Posts Tagged ‘D&D’

It Came From Toronto After Dark: The Pact

July 6, 2012

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been lurking at the Toronto After Dark film festival’s summer screenings (if you’re in the GTA there’s still a chance to catch the second night of screenings on July 11 – Detention and V/H/S).  Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration.  Most of the films the festival showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
Roleplaying games helped foster an unhealthy love of monsters, which hooked me at an early age to genre films, which in turn help to inform my tabletop games (in a weird kind of feedback loop).  This ongoing series of articles takes these influences and mashes them together to create a strange hybrid I call It Came from the DVR (although I seem to be in the theatre more often than in front of the television, but I’m not complaining – they have better snacks).

The Pact

After their estranged mother’s death, Annie’s sister convinces her to return to the family home and help put the estate in order.  A reluctant Annie arrives only to find her sister missing and a growing, frightening supernatural presence.  Emotionally raw, with plenty of reminders of her painful childhood, Annie attempts to uncover the mystery of her sister’s disappearance.

Solidly Delivers on the Creeps

The Pact isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind with originality (and the most clever parts of the script are the things I thought were the weakest – more on that below) but it does what it does extremely well and that’s deliver an extraordinarily creepy atmosphere.  It’s got all the trappings audiences have come to expect from supernatural suspense films: eerie figures moving off screen from the corner of the frame, apparitions suddenly appearing behind the protagonist, a medium who goes into paroxysms of terror when she enters the house, spirit photography and, of course, a Ouija board that moves on its own.  Nothing ground-breaking.  Then again, those tropes are repeated so often in the genre because they work, and writer/director Nicholas McCarthy knows how to use them effectively.  For example, McCarthy does an excellent job letting the audience know that a certain door in the house is very bad, just through the use of composition, music and the reaction of Annie.  It’s a great technique that is hard to pull off well (the 1963 version of The Haunting is another great example), but one that is excellent at ramping up the tension.  That build-up is essential in supernatural suspense because the actual jump-out-at-you scares are sparse; you’re kept glued to the screen by the threat that something bad could happen at any minute – and McCarthy uses this to make a dated suburban bungalow seem as creepy as on old gothic manor.
McCarthy’s best ally is actress Caity Lotz in the role of Annie.  Lotz’s ability to project the character’s emotional scars, without tons of script exposition, gives Annie an unexpected depth that I found engaging and sympathetic.  She was also fantastic at supercharging her character with the kind of expressive fear that really sucks the audience in – you can get away with just standing there and hysterically screaming in a slasher (they’re supposed to be a bit cartoony) but suspense thrives on authentic emotion.  Lotz’s reactions felt real, and I almost cheered when during her first encounter with the supernatural, she reacts by blindly lashing out at her attacker and getting the hell out of the house as fast as she possibly can.  I really hope she continues to work in the horror genre.
While I was hooked into the creep fest that was the first three-quarters of this film, I felt that the last act of The Pact fell short.  Much of the creepiness of the movie flows from not knowing, but the inevitable reveal of the film`s mystery robs The Pact of its scariest elements (which is the inherent trap of any mystery – not revealing anything would have been even worse).  During the film’s climax when I should have been biting my nails, I almost felt kind of safe, since the sense of dread McCarthy had built up so well was completely dissipated (see more under the spoiler tag).  The Pact is not alone in making this kind of mistake; I felt that to a lesser extent even Insidious suffered from this, so McCarthy’s work is at least in good company.
Despite of my complaints, The Pact has enough going for it that I recommend it to those that like the suspense horror genre and don’t need a big scary ending to enjoy a film.  If you’re spending the evening in on a dark and stormy night, I think it would make a great double bill with Stir of Echoes.

As I mentioned previously, the big revelation in The Pact is the film’s most original moment, and is cleverly executed, but is also its weakest point.  Once you realize that the supernatural force is merely trying to warn Annie, and that the real threat to those in the house is decidedly human, the film got a lot less scary.  I might be in the minority, but a mundane flesh and blood killer is much less frightening to me than a haunted house with freaky ghostly manifestations where anyone who spends the night disappears without a trace.
I do have to give kudos to McCarthy for not cheating the plot though; everything about the revelation made sense without invalidating the first three quarters of the film (even the sounds made sense, an excellent little detail I really appreciated).  When I see so much lazy writing on film and TV, especially where any kind of mystery is involved, it’s very refreshing to see something thought through from the beginning.  I just wish it hadn’t sucked all the scariness out of the film for me.

RPG Goodness

The Pact is a great resource for DMs who want to inject some supernatural suspense into their games since it’s a veritable dictionary of the tropes of the genre – and more importantly – shows how to execute them effectively.  As I mentioned in my review (with the example of the sinister door), one of the ways that McCarthy creates suspense is through the use of indirect information.  Incorporating this trick into the DMs toolbox is a little counterintuitive in a game with a long history of ‘read aloud’ boxed text, but is one that can help to create a really creepy atmosphere for the right kind of adventure.  Continuing with the example of the door, a similar situation at the game table might traditionally go something like this:

“The door at the end of the hall radiates palpable waves of fear and dread.  As you move closer the feeling intensifies and you have to clutch your weapons tightly to keep from trembling.  You press on even as every instinct screams that there is something very wrong here…”

There is nothing wrong with running an encounter this way (and it’s a pretty good in-game cue that there’s some kind of fear effect in play without being too gamey), especially if it isn’t pivotal to the adventure.  However, if the door is central to solving a mystery, and if the party are going to pass by the location several times, it helps to build suspense by slowly layering indirect information to the players instead of coming right out and telling them the door is bad.  Here are some examples of indirect information using the aforementioned sinister door:

  • If the characters make a point of keeping the door closed, have them find it open and vice versa.
  • Familiars and animal companions won’t overtly freak out, but always move in such a way that they avoid the door (a Perception check might reveal this to observant characters), and won’t cross its threshold unless forced.
  • Characters walking by the door might get a sudden chill and see their breath in the cold pocket of air.
  • A character who makes a moderate Knowledge (engineering) check realizes the door is in an odd location in relation to the rest of the structure and isn’t something most architects would build.
  • Characters who put their ear up against the door to listen hear someone on the other side whispering things about them, but the room beyond is empty.
  • Instead of their usual effect, divination spells regarding the door result in ominous automatic writing.
  • Characters searching the area who succeed at a hard Perception check notice a single torn and bloody fingernail lodged between the stones of the door’s sill.

Inheriting a Haunted House

The Pact (as well as the Poltergeist series), has another great lesson for DMs – the best hauntings are by multiple spirits with distinct personalities and goals (something especially important in D&D given the way that ghosts work mechanically).  This keeps the PCs on their toes, sows confusion if they assume they are dealing with a single spirit, and helps to up the creep factor by having an in-built narrative (with more than one ghost wandering around there’s got to be some kind of story there).
The easiest (and most classic) way to introduce this kind of adventure into the game is to have one of the PCs inherit property that turns out to be haunted.  Alternatively, the party could be asked by an NPC contact to protect an inherited estate from wandering brigands while they put their affairs in order (and as payment they are welcome to whatever knickknacks and baubles are lying around).
To be a true haunted house, it should be the lair of at least two or more ghosts.  Perhaps in life, one was murdered by the other out of jealousy and the murderer, now a ghost herself, prowls her hard won acquisition to keep intruders out and her crime a secret (and won’t rest as long as her reputation is publicly intact).  The murder victim tries to warn those who spend any time in the house but as a ghost, his communication is limited to the frightful moan ability (and won’t rest until his body is retrieved from its shallow grave in the cellar). If you’ve seen The Pact, then the last quarter of the movie holds a further complication that can be recreated in a haunted house adventure (one that I think would work a lot better in a D&D adventure than it does in the film).

