained only for Ghouls). While OD&D by convention includes all of Chainmail by reference, there's no mention of the Wraith's mounts in either the text or the monster reference table at this time. While Chainmail gave them movement of 18" (36" flying), here they're reduced to 12" (24" flying), and that's what you'll see in all later versions. Of course, we all know that Wights are corporeal, so when the text here says that "These monsters are simply high-class Wights" we might certainly think that Wraiths are likewise still corporeal. 

Now, we also need to look at the related entry for Spectres here, which reads as follows:

SPECTRES: These monsters have no corporeal body which makes them totally imprevious to all normal weaponry (but can be struck by all magical weapons), including silver-tipped arrows. (The Nazgul of Tolkein now fall into this catagory rather than as Wraiths as stated in CHAINMAIL.) They drain two life energy levels when they score a hit. Men-types killed by Spectres become Spectres under the control of the one who made them.

Just to highlight: (a) they explicitly have "no corporeal body", and (b) the "Nazgul of Tolkien now fall into this catagory [sic]" (this latter reference was removed in printings after the first). But contrast that text with the artwork on the inside cover of the same book -- signed by Keenan Powell in 1973, it's labeled "Nazgul". Note that the creature is depicted with fully-formed head, jaw, clawed hands, legs, and feet, clothed and crowned, and riding its mount. (Again, this label was removed in printings after the first; and likewise, Wights were initially noted as "Barrow Wights (per Tolkien)".) So there are at least some mixed signals about the state of Nazgûl (Spectres) here.

OD&D Vol-2: Nazgul

Advanced D&D

When the Monster Manual came out in 1977 (collecting the various D&D monsters, together with optional attacks & damage from the Greyhawk supplement, new art, etc.), there was still to this time, no mention of Wraiths being incorporeal. This is the main text block:

Wraiths are undead, similar in nature to wights, but they exist more strongly on the negative material plane. They are found only in dark and gloomy places, for they have no power in full sunlight. In addition to the chilling effect of its touch (1-6 hit points damage), a wraith drains on life energy at the rate of 1 per hit, just as a wight does. Similarly, the wraith can be struck only with silver weapons (which cause only one-half damage) or weapons which are magically enchanted (which score full damage). [MM p. 102]

Note that the language that they "are found only in dark and gloomy places, for they have no power in full sunlight" seems to prohibit much of the action previously performed by creatures such as the Nazgul (Ringwraiths). Even more important, perhaps, is that the Wraiths entry came with this very evocative piece of art by David C. Sutherland III ("DCS"):

Of course, this looks like a very unusual creature, with no visible features, apart from lamp-glowing eye-spots, and apparently crackling energy-waves throughout the body. It doesn't even have distinct legs or feet -- no way to ride a flying horse, or even walk upon the ground, like that! I suspect that what came later was largely a response to this single, powerful image.

Holmes Basic D&D

Holmes says this, mostly like OD&D:

These monsters are immaterial and drain life energy, 1 level per hit. They are like wights, but have more hit dice and are harder to hit. Silver tipped arrows score 1/2 die of damage. Magic arrows score only normal damage. They are impervious to normal weapons. [Holmes, p. 33-34]

Now here's the first time that anyone has admitted to the key thing about Wraiths: "These monsters are immaterial..." Holmes was first published in 1977, the same year as the AD&D Monster Manual. Was Holmes responding to the Sutherland illustration, or was there some pre-existing consensus in the house that Wraiths should become immaterial? Either way, there's not much by way of an explicit effect given for this observation (except maybe as an explanation for their hard-to-hit quality).

We should also point out the Holmes retains the OD&D shout-outs that Wights are "Barrow wights (per Tolkien)", and Spectres are "[t]he 'Nazgul' of Tolkien", and these were never elided from any later printings.

Cook Expert D&D

Dave Cook writes this in 1981:

A wraith is an undead monster that drains the life-force of its victims. It has no physical body and looks like a pale, manlike almost transparent figure composed of thick mist. It is immune to sleep, charm, and hold spells. A wraith can only be hit by silver or magical weapons, but silver weapons will only do half damage... [Cook Expert, p. X42]

So far, this is definitely the most explicit description of what a wraith's body is like. There's no artwork for the Wraith per se in these rules but the illustration for the Spectre by Erol Otus is memorable and suggestive:

Expert D&D: Spectre

Advanced D&D, 2nd Edition

The Monstrous Manual says this:

The wraith is an evil undead spirit of a powerful human that seeks to absorb human life energy. These horrible creatures are usually seen as black, vaguely man-shaped clouds. They have no true substance, but tend to shape themselves with two upper limbs, a torso, and a head with two glowing red eyes. This shape is a convenience born from the habit of once having a human body... [2E MM]

Now, if that isn't a description of the Sutherland illustration, then I really don't know what one would sound like.

