Thursday, July 28, 2016

Occult Rituals for Freeport

(Column 2 of 2 for this week!)

The D&D v.3.5 sourcebook Unearthed Arcana provided optional rules for incantations, a form of magic that allows non-spellcasters to wield supernatural power through long, exacting rituals. The ritual system presented in the True20 Freeport Companion adapted the incantation rules to that system, and added a Forbidden Lore skill which was used to cast these occult spells. The d20 Freeport Companion included Forbidden Knowledge rules as well, and was originally meant to include incantations. These rules were cut from the final draft, in part due to a lack of examples. However, a few references to them still remain in the published text, including a full write up of one incantation, "Call Forth the Fiend."

Unearthed Arcana's incantation rules can be found in the d20 System Reference Document (online here). When I compiled my fan errata for the d20 Freeport Companion, I adapted those rules for use in Freeport campaigns; see the Freeport Incantation Rules for d20 page at Tim's Errata Archive.

Since then, I have moved on to playing Pathfinder, and have recently acquired the Occult Adventures sourcebook. The Occult Ritual rules in that book (see page 208) are derived from Unearthed Arcana's incantations. It appears that the stars are now right to discuss how to use those ritual rules in Pathfinder Freeport campaigns, and how to convert existing rituals from previous Freeport titles to these new rules.

In the Pathfinder edition of Freeport: The City of Adventure, Forbidden Lore has been changed from a Knowledge skill to a pool of points that modifies Knowledge checks regarding Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. Freeport's modularity has always been one of the line's great strengths; this new design choice now allows GMs to use occult rituals without forbidden lore, or vice versa.

All of the sample rituals in Occult Adventures are suitable for use in Freeport. The Call Beyond the Veil, Haunted Communion, and Ritual Exorcism rituals should be used in place of the Exorcism and Seance rituals appearing in the True20 Freeport Companion. This leaves only Awaken the Dead and Conjure Demon to convert to Pathfinder.

Awaken the Dead replicates animate dead, but only creates one zombie per use of the ritual.

School necromancy; Level 4
Casting Time 40 minutes
Components V, S, M (grave dirt, at least 1 pint of animal blood)
Skill Checks Knowledge (arcana) DC 30, 2 successes; Knowledge (religion) DC 30, 2 successes
Range close (25 ft. + 5 ft/character level of the caster)
Target one corpse
Duration instantaneous
Saving Throw none; SR no
Backlash The caster is exhausted
Failure The caster takes 1 permanent negative level
Effect One corpse within range is animated as a zombie. The zombie is fanatically loyal to the caster. It can be destroyed by the usual means of dispatching undead. (If the optional insanity rules from Freeport: The City of Adventure are being used, then everyone present when the zombie rises must succeed on a DC 15 Will save or gain 1 Insanity Point. In addition, the caster automatically acquires 1 Insanity Point for creating a zombie.)

Unlike a standard Occult Adventures campaign, Freeport's ritualists are frequently obsessed with contacting evil outsiders to bargain for their services. Therefore, this setting includes rituals that allow any knowledgeable mortal to risk their soul in attempt summoning a fiend.


The Conjure Demon ritual is actually not a single ritual, but a category of many different spells used to call a fiend to appear and serve the casters. All are based on the planar binding series of spells, with the spell level determined by the Hit Dice of the creature(s) called: 5th for lesser planar binding (1-6 HD), 6th for planar binding (7-12 HD), or 8th for greater planar binding (13-18 HD). Apply those spells' duration, saving throw, and SR entries to the ritual rather than the usual conjuration benchmarks.

Use the occult ritual rules to determine additional details of each individual summoning. Many fiends seek out any chance to access the Material Plane, so they encourage the creation of rituals that make success easier to obtain. Add casting time restrictions, expensive components, limited targets (one species of fiend), and dangerous backlash in order to reduce the DC to cast the ritual. Many demonic rituals also allow secondary casters, with the most powerful of these spells practically requiring a large cult to perform successfully.

Let's use the Call Forth the Fiend incantation from "Fury in Freeport" (d20 Freeport Companion, page 158) as a worked example:

School conjuration (calling) [evil]; Level 5
Casting Time 50 minutes
Components V, S, M (caster's dung, blood of a freshly sacrificed victim, powdered remains of a good holy symbol worth at last 100 gp)
Skill Checks Knowledge (arcana) DC 28, 2 successes; Knowledge (planes) DC 28, 2 successes; Spellcraft, DC 28, 1 success
Range close (25 ft. + 5 ft/character level of the caster)
Target one skulldugger or two dretches
Duration instantaneous
Saving Throw none; SR no
Backlash The caster takes 2d6 points of damage
Failure Three dretches appear and attack the caster
Effect To begin this ritual, the caster must mix the material components and use them to inscribe a pentagram on a flat surface. Once the circle is inscribed, the remaining time is spent chanting the required invocations. If the ritual succeeds, a skulldugger (see previous column) or two dretch tear a hole in reality and appear in the circle. They bow before the caster and await its instructions.The caster can bid the conjured minions to perform one task subject to the normal limits of the lesser planar binding spell. Should the task be impossible, the fiend is freed from the ritual's effects and may go its own way. Fiends called forth by a successful casting of this ritual never attack the caster.

