Blade of Vengeance, Part 3

Days 4-9:
  • Erystelle has an enormous breakfast in the hobbit village of Oakendale, and then leaves on the trail north. 
  • Late in the afternoon, E. comes to a bridge crossing a river; buzzing around the bridge are 4 giant flies that wing to the attack with clashing mandibles. E. cuts them down with swordplay and the help of the horse and bobcat companions. After the bridge the is a 4-way intersection; remembering great uncle Druider's directions, E. turns northeast and then makes camp.
  • Overnight E. is woken by a wail from the bobcats; a group of 5 giant ferrets have infiltrated te camp, about to attack the sleeping Erystelle, while other try to make off with food and saddlebags. E. jumps up and fends them off with more expert swordplay. However, with the night's sleep interrupted, E. cannot regain spells in the morning.
  • A league further up the trail, E. finds the hermit's cave, but it has been invaded, its contents burned and smoking. Looking through the remnants, E. finds a half-charred book with the legend of Galannor Nightflame (familiar from great uncle's story), and a final, half-burned page (see below). E. notices that the last part aligns with the shargugh's rhyme; likely the first part is an accompanying place or ceremony? E. reflects on any memory of "celestial pillars" but cannot recall any. Spends an hour searching and calling around the cave for the hermit but finds no trace -- other than obvious booted tracks of armed humanoids traveling northeast.
  • Travels another league northeast and hears shouting in goblinoid. Casting wizard eye, spies on the camp ahead; an ogre roar at a score of cowering hobgoblins. E. casts invisibility and creeps to where they can be heard. A captive has escaped and the hobgoblins are receiving due punishment. E. returns to the hermit's cave and spends another hour searching but finds nothing. Nearing the end of the day, E. rides south a league and makes camp.
  • Overnight, another pack of the many giant ferrets in the area attacks. E. wins again, but again cannot recover any spells in the morning.
  • Returning to the 4-way intersection north of the river bridge; an armed centaur blocks the path and declares that none may pass without accepting the challenge of a joust (without magic, of course). E. asks: "Have you seen the hermit?" The centaur: "I no nothing of any hermit." E.: "Then you are no use to me!" and lets loose with a lightning bolt. The centaur dodges aside, only partly scorched, and makes a ferocious charge, which E. barely turns by dint of magic armor. E. attacks with sword but fumbles (natural 1 & failed save) -- slips off out of the saddle and is stunned! Cursing at the evils of magic, the centaur jumps repeatedly on E.'s head seeking to stave it in -- one blow is critical for triple damage. But E.'s animal companions fend it off, and when Erystelle rises again, the bobcats pull down the centaur's hind section and E. finishes it by sword.
  • Amazed and bearing many injuries, E. returns to the hermit's cave seeking shelter to rest and recover for a few days if need be; horribly finds the field and the nearby gardens entirely scorched down to the smoking soil, trees surrounding the clearing burned to cinders. Retreats a league into the trackless woods and finds fallen trees for shelter, as the group tries to lick its wounds. Attacked by stirges. Overnight a grizzly bear stumbles into the camp and the group attack and kill it (no spells again). Try to rest the next day and the bear's mate now stumbles into the camp; this time E. stays dozing while the animals chase it off. Finally recovers spells and hit points by resting another night.
  • Departing, E. returns to the 4-way path and turns north. A league north the path forks again, north and northwest; takes the northwest branch. Two leagues northwest, then 2 leagues north, and they find the human village of Scrubton, entirely burned to ash cinders. The people nothing but charred skeletons. How long? At least a few weeks gone. E. tries to search the ashes for clues or books, but finds nothing.
  • Near the end of the day, they travel a league north of the burned village. Here the trees begin to thin out and the land rises into hills northward; thick coils of mist spill out of the hills and the group camps near the edge of the trees. In the morning the foggy mist does not rise; vision is limited and enemies could be near without knowing. E. returns south and takes a northeast trail out of the village; but again the tries thin out and the misty hills present themselves. A league further into the hills and 5 hobgoblins appear and attack. One slips, but another scores a critical hit; the roll 89%, indicating a serious abdominal injury that will reduce carrying capacity and movement and would not heal naturally. E. casts sleep on the hobgoblins and then pulls out the last potion of healing and drinks it so as to cure the ailment. 
  • Inferring that the misty hills are teeming and blocked by armed hobgoblins, Erystelle retreats back west and south, finally making camp some three leagues south of the ruined village of Scrubton. Frustrated and feeling alone, E. hopes to reflect and meditate on some solution by morning. 
Burned page
The burned page.


