Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Undying Sorcerer

This is my contribution to Zak's Secret Arneson Gift Exchange. If you want to see what it's all about, click on the link, but essentially it's celebrating the lives of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons by creating something new for the game.

Aeons ago, when the continents had different shapes and long before mankind climbed down from the trees, the land was ruled by a proud and mighty reptilian empire, of which the lizardfolk of today are but the atavistic descendants. Their religion taught of a glorious afterlife, in which the dead would live again, and in the case of the nobility, complete with all their possessions, including their slaves.

This was a lie. The dead found a vast, featureless grey wasteland, where everyone was on an equal footing, and the riches gathered in their material lives would have been of no use, even if they had transferred over as expected.

One priest-lord decided to escape, and turning all its mystical learning to the problem, found a way back to the material plane, only to discover that millennia had passed, its beloved serpent empire had long passed into ruin, and its body had become a dry, withered mummy. Further long stretches of time passed, the priest-lord trapped in its old body, itself trapped in its tomb, surrounded by useless treasures.

But then the humans, inquisitive as ever, broke into its tomb and began looting the priest-lord's belongings. One of them opened its sarcophagus and reached in to pilfer its burial jewellery, brushing against the mummy's arid flesh, and the ancient creature sensed an opening, a connection.

And jumped.
The Undying Sorcerer is the soul of an ancient magician occupying the physical form of some humanoid being. It has spent untold millennia trapped in a sterile afterlife and having returned to the material plane, wants nothing more than to enjoy life in the most hedonistic way possible. Having awoken in a tomb surrounded by wealth appropriate to a member of the nobility, it has found that it has lots of money to spend on the most exquisite depravities, and that modern human society is only too keen to participate; the Sorcerer is most often found not in some dusty tomb, but in high society, throwing decadent parties for the aristocracy.

Having seen, and performed, all kinds of horrors in its time, and having been trapped in a hell without sensation, life and colour, the Undying Sorcerer fears nothing but a return to that joyless afterlife, and will fight with ferocity to prevent such a fate.

(Game statistics are in Labyrinth Lord format, but should be easy enough to convert to other fantasy games of Arneson/Gygax descent.)

No. Enc.: 1
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 120 (40)
Armor Class: By armour (varies)
Hit Dice: 9
Attacks: By weapon (varies) or Spell
Damage: By weapon (varies)
Save: C9
Morale: 11
Hoard Class: XVII

The Undying Sorcerer is usually equipped with the best armour and weaponry money can buy, but will try to avoid direct combat. It will be accompanied by 2d4 humanoid or trained animal bodyguards, each of at least 2HD, and 2d12 concubines, around half of which will be humanoid. Once per day, the Sorcerer can also summon up to two animal-headed demons (treat as gargoyles) to fight on its behalf; these return to their home plane by the following sunrise or sunset, or if killed. The Undying Sorcerer avoids lizardfolk, as it is disgusted by their decline.

The Undying Sorcerer casts spells as a fifteenth-level cleric. If druid spells are available, then the Sorcerer also has access to these, at the same level of ability.

As a form of undead, the Undying Sorcerer is immune to Charm, Feeblemind, Hold, Polymorph, Sleep, and Death spells (such as Power Word: Kill or Ray of Death). These immunities are mystical in nature, and apply to both its original and host bodies. It can be turned; a success forces its soul back into the original, mummified body.

The Undying Sorcerer's most potent ability is that of transferring its soul to a new body. It can transfer at will, and over any distance, to its original body, or to a nearby mindless vessel, such as a golem, but otherwise must touch or be touched by its target, then the target must make a save versus spells in order to resist the transfer. A living victim's soul may be simply overpowered, or it may be forced out of the body to another location, at the GM's discretion. The Undying Sorcerer has access to all innate abilities of its host body, but not spells or other learned abilities.

If the host body is killed or destroyed, the Undying Sorcerer will attempt to transfer to its killer, or a nearby vessel, but if not will return to its original body. Should this original body be destroyed, then the creature is flung back to the afterlife, even if occupying a different body at the time. The mummy is guarded at all times to prevent such a fate, and the Sorcerer keeps prisoners at close hand for a quick transfer if forced back.

My brief for this was "A monster midway between a vampire and a lich in power. It should have spellcasting powers and other abilities that would place it at the peak of Expert-level challenge (14th level). An Egyptian theme is a plus."

