Thursday, June 25, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Skeleton Warrior

The Quest for the Skeletal Warrior is perhaps my favorite episode of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. The antagonist of the story is Dekkion, a fallen Celestial Knight who betrayed his companions for a king’s treasure horde. This act of treachery came with a terrible curse which made Dekkion walk the realm as a skeleton. It was a fantastic background showing what a fallen paladin may be like. You can read the entire script of the episode here.

When I became the proud owner of the AD&D Fiend Folio the skeleton warrior immediately jumped off the page at me. The instant comparison to Dekkion and other monsters featured from the tome in the cartoon was great. The first paragraph of the skeleton warrior description is as follows:

These are undead lords of the 10th-15th level, formerly powerful fighters (and will have psionic abilities if possessed in life). They are only affected by magical weapons and have 90% magical resistance. Their appearance is similar to that of a lich (see ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS MONSTER MANUAL) - skeletal creatures clad in the rich, but faded and rotting trappings of a powerful fighter. It is said that the skeleton warriors were forced into their lich-like state ages ago by a powerful and evil demigod who trapped each of their souls in a golden circlet. A skeleton warrior's sole reason for remaining on this plane is to search for and regain the circlet which contains its soul.

What an epic monster for any party of adventurers to encounter and interact with. That being said, they really are on the far end of the power spectrum. Growing up I was inspired to use skeletons as foes in my low level games quite liberally after seeing such classics as Jason and the Argonauts. Unfortunately in most RPGs skeletons have become trivial foes to be bashed apart easily by adventurers.

I have been marinating on ways to make skeletons more fearsome opponents. I think there needs to be something in between just animated bones and a skeleton warrior. I have no problem with undead that is easily defeated because it is held together with the sinews of minor necromancy. I just want something more terrifying because it feels no pain or fear. The T-101 from the Terminator series comes to mind and its relentless pursuit of Sarah Connor until it’s completely destroyed. I envision a skeleton doing the same thing so long it can still move a limb or snap its jaw.

Attempts have been made to do this via game mechanics in various editions by adding caveats. Some examples include damage reduction, only hit by magic weapons and extra hit points. While these are helpful I’m not sure they completely convey the sheer terror animated skeletons with weapons and armor. The approach I’m considering is very intelligent skeletons which use strategy and tactics. These are not your grandfather’s shambling hordes of mindless undead.

No, these are skeletons which have retained their martial knowledge from life completely. They would be mid-level opponents so I could fill the gap between the animated skeleton and the skeleton warrior. I will probably coin the new creation Soldier Skeletons since they use both equipment and stratagem to defeat their opponents. Perhaps there is a mercenary company of them lead by a skeleton warrior? The possibilities are really endless. What are your suggestions for making the classic skeleton more of an unforgettable opponent?   

The classic Fiend Folio Skeleton Warrior

Ray Harryhausen was the ultimate necromancer!

It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear!

Cory Hamel's awesome Skeletal Warrior

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Curious Goods

Friday the 13th was a horror TV show which lasted three seasons, from October 3, 1987 to May 26, 1990. I watched it quite regularly with my father and enjoyed the D&D type vibe many of the episodes had. Interestingly the name of the show was just a ploy to attract viewers and had nothing to do with the famous Jason Voorhees. That said, the backdrop for the show was a shop called Curious Goods which at one time sold cursed antiques. It would have been a nice nod to have Jason’s hockey mask somewhere on one of the shelves.

The series followed the adventures of Michelle "Micki" Foster (played by Louise Robey), Ryan Dallion (played by John D. LeMay) and Jack Marshak (played by Chris Wiggins). Their goal was to try and collect all the cursed items that were sold at the store and place them in a protective vault.

The prologue of the show was as follows:

"Lewis Vendredi made a deal with the devil to sell cursed antiques. But he broke the pact, and it cost him his soul. Now, his niece Micki, and her cousin Ryan have inherited the store... and with it, the curse. Now they must get everything back and the real terror begins."

Growing up the thing I enjoyed the most about Friday the 13th was actually the store. Time and time again it was an inspiration for odd magic shops in my games and the outlandish wares they would sell. Many RPG players love to go shopping and interact with NPCs. D&D is largely about exploration but it does not always need to be a dungeon environment. Rather a character could explore oddities for sale in a place like Curious Goods.

Below I have created a table of items a character may encounter in a dusty old antique store specializing in lost things and the occult. Each item can easily be fleshed out more in terms of history and lead to many more adventures or questions.

Curious Goods (d20)

1.    A small metal box with broken hinges. When pried open a preserved eyeball will be found inside. If touched the eyeball will share mentally with the user grainy imagery of several hidden treasure hoards.