Ghouls Through Literature

Of course, there's more than just the holiday for National Cat Day this week; there's also a little thing called Halloween. In view of that, let's talk about Ghouls (one of the main archetypal Halloween monsters, often along with Ghosts and Goblins).

I previously outlined the appearance of Ghouls in different editions of D&D (link). To be clear, Ghouls are definitely a "proud nail" monster for me, and I'm continually troubled by them. I'm bothered by how askew they are from any preceding fictional examples. I'm troubled that they got their paralyzing attacks basically due to the accident of being in the same paragraph as Wights (with their LOTR-style freezing touch) in Chainmail. I'm irritated that their 3 paralyzing attacks make them far too dangerous at the levels they usually show up (similar to the "too many attacks" note from cats last week). I'm even tweaked by the fact that all the other undead got a 1-HD bump up from OD&D to AD&D, but not ghouls. They have an immensely clunky mechanic when translated to mass warfare, as in Book of War. Certainly I run them with just the standard 1 attack as in OD&D; I'm constantly on the cusp of rewriting a bunch of other details for them, and then decide not too. So without further ado, a document I've been compiling for a few years now; a look at the literary traditions of ghouls.


Ghouls are inspired by the Arabic ghul (1001 Nights), a demonic creature that inhabits graveyards, consumes children, and shape-changes into either Hyena or the last corpse they consumed. They are linguistically related to the Gallu (Mesopotamian demon) and Algol (“the demon” star). 


Ghouls are a near-human race living underground with rubbery and hairless bodies, canine faces (and howls), hooved feet, forward-slumping posture, and often greenish, diseased-seeming pallor (esp. among older ones). They are light-sensitive and have their own gibbering language. There are strong suggestions that humans transform into ghouls and vice-versa (possibly by interbreeding with ghouls, swaps at birth, training, disease, and/or cannibalism – see Kuru disease *). They eat the corpses of people and also their own wounded in battle. (Ghasts are a race that live near ghouls, perhaps more bestial, larger, and with kangaroo-like hind legs.) They are intelligent enough to organize in packs, open doors, sneak around guards, and use simple tools (a gravestone as a lever, etc.)

The Lovecraftian tradition does not have the quick shape-changing of the Arabic ghul, but they maintain a kind of relation in transforming to a creature with dog/hyena-like features. Perhaps we can conclude abilities such as (a) fast overland sprint/loping movement from hooved feet, (b) a long-term transformative disease from those they injure but do not consume/kill, and (c) behavior of slaying and consuming injured foes and allies alike (no recovery possible). Possibly there are special sorcerer ghouls with all the powers of Arabic transformation (via polymorph or doppelganger-like ability; possibly even doppelganger leaders themselves). Consider also a dead sorcerer who regains flesh and mobility if a jeweled medallion is removed, as in the story “The Hound”. Ghasts can have more hit dice and leaping ability. 

