Light Crossbow: Still the Weapon of Choice for Low Level Wizards in 5e

July 7th, 2014 by Rory

One of the nice things about D&D 4e was that wizards and other spellcasters got to step back from the old routine from previous editions of relying on the crossbow during easy fights or after they expended their paltry assortment of spells at low levels. They had at least 2 powers they could use over and over again to do solid damage equivalent to a basic melee strike (often with very cool added bonuses).

Alas, in 5e the crossbow comes to the forefront again. A layperson may be forgiven for assuming that a low level wizard doesn't really need a crossbow; after all, they have plenty of cantrips they can fall back on to do a wide variety of elemental damage. My response is that unless they are fighting monsters with vulnerability to fire, cold, or electricity, the crossbow is almost always a better bet until level 5.

My reasoning is simple:

  • Damage: A wizard using point buy is often going to have a 14 or 16 Dexterity, depending on their race. With a 16 Dexterity, a wizard does 1d8+3 damage with a crossbow, blowing the 1d10 firebolt out of the water. That's an average of 2 extra damage, which may not sound like much until you consider that it's a 36% increase in damage that has less variance, making it much more likely to make the difference between an injury and a kill. Obviously, the effect is less potent for a 14 Dexterity Wizard, but 1 damage is still significant when the damage values are so low.
  • Spell Effects: Fire Bolt, Ray of Frost, and Shocking Grasp have relatively minor spell effects. In short, the effects of these spells are very situational. Fire Bolt is good for environmental effects, like setting an oil slick on fire or lighting a torch, but has no direct effect when used against a target. Ray of Frost has some use in the first round of combat or when an enemy if fleeing, interfering with their ability to approach and escape effectively, but its utility is limited during the bulk of combat when significant movement across the battlefield tends to become less important. Shocking Grasp is arguably the most useful, but it's melee only; it's really best as a way to do some damage and still withdraw (presumably to pull out your trusty crossbow). And of course, both Ray of Frost and Shocking Grasp only do 1d8 damage, which puts them even further behind the crossbow in the damage department.
  • Crossbow is better than ever!: The light crossbow has the loading quality, which is no surprise. What is surprising is that all the loading quality does is restrict you to one attack per action, bonus action, or reaction. Since wizards almost never get more than one attack per action, this tag is no real impediment. In contrast, in 3.5, a light crossbow required a move action to load, which could be a real pain.

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Lifestyle and Downtime in 5e Basic

July 6th, 2014 by Rory

D&D 5e Basic was released a few days ago, and it is packed with 110 pages of great information, including full line ups of the common races and classes. What I am most excited about, however, are the rules for lifestyle and downtime! Some version of these types of rules probably existed in earlier editions, but as someone who primarily played 3.5 and 4e, I really missed not having them. I love subsystems that give a little structure to life outside of adventures and give rewards and consequences to taking time off to pursue other goals (or just wait for the next adventure to roll around). Also, for a certain style of campaign it is very fun to put financial pressure on the PCs so they are always wondering how they are going to scratch together enough money to pay their rent and feed themselves (or suffer the consequences of the new rules for starving!).

Let's explore our options to see what we have to work with:

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the “implied setting” of the 5e basic spell list

July 2nd, 2014 by paul

Looking at fifth edition Basic's pared-down, classic-heavy spell list, I thought, "What if these were all the widely known spells in the whole campaign world? What kind of game world is implied by the missing spells?"

Let's say that, when PCs level up, they can automatically learn spells only from the Basic list. Everything in the Players Handbook, and in all future splatbooks, exists somewhere in the world, but it's hidden in some way. Wish is scribed in a moldering book in the dungeons of an empire past; Rary's Mnemonic Enhancer is known only by the lich that was once Rary; the one guy who knows Wall of Fire lives inside a fiery labyrinth; and no one knows Explosive Runes at all, and a PC wizard will have to invest research time to learn it. Capturing a wizard's spellbook is an exciting opportunity to find an otherwise unobtainable spell. Rare cleric spells are taught in hidden monasteries or granted in dreams by angels.

