Wednesday, December 23, 2015

5th Edition - Maggot Lamia

Maggot Lamia (CR 4, 1100 XP)
Large monstrosity, chaotic evil
Armor Class 13
Hit Points 97
Speed 20 ft.
Str 18, Dex 13, Con 15, Int 14, Wis 15, Cha 16
Skills Deception +7, Insight +4, Stealth +3
Senses darkvision 30 ft, passive Perception 12
Languages Abyssal, Common
Multiattack. The lamia makes two melee attacks.
Sword. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 8 (1d8+4 piercing damage).
Intoxicating Touch. Melee Spell Attack: Hit: The target is magically cursed for 1 hour. Until the curse ends, the target has disadvantage on Wisdom saving throws and all ability checks.

This is hands down the best image Google showed me for "lamia."
It's not what I was going for with this monster but hey, it's too good.
 By John Suarez.
Similar to their mythological counterparts, lamias are an amalgam of the harpy, the siren, the succubus: essentially, they're yet another temptress. We're spoiled for choice when it comes to temptresses in D&D. The maggot lamia is a variation on this theme, different in that it promises physical metamorphosis, not sexual fulfillment, to those who serve it.

Maggot lamias are abhorrent. Their upper bodies are grotesque women who would've been great extras on The Hills Have Eyes. They have the lower bodies of maggots. They also lack the ability to change their appearance, and so must always be seen for what they truly are.

Their best method of defense is the secretion of a thaumaturgical pheromone that causes humanoids to feel an intense desire to serve. The maggot lamia instinctively seeks to transform herself into something else, and the beings which fall under her command take on this desire as well.

Successful maggot lamias establish cults which keep them fedand they prefer the flesh of sentient humanoids. At some point during their life cycle, their flesh begins to harden; the maggot lamia will soon seclude herself to undergo a potent metamorphosis intowell, that's up to you. In classic D&D, chasmes, being fly demons, would work perfectly. If you're playing D&D 3.5, you could slap the Insectile template on her, bump up her hit dice, and give her a fly speed. Really, the possibilities are endless.

From a design standpoint, the maggot lamia (or a clutch of maggot lamias) serves as the 'big bad' of a low level cult. They can unite a wide array of humanoids under their control, adding mystery and variety to a dungeon crawl, and if they're not dealt with in a timely manner by the PCs, they can 'upgrade' and become even more dangerous the next time they're encountered.

Since they're always repulsive, and the beings serving them grow to want to serve them (because they, too, aspire to become more), exposing them as monsters does nothing to disillusion their followers. They are monsters who want to become more monstrous; they are evil, and they want to be worse.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Two Stories With Regard to Killing People

Some people love save vs. death ray or be forever destroyed, and other people think it’s the dumbest crap.  And maybe I’m weird but I like all of it.

This post is about things I hate.

What do I hate? As a player, my #1 buzzkill is feeling like nothing you do matters. You were scripted to kill the Vampire when you started this campaign and no matter how badly you fuck it up, you’re going to kill the Vampire or I will turn this car around so fast. Removing agency from the player is essentially using your friends to stroke your ego—“Ooh, yes, I’m such a good dungeon master. Mmm, look at my nuance. You love three-act story structure, don’t you? Say it! Oh god, my adventure, it’s climaxing!” If I fuck up, I want to deal with the consequences. Hell, even if I try my best, I should still be able to fail.

Example: In a d20 Modern game, my gunslinger suggests to the party’s mage that we visit a lonely lighthouse during a thunderstorm. We know there are things out there that only emerge during stormy weather, and despite the fact that the other two PCs are engaged with researching how to kill a homicidal fire demon and can’t accompany us, we go anyway. We get ambushed. It’s a brilliant ambush, honestly – troglodytes attack our boat, capsize it, and drag us underwater to their lair. The mage can’t cast spells underwater, and my enchanted revolver can’t shoot with water-ruined bullets. We are so screwed.

Despite this, we manage to kill two troglodytes with boot knives and start swimming toward the surface, but we flub our rolls. We’re drowning. We fail more rolls, we suffocate, we die. The person playing the mage and I exhale, not realizing we were holding our breaths. What an awesome and dramatic way to go out!

Don't get me started.

But we don’t die. We wake up on the shore, inexplicably, with some vague MacGuffin quest psionically implanted in our brains. What the hell? I loved playing my gunslinger, but he died when I rolled a 1 on my Swim check and failed my Fortitude save. He should’ve been left in the water. Instead, I’m left feeling like none of this otherwise amazing session mattered. Is this a game or is the DM just using us to polish his novel?