D&D, 3rd Edition

Finally, in 3rd Edition, the aspect of Wraiths' incorporeality is given a full-throated sermon: "incorporeal" becomes a special-ability tag, given a special-handling section in the DMG, and it includes a whole host of simulationist add-on effects. Here it is from the SRD:
Incorporeality: Incorporeal creatures can only be harmed by other incorporeal creatures, by +1 or better weapons, or by spells, spell-like effects, or supernatural effects. They are immune to all nonmagical attack forms. They are not burned by normal fires, affected by natural cold, or harmed by mundane acids. Even when struck by magic or magic weapons, an incorporeal creature has a 50% chance to ignore any damage from a corporeal source—except for a force effect.

Incorporeal creatures move in any direction (including up or down) at will. They do not need to walk on the ground. Incorporeal creatures can pass through solid objects at will, although they cannot see when their eyes are within solid matter. Incorporeal creatures are inaudible unless they decide to make noise. The physical attacks of incorporeal creatures ignore material armor, even magic armor, unless it is made of force or has the ghost touch ability.

Incorporeal creatures pass through and operate in water as easily as they do in air. Incorporeal creatures cannot fall or suffer falling damage. Corporeal creatures cannot trip or grapple incorporeal creatures. Incorporeal creatures have no weight and do not set off traps that are triggered by weight. Incorporeal creatures do not leave footprints, have no scent, and make no noise unless they manifest, and even then they only make noise intentionally. [3E SRD]

Yowza -- that's of a lot to keep track of for Wraiths and their ilk! But at any rate, at this point they're truly incorporeal, with all that goes along with that. There's even an illustration in 3E of wraiths flying out of a wall to attack your friendly neighborhood cleric (before he gets a chance to turn them, perhaps):

D&D 3E: Wraiths Attack Cleric

Open Questions

At what point do you think the best Wraith was presented? Do you like them to be incorporeal to the extent of flying through walls & floors to attack? Was it, at least initially, a good model for Tolkien's Nazgul? Do you think it was the Sutherland illustration that convinced writers to make them "immaterial", or were there other contributing factors?

[Top photo by San Diego Shooter under CC2.]


New Ghoul Poll

As a follow-up to Monday's post, I've added a new poll in the sidebar for this week: "Ghouls should get how many paralysis attempts per round?"

This is in response to several different ideas in the comments, all of which result in ghouls only getting a single attempt at paralyzing per round (this being distinct from the number-of-attacks question). This would include suggestions such as:
  1. Keep ghouls at one attack per round as in OD&D (Delta)
  2. Just one save needed no matter how many attacks hit (Paul)
  3. Paralysis only applies to the bite attack (RedHobbit, et. al.)
What do you think?


Ghouls Through the Ages

As I've unburied myself in the last week (from a combination of sick, cyber-crash, and work avalanche), I thought it might a good time to look at some undead issues that I've wanted to investigate for a while. It's also on my mind because my good friend Paul ran several iterations of AD&D module A1, Slave Pits of the Undercity, at a tournament last week; and in his writeup, it sounds as if the most critical element to party success is how they fare in a certain fight against ghouls (or more specifically: does the party cleric succeed in their turn check or not?).

I'm not terrifically surprised about that, because ghouls are a really hideously dangerous opponent in D&D; they punch way above their normal weight class (as indicated by hit dice). Even though the higher-HD types with energy drain get more of the gnashing-of-teeth response from a lot of players, I think that ghouls are really more likely to wipe you out with a TPK than those other types. Here are a few historical notes on them:

Chainmail Fantasy -- Ghouls are in Chainmail, as a sub-category lumped in with Wights:
WIGHTS (and Ghouls): Although they are foot figures, Wights (and Ghouls) melee as Light Horse and defend as Heavy Horse. They cannot be harmed by normal missile fire. Wights (and Ghouls) can see in darkness, and must subtract 1 from any die roll they roll when in full light. If they touch a normal figure during melee, it becomes paralyzed and remains so for one complete turn. A paralyzed figure is considered to be able to strike a blow at the Wight just prior to paralysis taking effect, so melee can occur but only one round. [CM p. 37]
Hey, where did that paralysis come from, anyway? Well, Tolkien describes Barrow-Wights in Lord of the Rings as having an "icy touch" -- and here you see them with a freezing-effect described as "paralysis" against those who they touch. Ghouls just happen to be along for the ride in the same section, and so they (in something of a happy accident -- for them) also get paralysis. In later editions Wights switch to energy-drain, but Ghouls stick with the paralysis.