To me, this sounds good in theory, and it will work or not depending on the completeness of the Basic spell list. What's the implied setting of this "Fifth Age" D&D world? Is its evocation- and healing-heavy spell list robust enough to outfit the majority of NPCs?

I'll compare the spell list, rather arbitrarily, with magic-user and cleric spell lists in the 1e PHB. What spells are missing from the Fifth Age that existed in the influential implied setting of 1e Greyhawk?

I've organized the missing spells into a few categories:

Mechanical spells: I'm going to ignore 1e spells that operate on the game rules. Some missing 1e spells rely on on game mechanics that have changed: Read Magic and Write aren't needed in 5e because the spellcasting rules have changed. Some spells add numbers to other numbers: 1e Strength makes people stronger, but it doesn't change the possibilities open to characters. The NPCs can live without these just fine.

Marginal spells: Many of the 1e-only spells were never really very popular: Ventriloquism, Shatter, and Feign Death, for instance, were not really central to most people's D&D experience, and their absence or rarity doesn't make much of a dent on the implied setting. Others are variations or upgrades of more famous spells: while D&D needs Charm Person, it doesn't rely on the existence of Charm Person AND Friends. There are dozens of spells like this that are quite appropriate as rare spells. Their existence is a rich source of exciting, or in some cases, puzzling treasure for spellcasters. "I'm the only person in the world who knows Feign Death! Now what do I do with it?"

Combat spells: 5e Basic has Magic Missile, Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, and lots more classic direct-damage spells. Missing 1e combat spells include Flame Arrow, Enlarge, Otiluke's Freezing Sphere, Fear, Cloudkill, and others. At some point, it doesn't matter whether you blow up guys with a fireball or an iceball. The 5e Basic combat spell selection is more than adequate.

Construction spells: A surprising number of high-level 1e spells allow you to modify contructions, make temporary shelters, or trick out/trap out your castle: for instance, magic mouth, continual light, rope trick, Leomund's tiny hut, dig, explosive runes, wall of fire, wall of ice, transmute rock to mud, wall of force, wall of iron, symbol, move earth. This tells us that 1e wizards had really nice fortresses and so did the monarchs they favored. For construction, 5e Basic has Wall of Stone. What does that tell us about the Fifth Age? Wizards may be able to summon curtain walls, but anything more complicated than that and they need to hire dwarven engineers. Wizards have no access to comfy extra-dimensional spaces (except Maze and Banishment, which are rarely comfy). As for furnishing lairs: no Continual Light, no traps, and no defenses except for Arcane Lock and Antimagic Field. Wizard towers are filled with guttering torches and patrolled by living guards, just like everyone else's towers.

Summoning spells: 1e has Find Familiar, the Monster Summoning spells, Conjure Animal, Conjure Elemental, and Gate. Basic has Gate. None of my groups have made a big deal about summoning so I honestly don't know if this matters to me.

Divination spells: There are some pretty powerful divination spells in 5e Basic (Arcane Eye, Locate Person, Divination, Commune) and the only defense is the high-level Antimagic Field. In this world, spying is easy and the only defense is counterspying. On the other hand, there's no Know Alignment or Detect Lie. Scheming grand viziers can rest easy. Doppelgangers and succubi, however, might have to watch out for True Seeing.

No Water Breathing: It's hard to explore the ocean. If you manage to research a Water Breathing spell, or find Kwalish's Surprisingly Roomy Submarine, you'll be able to loot underwater dungeons with no rivals except for monsters and merpeople. Barring that, no one knows what's in the depths. Godzilla? Dreaming Chthulhu?

No Polymorph or Disguise Self: The abilities to magically change form, or even to disguise your form, are unknown to the arcane disciplines of 5e Basic. The thief reigns supreme as con artist. The best the wizard can do is turn invisible and cast Major Image.

No Animate Dead: For some reason, no one will teach you the Animate Dead spell. It's like they don't trust you or something. This one is a bit of a problem for the implied setting, because while PCs don't really need access to Animate Dead, it's hard to imagine a campaign world without a bunch of active necromancers stirring up bones.