I'm not that familiar with the mechanics of D&D, so I decided instead to focus on the fluff side of things and make the monster interesting and different enough that the rules didn't matter. I had a look at a lich and a vampire and went for something that was roughly between the two. Then I got to working on the fluff, which was much more fun. The Egyptian theme was easy enough to incorporate, but since it's a fantasy game, I decided to go further back than a mere human civilisation, and a serpent empire seemed suitably pulpy. One thing I noted about the higher-level undead was that they were all bog-standard evil masterminds, and I wanted to do something different there too, so I had a think about what else might motivate the Undying Sorcerer. I liked the idea of a being who had come back from the dead out of a genuine love of life, but to maintain enough of an edge to make it possible for the being to an antagonist, I settled on the idea of the ultimate hedonist, someone who wanted to live life to the fullest, because it had already seen, and rejected, what death had to offer.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Living in a Box

Back in my youthful gaming days, I remember a collaborative game of Dungeoneer in which we'd take turns to GM the thing as the rest of the group wandered about a world map. Dungeoneer is a very broken game, but we had fun with the aimless format, perhaps because everything else we were playing at the time was quite plot-focused.

With the rise in interest in such sandbox gaming sweeping the gaming blogs over the past couple of years (which has even led to both Paizo and Wizards of the Coast releasing sandbox scenarios), I've been itching to have a go at such a freeform game again. I made an attempt to run something of the sort in Call of Cthulhu, but the players resisted it, with good reason I think, and so it didn't work out. Later, I had another go with Rogue Trader, and this was much more successful, as the game is much more suited to exploration and poking around at the corners of the map to see what's there.

That campaign's taking a break (oh, and such plans I have!), but I obviously did something right, as we moved straight into another sandbox game, this time using Paizo's Pathfinder rules. I think the plan may have been to use D&D4 at first, but we've had a good go with that ruleset, and I'm not sure it's to our tastes as a group; this suits me, as I was out of gaming for the entirety of D&D3's lifespan, so Pathfinder gives me a chance to see what the game is like.

I was a bit concerned, as I've seen and heard many horror stories about the pernicious crunchiness of D&D3, but we're about four sessions in, and it seems no more fiddly than D&D2 was, and is much less of a hassle to play than the overly tactical (to my mind) D&D4. It does strike me that something like Swords and Wizardry would be a more appropriate to a hex crawl game, but we've invested too much money and effort to switch now!

We're playing through the Kingmaker series of books (how Paizo's Adventure Path format translates to a freeform game, I don't know, so I'm keen to have a look at the books once we're done), and so far it's been great fun; we've got a proper old-school hex map, and we're wandering around the wilderness, investigating points of interest, fighting wandering monsters, and all that great retro goodness.

Friday, 2 July 2010

The Ministry of Blades : The Pyramids of Hertfordshire, episode 6

Antonia and Marsh play with really big guns; Constantina takes a tumble.


17th June 2010.

Dramatis Personae

Lady Antonia deVore - a Heavily-armed Aristocrat.
Miss Constantina Spit - a Rebellious Debutante.
Captain Benson Curruthers - a Military Policeman.
Jack Prentiss - a Dodgy Pedestrian.
Miss April Sharpe - a Self-taught Inventor.
Rodney Marsh - a Partially-reformed Thief.
Mr Erasmus Rooke - the Boss.
Mr Chester - a Foreign Gentleman of the Scientific Persuasion.
Jackson - an old Associate of Curruthers.
Two Anonymous Scientists.
A Sceptical Commandant.
A number of Heavily-armed ‘Gamekeepers’.
A large number of Shambling Corpses.


Prentiss sprinted for the powerhouse, bursting through the door, then ducking at the last moment to avoid losing his head to a shovel wielded by a panicking stoker. Marsh arrived behind the zombie fighting Curruthers, returned to human form and, nearly decapitating it, followed up by bowing ironically to his combat trainer. Lady Antonia decided to try and help the guards while Miss Sharpe powered up her weapon and aimed it at the top of the mast, soaking it in a stream of corrosive liquid. Miss Spit followed Prentiss into the powerhouse, arriving just in time to see him pull a thick cable out of the steam-powered dynamo, causing a massive shower of sparks which made up for the lights going out.

