Sunday, May 31, 2015

AD&D Monster Manual: Final Thoughts

Before I really begin, I'd like to provide some lovely, lovely stats.  By my calculations there are 373 monsters in the AD&D Monster Manual (making it's claim of over 350 monsters on the back cover quite accurate).  202 of those have appeared before, and here are simply updated;  73 have been mentioned before, but are getting stats and a complete entry for the first time; and 98 are brand new.

I've mentioned it before, and I'll reiterate it here. The Monster Manual is not really an AD&D product.  It has the banner on the cover, and it's broadly compatible with what comes after, but at heart it's OD&D, a compilation of nearly every monster from all the products that came before it.  In many ways it's a beginning and an ending; the last product for OD&D, the first for AD&D, and the first product of TSR's golden age, the five-year period in which much of their most fertile material was published.

Although Gary included just about every creature ever mentioned in a D&D product, there were some omissions.  The most visible ones are the various entities from Supplement IV: Gods, Demigods & Heroes, but they'll be dealt with in a later book.  From the original OD&D boxed set, there are a number of monsters mentioned that didn't make the cut: Sea Monsters (although you could cover this with giant snakes and dinosaurs), Cyclops, the Juggernaut, Living Statues, Robots, Androids, Cyborgs (not quite compatible with baseline D&D), and a whole host of beasties from the John Carter of Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The Death Angel and the Prowler, from later issues of The Dragon, also didn't make the cut.  They weren't created by Gary, or any other TSR staffers, but it's also possible that they were just created to late for inclusion.  Who knows?

In terms of its material contribution to the game, the most important thing introduced by the MM was probably the Devils. They had been mentioned in passing in other products, but they're here in all their glory, ready to incense Fundamentalist Christians everywhere. Other iconic monsters appear for the first time as well: Mimics, Otyughs, Nightmares, Troglodytes, loads of dinosaurs, and many more than I want to list here.  But for sheer effect on the game, both mechanically and in the real world, the devils take the prize.

This book also begins the game's slow march to rigid codification. There's not a single monster here that hasn't been altered or clarified, at least a little bit.  There are still oversights and omissions, but on the whole the monsters are a lot less ambiguous.  Their relationships to the Outer Planes are solidified here as well.  We still don't have a detailed description of what the various planes are like (besides what is in that one article in The Dragon), but we do know what monsters live in which planes.  The one exception is Hell.  There's a lot of info about Hell in the Monster Manual, if you want to piece it together from various monster entries.  Allow me to do so:

Level 1 - Ruled by Tiamat
Level 2 - Known as Dis. Dispater rules it, from a great iron city also known as Dis. The city is mostly populated by zombies, erinyes, barbed devils, and malebranche devils. Dispater's palace is "infernally grand".
Levels 3 & 4 - Inhabited by Barbed Devils. These levels contain many cells and prisons.
Level 5 - Home to Bone Devils. Ruled by Geryon, from a castle he rarely ventures forth from.
Level 6 - Known as Malebolge. A black stone plane, filled with stinking vapors, smokes, fire pits, and huge caves and caverns. Ruled by Baalzebul.
Level 7 - Much like level 6, but features moated castles that are home to Malebranche devils. Ruled by Baalzebul, who has his castle here.
Level 8 - A frigid level populated by Ice Devils.
Level 9 - Pit Fiends live here, where they serve Asmodeus.

Alignment is also codified here, but it's at a strange half-way point between OD&D and AD&D. Most of the monsters will stick with the alignments given to them here from now on, but the Monster Manual is working with the five-point alignment system introduced in The Dragon. The more well-known nine-point system won't be introduced until later, in the Player's Handbook. For now, Neutral Evil, Lawful Neutral, Neutral Good and Chaotic Neutral don't exist in the game.

