Sunday, August 21, 2011

[Review] AA9 The Lost Pyramid of Imhotep

The Lost Pyramid of Imhotep

Author: Alphonso Warden
Contents: 12 saddle stitched black and white pages, 1 title page, 10 pages of adventure, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Product Code: XRP6109
Retail Price: £7.00 or $12.00


An adventure for 4-6 characters of levels 4-7, the Lost Pyramid of Imhotep is an unusual five level dungeon with a tightly integrated theme. The physical product is furnished with a glossy cover stock, durable internal pages, clearly printed text, and well rendered black and white internal maps. Both the front and back cover illustrations are by Jeff Womack, though misattributed to Advanced Adventures stalwart Bradley McDevitt, and each depicts an encounter from the adventure with suitable atmospheric weirdness, complementing the relatively unusual subject matter. Whilst the title page illustration, also by Jeff Womack, is the only interior piece provided, it similarly sends a clear visual signal to the reader to anticipate a conflation of the familiar and the strange. Of the three images, this last is probably the most compelling, perhaps because it contrasts in its exterior enormity with the more claustrophobic and close quarter encounter environments used for the cover pieces. Even though the module is only twelve pages long, it is disappointing for there to be no other interior illustrations, especially when there are none of adventuring parties exploring or interacting with the dungeon and its denizens.

The scenario premise is straightforward, in that the player characters are hired by a magician to investigate recently unearthed evidence of a tomb in the desert. Since the adventure takes ancient Egypt as its thematic inspiration, there are numerous references to the trappings and theology of that culture, and a good deal of concern is given to the need to translate hieroglyphs. Indeed, it is noted that adventurers native to the area will have a much easier time than outsiders, and that holds true for much of the module. Progressing to the lowest dungeon levels requires being able to answer several rather culturally specific questions, and unless the players happen to know or guess correctly the game master will have to decide how to handle the player characters accessing the necessary knowledge. Whilst some of the rooms require clever thinking or intuition to overcome, many of them rely more heavily on the random outcome of the dice with little consideration given to alternative solutions. Although this is not much of an issue in cases of combat with guardians, it is more problematic when characters are left with no option but to make saving throws, as is the case in area fourteen for instance.

Interestingly, there is very little treasure to be had in the tomb complex, and what little there is could easily be missed. As a result the player characters will likely waste plenty of time searching fruitlessly, but in the absence of wandering monsters they can do so at their leisure. There is an item that could conceivably have a similar role, but as soon as the players figure out what is going on they are likely to stow it somewhere safe until needed and thereby obviate any time considerations. Similarly, the compact nature of the dungeon has left little opportunity for the game master to expand on what is provided, which is unusual for traditional style modules. Of the nineteen encounter areas at least seventeen of them must be explored, largely one after the other, in order to reach the final location. Naturally, this makes for rather linear exploration, which may frustrate players and game masters used to more expansive designs, but for tournament purposes is entirely suitable. Moreover, not every dungeon need be cut from the same cloth. Given that the adventurers manage to successfully negotiate all the dangers and puzzles there is a satisfactory denouement as well as a rather unusual, but substantial, reward to be had.

Technicalities and Errors

With regard to grammar and editing there is little of note to complain about. It is rather vexing to see a true minus used early in the text, only for hyphens to be used thereafter, but it is of little consequence. There appears to be a mistake in the ghoul statistic string on page five, insofar as damage is listed as "1-3/1-6/1-6" and it seems obvious that "1-3/1-3/1-6" was intended. As far as design flaws go, encounter area eleven is troublesome, in that failure to roll the right numbers on the dice not only results in an unsuccessful trial of strength, but destroys the means to carry out future attempts and thus the method of passing beyond the chamber. Stumbling blocks of this sort, but of lesser consequence, are typical rather than exceptional and can easily lead to a party being stuck in one area for a prolonged period. In another instance, one player is required to play and win the ancient game of Senet in order to obtain a necessary item, which aside from being quite random excludes the other players from active participation. However, whether any of these potential issues will manifest at a given game table is likely highly subjective, depending on the ability of the players and the skill of the game master.