Random Encounters: The Shackled City for Pathfinder (Chapter Two Drakthar’s Way)

June 27, 2012

Currently I am running a Pathfinder campaign for my gaming group, and since I never got the chance to use my copy of The Shackled City hardcover while we were playing 3.5 I figured it wouldn’t be too much work to convert to ‘3.75’.  In spite of Paizo’s claims of backwards compatibility, you can’t really use 3.5 D&D adventures off the shelf for Pathfinder.  Most of it works, but the monsters and NPCs in particular are too weak to be a real challenge to a party of Pathfinder characters.  Converting the stat blocks isn’t impossible, but it does take time, and since I’m doing the work anyway (I’m a bit of a stat block perfectionist) I thought I would share (click on the pictures at the end of the article to download PDFs of the updated stat blocks for all the monsters and NPCs as well as some additional handouts I created for the second chapter).  You can find a conversion of the first chapter of the adventure path, Life’s Bazaar, as well as Pathfinder-style versions of the Greyhawk gods here.
Obviously there are a ton of spoilers here, both for the campaign and the adventure.  So if you plan on playing in The Shackled City, peeking ahead is going to ruin a lot of the fun.  If you are one of my players, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t read any further.  You’ve been warned.

Drakthar’s Way

The following changes should be made to the adventure for it to play smoothly using the Pathfinder edition of D&D.   Click on the pictures at the end of the article to download a PDF of Pathfinder stat blocks for every NPC and monster in the adventure (when I DM I like to have the monster stat blocks in front of me, instead of having to flip to the back of the book or shuffle through Bestiaries), as well as a few additional handouts useful to the adventure (a remade copy of Terseon’s letter using my version of the Cauldron arms as a seal; the symbol of the Cagewrights burnt onto the storage crates; and a few examples of goblin graffiti – I tried to keep them primitive and crude).

Jil’s Tip
Jil’s total bonus to Disguise, including all modifiers and her disguise self spell, is +25.  She has a Challenge Rating of 5 instead of 6.

Rats in the Bathhouse
Orak’s challenge rating is reduced from a 4 to a 3.  I kept him the same level in spite of this, since even at CR 4, Orak isn’t much of a real threat to a well-equipped party (he hasn’t got any armor or a decent weapon).  The wererats, who are the real combatants in this encounter, are the proper challenge rating.

Wandering Monsters
I used Tricky Owlbear Publishing’s version of the ethereal filcher from the PFSRD, which is only a CR 2 instead of the called for CR 3.  Rather than beefing the creature up, I kept it as is, since an encounter with this creature is all about preventing it from stealing your magic items – not protracted combat.

6. Storage
The rules for determining CR for creatures with class levels are slightly different in Pathfinder than 3.5e, which means that 1st level goblin rogues only have a CR or ½ instead of 1.  To compensate, I gave them another level in rogue.  Alternatively you could keep them as level 1 rogues and increase their numbers.

13. Adept’s Lair
Like the goblin sneaks, in order to maintain a CR of 3, I increased the level of the goblin adepts.  Since this only results in more spells, not a new spell level, it shouldn’t be problematic.

17. Silent Wolf Goblins
Normally I try and maintain feat choice between the 3.5e and Pathfinder versions of NPCs.  In this case I broke that rule and substituted Mounted Combat for Dodge.   The adventure states that the silent wolf goblins get off their mounts to fight on the ground in combat, but I ignored this for a few reasons: it seems like a waste letting the goblin’s high ride checks go unused; the cramped layout of the map means that combat space is at a premium; and most importantly, the image of a dual-wielding goblin riding into battle on the back of a worg is just too awesome to pass up.  I also added an extra level of rogue to maintain the creature’s original CR.

26. Mercenary Quarters
To maintain Chorlyndyr’s CR of 4 I added another level of Sorcerer (since it doesn’t result in a new level of spells).  However, I kept Kallev at 4th level and lowered her CR to 3 – even with the pair bickering, this is a tough encounter and Kallev has a ton of hit points.

31. Drakthar’s Throne Room
Drakthar’s throne, a unique creature, seemed heavily based off of the 3.5e version of the skeleton, so rather than attempting to translate it, I used a Pathfinder version of the skeleton with enough hit dice to reach CR 3, and added a pair of claw attacks (with damage appropriate to the CR) as well as blindsight.
To create Drakthar I added the vampire template to a stock bugbear (even though technically it should only be added to a creature with at least 5 hit dice), substituted putrefy corpse for create spawn and lowering his energy drain to a single level (the standard two levels seems high for a party of 3rd level characters, and his fast healing is challenge enough all by itself).

35. Half-Orc Mercenaries
Like most of the monsters with class levels in this adventure, I added a level of expert to Xoden and a level of fighter to the Half-Orc mercenaries to maintain their CR.

A Note on Magic Items
In my previous post on the Shackled City, I never explained the strange codes in the lists of NPC gear.  It isn’t a typo.  One of the practices I picked up DMing 3e games that I’ve carried over into Pathfinder is coding all the magic items in the campaign.  There are so many magic items (especially one-shot items like potions and scrolls) that it’s easy to forget where they came from in the time between ‘looting the body’ and getting the item identified.  To help keep track of everything, I simply give the players the item’s code when they find it, and refer back to a master list when the item is identified.  For potions I also add a visual descriptor to help identify the concoction by sight.  Each particular type of potion has a standard description, which helps provide some internal consistency to the game world and speeds up the identification process (my players now know that when they find syrupy, red potions they can start using them immediately to heal).

The Best Dungeon Covers: 76-fin

June 8, 2012

This is the second (and final) installment of my celebration of Dungeon magazine’s 200th issue (click here for the best cover art of the first 75 issues).  The latter half of Dungeon’s print run was an interesting time for the magazine.  It saw the rise of 3e and the founding of Paizo.  Even more importantly though, it was in the pages of Dungeon that the ‘adventure path’ format was born – a series of adventures linked together by an overarching plot (taking characters from 1st level to 20th) – a campaign in serial form.  Dungeon’s adventure paths set a new standard in the industry and the format proved so successful that Paizo was able to base their entire business around publishing them when WOTC cancelled the print versions of Dragon and Dungeon …and spin that achievement into their own version of D&D at least as successful as 4e (I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the Pathfinder rpg owes its existence to the development of the adventure path).
If Dungeon is 200 why stop at issue 150?  As I mentioned in my retrospective on Dragon magazine covers, cover art lost its place of cultural primacy when the magazines underwent their digital rebirth (you can see a similar phenomenon with album art in the age of iTunes).  Digital covers don’t serve the same function (a combination of product packaging and advertisement), and as a result have little influence on the gaming world – the equivalent of a vestigial organ.  That might sound harsh, but it’s not an indictment of WOTC’s digital initiative (I think the accessibility, low cost, and portability of PDFs are great), just a lamentation for a lost art form.  Let’s take a look at some of Dungeon’s best examples and remember a time when cover art was king (click on images for full size).

I fell in love with the cover to issue 80, by Mark Zug, the moment I laid eyes on it.  The mash-up of D&D and the wild west is fantastic, irreverent and avoids descending into campiness.  The two visual themes blend together so well that neither the hats nor the crossbows seem out of place (the magical bolt standing in for a smoking shotgun).  But that’s not what draws the viewer’s eye immediately to the center of this piece – it’s the wicked smile of the character in the foreground (Tonja, the leader of a group of desert bandits in the adventure Fortune Favors the Dead).  Imbuing a figure with real personality, as Zug has done, is extraordinarily difficult (that’s why portraiture is so demanding).  That smile is so compelling I wonder how many people have overlooked that the bandit leader is supposed to be an NPC and used this cover as a character portrait.

Another femme fatale, Laveth the daughter of Lolth, courtesy of Stephen Daniele for the cover of Dungeon 84.  There’s a bit of cheesecake going on in this painting (especially that ‘America’s Next Top Model’ pose) but the artist’s ability to capture the essence of the drow so well elevates it above mere fan-service.  Daniele is definitely channeling H.R. Giger’s biomechanical work here (always a good thing in my opinion), and it fits perfectly.  Laveth’s armor looks like the chitinous shell of a spider, a great visual cue that not only ties the drow to the goddess of arachnids, but also reminds the viewer that everything about the dark elves is twisted, alien, and dangerous.  The pale statue in the background, with clusters of spiders that look like bloody tears, is a nice touch as well.