* Kuru: “The symptoms of Kuru are broken down into three specific stages. The first, ambulant stage, exhibits unsteady stance and gait, decreased muscle control, tremors, deterioration of speech and dysarthria (slurred speech). In the second stage, sedentary stage, the patient is incapable of walking without support, suffers ataxia (loss of muscle coordination) and severe tremors. Furthermore, the victim is emotionally unstable, depressed, yet having uncontrolled sporadic laughter. Interestingly, the tendon reflexes are still normal at this point. In the final, terminal stage, the patient is incapable of sitting without support, suffers severe ataxia (no muscle coordination), is unable to speak, is incontinent (unable to restrain natural discharges/evacuations of urine or feces), has dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), is unresponsive to their surroundings, and acquires ulcerations (sores with pus and necrosis). An infected person usually dies within 3 months to 2 years after the first symptoms, often because of pneumonia or pressure sores infection.” (Note uncontrollable laughter = Hyena-like?) 


Conan encounters ghouls once in the novel “Hour of the Dragon” (p. 126), and they are basically identical to the Lovecraftian type. (Note that Howard worked in the Lovecraft circle, and wrote several Cthulhu stories himself.) They are strong – a single one contends reasonably with Conan himself (arguing for 3HD in AD&D)? OD&D Sup-IV says for the Conan stories, “GHOULS OF YANAIDAR: As Ghouls of D&D, but double the number usually appearing.” See end of the story “The Flame Knife”, adapted by de Camp from earlier Howard, wherein a hidden fortress is in the final scene overrun by a seemingly endless horde of ghouls from below the earth.


Note that in Night of the Living Dead, the newscaster near the end repeatedly refers to the monsters as “ghouls” (as opposed to what they were popularly called afterward, “zombies”). Of course, D&D ghouls look very much like these monsters (feasting on the dead, spreading the disease to victims, etc.) Possibly interpret bite-paralysis as the fever-sickness (2nd save?) which transforms people to ghouls.

Further Thoughts

One of my mental blocks with both the Romerian and Gygaxian ghoul is how the supposed pandemic spread doesn't seem to make sense; if ghouls entire raison d'ĂȘtre is the consumption of dead bodies, then that seems to directly contradict the possibility of anything physically remaining of their victims to possibly arise as new ghouls.

Consider making the ghoul more in line with Lovecraft/Romero, et. al., in that they transform not those who are killed (and likely eaten), but those who are bitten (paralyzed) and actually escape the initial encounter. One problem with this is that in the HPL/Romero vein, no escape is possible – the bitten/infected person is always unquestionably doomed; which clashes with the D&D principle of everyone getting a save, and always having a fighting chance. Perhaps we rectify this by converting or adding to the save vs. paralysis to a secret save vs. infection, else transformation into a ghoul occurs over 1-6 days (perhaps paralysis is just the first sign of the "fever sickness" in Romero). But this still doesn't solve the contradiction to any possible pandemic; it seems almost as unlikely to survive a ghoul attack, and therefore a negligible number of infections would occur.

So for D&D purposes it does seem like the transform on death (if not consumed?) is the most playable; it can be an unavoidable doom without seeming to be unfair to the player (the PC having lost the chance to fight on, by virtue of already being dead). It is also more synchronized with other undead types (who transform victims after death from energy level drain). Instead, perhaps some other means of spreading the infection can be found: supernatural global curse, alien radiation, gas emitted by dead bodies, etc. This could be added acceptably without changing the D&D-type ghoul.