Perhaps the most fun I had while writing these entries up (and re-reading them) was in noticing the little tidbits and snippets of information that lie hidden within the monster descriptions. Did you know that a scorpion can sting itself to death? That a skunk's spray can rot magical cloth (and therefore, conceivably damage a bag of holding and cause a dimensional rift?) Or that a Water Elemental can form itself out of ale?  It's all super-awesome stuff that I can't wait to use in a real game.

That said, it was a hell of a slog to get through, and I'm glad it's over.  Next week I'll start on The Dragon #12, which will afford me a bit more variety than post after post of monsters.  As much as I love monsters, it's nice to have a change.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Change to the Ultimate Sandbox

It's taking me longer than I anticipated to read back over my Monster Manual posts, so I thought I'd write about something else instead.  You might have noticed that, as that series progressed, I was spending less and less time coming up with rationalisations for the changes being made to monsters from book to book.  You could chalk that up to laziness (you wouldn't be far wrong), or perhaps to a desire to get through the Monster Manual as quickly as possible (you would also be not far wrong), but the real reason is this: when and if I ever get around to running the Ultimate Sandbox, I no longer want to alter the rules as I go.

When I started, what I really wanted was to begin with pure OD&D, and gradually change the rules in a fashion that emulated the changes D&D made from edition to edition.  I'm not quite so keen on that anymore.  Not only is it far more trouble than it's worth, but finding players willing to go through the whole process would be difficult.  The guys I play with are pretty happy to find a system that works and stick with it, and I doubt they'd be too keen on having to change things up every year or so.

So that plan is out the window.  The Ultimate Sandbox will be not so much focused on the progression of rules, but on the integration of every nook and cranny of the D&D books in terms of setting, the creation of one enormous sandbox setting that includes all of the D&D worlds with guidance and reference for what can be found wherever the PCs decide to go.  It's still an enormous, Sisyphean labour, but now a slightly more manageable one.

So what am I doing with the rules?  That's another Sisyphean labour to add to the list.  I've been dissatisfied with 3rd edition for a while, and 4th edition was far from the solution that I was looking for.  I waited for 5th edition, hoping that might be what I wanted.  It was a step in the right direction, but again, it wasn't what I wanted.  The only thing left to do, and a conclusion that I should have come to at least a decade ago, is to house-rule my own version of D&D.  I started this at one point, in the early days of the blog, but never followed through.  Whatever I come up with will probably be a cross between the uniformity and comprehensiveness of 3e with the power-scale of 1e, all stripped back so that it's easier to run at the table.

I don't intend to drop "rules progression" aspect entirely, though.  While I don't want to change the rules as I go, I have no problems with starting small and adding to them.  So, for example, I'll begin by simulating OD&D, using only the elements present in those rules.  So the only classes will be Fighter, Cleric and Magic-User, and the only races Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits.  Gradually the rest will be introduced, in the order they first appeared in the books, but without being altered mechanically.

Some of the rules I'll be tinkering with have been outlined in the blog before.  I wrote about Skills here, about starting level for new characters here, and a method for mitigating save or die effects here.  (I probably won't use that last one.)  I may post some of my house rules from time to time as I develop them, but for the moment my focus is on the Ultimate Sandbox.  I may even start introducing those house rules in my current, sporadic 3rd edition campaign.  I have some thoughts about spicing up combat that could prove to be fun, but those are for another post.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

AD&D Monster Manual: The Final Part

WOLF: There are four types of wolves presented here in the Monster Manual: regular wolves, dire wolves, worgs and winter wolves.  Regular wolves and dire wolves have been mentioned throughout the earlier D&D books, but this is the first time they get full stats.  Worgs (totally not taken from Tolkien, there's a whole different vowel) and Winter Wolves are appearing here for the first time.

Regular wolves conform to their behaviour in the real world (or at least the popular perception of that behaviour).  They live in forests, hunt in packs, and will attack if hungry. Their howling can spook herbivores (such as horses, whose meat they are said to love).  Their cubs can also be taken and trained as war dogs or hunting beasts. It's basic stuff, but no D&D game would be complete without them.  Wolves had previously (in Supplement I: Greyhawk) been given a bite attack that did 1-6 damage; it now does 2-5.

