Monday 23 April 2018

A few more kobolds

These are Ral Partha's AD&D kobolds. I used to think of these as a bit of a heartbreaker: they're nice little figures, but to my knowledge, only one other remotely similar kobold was ever produced. And who runs encounters with just four or five kobolds? But on digging them out of their decades-long exile in the lead pile, I thought they'd do just fine mixed in with the Citadel and Reaper kobolds. Yes, the Ral Partha ones are a bit different: more simian than canine. But - as with Lewis and Baynes' earthmen - a bit of physiological variety works perfectly well for the denizens of the underworld.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Another gnoll

This is an old piece from some D&D boardgame. I acquired a few of them on eBay a few years back, painted up a bugbear and troll, and more or less abandoned the rest. They look pretty uninspiring without paint, as they're in some sort of brownish, vinylish plastic. But I was pleasantly surprised with this one after I started to slap some paint on. Sure, it's a crude figure. But now that it has a matchingly crude paintjob, it'll do fine on the table.

This gnoll is quite big - much bigger than the Grenadier and Alternative Armies ones I've been painting recently. So it might serve as a large, fierce matriarch, if we assume that gnollish physiology and society is akin to that of the spotted hyena.

Monday 9 April 2018


Two adventuring lizardmen confront a troll

Yesterday afternoon, I ran a simple dungeon-bash for my kids. My ulterior motive was to test out some of the tweaks I've been toying with for Whitehack (shields, defensive fighting and combat priorities). I also wanted to try something resolutely old-school: multiple PCs per player.

As it turned out, we only had one player, at least to begin with: my son, who took charge of three lizardmen fighters (the strong in Whitehack terms). My daughter soon joined in, though, to play the monsters.

For speed and expediency, I laid out dungeon tiles in advance, the pretext being that the lizardmen had a map of the complex, now occupied by a villainous rakshasa who had stolen treasures from their tribe. So they knew the layout but not what lurked within it. Their aim was to retrieve two treasures, as well as some of the rare fungus that grew in the caves to which the complex was connected.

After an initial skirmish with the rakshasa's pig-faced orcish servants, in which one of the PCs was killed, and narrow avoidance of a basilisk, the surviving lizardmen raised a portcullis to enter a troll's den in search of fungus.

To my daughter's delight and my son's dismay, the troll regenerated in classic Poul Anderson fashion (it also said "Hooo!" a lot). It made short work of one lizardman, while the other grabbed the fungus and retreated. But then my son hit upon a scheme; he lured the troll away from devouring his friend's carcass and dropped the portcullis on it. That allowed him to escape while the impaled troll set about dismembering and reconfiguring itself to squirm out from under the spikes.

By the time the surviving lizardman was rescuing the first stolen treasure from a brace of gnolls, the troll was on his trail. But he was able to manoeuvre the gnolls into its path, and then skirted round a table to investigate the rakshasa's throne room. The rakshasa - I used an old Grenadier elephant version - attacked, but was then confronted by the troll. I wasn't using the Monster Manual profile for the rakshasa; he was merely an exotic-looking bad guy; and the troll eventually destroyed him (the children battled it out as the monsters while the lizardman looked on). All that remained was for the lizardman to provoke the troll with a pit (the monsters' latrine) at his back, then sidestep at the last moment - thus plunging the troll, after a failed DEX check, into the murky depths.

It was a blast - D&D stripped back to its basics. It confirmed something I've often thought: that the  quest for a perfect"dungeon-crawler" boardgame is a bit of a wild-goose chase, because a boardgame just can't measure up to the flexibility of an RPG and the resourcefulness of the players.

Having one player run three PCs worked fine too - though it helped that all three had the same goals and motivation. I think that's probably the best way to proceed: each set of PCs should be thematically linked: a wizard and his sworn bodyguards; three nest-brothers of Black Swamp tribe; a burglar and his apprentices.

Sunday 8 April 2018

The long and the short of it

One thing about RuneQuest that gives it an edge over D&D is how it handles priority in combat. Rather than a more-or-less arbitrary initiative roll, it determined the order of attack by "strike rank" - primarily made up of weapon length and the character's reach (based on RQ's SIZ stat) and reflexes (DEX).

This is clearly explained in the RQ2 text:

A slow, small person with a long spear is still likely to get the jump on a large fast person using his fist. 
Surprise, movement and drawing weapons are also taken into account:

A fast, large man with a long weapon can be slow to react when a dwarf with a short sword and two heads steps out of the wall.  
All of this makes intuitive sense. In the D&D variants (as ever, I'm mainly thinking of Whitehack here), DEX - as the sole modifier of initiative rolls - has too much influence. There isn't a SIZ stat to compensate, though, so weapon length looks the obvious thing to consider when assessing "reach" (surely one of the most crucial concepts in combat).

A rough hierarchy of the typical D&D armoury might run something like this:

Other long polearms (halberds, guisarmes, bills, etc).
Two-handed swords, poleaxes, other two-handed axes
Long-bladed, single-handed swords (longswords, arming swords, rapiers, etc)
Short swords, one-handed axes, maces and warhammers

When a melee ensures, I'm going to use this to determine who attacks first. Initiative rolls (and DEX modifiers) apply only in the case of a tie.

You might argue that a spear isn't necessarily longer than a halberd, and that a halberd has an effective thrusting point too. That's fair enough - but if used in that manner, a halberd would do no more damage than a spear and would also require two hands to use (it's not optimised for thrusting). So a halberdier can opt to use his weapon to thrust, counting as a spear , but will then do the same damage as a spear that round.