The cover for Dungeon 90 is, aside from his Dark Sun work, one of Brom’s best paintings (and there are a lot to choose from – Brom’s works have made it onto all but one of my lists of the best Dragon and Dungeon covers).   It features a priestess of Loviatar and her undead ally.  The devourer, rendered in pale ghostly tones is very much in (what I call) Brom’s ‘gothic mode’.  The evil spirit is truly frightening, and the pathetic soul of a vanquished paladin trapped within its ribcage makes this cover a strong argument for why the devourer, added to the game during 3e, is an instant classic.  What makes this painting one of my favorites among Brom’s work though, is the figure of the priestess.  I love her blood red monochromatic color scheme, and the artist’s choice to give her a more exotic, non-European look is something you don’t see often in the art of D&D and it’s a refreshing departure.

It would have been easy to fill this list with nothing but Wayne Reynolds’ paintings – he created a tremendous number of Dungeon covers during the 3e period most of them were exceptional.  While he still dominates this list, I opted instead for his best four (plus a bonus cover at the end).  Even if you aren’t a Reynolds fan, you have to be impressed with the sheer volume of the work he put out during these years (and he still produces an impressive output for Paizo).

Reynolds’ cover for issue 94 features one of my favorite monsters, the craziest mind flayer villain of all time, Absterthelid, a creature with a taste for the brains of his own kind (a great idea made insane by a stat block that combined mind flayer and monk to take advantage of the mechanics of the extract brain special ability – truly a monster).  Reynolds takes the classically cerebral image of the mind flayer and transforms it into a beast of physicality.  The cast-off, brainless husk of a traditional mind flayer completes the image, giving the viewer everything they need to know about both Absterthelid and Reynolds’ larger than life approach to illustration.
Dungeon celebrated its 100th issue with ‘incursion’, an event spread between Dungeon and Dragon that saw the githyanki invading the prime material plane.  It’s a very cool concept (one that I planned to incorporate into a long running Planescape campaign, but never got the chance to), and Wayne Reynolds’ painting of Vlaakith, the lich-queen of the githyanki is even cooler.  Though her physical form is withered and mummified, Reynolds leaves no question as to Vlaakith’s arcane might.  I especially like Reynolds’ disturbing take on the robe of eyes, a fitting accoutrement for a queen who sustains herself with the life force of her subjects.  Reynolds sometimes gets flak for the awkward positioning of his female subjects, but in this case it works.  Vlaakith’s pose reminds me of the contorted rigor mortis of Boris Karloff in The Mummy (and I’m happy Reynolds resisted the urge to make a ‘sexy undead’ – one of my pet peeves… female undead should be just as gross and gnarly as their male counterparts).

The cover for issue 105 is nostalgia heaven, plain and simple.  Warduke was one of my favorite action figures growing up (him and Force Commander from the Micronauts ) so seeing him posing like he’s on the cover of an Iron Maiden album all but guaranteed I’d pick up a copy of the magazine.  Reynolds not only does the venerable Warduke justice, he also gives him a few cycles of steroids – just in case your PC actually thought they could stand up to the ‘duke and survive.
Reynolds’ cover for Dungeon 124 is at a different scale than he typically works, and it’s so energetic and vibrant it makes me wish he would use it more (spoiler: he uses it for the final cover and its excellent).  This painting is a perfect snapshot of what I picture when the PCs are squaring off against huge foes.  There is a real cinematic quality to the action, and the spectral image of Kyuss rising in the background almost makes it look like a movie poster (just imagine – The Age of Worms saga featuring the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch as Kyuss!).

Marc Sasso invokes the blood soaked arena sands of a fantasy version of Rome for his cover of Dungeon 96.  Sasso captures the high drama of the moment by keeping the viewer’s gaze in constant motion from one detail to the next: the gently falling roses foreshadowing the future spray of blood, the death motif of the armor, the grim look on the gladiator’s scarred face, and the telling inscription on the blade, ‘hate and kill’.  Like Mark Zug’s bandit leader, this is the kind of painting that radiates personality and inspires player characters (and I’ve got the perfect miniature for it!), even if it wasn’t intended to.

I love the thick, colorful lines and painterly style of artist Chuck Lukacs, so I had to include his beholder in this list.  While issue 97 was the only cover he made for the magazine, his illustrations festooned both Dungeon and Dragon during the 3e period (and because his style is so distinct, are easy to recognize), and helped to define the look of the era.  I’ve never seen a beholder rendered quite like this before, and I really dig the almost globular treatment of the protruding eyestalks.
This issue was also a major milestone for the magazine: it contained Life’s Bazaar, the opening chapter of D&D’s first adventure path.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Other than the iconic monsters of the game, no other image can singularly sum up the dungeons of D&D as well as the green devil portal from the adventure Tomb of Horrors.  Artist Dave Studer gives Erol Otus’ classic illustration the sculptural treatment for the cover of issue 116 and it is simply amazing.  One of the things I really liked about the 3e hard covers (especially the Monster Manuals) was their sculptural design.  By drawing on that aesthetic, Studer visually reminds us that the entirety of the game’s editions are our playground and a source of inspiration.  I’m not sure how big the original is, but I can’t help but think it would make a kick-ass door knocker for my house.

Artist Dan Scott never fails to impress me with the consistency with which he captures the spirit of adventure that defines D&D.  This pair of Scott covers are perfect examples of that ability.  Both capture an adventure in progress, and invite the viewer to fill in the story themselves – one of the highest achievements of fantasy illustration.
The cover of Dungeon 122 shows an elven rogue ambushed by lizardmen outside of their crumbling and vine choked, jungle temple.  The great thing about this painting is how Scott tells the story through the use of his color palette.  Aside from the violence, Scott’s choice of colors for the elf clearly mark him as an explorer and intruder while the naturalistically colored lizardmen are obviously native to this exotic land.
Scott tells the story of Dragotha the dracolich on issue 135 through the use scale.  Again, the adventurer (a paladin this time) is clearly an intruder, only this time its David and Goliath retold.  The adventurer is dwarfed not only by his opponent, but also by the massively pillared hall.  Unless the paladin has some clever edge in this fight, the best he can hope for is a quick death.
As a side-note, while some might label the dracolich as one of D&D’s fringe monsters, I’ve always thought of it as part of the core brand.  It was on the cover of both Pillars of Pentegarn, an endless quest book that helped draw me into the game, and Spellfire, one of the first D&D novels I read.  It’s not surprising that I used a dracolich for my first real, recurring villain in the 2e game I ran in grade 8 and 9 (it lived in undermountain and its soul was eventually housed in a mechanical golem-like body).

The cover of Dungeon 146, by Tomas Giorello, is truly a beautiful painting and work of art.  It wears its neoclassical inspiration on its sleeve, which isn’t a source you often see fantasy illustrators drawing from, and I love that.  The sober colors, highly textural folds of fabric, and strong diagonal lines bring to mind David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps.  Giorello’s work is so nice to look at it’s easy to forget the kraken tearing through the wreckage of a ship in pursuit of the pirate captain.  It’s really a shame that Dungeon had stopped the practice of dedicating a page of the magazine over to an unadulterated version of the cover art, Giorello’s work deserves it.

Dungeon 150, the final print issue.  Wayne Reynolds’ cover, depicting the climax of the final adventure path of the magazine, seems appropriately cathartic for the occasion of the magazine’s cancellation.  For the epic fight against Demogorgon, prince of demons, Reynolds pulls together all of the ‘iconics’ that Paizo used during their stewardship of Dungeon as stand-in adventurers for covers and illustrations.  It sums up the body of work very well, and the iconics’ steadfastness in the face of the suicidal melee assures fans of the magazine that Dungeon will not go out with a whimper, but with a bang (fortunately we all know how well everything turned out for Paizo).

