Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Colors, Energy types, Elements & Types of Magic

Delta has an interesting article about the elemental damage types in OD&D and their associated colors.

OD&D ostentatively only had four damage types accessible to players: fire, cold, lightning and physical (weapons). Poison was just save or die. Monsters had more: green dragons did chlorine gas damage insted of poison (essentially acid), black dragons acid damage. And even players also could deal "air" damage through summoned air elementals, or "earth" damage through summoned earth elementals. Later in Greyhawk players got acid damage with Melf's Acid Arrow. Magic Missile from Greyhawk originally was untyped.

I find it amusing that OD&D found space for a table of +/- 1 modifiers to hit and damage against dragons by damage type, which may tell us a bit more about what opposes what, but which seems an odd choice given the modifiers are so small. (Aside: I also find the subdual rules mystifying -- why would anyone ever not opt for subdual? You very likely end the fight quicker than if you have to kill the dragon by removing all of his hp, plus you get your own personal dragon in the deal, too. There seems to be no downside for subdual?)

Ancient or medieval wrong models of how the world is composed also tend to have four of five substances that everything was supposted to be a mix of. Aristotle had hot, cold, wet and dry that create the four elements we typically use, hot/dry = fire, hot/wet = air, cold/dry= earth and cold/wet=water. These conveniently also can be grouped into oppsing pairs and connected up with the elemental damage types:

Fire - Fire
Water - Cold
Earth - Acid
Air - Lightning

Chinese philosphy had five: Fire Water, Wood, Metal, Earth. Air is missing, and as this is not the western model D&D used, there is no easy damage mapping.

In later editions, all the different bludgeoning attacks no matter what caused them were just physical bludgeoning damage. Magic Missile was redefined to "force" damage. Nowadays there is a much larger list of standard damage types in the game. If you take resistances and immunities into account, anything can be a damage type. Some devils can only be hit by magic or cold iron? Now iron is a type.  A fey is immune to wooden weapons? Now wood is a type. Even without such shenanigans, the list of types now is quite long. For many of them, it would be difficult to assign an "element" type for the kinds of elements that have been thought of as building blocks in ancient systems.

  1. Physical (Slashing/Piercing/Bludgeoning)
  2. Silver (Slashing/Piercing/Bludgeoning)
  3. Magical (Slashing/Piercing/Bludgeoning)
  4. Poison - Wood
  5. Fire - Fire
  6. Lightning - Metal
  7. Cold - Water
  8. Acid - Earth
  9. Thunder - Air
  10. Psychic - Soul / Creature
  11. Necrotic - Undead
  12. Radiant - Holy
  13. Force - Magic
Humans can only think about five to seven things at the same time. Better five than seven. So any list that is longer is not accessible to a nice mental model any more. 

Magic Colorbook

Magic: the Gathering used a brilliant classification scheme, by arranging five classes in a circle, and giving each a "color" of Magic. By giving primacy to the color, each color could have a portfolio that went wider than just an elemental type:

Red - Fire, Earth, Chaos, Emotion - typical creatures goblins, giants, dragons
Green - Wood, Growth, Nature, Animals - typical creatures elves, wurms, hydra
White - Order, Healing, Altruism, Good - typcial creaturs humans, pegasi, angels
Blue - Air, Water, Thought, Time - tyical creatures merfolk, djinni, sphinxes
Black - Death, Undead, Egoism, Evil - typcial creatures zombies, vampires, demons

Garfield brilliantly packed all the standard elements into just two of the colors, so there was a lot of room for other colors to comprehensively capture classes of magic. By having just five in a circle, he had a structure where each color had to allied and two enemy colors.

I think this is a wonderful classification, more inspiring than the "Schools of Magic" in D&D (Abjuration, Evocation, Divination, Transmutation, Conjuration, Necromancy, Enchantment, Illusion), wich have no useful structure among themselves.

Energy Colorbook

For mapping energy types to colors, there can be no right system, as all of this is based on unscientific intuition and association. That said, here are some options:

Type        #1        #2        #3              #4        #5
Fire          red       red      red             red        red
Water       blue     green   dark blue  white    blue
Air           white   white   light blue  blue      yellow
Earth        black   black   green        black    green

Scheme #1 opposing fire/water get a chromatic color pair, the opposing air/earth the achromatic black and white. Blue is most intuitively associated with water, while "no color" white is most intuitively associated with "no color" air. Of course, both air and water are transparent. Also, these colors do not fully dragon colors. It is blue dragons that breathe air-borne lightning, not white ones, and white ones that breathe watery cold, not blue ones.  

Scheme #2 uses green for the deep watery ocean instead (scheme #2), but green dragons do not breathe cold either, so that does not fix that issue; you could replace air with blue now that blue is freed up from water to fix that, but that has the uglyness that we then have 3 chromatic colors and black.