Conceptually the Lost Pyramid of Imhotep is engaging and innovative, but whilst the design is suitable for a tournament environment, it could bear considerable improvement and expansion. Although redesigning the dungeon might not be a desirable undertaking, there is plenty of room for a wilderness description, random encounters, a settlement, rival treasure seekers, and other augmentations. Several encounter areas could also be improved on so that they are less linear and have several potential solutions. Less emphasis on combat in some instances would also be worthwhile, in particular for the locust and beetle vehicles; the usefulness of the latter in the passage of annihilation already hints at alternative possibilities, rather than simply combating a like opponent. Whatever its design shortcomings for regular campaign use, the adventure is well written and Warden demonstrates a considerable knowledge of the history of ancient Egypt without overwhelming the reader, though anybody expecting a swords & sorcery Stygian theme might well be disappointed. If the implementation of the concept is somewhat pedestrian, it remains an entirely playable and imaginative module that should make for one or two entertaining and challenging sessions.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

[Article] Hit Points

Of all the game elements introduced or popularised by Dungeons & Dragons the concept of hit points has probably been the most influential and widespread, finding its way into numerous tabletop and electronic games alike. The origin of the mechanism likely lies in the Chain Mail Fantasy Supplement where the superior fighting capability of heroes, wizards and monsters is represented by making them individually equivalent to multiple figures. For instance, a hero is worth four figures of any type, a wizard is equal to two armoured foot, or if mounted two medium horse, whilst a giant attacks as twelve heavy foot and defends as twelve armoured foot (or twelve heavy foot according to Fantasy Reference Table on p. 43). In each case, these powerful combatants are normally only slain after suffering enough cumulative or simultaneous hits to kill the number of men to which they are judged to be equivalent. That these were the forerunners of hit dice can be seen most clearly in the goblin, orc and hobgoblin entries, where they are indicated to attack and defend as heavy foot/light foot, heavy foot/heavy foot, and armoured foot/heavy foot, respectively, which is a relationship later reflected in their hit die ratings of 1−1, 1 and 1+1.

At an indeterminate but early juncture hits as kills were deemed insufficiently granular for swords & sorcery adventure gaming. Instead, each man equivalent was assigned 1-6 "hit points", a successful hit inflicting 1-6 damage rather than slaying outright. This approach had the advantage of allowing the average result of an isolated hit to remain a kill, but also ensured that five-in-twelve such hits would be non-lethal. It also created the possibility that combatants with multiple hit dice might be laid low with a single blow, if they had been unlucky in their hit point determination. Because of the way hits accumulate, the introduction of hit points strengthened the less powerful creatures and weakened the greater ones. Dealing with non-fatal hits is an area where Dungeons & Dragons often comes in for criticism, as its default assumption is that hit point loss in and of itself has no further deleterious effects. Since damage is most often conceived of as the inflicting of wounds, this seems counterintuitive, but it is worth recalling that the original edition of the game did give the subject some consideration, noting that "whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee" (M&M, p. 18).

Both the first and second editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons take the time to address the issue of hit points and wounds, warning that debilitating injuries are "not the stuff of heroic fantasy" (1e DMG, p. 61) and that "characters have enough of a challenge as it is" (2e DMG, p. 74). Even so, it is nevertheless noted that this is not necessarily the case for monsters and in fact neither edition is completely opposed to the idea of inflicting specific wounds on characters. For instance, maiming is considered a viable alternative to death in cases where player characters have played well but been extraordinarily unlucky (1e DMG, p. 110), and the sword of sharpness is well known for its ability to sever limbs regardless of whether the hit points of the target have been exhausted. The hydra is a good example of a monster that suffers an injury for each hit die of damage suffered, in this case the loss of one of its heads. A more general example is extant for winged flying creatures, as it is specified that if such monsters lose more than half of their hit points they must seek to land (2e DMG, p. 78), whilst if they lose more than three-quarters of their hit points during flight they plummet to the ground (1e DMG, p. 53).

