Monday, February 23, 2009

The Ultimate Sandbox: Monsters & Treasure Part 2

Ah, the undead. Friend to DMs everywhere, feared by PCs - I use them far too much. It's probably the cool pictures, but that's not really a factor in OD&D.

They have a similar progression to humanoids, in that there are weak ones like Skeletons and Zombies, and others that grow steadily in power. That's probably true with every monster type, but it's the most noticable with humanoids and undead.

SKELETONS/ZOMBIES: They are customarily undescribed, but they act only under orders from an M-U or a Chaotic Cleric. They're also only found near dungeons and graveyards, or used elsewhere as guards. And being mindless, they don't check morale. The standard mook undead, basically.

Zombies are in CHhainmail, but with a whole host of abilities that aren't mentioned in D&D: they're immune to normal missile fire, can see in darkness, suffer -1 to die rolls in daylight, and have a paralyzing touch that lasts for a single turn. Since I'm going by the book, and the book says that monsters have any abilities from Chainmail that aren't contradicted by D&D... My initial zombies are going to be a lot more powerful than usual! Eventually those dark rituals will be lost, and Zombies will revert to their regular abilities.

GHOULS: Ghouls are probably one of the major causes of death for 1st level characters in OD&D, as they have low hit dice, but strong abilities - that paralyzing is a killer, even if it doesn't affect elves. They also have the ability to turn humanoids they've killed into more ghouls, just to rub it in. They also get all the abilities listed for Zombies above from Chainmail, except for immunity to missile fire, which is explicitly revoked. I can't fathom why, but I have to explain it - the Ghouls in dungeons are those that occur naturally (through cannibalism if I'm right). Battlefield ghouls are created by magic, and are slightly more powerful.

God, I love Ghouls. And why not? They're ravenous for human flesh, and anyone they kill becomes one of them - they're George Romero zombies! I guess I could also explain the missile fire thing by saying that single characters are more likely to shoot for the head...

Oh, and the Elf immunity to paralysis? Elves have a stronger life force than men and other demi-humans. The reasons for that will become apparent in later posts.

WIGHTS: Wights drain life energy - and so we get that most contentious of monster abilities, level drain. Personally, I love it - there's nothing players are more afraid of, so it's the perfect simulation of the fear their characters would have of the walking dead. I can see why it was ditched for 4e, though. In a more modern plot-based D&D game, where the players have to progress through encounters, mandatory battles with energy-draining monsters are unfair. In an old-school sandbox though, where the PCs choose where they go and often whether they fight, energy drain is fair game. (Plus, recalculating your PCs stats is a bastard once you get up to 3rd Edition and beyond due to the sheer volume of them.)

They're immune to missile fire like in Chainmail, but silver and magic arrows can harm them. Magic weapons score full damage in melee, which implies that they are immune or resistant to regular weapons (I'll go with immune to better match with later editions). Nothing is said about silver melee weapons, but that's just because there aren't any on the OD&D equipment list.

And just like Ghouls, those killed by Wights (normally or via energy drain) become Wights. And if there's anything better than killing a PC, it's turning one undead.

WRAITHS: They are described as "high-class" Wights, which tempts me to play them as corpses in top hat and tails. However, I'll take that phrase as a reference to their level-draining ability rather than their social class, or their physical make-up. They're otherwise faster and stronger than wights, and a bit more resistant to missile fire.

From Chainmail they can see in the dark, and their presence raises the morale of allies. They also paralyze every person they move through - but that's far too powerful for the small parties of D&D - I'm taking that as a weaker form of their energy drain, due to long absence from their natural dungeon habitat. Finally, they can see invisible foes.

MUMMIES: Mummies have their totally radical rotting touch, which makes their victims heal at one-tenth the normal rate (or half if a Cure Disease gets cast in time). They're only hit by magic weapons, and for half damage at that! But given that they are wrapped in dry cloth or paper or whatever, they go up if you set them on fire.

I know I've been gushing, but I friggin' love Mummies. It's a bit hard to justify them as being in dungeons not near a pseudo-Egyptian setting, though - I'll just have to retcon in an ancient world-spanning civilization that mummified their dead. Would the Great Kingdom count?

SPECTRES: They're non-corporeal, and so only affected by magic weapons. They drain two levels on a hit, which is enough to ruin anyone's day, and there's also the ubiquitous ability to make anyone they kill into another Spectre. This is a genuinely bad-ass monster. The earlier versions of D&D specifically name the Nazgul from Tolkien as Spectres, and that sounds about right to me (if anything the Ringwraiths aren't quite powerful enough).

VAMPIRES: And now we get to the top of the undead pile for OD&D. As the famous last words go: "There are so many ways to kill a Vampire, you can't help but luck into it eventually." Sunlight, running water, stake through the heart - you know the drill.

They're also hit only by magic weapons, but killing them that way only forces them into gaseous form. They drain two levels per hit, regenerate like Trolls, command rats, bats and wolves, can polymorph into a bat, charm humanoids with a gaze, raise those they kill as Vampires... Man, that's a lot of abilities. A well-played Vampire ought to be near-unkillable, Clerics notwithstanding.

