Monday, April 27, 2015

Independently-Minded Skeleton Tactics

From several editions of DnD, it appears skeletons are typically written as dopes who clackingly follow orders at best, or, at worst, repeat the actions they carried out in life.

Unless their job in life was operating a Rube Goldberg machine of violence, pulling levers to expel burning oils and shoot out pincer claws, this is Not Good Enough. Not by half.

Skeletons need to be smart, dammit, and they need tactics! They, of all the undead, are vulnerable and have relatively low hitpoints, especially compared to the other low-level undead, zombies.

Why Are The Skeletons Smart Though?

  1. Wizard with strange politics created them in order to free them; awaits emergence of higher order through giving skeletons more intellect and reasoning capacity.
  2. Dully glowing gems chained to their vertebrae grant them decent cognition.
  3. Undead brains, burnt and charred to the inside of their skulls in hideous diagrams, afford them a hive consciousness. In groups of 3 or more, the skeletons are quite smart. 'Groups' can be separated by a few hundred feet and retain awareness via one another's senses. This also makes them harder to surprise.
  4. Teeth and jaws stained black by a vicious, viscous liquid which allows undead more self-awareness, with occasional bouts of crippling paranoia. The stains become a warning.
  5. Partial revenanting gone wrong, giving the skeletons eyes in bleeding sockets, boiled (yet largely functional) brains, scraps of flesh on their bones still. Claw-like hands work as weapons.
  6. Devouring the brains - or in their case, mastication alone - has made the skeletons more intelligent. They communicate in morse code by clacking jaws or phalanges against femurs.

Skeleton Small Unit Tactics

Skeletons like to have zombies around as meat shields. They'll chain zombies up and stagger them in rows before them, hiding behind them. This counts as decent cover in whatever way you estimate it, though attacks that miss have at least some chance of hitting a zombie instead. The skeletons fire short bows from behind this mobile cover. The zombies are chained to them with shackles or ropes which allow the skeletons to let one or more zombie loose; they'll do so if their opponents seem to be concentrating fire on them, rather than on the zeds. 

Skeletons will deglove zombies in (frequently successful) attempts to harvest a new skeleton warrior. Degloved tissue will be fashioned into crude armor - likely not improving AC so much as granting the skeleton more hit points, or ameliorating some of their vulnerability to blunt weapons.

Some skeletons' bones aren't connected by anything other than magic or electromagnets. This requires some setup, but in an area with an ancient, whistling pneumatic tube system, skeletons will 'mail' themselves about via tube, arriving in a jumble and self-assembling in 1d4 rounds. In other situations a skeleton will dive behind cover as a loose jumble, providing a small AC bonus. If the bones can land on something soft, falling from a long distance only inflicts half damage.

Skeletons will, of course, throw Greek Fire or ball bearings or caltrops at opponents who are fleshy. Caltrops have no effect on skeletons, other than making their kicks do slightly more damage, should the caltrops get stuck in their metatarsals. These can also aid climbing, which skeletons are adept at (I'd let them succeed on that in a 3+ on a d6 roll). Their toes and fingers are quite suited to teasing out tiny holds during an ascent. 

Skeleton Mass Unit Tactics

Former tinkerers or engineers or sappers probably exist among a large skeleton force. They will make a big show of attacking, leading with zombies and seeking to avoid prolonged engagements, while sappers mine and undermine fortress walls, or while engineers construct trebuchet out of wood and spare zombies. 

They don't get hungry, they don't sleep, they can see you in the dark, they have trebuchet. You better hope in a prolonged siege that their sentience somehow causes some intellectual schism.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


If you don't have the occasional Drill City grinding through your setting and disrupting your precious shit then get one set up and rolling through.

ALSO, if you run around in my campaign, GO AWAY. I'm probably going to throw in things I don't want y'all to have.

So, a Drill City is tunneling out of the Plane of Towers and towards Necrocarcerus. Clearly you need the PCs to fight some Morlocks.

What Morlocks Are Not

This is clearly surface-dweller propaganda. Morlocks are not stupid or primitive. They have a fucking drill city! It's a city! With a DRILL ON IT! And it's coming for you! Your city walls will not stop something that can grind through the Underworld and the Underdark. They're not going to get to a stone block wall and turn around in shame. They are going to come in and rule you and destroy your civilization and enslave you and eat you. Because you are Eloi: you are soft, you are weak. The Morlocks hate you more than they hate each other. Barely.

Morlock Hate Priests

They love to use Command on surface dwellers. They love to make you kneel in their presence. They worship machines of their manufacture, but most of all, they worship Hate. They brew up healing potions of cloned Eloi blood that can heal 2d4 + 4 hit points, but only if you make a Constitution check to keep it down. Otherwise you get half of the effects and are filled with rage.