Lest we forget, the original Dungeons & Dragons game has rules for aerial combat, apparently borrowing from Fight in the Skies by Mike Carr, which involve specific body location and critical hits. Nor should the much maligned hit location system presented in Supplement II: Blackmoor, and its assignation of hit points to various body parts, be overlooked. By the same token, the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons includes a rule for handling attacks against combatants without helmets (1e DMG, p. 28), whilst the second edition discusses the inclusion of called shots (2e DMG, p. 58). Indeed, the methods by which hit points are commonly restored, such as healing magic, regeneration, or lengthy periods of rest, suggest that their loss is representative of wounds suffered, rather than luck, skill, endurance or divine protection. Whilst it might be reasonable to evade this conclusion by applying the retroactive logic that a character is not wounded unless healed, for which precedent exists with regard to saving throws against poison, such arguments are unlikely to satisfy anybody desirous of a cause and effect relationship. As with other elements in the Dungeons & Dragons combat system, hit points oscillate between having abstract and specific qualities.

In reality, any wound significant enough to impair fighting ability is likely to take an individual out of the combat they were involved in. On the other hand, the notable individuals who fight on despite injury are the very sorts that player characters are intended to emulate. Leaving things up to individual game masters as the original game does is the most coherent solution, but also runs the risk of seeming too arbitrary. The suggestion in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide that characters reduced to zero hit points suffer some sort of injury rather than being slain is attractive, especially if the negative ten optional rule is discarded or modified. A house rule used in the World of Silver Blade is that characters brought to zero hit points or below are wounded and out of the fight, suffering ongoing penalties until the injury is healed, regardless of hit point recovery. Furthermore, and partly because magic is less prevalent in the campaign, characters can heal one hit point for every turn of rest after combat up to a maximum of one point for every die of damage suffered. So, for example, a character fortunate enough to have survived a fire ball spell that inflicted 6d6 damage can expect to recover six hit points after resting and tending his wounds for an hour.

Clearly hit points are a useful abstract combat mechanism for swords & sorcery adventure games, as well as being a source of controversy that defies singular definition. As Gygax notes in the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide it is ludicrous to suppose that characters can regularly survive multiple sword blows, but the binary "alive or dead" model that hit points seem to support seems equally unsatisfactory, and is a level of abstraction often gainsaid elsewhere in the text. Whilst it may be undesirable in a game of "heroic fantasy" for persistent or debilitating injuries to feature overmuch, a world without wounds is no more appealing. The key to reconciling this likely lies in realising that, although hit point loss may indicate injury and vice versa, the two are not inexorably related, which is to say a broken arm need not correspond to any form of hit point loss at all, and yet could be healed by restorative magic. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that healing magic in Dungeons & Dragons is bound up with the positive and negative energy planes, as well as the concept of life energy levels. Indeed, hit points are perhaps most usefully defined as "life force", but probably they are best understood as being whatever they need to be in the context of game events.

Friday, May 27, 2011

[Review] AA8 The Seven Shrines of Nav'k-Qar

The Seven Shrines of Nav'k-Qar

Author: James C. Boney
Contents: 12 saddle stitched black and white pages, 1 title page, 9 pages of adventure, 1 page of Your Games Now and Other World Miniatures advertisements, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Product Code: XRP6108
Retail Price: £7.00 or $12.00


An adventure for 6-8 characters of levels 8-12, the Seven Shrines of Nav'k-Qar is a straightforward two level dungeon crawl with a strong theme. The physical product has a glossy cover stock and durable internal pages, onto which the text and black and white maps have been clearly printed. Both the front and back cover illustrations by Bradley K. McDevitt are atmospheric and complement one another by contrasting two related scenes with different degrees of action. Including the title page, there are four interior drawings by Jeff Womack, each related to events and encounters in the module. Of these, the title page is the most compelling composition, depicting a group of adventurers apparently deliberating over how to deal with the smiling stone golem in area fourteen of the first level. Two of the remaining illustrations are of new monsters introduced in the appendices, and the last shows the focus of an encounter area. Although more interior art would be welcome, and the frequency varies considerably by module, the use of diverse artists in the Advanced Adventures series is much appreciated, as is the overall stylistic continuity, which speaks to a skilful choice of illustrators.