Now, I hate to be too critical here, because the DM who ran this Modern game was one of the very best I’ve ever had and his games were, overall, really very wonderful, but even the best DMs mess up. Please, don't do this. Let your players die.

What’s my #1 buzzkill as a DM? Players who aren’t engaged with the other people at the table. I don’t really care if people are checking their phone or having side-conversations when they’re off camera—I mean, it’s not ideal but I’m not going to fight human nature. Even a player who is all like, “Ok, well, my character doesn’t give a fuck so I’m just gonna try to murder some pig farmers” can work out great, and honestly, I’ve loved DMing for those crazy Chaotic Evil bastards, but it doesn’t work if the rest of the party is Lawful Good. Likewise, a character that just wants to dungeon crawl and kill monsters in a subtle, Game of Thrones style adventure clearly didn’t pay attention while everyone was rolling characters.

Example: I’m running a Pathfinder campaign for a trio of Chaotic Evil players (not my current game). They’re having fun looting the ruins of a long-dead Cyclopean temple complex, fighting fungus-infested undead Cyclopses therein. A new player wants to join, and we all welcome him.

I explain, “So, the game is a sandbox pastiche: the heroes are chaotic evil criminals who have meddled with Incomprehensible Powers and are damned for it.  You’d be coming in as someone who isn’t part of their core group, and you’d be coming in during a dungeon crawl. It’s up to you to roleplay your way into their good graces. Are you OK with that?”

New Guy: “Yeah man, sure!”

Me: “OK. Because if you’re not OK with that, we can find a way to introduce you after they wrap their current adventure. The group has been fighting Cylcopses...”

New Guy: “Oh man, I love Cyclopses! I want to play a Cyclops! I’ll be a Cyclops hunting down the fungal Cyclopses in the ruins, and we can fight ‘em all off together.”

Me: “Uh… OK. Well, run it past the group.”

The Group: “We could really use a Cleric and we kind of kill Cyclopses on sight.”

New Guy: “Cool. Cyclops Fighter it is!”

Art by m0ai @ DeviantArt. If only this image had existed when I ran this adventure.

He spends forever on his Cyclops Fighter. Won’t ask for help. When he’s finally done, we all sit down to play, and I introduce his character at an organically convenient moment about 10 minutes into the game. He appears, bellows a challenge to the party’s Ranger and moments later they are fighting, and it’s kinda fun but also confusing because there’s zero context for who New Guy’s character is or what he’s doing here.

The Sorcerer asks, “Who are you? Why are you here!?”

New Guy: “Silence, coward! I will master you, and your pathetic race will bow to me!”

The Cyclops is totally losing the fight and the Sorcerer says, “Yield! Throw down your weapons, you cannot possibly defeat us!”

New Guy: “I will destroy you all!”

The Ranger has some sick rolls next round. A glorious, full-on murder spree of attacks all land on the Cyclops, and he goes from standing to dead.

New Guy: “What the fuck, dude? You killed me!?”

Cue awkward silence. New Guy was legit shocked at what had just occurred. I was shocked that he was shocked. Dumbstruck, I said, “Honestly, what did you think was going to happen?”

New Guy: “I’ve never had a character die before. I mean, that has legit never happened to me. Wow. Dude (to the Ranger), you’re an asshole.”

Lucky for us, the guy playing the Ranger actually was an asshole (<3 U PAUL), so he just laughed in the New Guy’s face and the rest of us kept playing. Needless to say, we didn’t game with the New Guy again. From time to time, however, I still reflect on this incident. I don’t know what I could have done differently. The New Guy eventually spoke to us again (we were all coworkers, so it’s not like we could really avoid each other) but he never really came to terms with his own role in his character’s untimely demise. Baffling.

Briefly Sort-of-Reviewing Assault on Castle Stormbringer

Spoilers maybe? There's a trapped book and a storm giant. So if that ruined it, you have my pity.

Yesterday, I finished running Assault on Castle Stormbringer. It's out of print, so you've got two options: find a pdf online, or go on Amazon or Ebay and shell out $30. Either way, you're money ahead. I got a good 16 hours of game time from it; your mileage may vary, but it's still a pretty cheap two-to-four session adventure.
Cover art by Chuck Whelon.

It's a simple adventure really: The heroes need to infiltrate a castle built by storm giants for storm giants (it's enormous) and kill Stozari Stormbringer, a maniacal storm giant druid. There are a few clever traps and a lot of high-hit-point monsters to fight, and some outside the box thinking is required to even get into the damn place without fighting an army of giants.

My players like a challenge. I sent three of them in at level 9 (geared as roughly level 11) with a level 11 NPC Bard, and oh my god so much killing.

This was their roster (And I should mention: I ran Pathfinder, not D&D 3.0, the system for which it was originally written. Conversion took about 10 minutes).