Dire Wolves are a larger relative of the wolf that lived in the Pleistocene Epoch. (This is a thing that gets lost in later iterations of D&D, when there are "dire" animals all over the place. They're not prehistoric, they're just bigger, meaner and more monstrous.)  Otherwise they act like regular wolves, they just have more hit points.  The only stat they had been given previously (again, in Supplement I) was a bite attack that dealt 1-8 damage; it now does 2-8.

Worgs are an evil, intelligent variety of dire wolf. The book describes them as "neo-dire wolves", so the relation is explicit. How they came to be so much more advanced is a mystery, though I suspect magic to be involved (isn't it always?).  They like to pal around with goblins, and as they are the size of ponies they can be ridden.

Winter Wolves live only in cold regions, and they get all the abilities you would expect from that: a freezing breath weapon, and a weakness against fire-based attacks. They're even smarter than worgs, though still evil. Their silvery-white pelts are worth 5,000gp.

WOLVERINE: Wolverines have made a single appearance in D&D thus far: the ubiquitous wilderness encounter tables from Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry.  A regular variety and a giant version appear here, but they are basically the same creature. Gary betrays a real bias against them: not only does he describe them as vicious, hateful and destructive, but they have an alignment of "neutral (evil)". In AD&D, wolverines are not just regular animals, they are actually quantifiably evil. They're fast and tough, they get a +4 to all attacks, and they have a musk attack that works like a skunk's. To refresh, the musk can blind its victims, make them lose half of their Strength and Dexterity, and rot all cloth , including any magical cloth that fails a save. That is nasty, and there's a hilarious note that wolverines will purposely spray any human food or items that they find unattended. Add in the statement that they have exceptional intelligence when it comes to hunting and combat, and what you have is a license for the DM to run them like a total bastard. Just one of these critters could eviscerate a low-level party.

WRAITH: Wraiths first appeared in OD&D Vol. 2. There they are described simply as "high-class Wights", but here they get some more detail. They are still said to be similar to wights, but they exist more strongly on the Negative Material Plane. They have no powers in sunlight (which is a new addition) so they only dwell in dark, gloomy places. As before they are immune to normal weapons, and take full damage from magical ones. In OD&D, their relation to silver weapons was a strange one: they were said to take half damage from silver arrows, with no mention made of any other silver weapons. Here that is changed, and it is simply silver weapons that deal half damage.  They've also gained the usual raft of undead immunities. Allow me to list them for the penultimate time: immunity to sleep, hold, cold and charm spells; 2-8 damage from holy water.  A raise dead spell will destroy a wraith outright. Their level drain still works in the same fashion as before, but it's clarified that anyone they completely level drain becomes a wraith at half-strength, and is under the wraith's command.

I do wonder about the link that's been drawn between wraiths and wights.  It's probable that there isn't a specific one, but it's intriguing to think that a wight who drains enough levels will eventually grow a stronger connection to the Negative Plane, and become and immaterial wraith.

Stat Changes:
Number Appearing: Old - 2-16, New - 2-12; Armor Class: Old - 3, New - 4; Hit Dice: Old - 4, New 5+3

WYVERN: Wyverns first appeared in OD&D Vol. 2. Wyverns are stupid, aggressive, related to dragons, and they have a sting that is lethal on a failed save.  This is pretty much exactly what they were in OD&D, and the changes here are very minor. The biggest addition here is probably the note that they are brown to gray, and have red or orange eyes.

Stat Changes:
Movement: Old - 9/24, New - 6/24; Hit Dice: Old - 7, New - 7+7;

XORN: The xorn is making its first appearance here, and it's a weird monster. They live on the Elemental Plane of Earth, and occasionally come to the material plane, where they feed on "certain rare minerals".  These minerals, of course, are the very same ones that PCs most often quest for: copper, silver, gold, electrum and platinum.  Only copper and silver are specifically named, but there is an "etc." included, which I take to mean that the other coin types are included in their diet. No mention is made of xorn eating gems. Xorn can smell such metals at 20 feet, and will likely demand that any coins carried by the PCs are handed over.