Very little space is given over to the premise of the scenario, just two paragraphs outlining the history of the titular toad cult of Nav’k-Qar and how the seven shrines came to be abandoned, whilst the introductory text contains the entirety of the otherwise unreferenced adventure hook. Unusually, there is also some advice to the game master with regard to fairness and moderation of the effects of randomness, which is probably not strictly necessary. A selection of rumours and wilderness encounters are provided as a precursor to entering the dungeon, the latter including swamp orcs and an adult black dragon, as well as several other interesting or environmentally suitable items. The dungeon itself also has several thematic and atmospheric features that help to give it a unique feel, such as the poisonous walls or the virtual carpet of toad bones covering the floors. On the other hand, the ogre and bugbear guardians held in suspended animation seem somewhat out of place, though such things are perhaps inherent to the design sensibilities of the author. Nevertheless, this feels like a missed opportunity to invent or use something more indicative of the degeneracy of the toad cult and its presumably twisted activities prior to being overthrown.

There is very little treasure to be had on the first level of the dungeon, but plenty of interesting and deadly encounters, so player characters that do not make use of divination magic, or otherwise fail to take sufficient steps to determine what they are facing, will be in for a hard time of things. By contrast, the second level is very linear in design; three sets of shrines must be entered and defeated, each pair in turn so as to gain entry to the next, before the seventh shrine finally becomes accessible. The challenges in these areas are heavily combat orientated, which is a bit of a pity as more puzzles would certainly have been welcome at this stage in the adventure, as would more latitude with regards to methods of bypassing the dangers. Once within the final sanctuary the party is confronted by almost an avatar of Nav’k-Qar himself, which should makes for a difficult battle and a fitting climax. Nonetheless, it is possible to come away from this module practically empty handed in terms of treasure; diligent parties will be well rewarded, but they run the risk of a final deadly obstacle in typical swords & sorcery style. As the introductory text warns, there are numerous places in the module where an unfortunate party could be wiped out.

Technicalities and Errors

In terms of grammar and editing there is very little to complain about, though the "chamber of dispair" on page four is a notable exception. As with the majority of Advanced Adventures preceding this one, there is a tendency towards using a hyphen instead of a "true" negative and it seems strange to see "1/2" in preference to "½", but the usage is consistent and so nothing more than minor gripes. Other very insignificant errors or inconsistencies include a colon after "HP" on page four, "d6" instead of "1d6" on page ten, the unnecessary pluralisation of the abbreviation "HP" to "HPs" in several places, and the appearance of "1-4+1" rather than "2-5" on pages four and five. In the latter case there is also an instance of "1-12+5" on page nine, but maybe that is a preferable notation to "6-17". That this is a module originally designed for use with the Old School Reference and Index Compilation and not a conversion from another system is evident throughout; indeed, the author has made full use of its terminology and potential. It might have been useful to include, for ease of reference, the movement rates for the various monsters in addition to their armour class, hit dice and damage, especially considering the environmental movement restrictions in the dungeon.


Whilst the Seven Shrines of Nav'k-Qar is perhaps not as strong an offering as the earlier modules penned by James C. Boney, it reads well and is bound to provide a satisfactory high level play experience. As with the three previous scenarios he has authored for the Advanced Adventures line, the most significant way in which this adventure could be improved is not in terms of quality but quantity. For instance, the concept could certainly be extended to a wilderness hex exploration of a partially swamp submerged and ruined city containing the eponymous seven shrines, with lizard men, bullywugs, swamp orcs, cultists, and worse vying over the drowned and broken remains. However, that probably goes rather beyond the scope of what can really be effectively conveyed in a standard sixteen page or even thirty-two page module, and as it stands the length and structure are well suited to a four to six hour tournament slot. Whilst the design is not particularly ambitious, it is certainly effective. A party of player characters of the appropriate levels should find the dungeon a difficult and entertaining challenge. Furthermore, they can consider themselves to have achieved something of note if they emerge relatively unscathed and victorious.