Ariosto, the Paladin (Warrior of the Holy Light archetype)
Mancy, the War Priest
Vruk, the Hunter (with Hakumet the lion)
Eldorel, the Bard-who-somehow-survived

They put out a lot of damage. The Paladin can hit for over 100 in a turn if he doesn't flub his attacks, and the Hunter plus his kitty (plus the Bard's bonus damage) aren't far behind (and make up for it by being amazing with skill checks). The War Priest was a new character and died mid-way through the session, so I never got a chance to see how much face he could really melt if he tried, but he did have a few emotionally satisfying ogre kills.

So, yeah, War Priests shouldn't read books. Or roll 1s.
And they really shouldn't do both at the same time.
(Not sure who the artist is on this one)

And I killed two of them. The War Priest died to a trap, and the Paladin died during the final glorious combat. They made it out with barely half the treasure, limping and broken and ecstatic they'd overcome such an insanely hard opponent. They spent most of their loot on resurrecting the Paladin and will probably spend the rest rebuilding the city that the storm giantess destroyed during the preamble. It was really a wonderful session.

I think it was the aesthetic of being tiny heroes hiding under chairs or lifting up ogre mattresses to see if there's anything underneath that really brought this mod to life. Something as simple as a change of scale can go a long way toward making an environment seem fresh.

Stozari herself is a hell of an opponent. I edited her only slightly. Instead of fighting her in her lair, the PCs ambushed her at breakfast, so I replaced her usual coterie with a pair of Ogre Barbarians and the Ogre Mage Druid which escaped from an earlier fight. This made the Challenge Rating of the fight slightly higher, so I dropped Stozari's lowest attack with her greatsword - my reasoning is that it's way more fun to be nearly killed than to be killed outright in one activation, and Stozari could kill any one of them outright if she hit on three attacks in a round, but would need to get lucky to do it in two.

I'd love to hear other folks' experiences with this mod, if you've had 'em.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Repercussions of Bible Camp

In my current Pathfinder campaign the players decided to all worship Korada. They refer to themselves as Bible Camp, and undertake missions for the church. They all interpret Korada's will slightly differently, and argue over the correct interpretation of faith. (All except the heathen Hunter, who replaced the ascetic Monk after he was crushed-to-death by a giant boa constrictor, but I digress.) 

I love this mechanic. I especially love how it gives them all common ground and acts as a teamwork-inducer, and want to incorporate something like Bible Camp into my next campaign. So I'm already thinking of how, and I've decided to tell the next group that (A) they're working for the church and (B) let them choose which church.

The Church has sent you to Bleak Falls to investigate the ever-increasing strangeness there. Considering there are no ordained priests in Bleak Falls who follow your religion, you’ll likely have to answer the question, “You worship what now?”

Lashoon, God of Commerce
Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Holy Color: Yellow
Holy Symbol: A golden pyramid
Holy Texts: The Golden Tablets of Lashoon; The Divine Contract; Selling Souls with the Best Intentions

The Church of Lashoon seeks to help others by helping itself. Lashoonites don’t see themselves as greedy because they often give far more than they receive, but other faiths sometimes criticize their ‘materialistic’ spirituality. Lashoon seeks a peaceful world, free from trade disruptions and profitless wars.

Serenéa, Goddess of Holy Light
Alignment: Neutral Good
Holy Color: Orange
Holy Symbols: A blazing orange sun, often with a woman’s face in an expression of repose
Holy Texts: Trials of the Firebrand; The Holy Writ of Purgation; The Battle Hymn of Sun-Blessed Paragons

Followers of Serenéa are called the Serene. They seek the betterment of all through the relentless purge of evil. They hunt down the undead, the debased, and their supporters wherever they may hide. Other faiths sometimes mistake this righteous zeal for wild-eyed fanaticism, but the Serene know better: They protect the innocent and punish the unjust and, in so doing, create a better world.

Igvar Zom, God of Mysteries
Alignment: Chaotic Good
Holy Color: Blue
Holy Symbols: An open book, a cluster of eyes,
Holy Texts: The Seven Inscrutable Scrolls; What the Squirrels Said; Glokojlokoj’Vorkr’Zee: A Memoir

The Church of Igvar Zom is a repository of indecipherable lore, all of which lends insight into the impossible enigma that is the God of Mysteries. Zomits search the world for the unknown and the unknowable, hoping to reveal truths that the common man could never have understand without the help of the priesthood. Some accuse the Church of being reckless or aloof, but Zomits know they cannot make an Omelet of Universal Truth without cracking a few Eggs of Common Decency and Widely Proscribed Taboos.