There are other weaknesses to exploit - garlic, mirrors, the cross. Why a cross? There's no Christianity in Greyhawk... Is there a Greyhawk deity that has a cross as its holy symbol? A look here shows that St. Cuthbert has a symbol that somewhat resembles a cross, and that's good enough for me! Barring that, since I'm not going with a lot of individual gods to begin with, the cross will be a powerful symbol of law.

Also, Vampires must sleep by day in a coffin with soil from their native homeland. This makes me wonder about vampires whose homelands have no soil, but that's a discussion for another time.

That's it for undead, and so we move on to monsters that turn you to stone. They are another of those things that terrify players. OD&D has a whopping four monsters that can do this, and there are only about 60 monsters in the game. Little beats the despairing look your players get when they get turned to stone and then smashed with a Mattock of the Titans.

COCKATRICE: The cockatrice is normally an awesome chicken monster, but here it's simply described as a less powerful but more mobile Basilisk. I'm taking that statement in reference to its petrification ability only, which only works via touch (presumably pecking). In my campaign, they are and will always be chickens. They can fly, and are not intelligent, which just reinforces the chicken vibe more strongly. They're in Chainmail with no difference.

BASILISK: There's no description, as is usual. They can't fly, and can petrify with a gaze as well as a touch. They're also susceptible to the classic "reverse its gaze with a mirror" trick. Basilisks are not intelligent - which I suppose makes getting them to look into mirrors pretty easy. Again, they're in Chainmail with no differences.

MEDUSA: The classic D&D Medusa, with a difference - yes, they look like a woman with snake's hair, but instead of humanoid legs they have the lower body of a snake. Medusae have a gaze like a basilisk, and to top it off the snake hair is poisonous. Two save or dies in one monster! However, the mirror trick works here as well. And what's with rating intelligence for all of the petrifying monsters? Medusae are specifically noted as being intelligent, and will try to 'beguile' their victims into looking at them. That snake-body should make that tactic a bit harder, I'd think.

Later editions gave the Medusa human legs. Looking into the 2e Monstrous Manual, though, I see a Greater Medusa much like the one here in OD&D (though more powerful). So I posit here that this is a kind of intermediate medusa, with the look of the Greater and the powers of the regular. The other two versions are out there, but at this point not as common.

GORGON: This metal-scaled bull has a breath that turns you to stone. And before anyone goes spouting amateur Greek mythology - Gary got this baby from a medieval bestiary, so it has mythological precedent. And you know what? IT'S A FRIGGIN' BULL! MADE OF METAL! Gorgons are close to being my favourite D&D monster for that fact alone. It's a fact so awesome that it's all Gary says about the creature, like he knew there was nowhere else to go. One day I want to place a whole herd of these things out in a random plain somewhere and watch my players scramble...

Finally today I'll deal with a few of the mythological beasties presented in OD&D.

MANTICORA: Nope, it's not a typo - this beast's name is consistently spelled this way in the original booklets (and not the usual spelling of manticore). They're huge beasts with a lion's body, a man's face, horns, wings, and a tail full of iron spikes they can fire in a volley. (But can they wedge doors open with them?) And just in case you don't know what they're for, Gary leaves us with this sobering note: 'Their favorite prey is man.'

HYDRA: Not a snake, but a large dinosaur with many heads(!). As tempting as it would be to have a twelve headed T-Rex stomping about, this is more likely a brontosaurus-type body. They can have from 5 to 12 heads, and get one full hit die per head - so they always have maximum hit points. So they get a lot of attacks a round, but it's also pretty easy to cut their heads off (easier than anything else in the book!). Anyway, it's a frighteningly tough monster - I pity any party that gets surprised by one of these guys.

CHIMERA: You know the drill - front legs of a lion, back legs of a goat, dragon wings, goat head, lion head and dragon head. The dragon head gets a breath weapon, and otherwise it's a whole lot of biting and goring.

Chimerae are mentioned in Chainmail as a catch-all category for stuff like Griffons and Manticores and Wyverns - all those 'stitched together' beasties from myth. I'm going with Chimera as a term previously used to refer to these monsters as a group - when the sages started assigning individual names to them, Mr. Goat-Lion-Dragon Head got the Chimera name as its very own.

WYVERN: Smaller two-legged dragons (and they are specifically called out as dragon relatives). It has no breath, but it does have a poisonous sting which killed many of my characters on Curse of the Azure Bonds, and which can sting over the creature's head. It only uses the thing two-thirds of the time, though. (Man, Wyverns are great. I have nostalgic memories of my second D&D character backstabbing one, then surviving the retaliating sting with a natural 20.)

Again they're in Chainmail, with no differences that I can discern.

That's it for today. Join me tomorrow for Dragons (and for OD&D, it's a bloody mammoth entry...), and a few other nast critters.


  1. As for the Cockatrice (one of my top 10 D&D Monsters, our version had feathers at the tip of its snake tail, and used those to turn people to stone. I'm not sure exactly where we got that...maybe from an illustration in The Book of Weird.

  2. That's pretty cool, and much more mythical in feel than what I'm going with. I just like the idea of the evil chicken whose beak turns you to stone.