High level spells: High level spells are rare in any campaign setting because high-level casters are rare. Still, the following absences are interesting: no one in the kingdom can necessarily control weather and guarantee good crops. Maybe some legendary druid can, if you can find her. (And no one can cast Create Food and Drink if the crops fail). Enchant Item and Permanency aren't taught at wizard college; you'll have to do your own magic-item research or find treasure in dungeons. You can't make a backup of yourself with Clone: you might find this cool but peculiar spell as a strange relic of ancient technology in a dungeon. And high-level wizards can't necessarily cast Wish once per day. They'll need to find rings, lamps, and other relics, and hoard their wishes carefully.

What's there: This description makes 5e Basic sound like a low-magic game, but plenty of spells are still being thrown around. What magical abilities are common? All sorts of ailments can be cured, including death. Clerics (but not wizards) can speak with the dead and conduct tours to the Ethereal and Astral Plane. Apart from their propensities to set everything on fire, wizards might be most feared for their ability to Charm, Suggest, and Dominate all and sundry. Long-distance teleportation is difficult (you need to be 15th level) but the air is thick with Flying fifth-level wizards.

3e’s level 8 and 9 cleric spells

June 29th, 2014 by paul

In the transition from second edition D&D to third edition, lots of rules were re-examined. For instance, why do clerics only have seven spell levels while wizards get nine?

In older versions of D&D, clerics were half-casters, half-fighters. In OD&D, for instance, clerics didn't get a spell till second level, and they topped out with fifth-level spells and 15 total spell slots, while wizards had twice as many spell slots and sixth-level spells.

The 3e designers decided that clerics were full casters and should get level 9 spells. In the long run, that would lead to complaints that clerics were now as overpowered as wizards: maybe both should have been capped at 7th level spells! In the short term, it meant that the 3e designers had to write a bunch of new level 8 and 9 cleric spells. That was a tall order, considering that the level 7 spells let you spawn natural disasters, resurrect people, and summon Asmodeus. Where do you go from there?

The designers used a couple of strategies: 1) promote 7th level spells to higher levels; 2) move spells over from the wizard spell list; 3) create super-powered versions of existing spells; and 4) actually make up new spells. Let's go over all the new spells.


Earthquake and Firestorm moved to level 8: These spells indiscriminately kill lots of people in a huge area. Don't worry, the mass-slaughter gap in the level 7 spell list was replaced with a new spell, Mass Inflict Serious Wounds.
Symbol of Death and Symbol of Insanity moved to level 8: Actually, 2nd edition has one tidy wizard spell, Symbol, with lots of options, and a more limited clerical version. 3e divided the wizard spell up into 8 spells from levels 5 to 8 and made it available to both classes. I prefer a single spell to spell list bloat, but fine.
Astral Projection and Gate moved to level 9: These ultimate planar travel spells let you go visit Zeus if you want, or make Zeus come to you, and deserve to be bumped up to level 9.
Energy Drain moved to level 9: In 2e, this was actually the reverse of the level 7 spell Restoration. In 3e, Restoration was left at 7 but the reverse was moved to 9 (because people hate energy drain).


Antimagic Field copied from wizard 8 to cleric 8: Because both magical disciplines should be able to build annoying trick dungeons. It would be cool if the wizard version only cancelled divine spells and the cleric version only cancelled arcane spells, but alas, I was not consulted.
Summon Monster VIII, Summon Monster IX: The 2e Monster Summoning spell chain, seven spells, was expanded to 9 spells and copied to the cleric list. This whole series has always felt to me like spell bloat, never more than in 3e.