Friday, April 8, 2011

[Article] Spell Ability

Whilst fighting ability and thieving ability are barely attested and at best ambiguous terms in the first edition Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, spell ability frequently appears and is fully defined in the former work as indicating "whether or not the class of character is able to employ spells" (p. 19). It is further divided into four types, which is to say magic-user, clerical, illusionist and druidic, each corresponding to one of the four major spell casting classes. However, much like the fighting and thieving characteristics, spell ability also has a narrower definition, referred to in the Dungeon Master’s Guide entry for the Ring of Wizardry; it is explained there that the "ring doubles spell ability (i.e. the number of spells a magic-user may prepare each day) in one or more spell levels" (p. 132). As with the other entries in this series of articles, it is the more limited definition that is of interest here, spell ability as an indication of the number of spell slots available to a character by level. Whereas the spell slot progressions in the various iterations of Dungeons & Dragons vary considerably in structure by class, the contention here is that a more consistent approach would be useful and do no violence to the overall system.

In the original Dungeons & Dragons game there were initially two spell casting classes available, the magic-user and the cleric, with the illusionist and druid subclasses being later additions in Strategic Review and Eldritch Wizardry, respectively. Famously, at first level a cleric had no spell slots available, his progression only beginning at second level, but what is rarely noted is that at eleventh level the magic-user and cleric have exactly the same number of spell slots available and this remains the case at twelfth level when they both first get access to spells of the sixth level. After that they deviate again, partly because their maximum spell levels differ (level nine for magic-users and level seven for clerics). The spell progressions for classes are slightly different in each subsequent edition, including the D20 version of Dungeons & Dragons, and this interesting transient equality is lost. On the other hand, in the advanced game, magicians and clerics nominally have the same number of slots available from levels one to four, but in practice any cleric with a wisdom score of thirteen and above has rather more. Their subclasses, the illusionist and the druid, follow completely different progressions of their own.

Apart from the major spell casting classes and their multiclass combinations, there are the fighter subclasses with minor spell casting ability, which is to say the paladin and the ranger, and not counting the capacity of the thief class to read scrolls. Of the two subclasses, only the ranger originally had any spell casting ability, though the paladin as he appeared in Greyhawk could always "lay on hands", "detect evil", and "dispel evil", which applied to "spells, undead, evil enchanted monsters, and the like" (p. 8). Indeed, it was only in the advanced game that the paladin acquired the ability to cast spells at relatively high levels, along with the precondition in the Dungeon Master’s Guide that such characters had served a "novitiate" much like the cleric and druid (p. 39). Along with the details in the same section (pp. 38-40), this reflects an increasingly complex and specific approach to explaining how magic works in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and as a result also partially defining its limits. The positive and negative energy planes have a central role to play in the process, always triggering the channelling of energy from other planes of existence or else serving as the prime source themselves, the effects of which then manifests of the prime material plane.

Perhaps the most significant delineation in the advanced magic system is the acquisition, memorisation and preparation of spells for clerics and magicians. For the latter, a spell may be taught by an already learned master, studied from a book or researched anew, but in all cases the magician is limited in both the number he may ever learn and even which spells he has the aptitude to learn. After successfully acquiring a spell it must be maintained in a spell book and memorised from the text whenever it is to be prepared. The cleric, by contrast, has knowledge of all existing spells for his class, but in order to prepare those of third to fifth level must communicate with intermediaries of his deity  and have them bestow the spells requested upon him, whilst for spells of sixth to seventh level must petition the deity directly. Nonetheless, in order to prepare spells of the first and second level the cleric need only rely on his training and faithful service to his deity, which is to say the spells he desires are bestowed without direct communication, apparently simply a matter of prayer and meditation. There is something vaguely conceptually dissatisfying about this treatment and the open ended character of the clerical spell list is potentially troublesome.

Limiting the number of spells available to the cleric is most easily done by imitating the lot of the magician, requiring each spell to be acquired individually and maintained in a "prayer book", which is how it currently works in my Silver Blade and Greyhawk campaigns. When using published modules the simple expedient of treating spells memorised as spells known for non-player characters and monsters has proven to be largely satisfactory. Conceptually, the cleric is reimagined as a holy warrior so worthy in his abilities and faithful in his character that a deity or pantheon has empowered him with spell ability. As he rises in ability level the cleric must petition, usually through otherworldly intermediaries, for access to higher spell levels. Whilst the magician seeks arcane knowledge and may traffic with extraplanar beings to obtain it, understanding for the cleric comes in the form of divine revelations as to the nature of the multiverse, often conveyed by the very same outside intelligences. Regardless, not everybody, indeed few, have the potential to become clerics or magicians, whether it is a matter of inner qualities, external selection, diabolical compacts or a mixture of some or all, few can speculate with authority and none can say for sure.