Classic Monsters: Coffer Corpse

May 25, 2012

Note: ‘Classic’ is a pretty subjective term, when I use it here I mean to say: monsters that have survived through the editions of D&D that I think are cool.  In this series of articles I look at the development of a classic monster over time and try to add a ‘crunchy’ piece of my own to the creature’s canon.

I’m posting this second installment of Classic Monsters as part of The Going Last Gaming Podcast’s May of the Dead blog carnival.  There has been a shameful shortage of undead on Ménage à Monster, and the blog carnival seemed like the perfect opportunity to rectify that (and a great excuse to write another article in this series – the eye of the deep was getting pretty lonely).
I first encountered the coffer corpse lurking in the pages of the Fiend Folio and was instantly drawn to the fantastic Russ Nicholson illustration (click on the images to view full size).  While the coffer corpse doesn’t get the same kind of fan recognition as the death knight (also introduced in Fiend Folio), I’ve always felt its low power level and unique mechanics gave it a certain charm.  Like the Monster Manual’s vampire and mummy, the coffer corpse was also one of the few undead creatures in the game whose background jived with the mythology of the restless dead in horror films.  While arguably a little obscure, the coffer corpse’s great mechanics, art and story combine to make the monster a classic.


Like many of the monsters in the Fiend Folio, the coffer corpse first saw print in the pages of White Dwarf as part of the ongoing Fiend Factory column (issue 8, 1978).  In its infancy White Dwarf was a general gaming magazine with a focus on D&D, which makes sense given that Games Workshop (the company that produces the magazine) was at that time the UK distributer of the D&D game.  Since the AD&D Monster Manual had only just been published in the UK, the creatures in the Fiend Factory column were created for the OD&D game.
The White Dwarf version of the coffer corpse sets out the parameters for all of the incarnations of the monster to follow.  Cursed to undeath by incomplete or botched funeral rites (or as the author puts it, when a corpse fails to return to its ‘maker’), these animate corpses are often found floating on waylaid grave barges.  The coffer corpse attacks by choking the life out of its victims, and can only be harmed by magic weapons (which inflict half damage).  If the creature is struck with a normal weapon, it falls to the ground, apparently destroyed, only to rise up a round later in a display so horrible NPCs must succeed at a save vs. fear or flee in terror (the editor, Don Turnbull, notes at the end of the entry that this is probably an error and that PCs should also have to save vs. fear as well).
The coffer corpse was created by Simon Eaton, a name I’m not familiar with, as the only other credit I can find attributed to him is the witherweed (also featured in the Fiend Folio).

1st Edition

The coffer corpse was given an AD&D makeover for its inclusion in the Fiend Folio (and D&D canon).  Its origins remained unchanged but a few of the monsters abilities were tweaked.  Magic weapons do full damage to this version of the coffer corpse, and it falls to the ground if it is hit for 6 or more points of mundane weapon damage (instead of the ambiguous “if struck on the head” of the previous version).  When the coffer corpse reanimates, all who are in melee must save vs. fear, not just NPCs.  Additionally, the strangulation attack of the coffer corpse is upgraded from a simple 1d6 attack to one that inflicts automatic constriction damage each round, which is especially deadly since “nothing will release the grasp of the coffer corpse once it has locked its hands in place.”

2nd Edition

The coffer corpse next appears in 2e’s Fiend Folio Appendix for the Monstrous Compendium.  While generally identical to its 1e incarnation, most of its abilities are expanded and explored in greater detail: this coffer corpse has resistance to some weapon types (magic slashing weapons inflict normal damage with no bonus, blunt weapons inflict full damage and piercing weapons inflict half damage), and it is possible to break free of its strangling grip (but with a strength of 20 it’s still very difficult).
The most important addition to the coffer corpse in 2e is an attempt to utilize the creature’s origins as a way for clever players to defeat it: “If the unfinished death ritual which binds the coffer corpse to undeath can be completed, the creature will be released and effectively destroyed.”  The mechanics of how players might go about discovering and acting on this information is left to the DM’s discretion (and this bit is buried in the habitat/society section of the write-up), which is too bad since I think this is where the coffer corpse’s true potential as a classic monster lies.

3rd Edition

The coffer corpse never saw an official release for 3e.  The Fiend Folio is generally regarded as a mixed bag and, in an effort to excise some of D&D’s sillier monsters from the game (the flumph is almost a clichéd example), many great monsters from this book, including the coffer corpse, were not updated for this edition of the game.  However, Necromancer Games included the coffer corpse in their Tome of Horrors book, which updated just about every monster from 1e that WOTC had left behind (an admirable effort – though I think the carbuncle should have been abandoned to the dustbin of history).  This version is more or less a direct translation of the coffer corpse from the Fiend Folio for 3e rules (damage reduction instead of immunity to normal weapons, and standard grab and constrict rules for the coffer corpse’s strangulation).  It is a solid adaptation but, by sticking so closely to its 1e incarnation, I think it was a missed opportunity to expand and clarify the ‘unfinished funeral rite’ that the 2e version touched on (also, why they maintained the 25% chance for the coffer corpse to wield a weapon from previous editions is a mystery to me – the fact that the monster strangles people to death is what makes it interesting).

4th Edition

Not having a memorable appearance in 3e, and with 4e’s proliferation of low level skeleton and zombie breeds, it is hardly surprising the coffer corpse is absent from this edition.  I do think that 4e’s skill challenge mechanic is particularly well suited to simulate the pitched struggle of a Cleric trying to complete funeral rites while the undead monster strangles her companion, which makes the coffer corpse the perfect candidate for entry into 4e’s canon.

Coffer Corpse

Barred entry into the afterlife by incomplete funeral rites, the coffer corpse is cursed to a restless eternity, its only desire to squeeze the hated spark of life from anything that crosses its path.

Religion DC 15: Although they superficially resemble zombies, coffer corpses aren’t animated through necromantic rituals, but are created as a result of a divine curse.  Their deathlike grip is exceptionally strong, making escape all but impossible once the coffer corpse has wrapped its bony fingers around your throat.
Religion DC 20: Cursed by an incomplete funeral ritual, a coffer corpse is difficult to destroy, often springing back to life only moments after being felled.  Only by completing the creature’s burial rites can the curse be lifted and the tortured soul granted peace.

Coffer corpses can be encountered floating aimlessly in a waylaid funeral barge, slumped over a half dug grave, or lying in a coffin awaiting the completion of an interment ritual that never comes to pass.  They are often part of a group of undead, created as part of the larger tragedy that interrupted the creature’s funeral.

Coffer Corpses in Combat
Every moment of existence is torture for a coffer corpse, so these undead monsters fight without regard for their own well-being.  Even as they strangle and destroy they often liplessly whisper for release in their victim’s ear.


For those looking for a classic interpretation of the coffer corpse, Necromancer Games has updated their 3e book Tome of Horrors Complete, and the coffer corpse, for the Pathfinder game (and since its part of the OGL you can get this version at the Pathfinder System Resource Document).  If you like the ideas in my 4e version of the monster though, I have used it as the blueprint for this Pathfinder translation of the coffer corpse that builds on the creature’s 2e presentation.  The flavour text and lore from the 4e monster are system neutral enough to be used as is.