Create Greater Undead, level 8: Skeletons and zombies? Peh! This spell lets you raise shadows, wraiths, spectres, and devourers. How often has your 2e cleric lamented, "Oh for a devourer to call my own!" Prayers answered!
Cure/Inflict Critical Wounds, Mass, level 8, and Heal, Mass, level 9: In 3e, the traditional Cure Wounds spells were given out earlier, and the high-level gaps were filled by "Mass" versions of each spell that let you cure the whole party at once.
Dimensional Lock, level 8: This is a puzzler. 2e and 3e both have the sixth-level spell Forbiddance. As far as I can tell, Dimensional Lock is a less powerful version of this lower level spell - smaller area, more limited duration, and it doesn't damage your enemies. It seems like it should be a 4th-level spell.
Planar Ally, Greater and Spell Immunity, Greater, level 8: You get more hit dice on your yugoloth and more spell levels in your /ignore list.
True Resurrection, level 9: First there was Raise Dead. Then Raise Dead Fully in the Greyhawk supplement, renamed Resurrection in AD&D. 3e added True Resurrection, which you can cast on some random guy you never met who died ten years ago. So right now I could cast it on Richard Pryor or Pat Morita, if I had a spare diamond worth 25,000 GP.


OK, here it is, the meat of the matter: the all-original 3e cleric spells! Was it worth the addition of two extra spell levels? Let's find out!

Level 8: 2 new spells!
Cloak of Chaos/Shield of Law/Holy Aura/Unholy Aura: I'm counting this as a single spell, though it's listed four times, one for each cardinal alignment. This gives you buffs against attackers of the opposite alignment: mostly boring stat boosts to AC and saves and stuff, but attackers also get one cute themed debuff: confusion for Cloak of Chaos, for instance. This isn't a very exciting spell, but considering all the save or die spells in 3e, the bonus to saving throws might be important in some bizarre theoretical metagame.
Discern Location: This lets you find a guy, like, "Where did Pat Morita go after I resurrected him?"

Verdict: New level 8 spells: not that great.

Level 9: 5 new spells!
Etherealness: Previous editions let you travel to the Astral Plane but there was no spell that took you to the Ethereal Plane. How did players of previous editions steal all the Leomund's Secret Chests?
Implosion: This spell lets you kill a guy every six seconds. OK, that seems like a true level 9 spell!
Miracle: The divine version of Wish is cool because you're humbly asking your god for something, not casting a spell and feeling entitled to it. It's arguably the only religious spell in the entire cleric spell list. I can imagine a cleric variant who got this spell at level 1, and no other spells.
Soul Bind: This permutation of the earlier-edition Trap the Soul is necessary to counter the new True Resurrection spell. It makes True Resurrection impossible on a specific dead guy. So you could cast it on Pat Morita if you'd really prefer I spent my 25k diamond resurrecting Richard Pryor.
Storm of Vengeance: You'd think this would be an upgrade of the level 8 Fire Storm, but like Dimensional Lock, it's something of a downgrade. Fire Storm does 17d6 or more damage to everyone in one round. Storm of Vengeance has a big list of fiddly effects over the course of 10 rounds, some of which are situationally useful (like deafening people, creating concealment) but the damage output is lower. What Storm of Vengeance really has going for it is area. It covers something like 16,000 5-foot squares. So if your enemies are standing really far away from each other, you can probably still deafen them.

Verdict: New 9th level spells: Some are decent! Implosion and Miracle seem appropriately hefty.

missing fields on the 1e character sheet

June 23rd, 2014 by paul

In the player-creation process as detailed in the 1e Players Handbook, you roll your stats, choose race/class/alignment, and then "establish your character," which means 1) making up a name, 2) writing a will, 3) renting an apartment, 4) buying equipment, 5) meeting the other PCs, and 6) acquiring hirelings. In my new-school experience, 2) and 3) never happen, but I'm totally on board with them. Here's the passage from the PHB:


By determining abilities, race, class, alignment, and hit points you have created your character. Next you must name him or her, and possibly give some family background (and name a next of kin as heir to the possessions of the character if he or she should meet an untimely death) to personify the character. Having done all that, your Dungeon Master will introduce your character to the campaign setting. In all likelihood, whether the locale is a village, town, or city, your character will have to acquaint himself or herself with the territory.

The first step will often be getting into the place i.e. a gate guard demanding to know what business you have in the town or city. Thereafter it will be necessary to locate a safe and reasonably priced place in which to lodge - typically an inn of some sort, but perhaps a rented cot, a loft or even chambers at a hostel. Since the location selected will have to serve as base and depot, it must be relatively safe from intrusion or burglary. Once a headquarters has been found, your character can set about learning the lay of the land, and attempt to find the trade establishments needed to supply the desired equipment for adventuring. Perhaps it will also be necessary to locate where other player characters reside in order to engage in joint expeditions.