There is no real reason for magicians and clerics to have different spell progressions, excepting perhaps an appreciation for an eccentric and erratic aesthetic, not lightly discounted by all. Still, if levels one to four and levels eleven to twelve can be the same, why not reasonably levels five to ten? As a known and stable value spell ability might be easier to design around and certainly easier to notate in statistic strings, though "SA" might cause confusion with "special attacks" or "special abilities", so might be more productively rendered "SCA". That said, acronyms could be created for the already existing spell ability divisions by class and subclass, if that were preferred, for instance "MSA", "CSA", "ISA", and "DSA". Either way the use of spell ability as describing the number of spell slots available by level is potentially useful. For those interested, a comparison of spell ability across the extant editions and classes of the game can be downloaded here in portable format document, including for Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and the Old School Reference & Index Compilation. Differences from the original game are highlighted in red, from the basic and expert game in blue and from the advanced game in green.

Friday, April 1, 2011

[Article] Handbooks, Guides & Manuals

One Ring To Rule Them All...

...And In The Darkness Bind Them!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

[Review] AA7 The Sarcophagus Legion

The Sarcophagus Legion

Author: Andrew Hind
Contents: 16 saddle stitched black and white pages, 1 title page, 13 pages of adventure, 1 page of OSRIC advertisements, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Product Code: XRP6107
Retail Price: £7.00 or $12.00


An adventure for 4-6 characters of levels 2-4, the Sarcophagus Legion presents a desert wilderness area and two dungeons, each consisting of one level. The physical product has a glossy cover stock and durable internal pages; the text has been clearly rendered, as have the black and white interior maps. Happily, the spine seems to be showing more resistance to wear than the last two in this series. The cover illustrations by Bradley K. McDevitt depict encounters in the module and appeal to traditional sensibilities, though the back image is perhaps the more compelling of the two. Of the three interior pieces by John Bingham, the title page image is particularly good. In addition to being evocative of the substance and theme of the module, it is a stylistically strong example of his work. The writing is for the most part energetic and clear, but does sometimes become cumbersome and over descriptive in places. An informed reader might suspect that the module was written in the style of a Dungeon Crawl Classic and then later converted over as a prospective Advanced Adventure, the read aloud text being integrated into the area descriptions, and a repeat error in the monster entries appears to confirm that as a likelihood.

The basic scenario is relatively straightforward; the sultan of a small desert kingdom seeks to engage the services of the adventurers to retrieve his fifth wife, Syriana, from a band of dervishes, who have taken her captive after ambushing her caravan. However, unbeknownst to the party and only lately revealed to the sultan, this unfortunate woman has been determined to be the reincarnation of a long dead queen, whose blood can be used to ritualistically animate the dead. In particular, she can potentially be used to bring into undying service a legion of mummies reputed to lie dormant beneath an abandoned temple deep in the desert. This is a setup with great potential, and reminiscent of a good number of Doctor Who episodes, but it is unfortunately largely squandered. Instead of becoming embroiled in the political intrigue and power struggle between the sultan and the dervishes for control of the ruined temple and the means to awaken the undead legion beneath, the adventurers are sidetracked to a former derro stronghold where Syriana has ended up; after rescuing her they are unavoidably betrayed and captured by servants of the sultan, then expected to escape so that they can rescue her again from the temple.

Whilst both dungeons are reasonably interesting and playable individually, they read as though they were designed independently and then stitched together into a heavy handed narrative. At first blush the wilderness map seems to promise open ended exploration, but the reality is much more linear, a string of encounters leading to a final showdown in the temple, the sacrifice essentially delayed until the adventurers show up. Hind, as always, provides numerous memorable encounters with innovative denizens, which offsets to some degree the larger design shortcomings. The clockwork spider and Laukshar the Leaking, a diseased ghoul priest, are particularly interesting examples of twists on conventional monsters, but there are also thematic magical items to be had and deadly locations to avoid, such as the "Pit of Fangs". Good use is made of task resolution mechanisms, rather than simple reliance on linear attribute checks, such as bend bars/lift gates to escape magical attacks and opportunities to forestall saving throws. Even experienced players should find an entertaining surprise or two in this module, and intelligent play will usually be rewarded, allowing the party to avoid expending resources unnecessarily. 