The Best Dungeon Covers: 1-75

April 23, 2012

Last month marked the 200th issue of Dungeon magazine, which is quite a milestone (even if I do still mourn the loss of the Dungeons and Dragons print magazines), and as far as tabletop gaming magazines go, one that I think has only been achieved by White Dwarf and Dragon.
Just as I did to celebrate Dragon’s 35th anniversary last year, I thought I would go back through the archives and highlight the best examples of cover art Dungeon magazine has to offer (the best Dragon covers are here: 101-200, 201-300, 301-fin).  Like my previous retrospective, it was difficult narrowing down favorites (and I have no doubt that others will disagree with my choices) especially since Dungeon covers, by nature of the magazine’s adventure oriented content, tend to favor my favorite subject matter – monsters.
I’ll admit up front that Dungeon has never held the same fascination for me as Dragon.  While in print, I never had a subscription to Dungeon, since I wasn’t sure if future adventures would be suitable for my players, or ones I would be interested in running.  However, I made a point of checking each instalment out, and bought more than a few.  In retrospect, I can see that I used the latest issue of Dungeon as an excuse for a monthly visit to one of my neighborhood hobby stores, and seeing the covers of all these Dungeons now instantly takes me back to the Hobby Shack, Shooting Star Comics and Leisure World (come to think of it, there were a lot more comic and games stores back then).  So even though I was never as devoted to Dungeon as I was to Dragon, the cover images are now the wallpaper in the background of many fond memories and gaming ‘firsts’.
Click on the images to view in full size.

There’s no better place to start than at the beginning, and Dungeon started with a bang.  I used to have a poster of this Keith Parkinson painting up on the door to my closet, where it remained until I left home for graduate school.  I used to stare at that picture waiting to fall asleep, and it will always be the first image that comes to mind when I think of a dragon’s horde of treasure (I absolutely love the stolen galley in the background – now that is some serious loot!).  The focus of the work, the red dragon Flame, would become one of Dungeon’s most iconic villains, appearing in several adventures, including issue 200’s Flame’s Last Flicker.  Parkinson’s painting perfectly captures the majesty and menace of its subject, and I think this cover is at least as responsible for Flame’s notoriety as the adventure within (Into the Fire).
Flame next appeared on Carol Heyer’s cover for Dungeon 17.  Heyer uses Parkinson’s cover as a model and zooms in for a focused portrait.  I love how her work captures the covetous nature of dragonkind and the accusing stare she gives Flame tells the reader that it would be dangerous to come between the creature and its gems.  Lately I’ve found myself missing the ‘tufted’ look of old-school red dragons, and this cover scratches that itch nicely.

This era of Dungeon featured a prolific number of cover paintings from Jennell Jaquays (then known as Paul).  All of her work evokes a great sense of adventure, though piece each achieves this through a different emotional palette.
The cover of issue 14 is just so much fun it brings a smile to my face every time I look at it.  This is the kind of madcap, funny/deadly encounter scene that memorable adventures are made of.  The hamlet-esque wererat with the skull mask is awesome, but my favorite figure is the disgusted partygoer who has just realized the object of his amorous advances is a verminous monster.  Its paintings like this that fostered my love of urban adventure in D&D.
Her painting for Dungeon 24 abandons whimsy for a dark and moody atmosphere.  The backdrop, with its crumbling columns and sinister volcano, is almost apocalyptic in tone – a suitable home for one of D&D’s most feared monsters to lord over.  I have always liked this visual incarnation of the mind-flayer, with its gnarled, coral-like skin and skeksis style robes.  It was a very popular look during the 2e days, but was replaced by 3e’s smooth skinned, cenobite attired version (also cool, but this version is my favorite).  Besides having a great cover, this issue is important for another reason.  It contains the adventure (which the cover depicts), Thunder Under Needlespire by a very young James Jacobs, a man who would later become Paizo’s editor in chief.
Although Jim Holloway’s art became synonymous with the Spelljammer setting, I don’t think anything he produced can touch Jaquays’ cover for Dungeon 28.  The background nebula is not only beautiful it’s also a nice technical achievement and the best representation of the phlogiston that I have seen (if you’re not familiar with Spelljammer, that’s the flammable gas that makes up space in D&D).  The crumbling Nautiloid hulk in the foreground drifting towards the planet has a very eerie, Event Horizon vibe to it (even though this issue predates that film by six years).  The thing I like most about this painting though is that it sells Spelljammer as a legitimate setting for serious adventures – not just the boxed set with the giant space hamsters.

In addition to painting a cover that made the Dragon list, Bob Eggleton also created this piece for Dungeon issue 19.  The summoned death is as frightening as it should be and the background done in cool blues gives the picture a mystical ambiance.  The combination is perfect in capturing the spirit of one of my favorite magic items in the game, the deck of many things.  The icing on the cake is that Eggleton styled the card in the painting after the deck of many things set that came as a bonus in Dragon a few months prior.

Thomas Baxa, the artist responsible for the cover of Dungeon 29, is something of a lightning rod for criticism of the 2e era’s art.  Now, I’m not a fan of his work in general, but I don’t dislike it out of hand, and in spite of the haters, he has created some exceptional works in his career with Dungeons and Dragons (his undead illustrations are delightfully weird and gruesome).  This painting, of an abishai being summoned by a cursed book, is his best.  Baxa’s rejection of naturalistic colors in favor of bright (almost garish) reds and purples brings the painting into the realm of the surreal, and I can’t help but be reminded of Erol Otus.  I’m not sure I would feel the same about his technique with a different subject, but a blighted text ripping open a gateway to the netherworld?  This could easily be the cover of a Clark Ashton Smith collection.

The next covers I’ve chosen are linked not just by their nautical theme, but because they are fantastic examples of a painting’s ability to tell a story and engage the viewer to fill in the blanks.
Issue 34 by Peter Clarke uses a reverse angle of the protagonist for a wickedly sinister horror movie composition.  It’s not surprising then that the story this painting evokes plays out in my mind like a film: the adventurer tugs his rowboat ashore, unaware of the skeleton rising from the dunes behind him silently.  With sand slowly spilling from its empty eye sockets, the undead beast raises its rusted scimitar and…
Alan Pollack’s cover for Dungeon 40 is less of a film and more of a perfect snapshot of movement frozen in time.  Pollack uses the perspective so well, you can almost feel the pressure of the water around you as the koalinth hang suspended with their pilfered treasure (this is one of the only illustrations of these creatures I have seen).  I also like the opportunistic sharks circling in for an easy meal.  The need for dynamic composition in fantasy illustration is a point hammered home by art directors over and over – this is how it’s done.

Another cover by Peter Clarke, for issue 43.  Backlit by the fiery blast from an impossibly massive dragon, an adventurer and githyanki struggle for a fabled silver sword.  Freaking epic.  That is all.

Earlier, it may have sounded like I dissed Jim Holloway, but I really like his work in the right context (his style defined the Paranoia game, those Tales from the Floating Vagabond ads were awesome, and yes he had some great Spelljammer pieces as well).  Case in point: this cover for Dungeon 60, overflowing with character.  I have a tendency to take myself too seriously, and Holloway is the cure for that, reminding the viewer that the game is supposed to be fun.   The best part about the humor in this painting is that it doesn’t descend to the level of a ‘joke’ cover.  Instead, what I think Holloway captures here is how the game actually plays out at the table.  You’ve got a disparate and loosely organized band of adventurers searching for treasure(and I love the implied relationships there – the swordswoman shooting daggers at the halfling for hamming it up), completely oblivious to the kuo-toa war party sneaking up behind them (who obviously made their Stealth or Surprise checks – depending on which edition of the game you’re playing).  The bio-luminescence is a nice touch too.  I’m not the only one who thinks this issue is boss – Outsyder Gaming wrote a whole series of articles on it.

Jeff Easley only ever made a single cover for Dungeon magazine, issue 69, and I had to include it here.  I don’t think it’s his greatest work (his dragon covers are much more impressive), but I included it for two reasons.  First, it is just so Easley (if I can use that as an adjective).  What I mean is it’s so indicative of his trademark style that you can tell it’s an Easley painting from a mile away.  The highly sculptural figures, the plush rendering, the earth tones accented with bright colors… you know, so Easley (and let’s face it, an average day for Easley is a great day for anyone else).  I also included this painting in the list because it showcases how different an animal a Dungeon cover is to one created for Dragon magazine.  Dragon covers might have to portray a vague theme, but generally the artist is free to follow their instincts.  Dungeon covers on the other hand are much more structured.   Their function is to represent one of the adventures inside in a very literal and concrete way.  The cover doesn’t just have to look good, but it also has to inform the viewer about the magazine’s content.  Even a big name in the TSR art department can’t phone it in – this cover accurately depicts the Doom Brigade, one of the teams of antagonists from the adventure Sleep of Ages (a group of helmed horrors with two-handed swords and a flameskull in the service of an elder orb beholder).