They are the peak of the Morlock caste system. They have a direct line with the Big Rage Upstairs and are listening for orders to return to the awful surface. They are also, in many cases, complete buffoons, eager to order their peons to glory, or at least horrible death. They are crafty in all the ways of staying alive and putting other Morlocks in danger. An expedition of Morlocks on the surface will be lead by a Hate Priest who lost some political infight, and was forced to leave the protective shell of the Drill City.

Morlocks in Battle

All Morlocks can tap into the Minute of Hate. They become resistant, in 5E terms, to piercing, blunt, and slashing damage, taking half of whatever people roll. They can keep this unnatural resilience up for a minute, then have to take an hour's rest to regain their smoldering disgust for existence. 

Despite this, their fighters are not eager to wade into melee - like the Hate Priests, they'd rather someone else take that roll, preferring instead to fire bows or pistols from cover. But they are adept at using cutlasses and pikes in close quarters. 

Priests, Guards, and Crew

The Morlocks who are not trained as fighters or reared as acolytes become crew. And the crew is ground down over time, like the Urth beyond the city. Their quarters are stacks of tiny berths, like a Japanese coffin motel built for Iron Maiden groupies. Bedding is quite basic, and communal baths are one of the only comfortable places in the Drill City for these lower-class folk. Regardless, they largely do their duty, focusing their red-eyed gaze on the Eloi. Largely.

Drill City Thieves Guild

A Drill City contains miles of iron hallway and pipe. Inevitably Morlock engineering creates, as that angry discipline always must, strange crevices, strange pockets of unused space, off the beaten path. Some Morlocks are drawn to these places, shirking the rigorous requirements of the upper caste. They might still work, but they're goldbricking when they're not actively stealing food or components for their own purposes, building up a tiny fiefdom between the steam-reclamation manifold and the primary waste filter. They'd love nothing more than to take over, eat the priests, and then probably recapitulate the same shit system all over again. But they typically stay themselves from committing outright rebellion, if it seems the priests will put more Eloi flesh on the table.

Morlock Cuisine in the Underworld

They have frozen in blocks, Eloi, or pieces of such. They take little pieces and clone them in vats, growing turgid lumps of flesh. Thawed surface-dwellers can become henchpeople or backup party members, as long as they can carve revenge into their captors and cooks. 

Morlock Stats

You've probably run DnD or similar games for longer than me; you can probably come up with better stats than I can. The Hate Priests are actual Clerics, or at least, cast Cleric spells. The thieves are thieves and will shank you. The fighters throw bottles of oil and snipe at you from behind turned-over workbenches, while their 'leader' Hate Priest sings a disturbing hymn.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

On Wanting Everything and Abandoning Established Settings

I have run away from an established setting. I have done so because I find reading lots of pages of text about an imaginary setting to be somewhat dull, at times. As Zak S hath wrote: if you write RPGs for a living, the work you put into a novel-like world description is just never going to be your most amazing work. Your most amazing work is wedged somewhere in systems of classes and rulings and tables, in character options and maybe in vignettes of people and places and things. But a fully detailed setting isn't a vignette. It's more of a textbook.

A fully established setting becomes something of a weight. Players expect to see it. They know a bit of what to expect - and I don't mean to get into some missive about the horrors of metagaming, because I'm not terribly worried about it. But unless you're explicit that you're diverging from canon, players may interpret differences as a mistake on your part.

This talk of fully-detailed settings reminds me of Basic Red's Let's Talk About Moon Slave, which in addition to establishing a kick-ass deity, talks about how RPG writers get deities wrong. Rather than a vignette, you get a list of things the God holds in his or her bailiwick. Or you get novelized fictional treatments that become textbooks for the DM to memorize.

I can't hold too much in my head. It doesn't help that every time you damn people in the RPG blogosphere write something down, I feel like I have to use it. I'm already running 5E players through the Plane of Towers. Then I thought, what's tower-shaped that I read about recently? Oh, I know: a Morlock Drill City!! So now the PCs are in a drill city's theater, getting made up and stuck in black theatrical unitards, about to contest both Morlock and the zombies and skeletons that have infested the city. According to a crazed, evil, yet affable (thusly) morlock wizardling, the Plane of Towers is a place in Hell, which of course lies underneath the world. The Morlocks just got a bit side-tracked on their journey to the surface when they accidentally took on a small horde of the undead.

And since the players are in a form of hell or purgatory - the Plane of Towers isn't that bad, after all - maybe they'll drill 'out' / through a portal / into Necrocarcerus. Ultimately I want to ask for some of their input about what they want from an overworld setting, but I like a) lots of people are 'undead' and b) the setting has a freakin time-limit on it.