The colouration of a xorn helps it blend in with rock, and it can actually pass through said rock with no penalty to its movement rate, as though phasing. It takes a round for a xorn to go from fully material to being able to phase through rock, during which time it is said to be "adjusting its molecular structure". Because of these abilities, a xorn has a 5-in-6 chance of gaining surprise.

They are immune to fire and cold spells, and take half-damage from lightning (or no damage on a successful save).  The following spells affect them: Move Earth flings them back, Stone to Flesh and Rock to Mud reduce their AC to 8 for 1 round, and render the xorn unable to attack during that time, and Passwall delivers 11-20 damage. A Phase Door spell cast while the xorn is phasing will kill it outright.

I've never encountered or used a xorn in D&D, and I think I know why. They're specifically designed for the kind of dungeon-exploring, treasure-hoarding sandbox campaign that Gary was running in the mid-70s, as a nuisance monster that can eat the PCs' treasure.  They don't make a lot of sense outside of that context. 

YETI: Yetis first appeared in The Strategic Review #3 and haven't changed a great deal. They still have the same bearhug attack, except that now they hug on a roll of 20 instead of 18 or better. They have also kept the same gaze ability, where anyone surprised by the yeti must make a save vs paralysation, or become rigid with fright, allowing the yeti two free claws and a hug (this ability has been greatly clarified here).  Their camouflage in snowy regions remains unchanged, as does their susceptibility to fire. It's a basic monster, but a good one, and Gary has only done bit of tidying up.

Stat Changes:
Movement: Old - 12", New - 15"; Hit Dice: Old - 4, New - 4+4

ZOMBIE: Zombies first appeared in OD&D Vol. 2. They haven't changed in concept, being animated corpses that follow simple instructions from their masters (clarified to be a dozen words or so). A new addition here is that zombies always strike last in combat. As before they fight until destroyed, but no specific mention is made here of morale checks, as there was in OD&D. Like all undead in the MM, they are now immune to sleep, charm, cold and hold spells, and are damaged by holy water.  The biggest change really comes with their Hit Dice, as the jump from 1 to 2 is a significant one.

Stat Changes:
Number Appearing: Old - 3-30, New - 3-24; Hit Dice: Old - 1, New - 2;

Before I put the Monster Manual to bed, I have a quick word on the updated Treasure Table.  The original Treasure Table from OD&D had treasure categories from A to I.  The new version has those same categories, and although the numbers are often different, the categories follow much the same principles. For example, Treasure Type I, in the original version, has no coins but a good chance for gems, jewelry and magic. In the Monster Manual it is the same, with a small chance for platinum pieces.  Mostly, the categories correspond quite well, and have just been altered to accommodate electrum and platinum pieces, and to split gems and jewelry.

The Monster Manual has added Treasure Types H through Z, which are more specialised. Some are designed for monsters with very little treasure, some to exclude everything but magic, but on the whole they serve a much more specific purpose than those in OD&D.

I'd just like to give a quick word of thanks to everyone who has stuck with this blog.  It's been a long time since I started blogging through the Monster Manual, and a lot has changed in my life since then.  I've taken some long hiatuses, and been fairly erratic, but through all of that there are folks who've been reading and commenting regardless of my unreliability.  Thanks guys!

Next week I'll probably do a quick round-up of the Monster Manual, just to refresh myself on the major additions it made to D&D, and what it's added to my theoretical "Ultimate Sandbox".  Beyond that, I'll just be ploughing ahead much as I did in earlier years.  I think that the next book I'm tackling as an issue of The Dragon, and I'm looking forward to it.  At the very least, it's not going to take me five years.