Scheme #3 is from Gary, inspired by the lighter blue skye and darker blue ocean, and is all chromatic, no black or white, but I htink it is crap. Two shades of the same color? C'mon.

Scheme #4 uses the color of the dragon that breathes the element. This swaps where white and blue go from scheme #1. Think of white ice as a form of water to justify the color over blue, and blue sky for the color of air and lightning. I think this is the most "D&D" color scheme, and is what I would use.

Scheme #5, I'll call it the Google scheme, only has chromatic colors. I think if you stick to the elements for color, and forget about the dragon colors, this is the most natural one. Yellow is the color of lightning  in childrens paintings (although in reality it is white) and thus fits to air/lightning. 

The issue with the dragon scheme is that it leaves out the green dragon, 

Color Wheels

In color schemes out of the context of fantasy, the Natural Color System identifies Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, and Black, White as the six psychologically primary colors. So the four Google colors plus black and white. Which actually matches the OD&D dragon colors, if you take yellow for the golden dragon. 

In classical color circles, the primary colors triad is red, blue, yellow, with the secondary colors between them green, orange, violet, and another six tertiary colors between those six. These choices are arbitrary convention of course, you could pick any three equidistant spots on a color circe as your basis. 

What about other damage types? Logical color mapping quickly breaks down, as there are too many types. If you use the chromatic scheme #5, you get white for radiant, and black for necrotic, which is a nice contrast pair. Then -- as a bow to Tharizdun -- use viotet for force. Poison is also typcially associated with green, use yellow-green. Psychic is typically blueish, use blue-green. Orange for magical damage? Dark Grey for physical, Light Grey for Silver? Red Violet for Thunder? All a bit arbitrary.

Sunday, May 30, 2021


This is the province of Urd, a home province I wrote for D&D. It shows the idea of zooming in  -- you start with the map, and then flesh out detail as needed, as well as of growing out -- you add additonal  bigger picture context or neighboring cultures as needed. On the Darlene map of Greyhawk, it is located south of Celadon Forest, nestled between the Bright Desert and the Gnatmarsh.

[Players in my Greyhawk campaign: stop reading here, unless you want to spoil your fun of discovery.]

The province is a sleepy backwater that harbors a big secret. Eons ago, a wizard of epic power lived here and forged a ring that granted immortality through godhood. The gods were not pleased, and sent a terrible three-headed dragon to punish the land, which led to the desolation now known as the bright desert, nearby. (No lame scropion crown curse.)

With time, the wizard tired of immortality. He forged a lance tipped with the ring, and a valiant knight, Sir Karl von North, used it to kill the dragon. The ring's fragments were forged into three lesser rings to grant near-immortality to the wizard's sons. Three huge dragons crawled from the corpse of the dragon as a result, and now terrorize the bright desert, the Yortmil Mountains, and the jungles in the distant south. likewise near-immortal.  

Sir Karl rammed the lance with the remaining fragment into the rock and fastened his banner to it, and a fountain sprang forth that is said to grant health and long life. Around it the town of Northflag grew. Only a true heir of Sir Karl in free will can pull the lance out.

In the god-wizard's keep, the secrets to re-forging the ring from its fragments still await. Before he died, the wizard gave care of the keep to his apprentice, whose family safeguarded the secret entrance for many generations. A couple of years ago, one of the two sons of that family turned evil and slew his father by collapsing the family tower. The son, now an evil necromancer, wants to reforge the ring to attain goodhood. To this end, he plans to conquer the area with his undead hordes, secure the rings of parts, and manipulate a true heir of Sir Karl for the band. (In the campaign, the players beat back the undead invasion before he could get all the rings, delaying this for now.)

You can tell I like Wizard towers, but there is a reason why there are so many here. Three of them are the sons of the god-wizard, two are the two rivaling brothers, one is the ghost of the father. Leaving only one abandoned tower unaccounted for.

I like giving background information and maps to the players. This enables them to find interesting places to explore, in free choice.

Growing out of the province
  • Bert, the hill giant (wandering the hills to the West and South)
  • Map of the Great Magic Forest (Celadon Forest, to the North)
    • Hut of the Little Witch
    • Ruins (from The Seventh Arm, Dungeon #88)
    • Entry to Underdark Map (from Headless, Dungeon #89)
    • Druid Cave (from Hunt for a Hierophant, Dungeon #63)
    • Encounter with Sir Karll von Urnst, hunting (from Greyhawk adventures)
  • Map of Hills and Hillsport (to the South)
    • Monastery of Montenegro (from Unhallowed Ground, Dungeon #54)
    • Wild Boar Inn (werewolf detecive adventure)
    • Crypt in the Hills*
    • Necropolis (not detailed yet)
    • Palace of the Twisted King, Dungeon #116 on the road south
    • Villager's safety cave for Sahuagin raids
    • Pirate Beach and Pirates
  • Map of the Bright Desert (to the West)
    • Vassar Desert Elves
    • Sighting of Zaxxar, Curse of the Bright Desert (Ancient Blue Dragon)
    • Old Sepron & Telar Ruins (from Telar in Norbia, Dungeon #31)
    • Omt (Athkatla from Thirds of Purloined Vellum, Dungeon #88) 
    • Oasis of Khaldun & Valley of Mists (from Blood & Fire, Dungeon #63)
  • Map Gnatmarsh (to the East - nobody goes there due to the Necromancer)
Growing out of the region
This area served as home turf for several groups of adventurers, the first assembled from accross the province, the second from Northflag, the third from Walden, the fourth from Northflag again. The tax calculations were added, as some players came from one of the noble families (Sir Herman von North, the son of the missing lord among them). 