Technicalities and Errors

Occasional textual errors, such as "desrt" (p. 2), are almost unavoidable, but still worth noting. The stylistic and notational inconsistencies are somewhat irritating; for instance, the forms "1-6", "2-12", "1-6+1", "1d6", and "d6" are all in evidence, and whilst such lack of standardisation might be thought endearing by some, it is seems doubtful that it was really intended. On the other hand, the notation for less than a full hit dice is consistent in that it is presented as a hit point range, even if fractional notation is arguably more aesthetically pleasing. However, the most significant technical fault of this module is that the movement rates for all of the monsters and non-player characters are the D20 values, up to and including the new monsters in the appendices. Consequently, skeletons and dervishes have a move of 30’ instead of 120’, and that can only be confusing for a game master who does not realise what has probably happened. Errors of this sort must be caught in editing, especially if a module shows signs of being originally written with a different system in mind. It is particularly unfortunate because the statistic strings are otherwise very consistent, the product of some considerable care.


Conceptually, the Sarcophagus Legion has a lot to offer, the sultan is well characterised and the political situation provides plenty of opportunity for adventure. Moreover, its individual elements are good examples of Andrew Hind’s imaginative approach to swords & sorcery adventure, but as a whole it falls somewhat short of being an ideal module. Perhaps its worst design transgression is the pause between dungeons that requires the player characters to surrender or die, presuming the former. The lack of wandering monsters in the dungeons and relatively linear structure of the maps (though this is less of an issue with the mines than the temple) are also issues. With enough time and will, any experienced game master could get a lot out of what is provided, but as it stands the Sarcophagus Legion is in need of redesign and further development to meet the full potential of the ideas it contains. That is not to say that the module is a failure, indeed it is not a bad marriage of traditional game rules and modern adventure design sensibilities. Nonetheless, that is not really what has come to be expected of the Advanced Adventures series, but it is still to be hoped that Hind continues to bring his creative talent to future modules of improved design.

Monday, January 10, 2011

[Article] Turning Ability

The genesis of the Dungeons & Dragons cleric class is relatively well known. Inspired by the character of Van Helsing and his analogues as portrayed in the Hammer Horror films of the preceding decades, the cleric was created to combat a particularly troublesome vampire player character known as “Sir Fang”. To this somewhat narrow archetype were appended the trappings of a pseudo-medieval warrior priest typology, and the infamous restriction against the use of edged weapons (later “edged and/or pointed weapons which draw blood”). This latter clause was derived from a nineteenth century visual interpretation of the depiction of Bishop Odo in the Bayeux Tapestry, which was current in academic circles up until the late twentieth century, and remains embedded in the popular consciousness, even amongst those who really ought to know better. Gygax showed some trepidation in this assertion by the time of the Player’s Handbook, when he stated that the cleric has “a certain resemblance to religious orders of knighthood of medieval times” (p. 20), who he must have known were under no such compulsion. Regardless, the most formidable abilities of the class, casting spells and turning away evil spirits, have little to do with the military orders.

Whilst spell casting was already well established in the developing milieu, the ability to turn away undead, as well as lesser demons and devils, was a new addition. It fairly clearly has its roots in the conventional Hammer Horror scene where a character attempts to keep a vampire away by holding up a cross, with varying degrees of success (perhaps most amusing of these is an instance in which a character played by Peter Cushing destroys a vampire with the shadow of a burning windmill). These sort of scenes no doubt owe their currency to the myriad superstitions concerning the warding off of evil with magical amulets or sacred objects, and the reputed power of holy men to themselves drive away evil spirits. However, even in the original version of Dungeons & Dragons the vampire is singled out as averse to garlic, mirrors, and the sight of the cross, over and above any power of the cleric, if “presented strongly” (Monsters & Treasures, p. 10). Indeed, to turn away a vampire ordinarily a cleric must be at least sixth level (and thus equivalent in fighting ability to a hero) and roll a nine or more on two six-sided dice, a probability of only ten in thirty-six or just less than twenty-eight percent.