Blade of Vengeance, Part 2

Days 1-3:
  • Erystelle rides a day northwest to the home of E.'s great-uncle, the elven smith Druinder. Along the way runs into 4 stirges who partly suck blood from E., Stormbrow, and Bob. E. finishes the bloated last one by sword and it explodes in a splash of blood.
  • Joins Druinder his home for the evening, who takes the terrible news, suspects a red dragon in the crime, and then relates the legend of Galannor Nightflame (see below). In the morning, gives E. his ring of protection and says, "The future of the Emerlas  rests with you, you must restore Galannor to the world in order to defeat the dragon and avenge your family, Without Galannor's aid we are doomed." Gives directions to a wise human hermit; ride a day east to Oakendale, and then a day north to the hermit's cave. 
  • Nearing Oakendale, a tiny wild man jumps on Stormbrow, lifts the magic ring and disappears, laughing maniacally.
  • At the end of the day, Oakendale is a well-maintained hobbit village. The tavern owner Bella brings in E. and frets greatly over the story, plying E. with more food than can be eaten by non-hobbits. Also places a plate of food out on the ground by the door. Inquiring, Bella mentions a village "shargugh", a magical wild creature who plays tricks but also blesses the village and performs odd chores. E. follows up with the village elder Wally Gutzon, who gives directions to the hill where the shargugh lives, but cautions to take gifts and not to harm him.
  • Still nursing wounds, Erystelle gets up to find the shargugh. E. first stops by the village militia house to warn them of evil afoot and to be on guard; then buys a small silver necklace from the general store keeper. E. then travels a league by trail and another league into the untracked woods to find the shargugh, bringing food, beer, and the necklace. The shargugh pops up and tells several doom-filled rhymes, laughing manically -- then messily devours the food and beer and ties the necklace in his beard, dancing and laughing, disappearing down a tree stump. He returns with Druider's ring and also a strange brass lamp, empty of oil. E. asks, "Are you mad?"; the shargugh says, "A madman would say 'no', so... 'no'". 
  • E. picks up the lamp and ring and ties them to the horse. Turning, the shargugh looks serious for the first time and says to mark well the following words: "Before me lies the silver moon/ And stars encircle my brow/ Let the hidden way be open soon/ Galannor Nightflame hear me now!", then runs off.
  • E. works returns through the dense woods, back towards the hobbit village. A raven is perched on a branch over the trail before the village. Erystelle says, "Raven, speak!". At which point the raven cries: "Seek the hooded one in the cave of blue!", then takes off and flies to the west. Erystelle and companions bed down for a second night in the welcoming hobbit tavern. 


Cat Stats

There's a big holiday coming up next week: National Cat Day, October 29. I'm a big cat person, and so are many famous writers: like H.P. Lovecraft and that dude who worked on the Reichenau Primer. Here are the stats for different cats in AD&D:

Values for average weight are taken from bigcats.com (with those for the prehistoric sabre-tooth and spotted lion/cave lion from Wikipedia articles). All of the HD 3+ types would count as "big cats", various species of lynx would be "medium cats", and below that are the "small cats". What most of us call the cougar is given in the MM as the mountain lion (*).

The primary trope that Gygax used when sketching out all of the different cats is to give them 3 basic attacks (claw/claw/bite), and another 2 rake attacks (with hind legs) if the initial 2 claw attacks are both successful. This first appeared in the context of OD&D Supplement-I (p. 18), where most of the original monsters were switched from one attack each (1d6 damage) to having a multitude of attacks at different die values. I tend to think that this was greatly overdone, and for my OD&D games I give about half as many attacks as shown there. (e.g.: Horses and bulls are all given 2 or more attacks, and while I've been kicked and run over by steers on a number of occasions, I've never been hit by more than one hoof at a time.) Moreover, this pattern gets really silly trying to maintain it at the lower levels, rolling lots and lots of attacks for negligible damage on the order of 1-2 points each or something (e.g.: Cheetahs are given damage 1-2/1-2/2-8 and 1-2/1-2; why not just make 2 total attacks at damage 1d12 and 1d4 or the like, and save over half the attack dice rolls?) Perhaps if I was writing the big cats from scratch I'd give them 2 attacks, with both successful meaning the cat was latched on -- no escape unless the cat is killed or breaks morale, and following 2 attacks per round at +2 hit and damage (and maybe some extra hiding bonus).

The domestic cat from Monster Manual 2 is borderline infamous for being a possible NPC and PC-killer at 1st level. They are weirdly given 1-5 hit points (on a normally 8-sided hit die; in the chart above I've abbreviated this as about 1/2 a hit die, **). They get 3 total attacks (damage 1-2/1/1-2) instead of the possible 5 attacks everything else gets, but in sum this is still more hit points than a serf or starting wizard is likely to have. I would argue that the superfluity of attacks by all the other cats may be equally ridiculous; it's just that our direct experience with domestic cats highlights the issue at that level.