The town chathedral was an example of unneeded effort. As there was no adventuring in its crypts, there was no points to create the floor plans in the first place (but I was on vacation in Navarra, Spain at the time, with many wonderful examples of Cathedral architecture). The same was true for the druid grove. Goblin Town is still waiting to be played, as is the final assault on the tower of the Necromancer, and the keep of the god-wizard (to which you ascend through a number of pocket dimensions with altered rules, similar to the tomb in desert of desolation). As none of the groups even came close to getting to the keep, I never worked that out.

* There was a side story of an evil overlord who had been defeated long ago, with his generals entombed as major undead in seven crypts, waiting for his return, guarded over by an old order of druids. I placed one of the crpyts and the wintery dimension where the evil overlord was jailed away here. The only other crypt worked out was the one where that backstory came from, the beer adventure. I handed the players a treasure map in two pieces found in different places, that allowed them to put it together and locate the crypt. 

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Description Economy: Settlements

How to best describe settlements depends on your aim: is this just a short stopover for the characters to refuel, their home base or a place to adventure in? Like always, it also depends on if it is a settlement description you publish for the use by others, or scribbled notes for your own campaign and world. 

Published Villages

Keep on the Borderlands, the granddaddy of pulished home bases treats the entier keep like a dungeon level: each building has a key entry, like a room in the dungeon, with description, NPC stats, treasure, complete with full militrary forces and defense strategies. The Village of Hommlet, intended as a default starting village for new groups of adventurerers treats the entire village in the same way. Major builings like the inn, temple, guard tower  get separate, more detailed maps. The are also multiple examples of this style in Dungeon adventures, e.g. in Redcap's Rampage or Horror's Havest (both by Chris Perkins, both with a circular layout, in on the lower right, and a candlemaker ...). This made sense in a world where the characters might decide that just plundering the village would be an easier way to riches and experience, than braving the dungeon. But this apporach does not scale to larger settlements. Both of these, like Cult of the Reptile God, have an adventure going on under the verneer of the village, they are not separate places to recover. 

Published Towns

A common way to present towns with a larger number of builidings is as a uniform map with highlights. All houses are nondescript or generic, and a handful of buildings are described in more detail. This works well, especially if those are related to an adventure. An example is Chris Perkins' Scalabar in “Scourge of Scalabar” (Dungeon #74). A simple map, still showing each individual house, half a page of background and an encounter table highlighting situations to underscore the port-town vibe, plus a few highights related to the adventure or common ports of call with brief descriptions and NPC stats -- the harbor, fortress, warehouses, temple and three residences of NPCs. The embedding in the adventure made the city believable on just a few pages.

Published Cities

At the top end of the scale are major metropolises, such as the City of Greyhawk boxed set (which has very little to do with Gary's city), Gary's city of Yggsburg, or Ptolus, a city description several hundrdd pages long, and written like a tourist guide, with history, fatctions, dungeons, write-ups for every quarter -- a work of beauty.

The problem with using these at the table is that you'll never be able to remember all that, even if you invest the time to read it, and little of it will help your game. I found the City of Greyhawk boxed set near unplayable, and the play experience with Ptolus only worked because there is a string of starting adventures in one of the back chapters. It is the same Wall of Text problem adventures have, only worse. You need to have description economy also for cities, towns and villages. 

A better approach for published cities and towns is to provide them as backdrop information for an adventure or campaign. This is done with Waterdeep in Dragon Heist, which is an excellent mix between city write-up and city adventure, or with Port Nyanzaru in Tomb of Annihilation. They capture the atmosphere of the town or city, and provide detail on locations and NPCs encountered in the adventure, but they do not exhaustively detail the rest. 

An alternative approach is to zoom in on just one quarter in the metropolis for an adventure, as is done in Thirds of Purloined Vellum (Dungeon #88). The adventure provided a city stat block for the city as background, and, instead of describing the entire huge city, focused only on the district. There, every house was distinct, and for the ones where the action happens (break-ins etc) there are detail floor plans with key. 