It is interesting to note that, just as the Chain Mail man-to-man combat system and its two six-sided dice gave way to the alternative combat system and its twenty sided die, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons did the same with regard to the turning ability. This was not the case with B/X or BECMI, both of which retained the shortened bell curve approach. Frank Mentzer, primary editor and designer of the later, has mentioned in the past that this also mirrored the B/X and BECMI morale rules, which used two six-sided dice, and that this was similar to how he envisioned a turning attempt, which is to say as a morale test for the undead. Of course, morale was not described in the original Dungeons & Dragons game, presumably the game master was expected to borrow from the byzantine Chain Mail version, though many must have used the “reaction test” as a stand in, again using two six-sided dice. Nonetheless, the morale rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons used percentiles, with modifiers mainly in five-percent increments, which obviously would work well with a twenty-sided die. Oddly, the second edition of the advanced game compromises between the two methodologies by using two ten-sided dice for morale, but not to generate percentiles.

Once the numbers for the original chart are converted to percentiles (8.340%, 27.78%, 58.33%) it quickly becomes evident that Gygax rounded them off (0.10, 0.30, 0.60), inserted an additional increment between the largest step (0.10, 0.30, 0.45, 0.60) then shifted the probability down one for the latter three numbers (0.10, 0.25, 0.40, 0.55), paralleling what he did for armour class, before converting the probabilities to target numbers on a twenty-sided die (19, 16, 13, 10). He then extended the range downwards by increments of fifteen percent, and made “20” the top of the range (20, 19, 16, 13, 10, 7, 4). For whatever reason, levels 4-7 (hero to superhero −1) omit the 19 between 16 and 20, increasing the overall effectiveness of the cleric from what might be expected of the pattern between levels 1-3. Unsurprisingly, second edition standardised the table to follow the initial pattern, resulting in a corresponding decrease in effectiveness. The expansion in level range and decrease of one step between “D” and “D+” (or D*) somewhat flattened out the curve, along with the switch from “1-12 affected” to “2-12 affected”, and “7-12 destroyed” to “2-12 destroyed and 2-8 turned”, respectively.

Although the original version of turn undead specified the number to be turned as 2-12, it did not indicate how frequently the ability could be used, its range, area of effect, or for how long it was effective once employed, amongst other things. B/X somewhat clarified things by allowing turn undead to be used as frequently as desired, but reduced its effectiveness to 2-12 hit dice, albeit with a minimum of one creature affected. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons took the opposite approach, restricting use to more or less once an encounter (under limited conditions it could be used in consecutive rounds against different types) and specifying the duration as 3-12 rounds, with previously affected undead “being subject to further turning by the cleric” (DMG, p. 76). The second edition returned to vaguer language, and duration seems to be as long as “he continues to maintain his turning”. Whilst that works well for turned undead, it makes destruction results extremely effective; for instance, to a tenth level cleric a pack of 2-16 wights is potentially little to no threat, but 2-12 wraiths remain foes to be feared! Happily, it does at least specify that cornered undead will fight back, “breaking” the turning effect.

For my own campaigns none of the approaches above have entirely sufficed, even less so when chaotic or evil clerics are stirred into the mix, not to mention the unlooked for vulnerability of paladins. Perhaps a better way to handle it would to be to treat it like a spell, an approach that has certainly been postulated elsewhere. However, that is not really any different than restricting it to a once per day effect, which would avoid the complication of introducing an additional slot. As long as an encounter can be defined, there is no reason not to keep it at once per encounter. The variable number of affected undead is a little unpalatable as an all or nothing affair, and the obvious solution is to roll one turning attempt against each target up to twelve, which would result in a more average spread of results, but “T” and “D” effects would always be the maximum. One way to counter that would be to spread out the probabilities for one half of the matrix on a 1:1 basis and use a higher ratio for the other, such as 1:2 or the 1:3 of the original scale. As things stand turn undead is somewhere between a saving throw based fear spell and a percentile morale test, neither fair nor foul. For those interested, comparative charts can be downloaded here.