2.    A set of dice carved from white dragon bone. Will chill small quantities of liquid if placed inside a vessel of any kind. If rolled the dice will cover a small surface in a thin layer of ice.

3.    A backpack filled with old scraps of cloth. If examined they may be placed together to form a map showing the location of an ancient hobgoblin tomb.

4.    A wooden staff which has a hard to find hollow compartment. Inside is found a scroll which entitles the owner to an inheritance to be collected in a well-known city.

5.    A dented and misused dagger which is curiously sharp. When used to cut mundane material it always does this task in half the normal time required.

6.    One leather boot (size 9) which appears to be stained by a phosphorescent purple material. If worn the boot casts purple light in a 20’ radius in the presence of evil.

7.    An eyepatch which is crafted from cyclops hide. If worn it provides the ability to see twice as far with the uncovered eye. An appropriate bonus should be granted for ranged weapon use.

8.    A courtesan’s revealing lingerie of deep red color. Crafted by the assassin’s guild this garment provides the same protection as chain armor to its wearer.

9.    A polished apple of curious black color. If eaten the fruit makes those who consume it wispy and shadowy for one entire day. An appropriate bonus to armor class should be given to reflect this.

10.    A small golden button with a few green threads still attached. A prancing unicorn is embossed on the design of the button. If sewn on a garment and then worn the button will teleport away the users clothing to a fey circle.

11.    A wooden box which contains twelve more boxes each progressively smaller. The final box is approximately 2” in diameter and contains a miniature stoppered vial. If opened the vial lets out an acrid smelling smoke and booming laughter is heard.

12.    An old book bound in yellowed leather. The vellum pages are stained with an oily green substance which smells of arsenic. If a page is removed it hardens into a sharp weapon with its edge covered in a jellied poison of the DM’s choice.

13.    A brightly colored and checkered smoking vest which reeks of burnt tobacco. If worn the user is able to cover a 10’ radius in deep obscuring smoke when indulging in a pipe. The user is able to see through the smoke as if it did not exist.

14.    A wooden case which intricately unfolds to form two small tables. Anything placed on top of one of the tables instantly appears on the other table. The range of this swapping power is 5 miles.

15.    A tattered cloak crafted from black wool with a blue silk liner. To others except the wearer they will appear the opposite of their current sex. Peering in a mirror will reveal the illusion to the wearer.

16.    A strange pair of gloves which seem to be crafted from a black umbral material. If worn the user feels the constant desire to pilfer inexpensive items. They may not be removed unless a remove curse spell is utilized or the user steals 100 items, whichever comes first.

17.    A golden locket in the shape of a heart which opens to reveal the small portrait of a child. If worn the child will appear at night as a ghostly apparition in the distance and just stare at the wearer. If approached the apparition will giggle and runaway vanishing into the darkness.

18.    A dented helm crafted from black iron which grants a +1 bonus to armor class. If worn however the owner intermittingly will see violent events which occurred in the past in various locations visited. These flashbacks are through the eyes of the victims and always traumatic. 

19.    A well-crafted hide backpack which appears to have the same extradimensional capability as a Bag of Holding. When worn however the bag routinely replaces the owner’s possessions with someone else’s. Apparently the backpack is linked to another somewhere in the world. 

20.    A magnificent elven longsword filigreed with mithril. The runes on the blade suggest it once belonged to a noble of great importance. When wielded it feels light and balanced and confers a +2 bonus. The sword is actually the phylactery of a powerful lich. The new owner of the sword will be constantly harassed by the minions of the lich as they try to unlock the secrets of the ancient blade.

Keep digging through old tomes and shops. You never know what you may find!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Ultracon the Summer Gaming Weekend

Every year in our gaming circle we organize a summer convention for friends and family called Ultracon. The very definition of ultra is to go above and beyond and to be extreme. Ultracon first started as a crazy idea over a few beers to gather everyone in one place yearly to game. In 2013 it was the thirty year anniversary of my campaign world Ultanya so we wanted to do something special. Without boring everyone to death with the history of the realm the main villain for the weekend was Tiamat. I will note that this was well before the release of Tyranny of Dragons

Tiamat had spent an eternity putting together an artifact called the Tablet of Destinies (right from Sumerian myth) to cast a terrible ritual called the Empyrean Nihility. The former was a spell of cosmic destruction since it drained all magic from planes of existence. In Ultanya magic is a binding and ubiquitous power required for the very existence of life.

In order to combat Tiamat and stop the ritual an epic gathering of heroes would take place. What we did was have players from three generations of Ultanya campaigns dust off their favorites. Since they existed in multiple editions of the game this was a task unto itself. But in the end it was incredible to see what basically amounted to a super team of everyone’s coolest characters. They would spend the weekend questing for five dragon scourge crystals to enchant their weapons with. There was a crystal for each color of the chromatic spectrum.