Building your own city

You are not Monte Cook, Gary Gygax, or Chris Perkins, and likely do not have the time to replicate their achievements. And you do not need to. The key insight is that all the rich detail of their cities came from playing in them for years, placing adventures there, and adding to them as needed over time.

Gygax describes how to economically develop such cities, buy focusing on the services that the players need first. This is spot on. To then bring the city alive, pick some city adventures, and put them in there, so the players will get to know the place through adventuring. It becomes more than a rest and recuperation area between dungeon or wilderness sorties.

Gary reported that as much play happened in the city as in the dungeon, and players loved it, but unfortunately, no detail was given about the nature of the adventures there. From the stories about the striped mages tower, the player-run green dragon in or henchman agency (that spied for the player for valuable dungeon looting opportunities), it seems as much of the city intrigue and action was created by the various players and play groups, with the DM playing along, as by the DM himself.  

City Description

Don't waste a lot of time on describing the city in detail. You will need factions later on if you want adventures to develop there. Initially,  that is of no interest to the players. They just want to:

  1. Safely sleep, eat and drink
  2. Get healing
  3. Buy equipment or sell off loot
    1. Magic items
    2. Weapons and armor
    3. General equipment and provisions
    4. Change coins and jewels
  4. Obtain information (adventure leads, monster weaknesses, item identification)
  5. Maybe carouse, train, craft or do other downtime activities
So all you need is as the Alexandrian puts it is a map and gazetteer key for "useful shops, taverns, inns, and important public locations". You can encapsulate a settlement in a vignette like this:
  • Name 
  • Number of inhabitants (with races)  
  • A brief evocative description to give it a feel, alliances and relations (optional)
  • A gp-limit: a useful tool from 3rd edition, see below 
  • Law enforcement 
    • autority figure (sheriff, lord mayor, etc.)
    • guard (total number, patrols, stats)
    • optionally, powerful organizations of note (thieves, knights, wizards etc.)
  • Locales for services of interest and who provides them
    • inn or tavern
    • temples or shrines for healing (possibly ressurection)
    • wizard for magic related services (possibly items)
    • shops: armorer, weapon smith, equipment and provisions
    • money changer or jeweler
    • castle, gate, bridge, dungeon
If you want advneture in the city then you also may need
  • Map [this is optional, you can pick on from the web, e.g. Dyson Logos']
  • Factions (and their relationships to each other) with NPCs
  • Plots (what is going on - gang wars, trade embargoes, a murder series)
  • Sites (buildings to break into or rob, with defenses and floor plans)
  • Rumors (drawn from the above, or the surrounding countryside or dungeons)
gp limit: third edition introduced a quantification for the idea that the larger the town or city, the more expensive and rare goods and services you can sell or buy there. To quantify this, there was an overall gp limit - how much gp worth of loot could you sell, before the market was saturated, a price base - how costly was the most expensive equipment list you could buy, and a caster limit - how high level spells were available at best from spell casters. While 5e dropped this, I find it a great way to succinctly describe the economic freedom of a given settlement. Here is the table I use (and have in my DM screen - I actually think the gp numbers are too high at the lower end):

Settlement    Poplutation      Base gp    gp Limit    Caster Level
Thorp            <20                    50             500            1st
Hamlet           21-60                200           1,000         2nd
Village           60-200              500            2,500        3rd
Small town    201-2,000         1,000         5,000        4th
Large town    2,001-5,000      2,000         10,000      5th
Small city      5,001-10,000    4,000         25,000      6th
Large city      10,001-25,000  8,000         50,000      7th
Metropolis     >25,000            16,000       100,000    8th

In a thorp or hamlet, you'll have difficulty to buy even basic equipment: there is no merchant, all you can buy is what the peasants are willing to sell -- food like milk, cheese, maybe a dog or pony, or an axe. The peasants have little money to buy expensive weaponry and no use for it either. You might find a hedge wizard or lay priest there if you are lucky, but if you are looking for someone to break a curse, you'll need to get to at least a major village. In a small town you get nearly all normal equipment, short of not full plate (or, if they can be bought in your campaign, magical weapons). To purchase those or raise the dead, you have to go to a large town. Finally, in an metropolis, with the right connections it will be possible to get high level magic and esoteric items. (There are people that argue the population numbers are too low for anything but the dark ages). 

Factions. This is what will drive adventure in a city. A secret evil cult, warring underworld gangs, rival noble houses, guilds at odds with the feudal lord over taxes, and so on. Provide leader and enforcer NPCs for the important ones, and who works for them. It also is useful to describe which of them are allies or enemies. These tensions between factions can provide you with ideas for plots. 

An interesting idea (that I have not tried) is to provide a tree for these organizations - who are the many grunts at the bottom doing the dirty work, who are the ones in the inner circle, and who are the leaders? This way, players can work their way up in the organization in investigations. And conversly, the response by the organizations can escalate as they get closer to the top.