In any event, your character created, personified, and established will be ready to adventure once equipment is purchased and relations with other player characters are settled. If player characters are not immediately available, or if they are not co-operative, it is advisable that men-at-arms be hired. Hirelings of this sort, as well as henchmen (q.v.), are detailed in the sections entitled HIRELINGS and HENCHMEN.

Fiddling with D&D logistics like that is a strangely soothing activity. I'd be fine if "choose next of kin" and "pay for lodging, secure it from burglars" were as classic parts of character creation as "buy equipment" and "meet other PCs in tavern."

(This style of D&D reminds me of The Three Musketeers. It's a very AD&D book. The characters are greedy: the name for the era's gold coin, "pistole," occurs more than 100 times in the book. In Chapter 1, d'Artagnan enters the gates of Paris and rents a garret. Next, he locates the other player characters (by dueling with them). Finally, he engages a hireling (on credit). There's even a chapter called "Searching for Equipment.")

I think there was an early, unofficial D&D character sheet that had a blank for "next of kin". A good start, but not far enough. If this stuff is really part of character creation, the official D&D character sheet should also have spaces for Street Address and Rent. Is the 5e character sheet finalized?

the implicit DM’s turn in OD&D

June 16th, 2014 by paul

In OD&D, there's a phase of the game that's never mentioned in the rulebook, but still exists: the DM's turn.

Remember that D&D's direct predecessor was Chainmail, in which players alternated turns. D&D is a different type of game, but it might have taken Gygax and Arneson a little time to realize how different. Some traditional ideas, like opponents alternating turns, still linger. I think that if you imagine that the DM and the players alternate turns, it makes some troublesome terminology and some confusing passages make more sense.

In The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures:

Movement is in segments of approximately ten minutes. Thus it takes ten minutes to move approximately two moves - 120 feet for a fully-armored character. Two moves constitute a turn, except in flight/pursuit situations where the moves/turn will be doubled (and no mapping allowed) ... At the end of every turn the referee will roll a six-sided die to see if a "wandering monster" has been encountered.

What? What's a move, and why do you get two (or more) per turn? Why not just say, as does AD&D, that you move so far in a turn, and you check for wandering monsters after two turns?

And what about this passage about wilderness travel:

Turns: Each move will constitute one day. Each day is considered a turn. ... Wandering monsters: At the end of each day (turn) the referee will check to see if a monster has been encountered.

Why does a day need to be considered a turn? Why not just call it a day? After all, "turn" is already the term for 10 minutes in the dungeon. Why redefine it?

It's because D&D is a game, and a game needs turns. In a game, at the end of your turn, you cede control to the next player... in this case, the DM.

During the players' turn, the players initiate all the actions. They open doors. They enter hexes. The DM can still react, of course, possibly with deadly effect. Traps might be sprung. An entire battle (at ten rounds to the turn), with the players and the DM's monsters alternating actions, might take place, all during the players' turn. But generally the players are walking around and messing with static monsters on a map.

At the end of the players' turn, the DM gets to do some initiating. Both inside and outside, the term "turn" is defined by monster checks. In other words, after the players have a chance to move, the DM has the opportunity to introduce "wandering monsters" - moving monsters which force the players to react for a change. If we step back and think of D&D as a board game, and the DM and the players as adversaries (and many passages in OD&D suggest that they are!), we might imagine D&D as an asymetric game, sort of like Descent, in which the "Overlord" is explicitly give a turn and limited agency to play evil tricks on the players, or maybe like Dungeon World with its advancing evil fronts.