Original D&D -- And here's what OD&D says, mostly referring back to the preceding:
As stated in CHAINMAIL for Wights, Ghouls paralize any normal figure they touch, excluding Elves. They otherwise melee in the regular fashion and are subject to missile fire. Any man-type killed by a Ghoul becomes one. [Vol-2, p. 9]
Notice the changes: Ghouls can be hit by any weapon type (esp. missiles), and they can spawn new ghouls from their victims. (Some people say that Ghouls are your best choice to replicate movie zombie incursions based on that latter fact, and I think that's a strong argument.)

Of course, ghouls only get one attack for 1d6 damage (as is the default for anything in OD&D). Their paralysis doesn't explicitly permit a saving throw; but one of the save categories is "paralization", and what else could that be used for? And there's no duration except for the "one complete turn" language back in Chainmail, although trying to use that gets you in the standard quagmire of OD&D confusion over exploring turn/ melee turn/ rounds, or what should be indicated by that (esp. since it was actually given in an earlier context where 10-minute turns definitely didn't exist yet).

Supplement-I, Greyhawk -- Now, the OD&D Greyhawk supplement has a section of additions to the combat system, providing weapons-vs-AC modifiers, damage-by-weapon, and different attacks and damage for the core monsters (this was quasi-optional at the time: "If this system is used it is suggested that the separate damage by weapon type and monster type also he employed..." [Sup-I, p. 13]). So you get a little one-line change in respect to Ghouls:
Ghoul (Number of Attacks) 2 claws/1bite (Points of Damage per Attack) 1-3/claw, 1-4/bite [Sup-I, p. 16]
Now, this makes a pretty big difference. Ghouls are the only undead type given more than a single attack at this point -- and not just 2, but all of 3. The other types all get a full die of damage (1d6, 1d8, 1d10, or 1d12), but ghouls have theirs reduced to the order of 1d3 per attack. Normally this would average out to about the same -- except that each of those 3 attacks subject you to the paralysis effect. In theory, a single Ghoul could incapacitate 3 members of your party in a single round of combat; no other type can say the same.

This triple-attacks-with-paralysis was copied into all of the following versions of D&D. Holmes, Moldvay, Advanced, Third Edition, etc., all keep it the same way.

Advanced D&D -- Some extra refinements in AD&D that sometimes escape notice:
Any human killed by a ghoulish attack will become a ghoul unless blessed (or blessed and then resurrected). Ghoul packs always attack without fear. These creatures are subject to all attack forms except sleep and charm spells. They can be turned by clerics. The magic circle of protection from evil actually keeps these monsters completely at bay. [MM, p. 44]
But among the other unique things about Ghouls at this point is that every other undead type got a +1 boost in Hit Dice in AD&D -- with the single exception of Ghouls. (e.g., in OD&D you had Skeletons 1/2 HD, Zombies 1, Wights 3, etc.; while in AD&D it's Skeletons 1, Zombies 2, Wights 4, etc.) On the parallel track, Holmes has it the same as OD&D except for 2 HD zombies; while Moldvay Basic D&D and its descendants have everything up to ghouls boosted, and everything afterward unchanged (Skeletons 1, Zombies 2, Wights 3, etc.).

There are days when if I'm playing AD&D, my instinct is to also boost Ghouls up to 3 HD, thereby keeping the same regular progression for undead HD that you see in original D&D. (Link.)

On Light -- One possibly important issue: Should fighting in light affect ghouls' combat abilities? (Like: during a general land incursion.) There's a general precedent that light affects the undead in D&D, with increasing incapacitation for higher-level types. For example, in AD&D: Skeletons take no effect, Wights "shun bright lights and hate sunlight", for Spectres "Daylight makes them powerless", and Vampires are destroyed [various MM pages].

Now, if you look back to Chainmail Fantasy, it did specify a -1 from any die in combat for Ghouls (or Wights) in full light. This isn't repeated in any later edition; all you get are the flavor-type quotes about the types just not liking light (as for Wights above). As usual, you can ask the question if the Chainmail language was meant to be incorporated by reference (and whether anyone does so).

The only problem is that a -1 on the Chainmail six-sided attack die makes opponents in heavy armor totally unhittable. See the Combat Tables p. 40: the only regular type that ghouls could hit in sunlight would be Light Foot. Against Fantasy types, again, quite a few would be immune to hits.

Book of War -- When I made my suggested Book of War stats for ghouls, I used all the standard assumptions from the OD&D game that I run, namely: 2 hit dice, only 1 attack, -2 to hit in full sunlight, and immune to morale. A few issues with that are that it differs from the 3 attacks given in later editions (although 3 paralysis attacks make them immensely dangerous game-changers), and heavy-armor types are totally unhittable in clear, sunny weather outdoors.

So I'm wondering: What do you prefer in your own Original D&D-esque game? I've got a trio of separate polls in the sidebar on the issues of (1) attacks, (2) light penalty, and (3) morale. I'd be interested in seeing the consensus on those issues.

[Photo by Eyes of New York under CC2. Not me, but a venue I've played at.]