Plots. To make a town real, run adventures in it. This goes beyond just procedural generation. Adventures will inform you which sites or builidings you flesh out with floor plans: mansions to break into, thieves guilds to infiltrate, a cemetaries to negotiate the ghoul elder, the castle dungeon to break someone out of, the vanished mage's tower. 

In my mind the best way to do city adventures is to run two or three adventures in parallel. With that, it does feel as if many things are going on independently of each other in the city, as it should be. Not everything is centred around the PCs. You can make this feel even more like a living city by running multiple play groups in the same city, so they can hear news and see the effects of each other's exploits (Gygax did this in Greyhawk, and Monte Cook did in Ptolus). Use published ones, there are plenty to chose from. 

Rumor tables are highly useful, they help to create lively conversations, chatter and make the city feel more alive and multi-dimensional. The can share information about factions, plots, NPCs and provide adventure leads inside or out of the city. The classical table has rumors on the dungeon the players want to explore, too, or on the wilderness. 

In a town or city, your targets are connected, and your actions will have longer term repercussions of making friends or enemies, who may help you, ask for your help or send a few thugs to beat you up or assassins to take you out. 

Random encounter tables for cities are hard to do well. The key is that normal encounters in a city are not dangerous. What good is rolling die to see what burghers, nobles or city guard pass you by? Even in a city of thieves, you must be able to go to the market or along the high street to your inn, without it turning into an adventure. How would anyone live in such a place otherwise? Maybe there is a small chance to be targeted by a pickpocket. Run-ins with street gangs should be on the menu only if you go into the wrong neighborhood, at the wrong time. And if you pissed off the thieves guild and they send an assassin, it is not a random encounter. One way to do random encounters for flavor is to flesh them out as little stories, help a wench against drunk slavers, guide home a drunken sailor, etc.

No discussion of designing cities would be complete withouth mentioning the excellent A Magical Medieval Society: City Guide, which provides discussions about the population, professions, density and city design and introduces the idea of "wards", i.e. quarters that have a dominant purpose like residences for the affluent, slums, work districts, for settlements of city size. 

Some Examples


The thorp Urdingen,  with an attached Oger cave adventure, as a one-pager. The description is just the various farmers, and what they know or how they lost something to the ogre menace. In my campaign, the players put the ogre issue to rest with a sleep spell. 

The village Furton, located at a ford. This served as the village for Beyond the Glittering Vale (Dungeon #31), and I ran another adventure in it in the abandoned house of deceased mage Leuchros from that adventure, who had a chest in his attic that was a gate to the frozen prison plane of the lord of the seven crypts. It just lists population and names and stats for key services (the village smith, 2 inns, cleric (also mayor), militia and a minimalistc floor plan and key for the house of the wizard. 


The town of Northflag originally just consisted of the map, with about 17 keyed and named locations - the town square, innmain church with the most powerful priest in town for healing, town mage for magical services was the tutor of the party mage, the town guard, and a few named special sights like the founders statue and fountain supposed to bring good health, with his lance nobody could pull out), bridges and gates. Later, as needed, sageweaponsmith, armorer alchemist, and moneychanger were made up on the fly and marked on the map. Trading houses and merchants were detailed, as a starting point for caravan escorts and similar adventures. Finally the small underworld modeled on the charming crooks in Casablanca was added for characters interested in purchasing or selling stolen magic. The town was too small for city intrigue, an so mostly served as a home and base for adventures in the region or larger world. Even though the church was provided with a full floor plan, this was never used in play.

The region's lord's castle was off in the countryside, the reigning lord having vanished (abducted by the campaign villan, an evil necromancer), and his idealistic son and the gentry's knights looking to keep things in order, but rarely in town. 

Westburn: a dour, small town, keeping out the wolves and undead at night. 1,000 inhabitants (human), 1000 gp/4th Level Spell Limit. Mayor Retch von Westburn (use Spy). Guard Captain Harkonn Ironscar (use Veteran). 50 town guard (use guard, patrols of four plus one seargeant (use thug with ring mail, shield for AC17, alarm horn). Stone town wall, two gates with one standing patrol each. Market place with town hall, armorer, weapon smith, gold smith (all dwarves), alchemist (Eterius Goldenhammer gnome wizard 4, also crafts scrolls), Temple of the Three Mothers with father Malachon (use priest, demands blood sacrifice d6 hp together with gold. Sells healing potions, potions of resistance, and one special talisman for 666 gp: an Amulet of Proof Against Detection and Location in the form of a mummified ear; his cult can secretly hear what is spoken nearby and knows where), Bloody Ox Inn (modest or comfortable; music, alkohol, gambling and boxing contests; keeper Hunkan. Boxing champion is Rett, the Bald Bar-6, Str 15 Dex 14 Con 18, Tavern Brawler). Brothel Jenny’s (poor or squalid; Jenny ist ein tiefling rogue). Town mage is The Widow, in hut at the city wall (Green Hag Wizard-7, appears as lovely young woman), wearing a green veil. Her servant is a troll. This has no map as it was a town the party just passed through on thier travels. 


