Saturday, August 29, 2009

Owlbear Attack!

Why don't people use some of the more unusual monsters in D&D anymore? The most common creatures used in games today seem to be orcs or some other racial variation of Orc (goblin, kobold, hobgoblin, what have you), and a few of the more typical sort of monster - giant, dire animal, undead (skeleton, lich, zombie, vampire), or demon (devils and demons used interchangeably, and always the combat-oriented ones).

What happened to the rust monster, the carrion crawler, the otyugh, the grell, or the beholder? These creatures are often talked about among grognards or old school gamers like myself, but I haven't seen one of these creatures used in a campaign in years. Hell, I haven't fought a rust monster since I went through the solo adventure in the red box. I've never fought an otyugh (although I have used them in games against other players).

My favorite creatures in the Monster manuals are the oozes, fungus, and the gelatinous cube. But they don't see much play either.

Part of this is that the D&D genre has moved from the "weird fantasy" of the 20's and 30's pulp with the "epic fantasy" in the Tolkien style. Conan has been replaced with Drizzt Do'Urden, and the cunning and sinister sorcerors of Conan's world have been replaced with Elminster. The idea of what adventure fantasy means has changed, and so we see fewer strange monsters, and more "classic" villains.

The other part of it may be that the newer class of DMs just doesn't think about fantasy in the same way - its much tamer now than it was in the 70's. Ruins are filled with rocks and rubble and the occasional kobold, instead covered in strange molds, weird fungal monsters and deep, mine-like shafts descending into in the underworld. Tentacles, claws, and multi-headed abominations are less and less common, because people no longer see fantasy this way. They want their orc hoards, their dragons, and their bandit kings. And as far as their games go, I guess that's fine. They've bought the books, they can wear them as a hat for all I care. Your books, your games, your rules, your monsters. Game on.

But for me, the essence of adventure fantasy is the strangeness. I want tombs full of semi-intelligent spider hordes, forests teeming with Ettercaps, and ancient temples full of nagas and giant slugs. It just isn't fantasy without those things. I want creepy atmosphere, and monsters that make the party sit up and swear at me for throwing them at me. That is the measure of a good encounter - not that encounter is unfairly unbalanced, but that the players are afraid for their character's lives. And that comes from throwing them out of their rut, putting them on the defensive. Nothing does that better than a creature they can't quantify.

That feeling of sudden fearfulness doesn't come from scaling up a regular monster. A bigger dire bear is just a dire bear. But a carrion crawler with the Kaiju template is truly fearsome. It will make players sweat just to see the thing. And if you give it two heads and add the half-dragon template as well.... you get the idea.

Just to prove this to my players, I'm going to throw an owlbear encounter at them. Ross has been mocking them for awhile, and as a new player, he's never faced them before. A few of them should change his mind. You'll see how it goes when I next post.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

One Night In The Caves

This part of the adventure took place as a one-shot all-nighter. Ross was not present, so Meatwad was left behind to guard the animals, and some of the NPCs were sent in, so that they could gain some experience. The game went from 8PM until 3AM, when I had to take Cassandra to work. It was good to have the session, but I'm getting too old for these sorts of things.

The party woke up the following morning to find that Hren and Charles had returned some time in the night with a deer, which Hren had bagged and Charles had skinned and crudely butchered. Hren was pleased with herself, as this was the first thing she had ever killed. Hinda and Meghan cooked the beasts, and after breakfast, the adventurers discussed what to do about the caves, and whether or not to return to town.

Alaric, for his part, was eager to return to Long Lake to resupply and possibly purchase excavation equipment and hire more hands. He firmly believed that the flooded areas of the caverns were where the richest veins were, and that diverting the water would allow the party to mine the area quickly. None of the guards cared very much what was decided, since they were getting paid to guard a wagon and mules, and the pay was the same no matter what the wagon and the mules were doing.

Hinda was ready to return to town, wanting to begin setting up a relationship with the clerics of Borderville. She felt that the risks involved in exploring the caves had become great enough that the party might need more divine assistance. Meghan was eager to reenter the caves and kill the creatures that lay within, wishing to prove her might as a warrior, and to view the abilities of the men for breeding purposes.

In the end, the decision came down to Wahleed. The Shi'ar was interested in further exploration of the flooded caverns, with an eye on draining them into the tomb they has explored the previous day. For that to happen, they would need some understanding of how much water needed to be diverted, and if there was anything else in the caves that needed their attention before it could be done safely.

For this expedition, the party reorganized itself, with an eye toward defensive ranged battle. The Shaft Wights they had been fighting in that area were dangerous in melee, far more so than the party could withstand on equal terms. The expedition left Meatwad behind to supervise the guard detachment (since the shooting of Alaric proved some supervision was probably necessary). In his place, the party took Hren and Marko, the ranger armed with a longbow, and the guard with his heavy crossbow. The added ranged power would, Wahleed hoped, provide them with much-needed support against any shaft wights.

Upon returning to the caves, the party found the flooded cavern deserted, save for the corpses from the previous fight. Not wanting to risk bumbling into creatures, Wahleed sent Jambi, his gen into the water to investigate. The genie returned with reports of more wights, as well as two purple creatures that were unfamiliar to it. Wahleed decided to have a look at the creatures himself, and told the rest of the party to prepare for a fight here, as he would try to lead whatever creatures he encountered back to this place. With his trusty gen at his side, Wahleed dove into the dark water and, using a coin with a light spell on it, explored one of the three openings under the waterline that led from the flooded chamber.

The opening he chose brought him to a partially-flooded cavern covered in luminescent fungus. There were signs of mining in the cavern, as well as evidence of a copper vein that had been partially exploited. Using Jambi as a distraction to lure the creatures back into the flooded area (and so back to the party), Wahleed made a break for the cavern entrance.

He arrived just before the Shaft Wights did.

The battle was pitched and furious. The only saving grace for the adventurers was that the five wights came in a staggered procession, allowing them to concentrate fire. Even so, it was a close call. Wahleed, despite his cunning use of defensive magics, narrowly escaped with his life. Meghan fared even less well, falling unconscious after suffering the combined attentions of two of the foul creatures. Marko and Hren did their duty, using ranged attacks and fading to the rear of every defensive line, allowing the better melee attackers to hold their positions. The real heroes of the fight were Hinda and Meghan, who each took turns holding the defensive line together as the shaft wights savaged the party. Finally, the foul creatures lay dead (again) and the adventurers took stock of their health, deciding to return to the camp.