The "turn" becomes less and less important in later editions, but it's emphasized several times in OD&D. And I can see how it can be useful. In later editions, the DM is often expected to play a pretty reactive roll. After designing the adventure, the DM sometimes does little more than run monsters and adjudicate traps and puzzles. But it's useful to explicitly give the DM a turn every once in a while, after, say, ten minutes of dungeon exploration, or a day of overland travel, to check for wandering monsters; take a minute to think about what the bad guys are up to; or think of new challenges to throw at the players.

basic d&d will be the 5e SRD

June 9th, 2014 by paul

Lots of questions were raised by WOTC's vague promise of a "program" for third-party D&D publishers. Will there be something like 3e's open-source-style OGL license? Something like 4e's limited and revocable GSL? An "app store" model where products must be approved by WOTC?

To me, one key piece of evidence suggests that pretty much everything in the free "Basic D&D" PDF will be open content, making Basic D&D the 5e equivalent of the d20 SRD.

A preamble first: The d20 OGL license pretty much gave away the store. Most of the PHB is in there, apart from character creation, leveling, and a handful of iconic and original D&D monsters: beholder, gauth, carrion crawler, displacer beast, githyanki, githzerai, kuo-toa, mind flayer, slaad, umber hulk, and yuan-ti. There's really no point in 5e trying to protect any OGL monsters, since they're already basically free content. But WOTC probably doesn't want to give away anything ELSE to Pathfinder and other competitors. So if there's ever a 5e OGL-type open license, we'd expect it to exclude the beholder, gauth, carrion crawler, etc.

OK, here's my evidence for Basic being released under an open license. In last week's live Q&A, Mike Mearls listed a bunch of the "iconic monsters" in the Basic PDF. He read a pretty big list: chimera, centaurs, orcs, ghosts, giants, mages, acolytes, warriors, mummies, ogres, skeletons, ochre jellies, dragons, giant spiders. Notice anything missing? How about any monsters from D&D's non-OGL list: beholder, gauth, carrion crawler, displacer beast, githyanki, githzerai, kuo-toa, mind flayer, slaad, umber hulk, and yuan-ti?

Apart from dragons, the beholder is arguably D&D's most iconic monster - it's the 5e Monster Manual monster - so its absence from Basic's list of "iconic D&D monsters" is striking. Its absence really makes sense only if everything in Basic has to be open content.

I don't necessarily think that 5e will use the OGL itself. There might be more carefully-worded protections against competitors. But I do think that the license will be free; it won't require WOTC approval like the 4e GSL; and it won't be arbitrarily revokable without cause like the GSL.

There's one problem with my theory. I doubt the 5e license will be MORE permissive than the OGL. We know that Basic will include character creation information, and character creation and leveling hasn't been released under any previous license.

I bet that character creation/leveling details will included in Basic but be specifically excluded from the license. That would be pretty easy to do. For instance, in the 4e Player's Handbook, the character creation info and leveling details are all in Chapter 2, "Making Characters." The 5e Basic equivalent of the "Making Characters" chapter might be specifically excluded from the new license. Everything else in Basic will, I predict, be fair game for use by third party publishers.

How sure am I in my hunch? Sure enough that I'm going to prepare my next D&D publishing project for 5e.

More 4e errata! Player’s Handbook art

June 6th, 2014 by paul

Fourth edition came under a lot of flak for its endless rules errata. If you kept up with all the updates, your copy of the PHB had scribbled corrections in each page. However, an errata document was never issued for the art.

PHB4CoverWith 4e at the end of its run, here is an errata update for all the art in the PHB. Please make the following changes.

On the cover:

The female wizard should not have her boobs AND her butt facing the viewer. Replace her with a Strong Female Character.

The male dragonborn fighter no longer has rivets in his armor shaped like lucky charms.

Erase the F tattooed on the female wizard's forehead. Change it to an A+

Replace the dwarf fighter in the background with a halfling thief (the party should probably have a striker).

Inside the book:


uuOn page 22, Moradin should no longer use the same symbol as the Unitarian Universalists. They might get mad if their symbol is co-opted by an imaginary dwarf god. No, wait, we just checked with them and they're fine with it.

Character Races

letoOn page 42 (Half-elf), replace the picture of Jared Leto with a picture of a half-elf.

On page 34 (Dragonborn) move the male dragonborn one inch higher so you can't tell whether the female dragonborn has boobs.