Omt, at the border of the bright desert. This is where I located "Thirds of Purloined Vellumn", above, and you can see how the city stat block was incoroprated, together with some background about the ruler, the (harsh) laws, the dominant religion and some flowery descriptions of the bazaar, smells sounds an sights stolen from a short story from Oscar Wilde. 

Monmurg was the major metropolis in my world and campaign next to Greyhawk. It had a detailed map, a player map to incite investigations, history intertwined with the main campaign arc, noble houses and factions, and individual sites like one of the towers of wizardry (the black tower). I then began using Ptolus, and ended up with a hypbrid of this map and Ptolus history, world background, NPCs, adventures, and sites. In retrospect, it would have been simpler to just use Ptolus, map and all. 

I find it hard to run large cities, with the many, many factions and machinations going on in the background.

Description Economy: Rumor Lists

Some adventures come with a rumor list. The is a list of rumors about the adventure or dungeon that the players may know a few of at the start or can pick up if they are streetwise. OD&D even had a rule that you could learn a rumor by buying a rounds in the local tavern (10-60 gp) or slipping the barkeep a few coind (1-10 gp). Some are true, some are false, and in some cases some partially true. Both the classical introduction modules B1 In search of the Unknown, and B2 Keep on the Borderlands had a rumor list. These lists are typically 10 or 20 entries long.

What good does such a list do? First, they of course provide some information to the players, which may help them survive traps or find hidden treasure, so even if the rumors are not reliable, they may be of value. Secondly, and more importantly, they make it easier to have the world come alive. 

I never cared much of these lists, we would roll for rumors the group knew at the start, hand them out, and then move on. In some cases the players took action to learn more, for example after learning that the Dungeon of the Unknown was built by Dwarves, they asked around who in the area was doing such work and eventually were able to track down some dwarves that had known some of the builders and could share additional information.

As Justin Alexander observed, it is a mistake to just think of these lists as rumor lists: you can use them to bring life to conversations in a pub, to be overheard when listening to gossiping housewives, to feed as adventure hooks to the players by being peddled from information brokers, to poplulate newssheets (in places that have them), and so on. 

As both he observes for his hexcrawl, and Delta in his discussion of rumors, it actually may not be necessary to prep such a list: you can just roll some die to see if the rumor is about the world map, region map, town map or a dungeon or keep, and then, if these places have key numbers like hex numbering levels and room numbers, roll about which of them something may be learned, and make up the detail rumor on the spot. You can roll if it is true (4 in 6), or false or half-true. If the roll is out of range of the keys, maybe it is a more general piece of information about factions or history. However, with multiple rolls, this may be to slow and tediuous for in game use, so if you want to prep, create a couple rumors in advance in this way to hand out. The point of the rumor is to create an urge for exploration and action. 

I think somewhat vague or mysterious descriptions, tales from travellers or old crazy fortune tellers, and half-truths are somewhat more interesting than flat out facts.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

History: Real Monster Evolution

After comparing OD&D EHD to 5e CR for preliminary conclusions, and after having estimated EHD for 5e, we now have equivalent hit dice as a measure of strength for many monsters in both editions and are finally able to directly compare how much more or less powerful each monster became. 

Mapping the monsters 

Not all the monsters map 1:1 by name. Where they do not, but there is a reasonabe equivalent, I use that.  I ignore monsters where there is no such replacement (e.g., the various ants and giant beetles). In a few cases, OD&D monsters span a range of hit die while there is only one form in 5e, like the animals, elementals and sea monsters, roc. In such cases, I compare the 5e form against the strongest version. For dragons, OD&D EHD are given for medium sized ones, which I compare to adult dragons. Lastly, especially for man-types, there are a lot more in OD&D than there are comparable NPCs in 5e. There are for example bandits, brigands, pirates, buccaneers, all of which would map to bandits in 5e. Instead of repeating, I just select one of them for comparison. In total, 138 of 182 entries in the table are mapped and compared.

The table shows the OD&D name in column "Monster" and the 5e monster Name mapped to (if different) in column "Mapped to".

Comparing monster strength

We list for each monster their EHD in OD&D (column "EHD") and in 5e (column "5EHD"), and compare how much EHD they won or lost (in column "Diff") in absolute terms. This shows directly how much the monster weakened or strengthened in 5e compared to OD&D. If it is 0, there is no change in strength. If the value is positive, you need a higher level group to defeat the monster than before. The table is sorted by this to show the winners and losers. 