Undead and puppets, two creepy tastes that taste great together.  Incredibly, this particular combination has been used for two Dungeon covers.  First, on Dungeon 64 by Mark Nelson – who takes full advantage of his experience working on Clive Barker’s Hellraiser comic.  It’s really the details in this painting that elevate it from creepy into a work of true horror: the intricate and painstakingly constructed clockwork marionette mechanism hints at the obsession of its creator; the desiccated flesh of the corpses contrasts against the finery of the puppets’ fancy dress; and the awkward way the dance partners are forced to hold one another brings the wrongness of the scene to a fever pitch.
The second such unsettling cover is for issue 75, by Brom.  While Brom’s early work for TSR (especially his Dark Sun illustrations) was very much in the vein of Frank Frazetta, this cover represents a shift in his style towards a darker, more gothic look.  I love Brom’s work in any mode, but unfortunately I think this shift (combined with his independent success) took him off course from the branding of D&D as heroic fantasy.  At the end of the 2e era, Brom’s work was found in fewer and fewer products, completely disappearing from D&D (except for the odd magazine cover) by the time 3e rolled out.  There is a lot of talk lately about what the art of the next edition of D&D should include.  If it is to be as inspiring as the art of earlier editions, then Wizards of the Coast needs to bring visionaries like Brom, and the other artists I have highlighted here, back into the fold.  It’s worth the high price tag.

In the nest installment I’ll look at the latter half of Dungeon’s print run, the 3e era.

Queen of the Black Coast – Part Two

April 17, 2012

Instead of a classically defined monster, I thought I would use this installment of Monsters of the Hyborian Age to look at one of the obstacles Conan faces in Queen of the Black Coast and what is probably one of the most iconic species of flora in Howard’s writing – the black lotus (plus a bonus lotus).  In keeping with the way the black lotus is used in the story, I think the best way to represent the plant is as a fantastic terrain feature (I could have gone with a natural hazard trap, but there didn’t seem to be enough mechanical meat to the black lotus to justify this).
As far as I can tell three other types of mystical lotus plant are mentioned in the chronicles of Conan (the purple, yellow and golden lotus – which makes the lotus a bit like the Hyborian equivalent of kryptonite), but only the black and purple varieties are suitable for D&D fantastic terrain.  The juice of the golden lotus and dried yellow lotus incense are better used in-game as magic items.  When Monsters of the Hyborian Age is finished, I would love to do a post with a few of the magic items Conan encountered during his adventures.
For the summary of Queen of the Black Coast, as well as the Winged One monster, click here.
Spoiler Alert!  All of these Hyborian age posts are going to be filled with spoilers.  From the summary, to the monster stats they are going to ruin any surprises as to what the monster is, when it appears in the story and how and why it is killed.  You’ve been warned.

Fantastic Terrain

Black Lotus

“He recoiled, recognizing the black lotus, whose juice was death, and whose scent brought dream-haunted slumber.  But already he felt a subtle lethargy stealing over him.” – Robert E. Howard, Queen of the Black Coast.

The lustrous, heavy flowers of the black lotus cling to rocks and other vegetation and can be combined with any other mundane terrain feature.  Any creature that ends its turn on or adjacent to a square of black lotus inhales the sinister plant’s narcotic pollen and is slowed (save ends).  Creatures that fail their first saving throw become unconscious (save or the target takes damage ends).  Unconscious creatures receive strange, disturbing dreams that are often prescient or retro-cognitive concerning the area the black lotus grows.
Creatures immune to poison or who do not breathe are unaffected by the pollen of the black lotus.

Purple Lotus

“Tsotha displayed a broad ring of curious design from his finger.  He pressed his fingers together and on the inner side of the ring a tiny steel fang darted out like a snake’s tongue.
‘It is steeped in the juice of the purple lotus which grows in the ghost-haunted swamps of southern Stygia,’ said the magician.  ‘Its touch produces temporary paralysis…” – Robert E. Howard, The Scarlet Citadel.

Clumps of purple lotus can grow in any wet or swampy location.  The juice of the plant’s sap is a powerful paralytic, which makes weapon play dangerous in their midst.  A creature in a square with purple lotus that takes physical damage from an attack is immobilized (save ends).  Creatures that fail their first saving throw become paralyzed (save ends).
Creatures immune to poison are unaffected by the sap of the purple lotus.


“Hey… black lotus… Stygian… the best!”

I couldn’t resist.
This took me a little longer than expected (maybe I should  have used some of that black lotus).  I am determined to have an illustration for each Monsters of the Hyborian Age entry, but truth be told I was just not that motivated to make a picture of a flower.  In the end I came up with a composition that didn’t  bore me to tears, and I’m pretty happy with the visualization of the lotus’ spores, but I really hate what I did with the background…

More Citadel Combat Cards

April 4, 2012

Last May I wrote about my love of the golden age of Citadel miniatures (the ‘slotta’ era – late eighties and early nineties), inspired by Ben of Darkly Through Glass’ fantastic collection of scanned Citadel Combat Cards.  Although that site is now dormant, Ben is back with a new blog, Fantasy3D, and one of the first things he has done is upload the rest of his combat cards, completing the set (with the Dwarfs and Warriors decks).   Seeing all the cards together warms my little lead coveting heart, and having them at my fingertips is an invaluable resource.  These cards are a nostalgia trip, painting guide, and collector’s list all rolled into one.  Ben’s scans are so immaculate I almost don’t regret losing my well-worn and beat up decks.  I recommend downloading them yourself, but here are a few of my favorite dwarves and warriors (click for full size).

When I was younger I had a bit of an obsession with the realm of chaos line, so it’s hardly surprising that I have a soft spot for the chaos dwarves as well.  I should have bought these when I was a teenager.  These two are from the iconic Chaos Dwarf Renegades boxed set (featuring an equally iconic John Blanche painting), which, if it does come up on ebay, is insanely expensive, so I doubt I’ll be adding them to my collection anytime soon.  I can’t really argue, but I blame the high demand on the lame redesign Games Workshop did on their newer Chaos Dwarves (the ones with the silly hats as tall as their bodies).

One of my favorite features of the painting style of this era are the cool, freeform designs that took advantage of Citadel’s trademark plastic shields.  It really makes each model stand out, and emphasizes a ‘lived-in’ implied setting where soldiers recycle equipment from fallen foes (kind of like D&D).  Although I never had the mini, Flint inspired my friend’s character ‘Ralkan the Mighty’ in the first campaign I DMed.

There are some miniatures you track down just to have in your collection and there are others you want so you can build a D&D character around them.  This is one of the latter.  Despite being from a boxed set, the Heroic Fighters of the Known World (also John Blanche illustrated) are far easier to come by than the Chaos Dwarves.  I was able to pick up Giovanni cheaply last year and I’ve been itching to play the mighty thewed gladiator ever since.
So often when I’m browsing through my collection I find myself wanting to make characters for the miniatures, instead of looking for a miniature that suits a character.  If there is any reason to call this period Citadel’s golden age, this is it.

Queen of the Black Coast – Part One

March 19, 2012

It’s been far too long since I returned to the stories of Robert E. Howard, and now that a new edition of D&D looms on the horizon, I have something of a deadline to finish this project.
Queen of the Black Coast is one of my favorite Conan tales.  It shows a different, more complicated side to the Cimmerian and features a powerful and engaging female character who is at least Conan’s equal (and it’s pretty easy to argue that Howard positions Belit as Conan’s superior).  There’s a real epic quality to the story, and the vast span of time it covers begs the imagination to fill in the blanks.  It’s not surprising Queen of the Black Coast also features some very inventive monsters (and its strange were-creatures may be one of the inspirations for D&D’s cornucopia of lycanthropes).
Spoiler Alert!  All of these Hyborian age posts are going to be filled with spoilers.  From the summary, to the monster stats they are going to ruin any surprises as to what the monster is, when it appears in the story and how and why it is killed.  You’ve been warned.