Every year I have 6 siders created as part of the Ultracon player swag bags. For this event I had one made for every color of Tiamat’s head. Whenever a dragon scourge crystal was successfully recovered the players received the corresponding die. The dragon scourge crystals existed in some very epic environments with incredible guardians. They were as follows:

1.    Ice Plane: Guarded by Cryonax and his frost demons

2.    Shadow Plane: Guarded by the Shadow Beholder and his undead legion 
3.    Astral Plane: Guarded by a Githyanki pirate on his astral destroyer
4.    Temporal Plane: Guarded by spirit warriors across all time frames in a rusted fortress.
5.    Plane of Chaos: Guarded by the Tarrasque

Terrain was crafted for all five acts to represent the individual plane of existence visually. The Plane of Shadow was created with black and brooding gridded MDF and copious amounts of gothic buildings. The plane of ice was gorgeous MDF compilations with a huge sanctuary were Cryonax resided. The astral plane used custom spell jammers and huge asteroids crafted from foam. The temporal plane used a massive wall to represent the fortress entrance and dozens of MDF pieces. Finally the plane of chaos used floating and gridded planetoids crafted from Styrofoam and pieces of terrain on stands.

The final encounter with Tiamat used a nearly six foot exhibit crafted from gridded plexi glass. It was built in a stacked manner to present three dimensional flying. Tiamat’s heads were crafted by one of the DM’s from scratch and placed on the board. We ran the encounter with the idea that Tiamat was so large that her body was “off screen” if you will. The DM team controlled the heads which had individual stats and powers based on their colors. This way we could move the heads between boards based on where the players were flying during the combat.

To see so many epic characters from thirty years of Ultanya battling Tiamat in this fashion was something really special. Eventually they bested Tiamat but the damage created with the Empyrean Nihility changed the campaign world forever. Large pieces of other worlds mostly destroyed by the Nihility were deposited into Ultanya. The focus of the current campaigns are the exploration of these new worlds to the west. 

Here are a few highlight shots from the weekend:

Entering the sanctuary of Cyronax
Cyronax on his soul powered throne
A closeup of our custom Cryonax
The Shadow plane complete with the Machine of Lum the Mad!
Planetoid hopping in the Chaos Plane
Battle through elementals and dragons
Only to find the Tarrasque waiting for them!
The flying board and Tiamat heads (DM team in back)
A close-up of the custom Tiamat heads
A look at one of the heads during production

I hope this post inspires others to create their own private gaming weekend. In my experience all the work is worth it once everyone is gathered. I’m fortunate that our gaming circle is filled with so many creative and crafty people. That being said, we have gone more theme heavy in subsequent years then terrain oriented. Just gathering together for the weekend with old friends to game is special enough!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Kung Fury: Laser Raptor

Just a few days ago a Kung Fury went viral online and is loaded with awesome 1980s throwback. The half hour movie was crowd-funded for an amazing $630,000 on Kickstarter and is pure B movie genius. There must have been something in the water during the 70s and 80s that produced such great inspiration material. I really thing Kung Fury is a great homage to the nostalgia of the old school.


One of the things that cracked me up in the film was the laser raptor. It just seems perfect for a gonzo game session encounter where the characters just think it’s a normal dinosaur. The laser raptor could be the deranged result of some weird radioactive energy being absorbed by the creatures. Or maybe their eyes contain inter-dimensional apertures that release powerful energies from another dimension like Cyclops in X-Men. After goofing around about it on Twitter I decided to make a 5th edition version:

Large beast, unaligned
Armor Class 13 (natural armor)

Hit Points 51 (6d10 + 18)
Speed 75ft.
STR 19 (+4)
DEX 14 (+2)
CON 17 (+3)
INT 02 (- 4)
WIS 12 (+1)
CHA 05 (-3)
Languages -
Challenge 3 (700 XP)
Skills Perception +5
Senses passive Perception 15

Ambusher. The laser raptor has advantage on attack rolls against any creature it has surprised.
Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 15 (2d10 + 4) piercing damage.
Laser Eyes. +6 to hit, range 300ft., one target. Hit: 14 (3d8) radiant damage.

While it only has animal intelligence the laser raptor has an innate instinct to use its ranged attack. The laser raptor as the name suggests is incredibly fast and can easily distance itself from melee combatants. Occasionally laser raptors will work in small groups of 2-4 if they are hungry and want to take down a large target or tasty looking group of adventurers.

Player Notes: If you encounter a laser raptor it is best to stay still as they react to movement. Should combat ensue close the distance with the laser raptor or your character will become a french fried memory. Additionally you may have angered your Dungeon Master since your character is obviously now in some strange prime material plane. Groveling won’t help so roll initiative and hope that your lobby DM roll ends up getting you backup from Barbarianna!