We also rank the monsters for each edition by EHD, with the rank position (columns "R" below) indicating their relative power among all monsters in the given edition. We can see how much up or down in rank from most terrible to weakest monster they move between editions, as a result of both their own and all other monsters' changes in power (column "Shift" in the table).

The gold dragon, beholder, lich, titan, and black pudding lack EHD for OD&D. As they were among the most powerful, I put them at the top of the OD&D ranking, a bit overstating it for the pudding. The rust monster and ochre jelly also lack EHD, I put them at the bottom of the ranks.

MonsterMapped toEHD5EHDDiffOD&D R5e RShift
Golem, Iron9828-70614-8
Earth Elemental, LargeEarth Elemental3917-22727-20
Fire Elemental, LargeFire Elemental3212-201444-30
Water Elemental, LargeWater Elemental3217-151326-13
Golem, Stone3722-15918-9
Air Elemental, LargeAir Elemental2213-92136-15
Phase Spider102-84584-39
TreeAwakened Tree113-84263-21
Carrion Crawler92-75479-25
Giant Spider71-66193-32
Giant Scorpion93-65369-16
Giant Snake, PoisonousGiant Poisonous Snake51/2-579115-36
Sabre-Tooth TigerSaber-Toothed Tiger62-4688112
Giant Snake, ConstrictorGiant Constrictor Snake62-4677715
Giant Crab41/3-487121-34
Giant Wasp41-38598-13
Mind Flayer1512-33243-11
BearBrown Bear52-37683-7
Giant Octopus41-3849118
Giant Weasel31/3-399126-27
Golem, Flesh1715-22732-5
White ApeGirallon53-2736211
Horse, HeavyWarhorse31-2969923
Gray Ooze31-29710023
Large SpiderSpider21/9-211513525
Giant Lizard21/2-211111225
Hydra, 10 HeadsHydra1817-12529-4
Purple Worm2827-115150
Giant Toad32-193894
Displacer Beast76-157507
Lizard ManLizardfolk21-1105969
Gelatinous Cube54-1726111
Horse, DraftDraft Horse21-110610329
Giant Frog21-110710430
Giant Fire Beetle11/6-113313429
Giant Centipede11/5-11301300
Giant Rat11/3-11271252
NomadTribal Warrior11/3-112512333
Horse, LightRiding Horse11/2-112011627
Umber Hulk141403335-2
Tyrannosaurus Rex1818024231
Roc, LargeRoc2424019163
Dire Wolf2201048816
Owl BearOwlbear550705218
Giant HogGiant Boar2201038221
WarriorBandit Captain2201028022
Hell Hound440815823
Ogre MageOni1920122220
Giant FishGiant Shark1113241374
Invisible Stalker911249454
Giant Crocodile594694821
Giant, Hill8157563422
Giant, Cloud13218362016
Giant, Stone9178462818
Giant, Frost10188432419
Giant, Fire112211401921
Dragon Turtle3446121165
Giant, Storm183214231310
Sea Monster, LargeKraken3550151028
Dragon, BlueBlue Dragon, Adult22442220812
Dragon, RedRed Dragon, Adult27502316313
Dragon, GreenGreen Dragon, Adult174326261115
Dragon, BlackBlack Dragon, Adult15432830921
Dragon, WhiteWhite Dragon, Adult134330351025
Black Pudding?4?560-55
Ochre Jelly?2?13790-4
Dragon, GoldGold Dragon, Adult?51?110
Rust Monster?1/2?13810810

The big picture

With the exception of the iron golem, the strongest monsters in 5e are stronger than those in OD&D. They are intended to offer challenges all the way up to character level 20, while OD&D was intended for play up to lord level (around level ten).

Dragons, golems, sea monsters, lich and beholder are near the top in both editions. The elementals, basilisk, vampire, treant, black pudding and will-o-wisp from OD&D are displaced by demons, angels and giants

The winners

Dragons. The games eponymous monsters have become much stonger and rule the chart in terms of absolute power. The ancient ones are not even shown here, they would be approximately 80 EHD. Even the adult dragons win massively. 

The balrog is a large winner, and makes it into the top 10, outside of dragons, kraken, beholder and lich it is about the worst thing you can run into.  When it comes to outsiders, the efreeti and djinni (not shown due to technical issues) also win, despite lacking their fairy-tale wish-granting powers. 

The kraken as the biggest sea monster is even more terrible than the humongous sea monsters of old, followed a little down the list by the dragon turtle. I think these offer fair equivalents for "distract and flee" ship encounters. However,  I believe the idea was these sea monsters were animal intelligence dinosaur, giant octopus and whale types, and those fail to impress (see below). 

All the giants are stronger than they used to be, which makes the classic G-series adventures more of stealth and avoid ones, as a direct assault would be quite deadly. The troll may be a fluke as the simulator could not deal well with regeneration, it should be possible to deal with him at a lower party level using torches.