Howard begins his tale with Conan in the thick of it, hurtling down the streets of an Argossean port city on a black stallion towards the docks.  One step ahead of an angry magistrate and his men, Conan rides to the very edge of the wharf and leaps from his saddle onto the deck of the Argus, a trading galley just pulling away from the dock.  After a few threats from the Cimmerian, the ship’s master agrees to take Conan along.  The waters the Argus must ply are thick with pirates and Conan’s experienced blade defending the ship will put the rest of the sailors at ease.
The captain’s fears are justified, for once in Kushite waters, the Argus is set upon by the pirate ship Tigress, and her infamous master, Belit – called Queen of the Black Coast.  The Argus puts up a valiant fight, but it is no match for the Tigress and the merchant vessel is soon overtaken and boarded.  Bloody carnage breaks out and Conan, knowing this is his last stand, is determined to take as many of the pirates to hell with him as he can.  There is something about the exotic northerner’s naked ferocity and bloodlust that intrigues Belit.  She orders her men to spare Conan and offers him the chance to join her bloody rampage on the high seas.  Conan is likewise drawn to the Shemite woman, not just for her unsurpassing beauty, but by the raw power of her unbridled passion.  With the crew of the Argus dead, Conan joins Belit.
Time passes.  The ferocity of Conan and Belit’s love is equalled only by the destruction the pair wreaks.  The Queen of the Black Coast and her icy eyed consort become legends, their names cursed by the survivors of the Stygian ships laid waste by the Tigress.  In an outburst of fevered desire, Belit promises Conan that her love burns so fiercely that not even death can keep her from the Cimmerian’s side.
Guided by rumours and forbidden lore, Belit orders the Tigress up an unnamed river, deep into an impassable, toxic jungle.  The waters of the river become poisonous, and have a strange effect on the surrounding flora and fauna.  Pressing on, the crew finds the ruins of a city older than mankind itself, whose former occupants Belit names ‘the old ones’.  Landing, the pirates sack the ruins, finding both deadly traps and glittering mounds of treasure.  Among these is a necklace with weird gems the color of clotted blood.  Seized with a kind of madness, Belit becomes obsessed with the necklace, and begins acting strangely.  What’s worse, the old ones are not as extinct as the pirates had hoped.  The last of their kind still haunts the city, a degenerate, winged, ape-thing, who sabotages the Tigress’ supply of fresh water.
Under the effect of the necklace, Belit is unmoved, caring only for her newfound treasures.  Conan, more sober minded, takes a small contingent of warriors into the jungle in search of fresh water.  Tragedy strikes Conan, who succumbs to the sleep of the pollen of the black lotus plant.  While he slumbers he is tormented by visions of the city’s long and terrible history.  He awakens to find that the winged creature has slaughtered the entire pirate crew, including his beloved Belit, who hangs from the mast of the ship, strangled by the cursed necklace.
Filled with cold, black, fathomless rage, Conan climbs a ruined pyramid and awaits the monster for a chance at revenge.  The Cimmerian is first set upon by the winged creature’s servants, a pack of were-hyenas the monster cursed in the long past.  Conan is victorious, but during the melee he becomes pinned under a piece of rubble.  Seeing its opportunity, the winged creature swoops down to finish Conan off, but Belit is true to her word, and her apparition appears, blocking the path between her murderer and her lover.  The monster is momentarily stunned, Conan frees himself and in the bat of an eye cleaves the beast in twain.
Silent and grief stricken, the tale ends with Conan watching the Tigress sail away, alight with the flames of Belit’s funeral pyre staining the horizon.

The Winged One

“With fearful speed it was rushing upon him, and in that instant Conan had only a confused impression of a gigantic man-like shape hurtling along on bowed and stunted legs; of huge hairy arms outstretching misshapen black-nailed paws; of a malformed head, in whose broad face the only features recognizable as such were a pair of blood-red eyes.” – Robert E. Howard, Queen of the Black Coast.


Nature 15: Superstition holds that the souls of evil men and women are imprisoned in the bodies of apes as punishment for their crimes.  The vilest of these sprout wings so they can take to the air and continue to torment the living.
Nature DC 20: In the dawn of prehistory existed an exalted race of winged beings known only as ‘the old ones’.  Their people reached its cultural zenith before humankind had yet crawled out of the muck, but like all civilizations, was destined to fall.  A series of natural disasters rocked the old ones’ city state and polluted their drinking water with a foul substance.  Those who did not die were changed, and after generations of mutation and degeneration, the twisted creatures fell on each other in a frenzy of infighting and cannibalism.  Those few winged ones who still cling to hateful life are incredibly old, and know some of the weird magics of their ancestors.

The Winged One in Combat

Though devolution has robbed the winged ones of much of their people’s former intellect, they have an evil cunning that makes them dangerous foes.  Before engaging an enemy directly, a winged one prefers to use distraction and sabotage (often with the aid of its servants) in an attempt to divide their enemies into more manageable groups.  Often a winged one will destroy an invader’s supply of food and water, forcing them to drink from the polluted river or face the poisonous denizens of the surrounding jungle.  When combat breaks out, a winged one always tries to curse the strongest looking warrior, flying off to a safe distance so it can enjoy the spectacle of the were-hyena attacking and devouring former friends.


Winged ones haunt the jungle ruins of their former civilization, torturing themselves by watching their race’s greatest achievements slowly crumble to dust.  A winged one curses any who dare intrude on its lonely vigil, transforming them into bestial were-hyenas.  These creatures, as well as packs of gnolls, are often mystically bound to the area and answer the winged one’s call.  The winged one reserves its bitterest rage for those foolish enough to try and steal from the temples and palaces of the old ones.  The creature will stop at nothing to track down and murder these thieves, displaying their corpses as a warning to future delvers.


Like Thurgra Khotan, I think the History skill is more appropriate for Lore checks regarding the winged one, instead of following the 4e convention and using Nature checks for all creatures with the natural origin.
Inspired by the work of Tony DiTerlizzi (especially during his Planescape years) I tried my hand at coloring the illustration with traditional watercolors rather than using digital color as I have in the past.  I think I need a bit more practice, but I’m pleased with the results.

Random Encounters: The Shackled City for Pathfinder (Chapter 1 Life’s Bazaar)

March 6, 2012

Currently I am running a Pathfinder campaign for my group, and since I never got the chance to use my copy of The Shackled City hardcover while we were playing 3.5 I figured it wouldn’t be too much work to convert to ‘3.75’.  In spite of Paizo’s claims of backwards compatibility, you can’t really use 3.5 D&D adventures off the shelf for Pathfinder.  Most of it works, but the monsters and NPCs in particular are too weak to be a real challenge to a party of Pathfinder characters (I’m not worried about the traps, as The Shackled City has a reputation for the traps being a little too deadly anyway).  Converting the stat blocks isn’t impossible, but it is a little bit of work, and since I’m doing the work anyway (I’m a bit of a stat block perfectionist) I thought I would share (click on the pictures at the end of the article to download PDFs of the updated stat blocks for all the monsters and NPCs as well as some additional handouts I created for the first chapter).
Obviously there are a ton of spoilers here, both for the campaign and the first adventure.  So if you plan on playing in The Shackled City, peeking ahead is going to ruin a lot of the fun.  If you are one of my players, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t read any further.  You’ve been warned.