The badass dragonborn in ruby armor on page 101 has been informed of the existence of the badass dragonborn in ruby armor on page 6, and has killed him and taken his stuff. The dragonborn on page 101 is now wearing the ruby ring. Page 6 should now have a picture of a dragonborn in an open casket, with a dwarf in the background leading a Unitarian Universalist funeral service.

Character Classes

rogue1Page 122, rogue powers: replace the rogue doing the action hero landing (one palm on the ground, one leg cocked, one arm cocked) with a picture of Black Widow from Iron Man II.

On page 148, the warlord with seemingly unnecessary spikes on the right side of his helmet, on his left gauntlet, and on his right boot is now being threatened by a very tall monster to his right, a medium monster to his left, and a very short monster to his right.

rogue2Page 195, feats: replace the rogue doing the action hero landing with a picture of Black Widow from Iron Man II.


Page 203, paragon tier feats: The picture of the fighter running away from a red dragon should be moved to the cover of the 1983 Mentzer red box.

General Errata:

bellyYou may draw supplemental belly shirt/sideboob armor on any of the female adventurers on the cover and on pages 4, 34, 40, 46, 48, 50, 96, 103, 129, 171, 191, 213, 234, 296, and 313, and on the male adventurers on pages 58 and 234.

the first zombie apocalypse story?

May 29th, 2014 by paul

Zombie stories have been around for a while: the D&D zombie descends from the Hiatian version, a dead person raised by necromancy.

The current, highly successful "apocalypse via fast-spreading zombie disease" meme is pretty new, and it's eating the Haitian/D&D version for breakfast. D&D might have backed the wrong undead horse here. George Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead might have been the first zombie-apocalypse movie that explicitly used the word "zombie." (Night of the Living Dead, 1968, called them "ghouls." And D&D ghouls might owe a lot to Night of the Living Dead.)

The essential elements of the "zombie apocalypse" story are, as far as I can tell:
1) Nearly everyone is turned into a zombie.
2) Survivors scavenge supermarkets or camp out in the woods and blow zombie heads off with shotguns.
3) No one is purposely animating corpses. Zombie-itis is contagious.

Minus the word "zombie", this story is a little older than Night of the Living Dead. Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, 1954, is often mentioned as the first zombie apocalypse-type story, although its bad guys are called "vampires."

I think that Walter M. Miller might actually be the first writer who wrote a really modern-style zombie apocalypse story. In Dark Benediction (1951), the monsters are called "dermies," and they're not quite as simplistic as your World War Z/The Walking Dead brain chewers. Still, apart from the word "zombie," it's got all the apocalypse phobia/survivalism fantasy/xenophobia it needs to be an official part of the genre.

Here's a chunk of the first page. Watch it hit all the highlights:

Always fearful of being set upon during the night, Paul slept uneasily despite his weariness from the long trek southward. When dawn broke, he rolled out of his blankets and found himself still stiff with fatigue. He kicked dirt over the remains of the campfire and breakfasted on a tough forequarter of cold boiled rabbit which he washed down with a swallow of earthy-tasting ditchwater. Then he buckled the cartridge belt about his waist, leaped the ditch, and climbed the embankment to the trafficless four-lane highway whose pavement was scattered with blown leaves and unsightly debris dropped by a long-departed throng of refugees whose only wish had been to escape from one another. Paul, with characteristic independence, had decided to go where the crowds had been the thickest—to the cities—on the theory that they would now be deserted, and therefore noncontagious.

The fog lay heavy over the silent land, and for a moment he paused groping for cognizance of direction. Then he saw the stalled car on the opposite shoulder of the road—a late model convertible, but rusted, flat-tired, with last year's license plates, and most certainly out of fuel. It obviously had been deserted by its owner during the exodus, and he trusted in its northward heading as he would have trusted the reading of a compass. He turned right and moved south on the empty highway. Somewhere just ahead in the gray vapor lay the outskirts of Houston. He had seen the high skyline before the setting of yesterday's sun, and knew that his journey would soon be drawing to a close.