All the were-creatures appear stronger, I believe because they can be wounded only with silver or magical weapons, while nearly all other monsters only have damage resistance, not immunity. 

Honorable mentions, winners

The berserker used to be a slightly beefed up normal man, and appeared in introductory dungeon B1 as level one wandering monster. Now it is a threat with a lot of hit points and a tough fight for first level characters. 

The wraith switched places with the specter in the pecking order of undead. What surprised me was that he still gains in effective power. I felt all the undead that have level drain were horrifying back then and are weaker post level drain, but that is for another investigation to explore. 

The losers

The golems were brought in line, especially the terrible iron golem wo was at #1 with his insanely high outlier score. He still remains one of the powerful monsters. The stone golem also suffers a bit, the flesh golem less so.

The elementals lose about half their power and drop from near strongest creatures in the game to solid: no longer can you summon one of the games strongest monsters with a level five spell. The ability of the players to summon them was balanced by the fact that you could lose control of them, so it was a dangerous proposition. I'm not sure this was a great design, but the echos still persist uselessly to 5e's conjure elemental. The new elementals are more comparable to what used to be the smallest ones.

The will-o-wisp drops most dramatically from deadly to nuisance. It was on par with a red dragon back in the day, now it can be defeated by a first level party. Maybe because it does not seem a will-o-wisp should be such a terrible thing?

The basilisk suffered the same fate as the will-o-wisp. Here however it is a theme to soften petrification, once a single save-or-die roll. The cockatrice drops from terror to inconvenience. Maybe to have some petrification challenge at low levels, but even the basilisk can now be faced by low level groups, so it would have made more sense to keep him for the high end (the middle is still covered by gorgon and medusa). I think this was meant to make these monsters more accessible, but it does not play well with the terror invoked when one sees petrified adventurers.

The vampire is the most prominent individual monster to be nerfed. While he remains strong and at a high rank overall, he loses nearly a third of his former power. This may be because his warrior and spellcaster variants are stronger than the normal vampire. The spectre, once the second most powerful undead in the original monster list, is mostly harmless in 5e. I suspect this is because with the ghost, you already have a high level incorporal undead that is very similar, and this allows you to have "ghosts" at lower levels of play. 

The black pudding, once the terror of the dungeon, drops to a challenge for a beginner party. In his Greyhawk campaign memories, Gygax talks about how Robilar ran into a black pudding and lost his magical boots to it. I was puzzled, as Robilar must have been pretty high level by then (it was dungeon level six, he was fleeing from a pair of black dragons), while I knew the pudding only as a middling monster from 5e. A black pudding was one of the deadlier encounters you could have, even if we lack EHD for it. 

Honorable Mentions, losers

If we considered the plesiosaurus or kiIler whale  as "sea monsters", they would dive deeply. The treegiant crab, and giant weasel are on the table and do so too. Huge beasts in general tend to be weaker. I like the old version better, where huge animals remain a threat into higher levels.  

The ettin, once a chap for his giant brethren, now is the little man's giant solution.

Creatures with multi-attack routines or paralyzation have been dampened, among them the treantropermanticoreghoul and carrion crawler. The first two used to be super tough.

Several monsters with poison have been weakened, as it is no save-or-die effect any more. They include the phase spider, giant spider, giant scorpion, and giant poison snake. The phaase spider has an inflated CR, likely because its poison could one-shot a wizard and its movement cannot be blocked. Any of those formerly could spell death even for high level adventurers. Not any more.

The middle ground

The titan and lich remain among the most terrible foes in the game. The titan however has a grossly overinflated CR for what he does. The purple wormhydra, and ogre mage are also about where they used to be. This looks quite different for the ogre mage if you look at CR, but CRs can be wrong. The worm was once one of the strongest overall monsters, before the high end invation from lich, dragons, beholder, balrog and golems. He still hangs on near the top.

I was surprised to see the medusa, gorgon, hydra, and wyvern not losing or even gaining ranks or power. All of them used to be quite deadly due multiattacks, petrification and poison, and in 5e all these were weakened, plus they are no high-end threats any more. I thought originally this could be a CR labeling issue, but it seems they are really not losing power -- maybe their other stats have been beefed up to make up for the loss of special attack effect. 

The invisible stalker is staying comparable, too. While the stalker had only half the HD of an elemental in OD&D, its long term servitude made it a more powerful spell. 5e has the stalker as a CR 6 elemental, and the spell to summon it is also conjure elemental, cast on spell level six. The CR is misleading, in absolute terms elementals are still stronger than the stalker.

Colors, Energy types, Elements & Types of Magic

Delta has an interesting article about the elemental damage types in OD&D and their associated colors. OD&D ostentatively  only had...