Prentiss staggered as the engineer whipped a huge spanner across his throat from behind and attempted to strangle him while the dynamo sped up, its whine rapidly rising in pitch. He managed to turn his attacker to take the full brunt of the blast as the building exploded in a shower of flames and shrapnel…

Miss Spit was still standing in the doorway and was thrown in a spectacular arc across the square, landing with catlike grace near the transmission mast. Prentiss was apparently buried in the rubble.

All around them, the zombies pressed their slow but relentless attack; small groups of soldiers desperately trying to hold the gaps between buildings against up to twice their number. As the remainder of the team tried to decide what to do, several of the soldiers went down screaming and Curruthers and Lady Antonia leapt to help shore up the defences, closely followed by Miss Sharpe and Miss Spit, each heading for a different group. Marsh, spotting the collapsed guard tower, reverted to rat form and scurried out of the battle zone.

Lady Antonia grabbed up one of the large rifles used by the soldiers, a magazine-fed elephant gun, and put her marksmanhip skills to good use, blowing several zombies to pieces in quick succession. Miss Sharpe made similar use of her ‘ectoray orgonator’ while Miss Spit, using her deflection spell to avoid damage, charged straight into battle swinging a makeshift club. Curruthers arrived just in time to see three men fall and found himself holding the defence together, using the bayonet on the end of his elephant rifle.

Prentiss pulled himself out of the ruins of the powerhouse and, grabbing the huge spanner as a club, looked around to take in the situation. Spotting Marsh in the ruins of the tower, he burst through the line of zombies to join him, where he found the little thief attempting to set up a Maxim machine gun. Between them, they got it braced and proceeded to spray the nearest group of zombies with bullets, stopping frequently to unjam the weapon.

Gradually, the tide of battle turned, although by the time the zombies were all destroyed, so were all but four of the soldiers.

As a result of running out of time, the following was not actually played through.

Once the battle was over, the survivors picked through the bodies, separating the wounded from the dead and the undead. With his remaining troops securing the perimeter, the Commandant gathered the team together in the mess to thank them for their help in fighting off the zombies. Overcoming his pride, he admitted that they had been right and that there was obviously a link between the experiments and the zombies. Turning to the scientist, Mr Chester, he informed him that the experiments were over until they had been thoroughly examined by other military scientists. Chester, his temper flaring, stalked out of the room, swearing to take his ideas to the Americas where they would “appreciate the genius!”

The team were escorted back to London by the Commandant himself, where reports were made to Mr Rooke, and matters between the Ministry and the Royal Esoteric Guards were taken ‘upstairs’. The team were congratulated on their handling of the affair and Curruthers, Marsh and Lady Antonia were finally promoted to full Field Agent status.


The Royal Esoteric Guards are the military equivalent to the Ministry and form the sixth of the elite Guards regiments. As well as regular soldiers of the line, trained in combatting supernatural as well as mundane foes, their organisation includes a number of autonomous research and intelligence teams, enabling them to deal with most problems without help from other military units that might not be able to cope with the same kind of conditions. If Curruthers had remained in the Army, he may well have joined them. Obviously, they are still capable of making mistakes.

As mass battles go, this one actually went quite quickly, it just didn't seem like it.

Savage Worlds is definitely quite good at handling large numbers of battling characters; the “two hits and you're down” approach to Extras is much easier to track than hit points, just requiring markers for Shaken figures. The players quickly realised that ganging up on opponents is the key to success, both for the +1 multiple attackers bonus and for the guaranteed kill on a Shaken Extra. I was also able to hand groups of five soldiers to individual players to manage, taking some of the pressure off me.

The problem was basically with the number of players. We had an extra player this week, taking us to seven, which slowed things down enough to get in the way. The playing card initiative system can also cause delays, as players frequently forget to hand them back after their action or at the end of the round. Even handing the whole initiative system to a player didn't work as well as I'd have liked. Chatter amongst the players is always a distraction and the only way I can see around this would be to reduce the numbers - or start deliberately killing off characters!

One element that didn't get to play out was that Prentiss and Miss Sharpe's two-pronged attack on the electrical transmission system was successful: the zombies were about to collapse of their own accord when the battle ended for the evening. In retrospect, I probably should have upped the number of zombies to increase the apparent danger then had them collapse at a suitable dramatic moment, but I'm trying to avoid too much GM's fiat - even for effect.

We didn't quite finish in the main session, although the battle was virtually over, so the wrap-up was kind of assumed.

The game is now on hold until the autumn.