Friday, February 17, 2012

Gamer ADD: Fiend Folio Part 3

Putting the Scare back into the Undead

One of the recurring challenges in D&D is that the Turning ability of clerics tends to take a lot of drama out of encounters with the undead. As a result, they normally do not garner the kind of fear and loathing that the undead ought to. If a cleric (or clerics) get into mid-level and higher, then one has to be creative in order to make undead encounters even interesting.

One of the reasons that I have always liked the FF is that the undead found therein have some bite. Given a little bit of fiddling, undead in a Basic Edition that uses the FF for its monsters could prove to be very frightening indeed.

Let’s begin with a list of all the undead in the FF:
  • Apparition
  • Coffer Corpse°
  • Crypt Thing*†
  • Eye of Fear and Flame*
  • Huecuva°
  • Penanggelan≠
  • Poltergeist†≠
  • Revenant†≠
  • Sheet Ghoul§
  • Sheet Phantom§
  • Skeletal Warrior
  • Sons of Kyuss
Some notes about this list:
    * = though the description seems to indicate undead, these are not specifically described as undead. 
    † = these creatures are not really meant to be wandering monsters — crypt things and poltergeists are tied to a specific encounter area; revenants are tied to a specific encounter type. 
    § = sheet phantoms and sheet ghouls do not strike me as undead creatures, despite the fact that they are described as such. Their powers and abilities are much more akin to slimes and oozes. Indeed, the sheet phantom is said to be related to the lurker above and the sheet ghoul functions much more like the non-undead yellow musk zombie than a ghoul. Therefore, I am going to treat them this way because it makes for better undead. 
    ≠ = these creatures either are completely immune to Turning or there are circumstances when Turning will not work on them. 
    ° = these might appear on Wandering Monster Tables in a Basic edition.
If we get rid of the sheet ghoul and phantom, the lowest HD undead are the coffer corpse, the heucuva and the poltergeist. Since the latter is normally associated with a single spot and cannot be Turned if it is in that spot, poltergeists don’t really function as undead creatures and can easily be recast as dark fey or some other kind of magical activity.

This leaves the low power undead spectrum to the Coffer Corpse and the Heucuva. Check out their nastiness:
  • The Coffer Corpse can only be hit by magic weapons.
  • The Coffer Corpse is treated as a wraith on the Turn tables.
  • The Coffer Corpse can cause fear.
  • The Huecuva can only be hit by silver or magic weapons.
  • The Huecuva is treated as a wight on the Turn tables.
  • The Huecuva can polymorph self 3x per day.
  • The Huecuva can give its victims a nasty disease.
Again, given the fiddling with the undead list from the FF, these are the weakest undead in the game.

There are a few interesting consequences to this:
  1. Despite a complete absence of lycanthropes, silvered weapons would still be on the equipment list because they might do damage to the undead.
  2. First level clerics are incapable of Turning the undead. At second level, they can Turn a Huecuva on an 11.
  3. The undead do not drain levels, but they still have some diseased ways of making you either dead or one of their own.
The long and short: if you see the undead run for your lives! Adventurers will not be capable of having a shot at survival against the undead until at least third level and even then only if the Referee is nice and gives out a few magic weapons.

It must be noted that this renders clerics, as written in B/X, very weak at low levels. They will have no ability to Turn undead and no spells at first level, reducing the incentive to play one. I realize that this will suit many folks in the OSR and will also better justify the low XP requirements for the class. Personally, I would be tempted to use the LL version of the cleric, which at least gets a spell at first level; however, given the mechanical distance this undead list implies for clerics from those of other editions, I would be inclined to chuck it all and use Talysman’s non-spellcasting version where clerics do everything using the Turning mechanic.

In other words, the undead are properly scary and the cleric becomes its own unique miracle-working class rather than something somewhere in-between a fighter and a magic-user.


Necropraxis said...

One of the things that using a new baseline (like the FF rather than the standard bestiary) necessitates is thinking about how to communicate the new knowledge to players/PCs. Following the example of this post, how should your PCs learn about the nature of the undead? It may have some bearing, for example, on what class a player chooses.

I can see a number of possible approaches.

- Don't communicate anything and let the players learn through experience and failure. This is a nice hardcore method that I think I would enjoy, but might demoralize some players.
- Tell the players that the campaign is based on the FF and that they should read up.
- Tell the players that the campaign is non-standard and that they should not make assumptions. This denies them info that might be useful during character creation though, as they might want to buy, for example, silver weapons and other "bug spray" type items.
- Other options?

I'm curious how you would approach this.

I'm not a big fan of infodumps, so my inclination would be towards the first option, but as mentioned that carries some risk.

Really, I think this is one of the core questions regarding sandbox play, as players need to have information to be able to make meaningful choices.

FrDave said...

Since I tend to run worlds that do change the base line in some way or another, I have done some thinking on this myself.

I tend to be upfront and tell my players that it is a non-standard world so that they shouldn't make assumptions and leave it at that; however, if the players know enough to ask NPCs questions, I am more than happy to be forthcoming with information (how much depends on the NPC and maybe a roll on my part).

This strategy works really well, because info-dumps normally end up being meaningless, but information that is gathered by player interest not only sticks, but begins to take on a life of its own.

Anthony said...

This is my favorite entry, so far. Not only because I love undead, but using the FF eliminates level-drain? Excellent. I've always not liked that mechanic.

Regarding how to acquaint the players with the changed world, I'm in the "partial info-dump school." The old D&D gazetteers had great handout sections describing what a person growing up in the particular setting would know. (An idea borrowed from Chaosium's Runequest.) I'd be inclined to do something similar and encourage interaction with NPCs to learn more.

Theodric the Obscure said...

FrDave, I'm enjoying this series. Little issue: it's spelled "Huecuva," right?

FrDave said...

*redface* (and fixed)