One thing I'm inclined to do is give two-handed weapons - including spears - a higher damage die. All weapons in Whitehack do 1d6 damage, though there are negative and positive modifiers (-1 for a shortsword, -2 for a dagger, +1 for a one-handed axe or sword or a polearm, +2 for a greatsword or battle axe, etc.). Negative modifiers don't reduce damage below 1.

I'm going to stick with 1d6 for most one-handed weapons (swords, spears, axes, maces, whatever). Shortswords lose out to longer weapons in attack priority, but do the same damage (gladiuses always look quite nasty to me). The advantage of a shortsword, of course, is that it's easier to climb or run with - and easier to conceal. And I think the same applies to daggers.

Weapons that can be wielded in one or two hands use a d8 when both hands are used (longswords - aka bastard swords - are the most obvious example here, but I'd apply it to spears too). This can't be combined with a shield, of course. Weapons that always require two hands - greatswords, poleaxes, halberds, etc. - use the d10. I prefer 1d8 to 1d6 +2 for a longsword wielded in two hands, because a big weapon can still cause a small wound.

These adaptations favour spears, which seems appropriate to me. Spears should have advantages in any game based on ancient or medieval warfare; swords were typically second-choice weapons. This system gives them a reach advantage that combines either with higher damage for two-handed use or a shield.

One further tweak I'm going to make is to apply a 'closing' rule for daggers, fists and grappling. Here's how it works. If a dagger-wielder is facing a spearman, the spearman attacks first. But if the dagger-wielder manages to wound his opponent, the dagger-wielder has priority in the subsequent round - and keeps it as long as he continues to draw blood. If he misses, the spearman restores range.

Finally, I'm inclined to make grappling rely on consecutive successes (I can't remember which game does this, but I recall that one does). So, your first success gives you a hold (and priority as with daggers above). your second success is a throw (d4 damage) and a third success gives you a pin. Specially trained characters can effect a lock or a choke on a fourth success. A character being grappled can continue to attack with a dagger or shortsword (or draw one), but longer weapons are rendered ineffective.

Saturday 7 April 2018

Gnolls again

In my last post on gnolls, I was preparing to ditch them from my imminent campaign in favour of hyena-like ghouls. All well and good - but then I chanced upon some of the old Citadel AD&D gnolls in the leadpile. These aren't ghoul-like at all - they're big and burly rather than lithe and loathsome.

They also have plantigrade legs, like humans. The Frostgrave gnolls are digitigrade, so the two lots don't mix. Then I found some Alternative Armies "dogmen" that I had bought ages ago precisely because they fitted in well with the Citadel gnolls. And then, I got these old Grenadier gnolls very cheaply on eBay. They're not an exact fit with the Citadel and AA ones, but they'll mix in well enough. They're the first finished.

I've always found Grenadier Miniature a bit tricky to paint. They're nicely modelled, but they tend to have very shallow detail - and lots of it - without the exaggerations that make Citadel stuff sympathetic to paint. That defeats my usual stratagem of drybrushing. So for this pair, I just went for speed and "impressionistic" highlights on the fur (greenish-grey, as per the Monster Manual).

Wednesday 4 April 2018

The Little King and the Khalkotaur

I painted up this Reaper Bones basilisk for D&D/Whitehack. Looking over the basilisk stats in the Monster Manual and OD&D, I remembered something that bemused me as a child: D&D basilisks turn people to stone.

This always seemed unsatisfying, because the basilisk of antiquity and folklore has a glance that was merely deadly. The creature is characterised by its venomous nature, which seems wholly appropriate for the "little king" (basiliskos) of the serpents.

The petrification, in contrast, treads on the toes (or tail, if you take the Harryhausen approach) of the gorgon. That's the medusa in D&D terms, of course, because Gygax and co. picked up on a seventeenth-century relabelling of the catoblepas, probably via  A Fantastic Bestiary, which was published in 1969. The D&D gorgon is more like the Colchis bulls or khalkotauroi, but has picked up the ability to turn people to stone along the way.

That leaves D&D with three well-known monsters empowered with petrification. A bit much, I think. The "statue garden" is a tremendous, eerie RPG trope, but having players guess whether a basilisk, medusa or gorgon is responsible renders the bizarre commonplace, somehow - like trying to tell whether you've discovered the spoor of a fox, a coyote or a wolf.

That's not to say that a statue garden might have been produced by something other than a (snake-haired) gorgon; there's nothing wrong with a White Witch, for example. Or with a statue garden in which the statues are animated and hostile. Or one in which they're just ordinary statues: perhaps the PCs have stumbled into the long-lost studio of some great sculptor of the past.

As for the bull-like "gorgon": a fire-breathing brazen bull is surely more resonant than a petrifying one, with its echoes of Moloch. And "khalkotaur" is a much better name for one than "gorgon".

But the basilisk should be all about poison. Its lair, its breath and most of all its eyes: all should be venomous. And there should be a risk, too, from attacking it with a piercing weapon, as the venom can travel up the shaft to afflict the wielder.

I see the basilisk's lair as a section of the underworld that has to be braved at considerable peril; perhaps the fumes that the Little King emanates are so sapping that they drain a hit point per round of exposure, even if the beast is not particularly close. Its vulnerabilities are mirrors and mustelids (and mongooses too, of course).

RuneQuest's basilisk was more faithful to tradition than D&D's, with poison, rather than petrification, being the main threat. But the Gloranthan cockatrice did petrify its prey, after first injecting them with  venom from its beak. That, I suspect, was the TSR influence. And I gather that it even reached Hogwarts - JK Rowling's basilisk is generally deadly, but has a petrifying side-effect. The arm of Gygax has grown long - something I'll return to in future posts.