The other thing that's strange is the "Giant Lynx" from the original Monster Manual. It's given as being intelligent and having its own language. The thing that I find particularly hard to parse is that normal lynxes (along with related bobcats, fisher cats, golden cats, and ocelots) weigh on the order of 20-50 pounds, and looking at the chart above, the spot we should place these real-world types would clearly be at the HD 2 level (above small wild cats and below cheetahs) -- the same as that given for the "giant lynx". So what exactly did Gygax mean, or what did he take inspiration from, for this "giant" lynx which is actually the same size as a real-world lynx?

Finally, you can see that average weights and given Hit Dice make a nice power curve progression, with a 97% coefficient of determination, topping out at about 1 HD per 100 pounds:

Edit: A table of proposed cat stats for the OED house rules (closer to original OD&D style):


Blade of Vengeance, Part 1

An attempt at minimalist game-blogging. Isabelle requested a solo adventure, and with no preparation I pulled out Dungeon Module O2, Blade of Vengeance, by Jim Bambra. This may go best if you can read along in your own copy of the adventure.

The setting: Main character is Erystelle, a near-max-level elf; using OD&D rules with my OED adjustments as usual, we'll say the PC is Ftr4/Wiz7. Has a warhorse named Stormbrow and two trained bobcats, Bob and Cat (originally wardogs, Eslin and Tarcil).
  • Erystelle returns home after years away adventuring to a scene of utmost horror; flame and smoke rising in the distance from the ancient family tree of Dorneryll. E. rides forward posthaste.
  • Encounters 4 hobgoblins on the approach trail, casts sleep on them, disposes of the bodies in underbrush.  
  • Sees 2 ogres by the bridge to the family camp. Casts magic missile and then charges across the bridge into melee. Is soundly smacked around (over half health gone) but defeats the ogres.
  • Enters the smoke-filled clearing and runs into a force of hobgoblins and dire-wolf mounted goblins. Casts lightning bolt, felling half, and the other half scatter. E. withdraws back to the bridge.
  • Casts wizard eye and scouts the blazing tree; sees many monsters fallen, but also the entirety of her extended family beaten, burned, clawed, and crushed to death. An ogre-sized hobgoblin chief and bodyguards stand with the magic weapons of E.'s father and mother. Looks at a bloody parchment, tosses it to the ground, and walks off.
  • E. casts invisibility and heads forth in person, confirms extended family all dead, picks up the blood-soaked letter (see below). Follows the hobgoblins to the nearby stables where they meet more hobgoblins and mount horses with bulging saddlebags. They ride northeast.
  • E. follows northeast; spots E's two brothers dead along the outer trail. Reaches the edge of a river where the trail peters out on hard rocks. Gets attacked by a giant flying draco lizard and puts it down. Returns to the family tree to give last rites, camp, and swear dire vengeance. 

Blood-stained letter
The bloody letter.


I'm in DCC

So at the start of September I started playing in a friend's Dungeon Crawl Classics game (exploring the Stonehell Dungeon) over in Williamsburg every other week or so. It's been pretty awesome! Most of the players are a lot younger than myself, and they've been nothing but inviting and totally cool. It's great to kick back and "just" be a player for a change, although it's balanced by the mix of anxiety and terror that you don't get quite the same as DM. On the other hand, my knowledge of old-school tropes sometimes comes off as almost uncanny foresight into what's about to happen, where treasure probably is, etc.

I think it was the second session where I was leafing through the enormous tome that is the DCC rulebook. There's an extensive recreation/love letter to the "Appendix N" literature list -- apparently Joseph Goodman actually read every single title mentioned there in advance of creating the game. Then this is followed by an "Appendix O" of online resources and blogs -- and I was pleasantly surprised and stunned to see that this very blog, Delta's D&D Hotspot, is included in that listing, as recommended reading.

Big thanks to Joseph Goodman and everyone at Goodman Games for the shout-out. We've been enjoying your excellent work!