Greyhawk Gods in Pathfinder

Since my gaming group has had many previous adventures in the world of Greyhawk, it was important for me to keep the city of Cauldron in that setting.  That meant using the Greyhawk deities that were the default for 3e D&D and rejecting the Golarion Gods of Pathfinder.  However, the Gods in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook were each given 5 domains, rather than a number of domains based on deific power, as was the custom in 3.5.  In order to bring the Greyhawk deities more in line with the Pathfinder rule set, the following list updates all the Greyhawk deities of core 3e with 5 domains each, except for Obad-Hai who always had six and Fharlanghn who I couldn’t find an appropriate fifth domain for.  I used the official RPGA expanded domain lists for Living Greyhawk as a guideline, deviating in order to make sure that all the Pathfinder domains were covered.

  • Heironeous: LG; Glory, Good, Law, Nobility, War
  • Moradin: LG; Artifice, Earth, Good, Law, Protection
  • Yondalla: LG; Community, Good, Law, Plant, Protection
  • Ehlonna:  NG; Air, Animal, Good, Plant, Sun
  • Garl Glittergold: NG Community, Earth, Good, Protection, Trickery
  • Pelor: NG; Glory, Good, Healing, Nobility, Sun
  • Corellon Larethian: CG; Chaos, Good, Liberation, Magic, War
  • Kord: CG; Chaos, Good, Luck, Nobility, Strength
  • Wee Jas: LN; Charm, Death, Law, Magic, Repose
  • St. Cuthbert: LN; Community, Destruction, Law, Protection, Strength
  • Boccob: N; Artifice, Knowledge, Magic, Rune, Trickery
  • Fharlanghn: N; Luck, Protection, Travel, Weather
  • Obad-Hai: N; Air, Animal, Earth, Fire, Plant, Water
  • Olidammara: CN; Chaos, Charm, Luck, Protection, Trickery
  • Hextor: LE; Destruction, Evil, Law, Strength, War
  • Nerull: NE; Darkness, Death, Evil, Water, Weather
  • Vecna: NE; Darkness, Evil, Knowledge, Madness, Magic
  • Erythnul: CE; Chaos, Evil, Madness, Trickery, War
  • Gruumsh: CE; Chaos, Destruction, Evil, Strength, War

Life’s Bazaar

The following changes should be made to the adventure for it to play smoothly using the Pathfinder edition of D&D.   Click on the pictures at the end of the article to download a PDF of Pathfinder stat blocks for every NPC and monster in the adventure (when I DM I like to have the monster stat blocks in front of me, instead of having to flip to the back of the book or shuffle through Bestiaries), as well as a few additional handouts useful to the adventure (Jenya Urikas’ list of abductions, Vervil Ashmantle’s letter to Kazmogen, the Cauldron coat of arms, and the first issue of Cauldron’s populist handbill – The Cauldron Crier).

Gear Door
Twilight mist trap; CR 1; type mechanical; Perception DC 21; Disable Device DC 20; Trigger touch; Reset none; Effect poison gas (twilight mist), multiple targets (all targets in a 10-ft.-square area).
Twilight Mist; type poison, inhaled; Save Fortitude DC 13; Frequency 1/round for 4 rounds; Effect 1d2 Dex damage; Cure 1 save

J4: Lurking Shadows
The challenge rating for most creatures has been reduced in Pathfinder, so to keep the adventure challenging and maintain the experience level, I increased the number of monsters.
Add an additional skulk in this room for a total of 3.

J11: Control Lever
I removed the Nystul’s undetectable aura on the bag of tricks.  That spell is now covered by Pathfinder’s magic aura, but because of the slightly different mechanics for detecting and identifying magic items, concealing “the bag’s aura but not its magical nature” doesn’t make sense anymore.  It is still just as dangerous for the party to find since it’s infected with the vanishing.

J17: Hall of Dancing Lights
Add an additional 2 skulks in this room for a total of 4.

J22: Theatre
The fine cloak in the chest has magic aura instead of Nystul’s magic aura.  If detected, it radiates moderate transmutation (a character who casts identify or who uses Spellcraft to determine the function of the cloak must make a DC 14 Will save to pierce the illusion).

J26: Automaton Factory
I never really liked the raggamoffyn as a creature, and thankfully Paizo has never made a Pathfinder version of it.  Rather than creating a new monster (when I wasn’t crazy about the original) just substitute a single adamantine cobra (included in the PDF) for the captured skulk and raggamoffyn (its poison and damage reduction will make it enough of a challenge).

J27: Gearworks
To simulate the pulverizer I used a clockwork servant and just gave it the ‘self-winding’ special quality (at the beginning of each encounter the clockwork creature winds itself as a swift action and carries out its last orders).  It has a net instead of a sonic attack, but the battlefield control elements of the attack are very similar (and visually it can spit the net out of the same opening the pulverizer uses for its sonic attack).

J31: Alchemy Lab
Replace the raggamoffyn with an adamantine cobra.

J36: Great Factory
Since there isn’t a Pathfinder version of it (along with mind flayers and umber hulks), I replaced the grell with a grick.  There are some pretty good Pathfinder versions of the grell online, but in the last 2 campaigns my group has played in they encountered quite a few grells, so I thought I’d give another creature a turn.

J40: Woodshop
Add an additional dark creeper for a total of 2.

J44: Hidden Foes
Add an additional dark creeper for a total of 2, plus the pulverizer.

J48: Secret Vault
I replaced the dread guard with an animated object, and styled it after an animated suit of metal armor.  It is Medium sized instead of Small, but so is the dread guard.

J52: Kitchen
Add an additional dark creeper for a total of 3.

M3: Stony Greetings
I substituted a Medium earth elemental for the stone spike – it is slightly more powerful but has many of the same abilities.

M4: Major-Domo`s Quarters
Xukasus is a very strange creature in the original adventure, whose statistics rely on the 3.5 edition polymorph rules, which have been drastically overhauled in Pathfinder.  To save the DM a headache (and also because I don`t really buy Xukasus’ neutral alignment) I have made the Major-Domo a ‘normal’ ogre – albeit a mentally ill one who believes he is really an otyugh.

M14: Automaton Guard
I used robot fighters with warhammers and short swords to simulate the hammerers.  If used as is, this encounter will be CR 6, which is incredibly tough.  I recommend damaging the hammerers as they are in the original adventure and treating each as a CR 3 creature (which would make this encounter CR 5 – the same as it is in the original adventure).

M34: Slave Bazaar
Kazmogen’s strange heritage was easy enough to replicate from his 3.5 stat block, although in Pathfinder his fighter levels lead to a monster with a weaker CR (which is OK since Prickles is now more effective than it was in 3.5).  Pyllrak was a different story.  To simulate a durgazon I used a duergar monk, applied the devil-bound template (bearded devil), and removed the ‘battle-frenzy’ ability since Pathfinder bearded devils lost this ability.
With his high hit points and fast healing, Kazmogen and his pet should be a formidable encounter.

Event 5: Orbius’ Intervention
I didn’t include stats for the Beholder or Thifirane in the PDF since this event is obviously not intended as a combat encounter.

Toronto After Dark: Just the Crunchy Bits

February 16, 2012

Wow.  Eighteen films, 34 000 words, and about two months longer than I thought it would take to write it all up – and that’s without even mentioning the great short films that played before the screenings or the cool people I spent a week in line with.  I had fully planned for the posts to be quick and dirty, but the films were just too damn interesting for me not to overdo it.  Based on the amount of ‘crunchy’ material the films of the festival inspired in me, I hope my fellow gamers are encouraged to check some of the movies out for themselves and be inspired in their own games.
But it wasn’t all just the movies.  I’m very proud of that crunch, so to give it its proper moment in the spotlight, I’ve created this catalogue that organizes the After Dark posts by game material instead of by film.

Dungeons and Dragons

Skill Challenge: The Great Race
Ward Characters
Falling Barbed Cage Trap
The Mother of Toads
Haemophage Disease
Random Fey-Pact Events
Adventure Outline: Castaways of the Sargasso Prison
Power Sources and Monster Traits
Alignment Complications
Haunted Location Trap

Gamma World

Frankenstein’s Monster
Romero Zombie
The Zed Virus
Romero Zombie Template
‘Borg Template