Occasionally he passed a deserted cottage or a burned-out roadside tavern, but he did not pause to scrounge for food. The exodus would have stripped such buildings clean. Pickings should be better in the heart of the metropolitan area, he thought - where the hysteria had swept humanity away quickly.

Suddenly Paul froze on the highway, listening to the fog. Footsteps in the distance—footsteps and a voice singing an absent-minded ditty to itself. No other sounds penetrated the sepulchral silence which once had growled with the life of a great city. Anxiety caught him with clammy hands. An old man's voice it was, crackling and tuneless. Paul groped for his holster and brought out the revolver he had taken from a deserted police station.

"Stop where you are, dermie!" he bellowed at the fog. "I'm armed."

You know what would be a fun D&D campaign? Not the classic "zombie outbreak in a fantasy world:" fantasy worlds are pretty well equipped to handle zombies. Imagine instead a "D&D heroes appear in a modern-day zombie apocalypse" game. (Old-school games are full of these types of stories: in Gygax and Arneson's games, D&D characters sometimes appear in space or in Boot Hill, and German tank units appear in the midst of fantasy battles.) The apocalypse story is based on the conceit that most modern people can't hack a true emergency. Imagine six battle-hardened D&D characters - including a cleric with Turn Undead - finding themselves in a bleak zombie fiction like, say, The Walking Dead. They'd own. It would be interesting to see if they could turn the tide.

wild grassland encounters

May 21st, 2014 by paul

Non-cultivated grassland is a hard terrain to get a handle on because we just don't have a lot of it in the modern world. Africa is a good place to look, along with frontier America.

You need to come up with some reason why any grassland hasn't been snapped up by farmers, herders and empire-builders. One possibility is that it's defended by something - nonhuman nomadic tribes, giants, dinosaurs, dragons - too scary for armies to deal with. Another is that it used to be civilized and it's been conquered by forces of chaos - orc hordes, undead. In the latter case, the plain is a likely location for dungeons and ruins. Each large area of uncultivated plain probably has its own story.

Here's my random encounter table for grassland. Asterisks are for new monsters that I haven't actually designed yet (I like to make up monster stats on the fly, inspired by evocative names.)

Unending Plain1 Unique monster. You must invent it on the spot, or pull it out of some sourcebook the players have never seen. The PCs will never meet another one of its kind.
2 nomadic people (human barbarian, elf, halfling, centaur, *runner, *ostrichtaur)
3 civilized people (caravans, bandits, armies, pioneers, *landsailors, *city that walks)
4 animal (lion, cheetah, antelope, ostrich, snake, toad)
5 giant herbivore (buffalo, ox, mammoth, elephant, aurochs, rhino, bronto, *mushroom walker)
6 horde (orc, gnoll, hobgoblin, undead)
7 dire animal (*war lion, *saurus, *insect steed, sabertooth, al-miraj, giant toad)
8 dangerous flora (*slumberwood, *green fuzz, *swordgrass, *purpleflower queen)
9 ambush animal (cockatrice, basilisk, ankheg, bullette, trapdoor spider, *flying viper)
10 dog (hyena, wild dog, blink dog, worg, *wicked fox, *hunger hound)
11 fairies (*grass people, *butterfly folk, *mouseling, naiad)
12 swarm (bugs, stirges, *bloodbirds, *singing ants, *undead vermin, *manswarm)
13 sinister ruin (dungeon or underground dweller, troll, ogre, demon, undead, cultists, *crawling cairn, *wild gate)
14 wild steed (horse, pony, giant rabbit/butterfly/bee/grasshopper/kangaroo, *zebracorn)
15 weather (storm, tornado, *firestorm, *vortex, *starfall, *stinking cloud, *cloud chariot, wind walker)
16 flyby (dragon, griffin, hippogriff, *flying turtle island, *air whale, *giant falcon)
17-18 signs of the recent passing of 19-20
19-20 the thing that prevents this plain from being cultivated (hordes, giants, dinosaurs, dragons, undead, beholders, *mad colossi, *sunwraiths, *fire cattle). Once you've chosen it, all 17-20 encounters for this grassland relate to this threat.