The DC has been calculated as follows: base 28, plus spell level 5, -1 for expensive material components (this modifier normally requires 500 gp, but procuring the holy symbol and victim add sufficient difficulty to earn the reduction), -3 for limited targets, -1 for backlash = 28.

Note that the DC is higher under the Pathfinder rules. However, the caster only needs to succeed on half of the necessary skill checks (rounded up) for the ritual to succeed, while the v.3.5 rules required the full number of checks (with failed checks adding additional checks and casting time).

Creatures of Freeport: Skulldugger

(Column 1 of 2 for this week!)

Skullduggers are undead creatures fashioned in the Abyss by a demon prince possessing vast necromantic lore. These minions are used to communicate with the arch-fiend's cult in the Material Plane as well as to spy upon mortals and demons alike.

More information on skullduggers can be found in The Book of Fiends, by Green Ronin Publishing. An advanced skulldugger stat block appears in the "Call Forth the Fiend" sidebar on page 158 of the d20 Freeport Companion (AKA 3rd Era Freeport Companion). I will be updating that ritual spell to Pathfinder's occult ritual rules in the next column, so am providing a Pathfinder conversion of the skulldugger here first.

This skeletal creature has bat-like wings, horns atop its bestial head, bony claws, and a jointed tail.

XP 1,200
CE Medium undead (extraplanar)
Init +6; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +6
AC 15, touch 12, flat-footed 13 (+2 Dex, +3 natural)
hp 16 (3d8+3)
Fort +2, Ref +3, Will +3
DR 5/bludgeoning; Immune cold, immunity to turning, undead traits; Resist acid 5, fire 5
Speed 30 ft., fly 50 ft. (average)
Melee 2 claws +3 (1d4+1), gore +3 (1d6+1)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 6th; concentration +7)
3/day--burning hands (DC 12), clairaudience/clairvoyance, invisibility, locate object
1/day--greater teleport (self only), see invisibility
1/week--plane shift (self only)
Str 12, Dex 14, Con --, Int 10, Wis 10, Cha 12
Base Atk +2; CMB +3; CMD 15
Feats Flyby Attack, Improved Initiative
Skills Acrobatics +5, Fly +8, Perception +6, Stealth +8
Languages Abyssal; telepathy 100 ft.
SQ eyes of the master
Environment The Abyss
Organization solitary, gang (2-5), or swarm (5-20)
Treasure none
Special Abilities
Eyes of the Master (Su) The soul that animates a skulldugger is forever bound to its demon prince. Through this unholy bond, the creating demon prince can see with the eyes of the skulldugger at will. Normally, there is a 1% chance that the demon prince is watching at any given time. For skullduggers on important missions, this chance rises to 25%.
Immunity to Turning (Ex) While most undead are animated with negative energy, a skulldugger is powered by an evil soul. It is thus unharmed by positive energy channeling, and is unaffected by turning effects such as the Turn Undead and Command Undead feats. 

Conversion Notes: 

Note that in Pathfinder, undead have d8 Hit Dice rather than d12, but gain bonus hit points based on Charisma.

The skulldugger's immunity to turning requires the most dramatic change between systems. In Pathfinder, clerics can channel energy to directly harm or heal undead, but must spend a feat in order to turn or command them. I have therefore rewritten this ability to account for that change.

In Pathfinder, the skulldugger's gore attack is also be considered a primary weapon (cf. the gargoyle), negating the need for the Multiattack feat. That has been replaced with one of the feats from the advanced skulldugger's list: Improved Initiative.

With Pathfinder merging the Balance, Jump, and Tumbling skills into Acrobatics, and of Listen and Spot into Perception, several skill ranks are freed up for other uses. I added Fly to complement its Flyby Attack feat, and Stealth to aid in the skulldugger's role as a spy. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The look and feel of "Time of the Tarrasque"

My current Freeport campaign just needs one last session to wrap up, then I'll be taking a short break from GMing while another member of our group runs something for us. That will give me some time to recharge before we start my next Pathfinder campaign, the long-awaited "Time of the Tarrasque." However, I won't be completely idle during that time. It's been quite a while since my players created their characters, so I'll be trying to find time to talk with each of them so that everyone can refresh their memories and get a chance to tweak their stats. I also want to run some sort of prelude-type session with each player, so that we can work out some more background details, and determine how and why each of them are in the city of Zahallan when we start the campaign proper. (Two of my players need more of this than the others, because their characters come from well outside the starting area.)

I recently added an Inspiration page to the campaign wiki in order to share non-rules material that will help convey the look and feel of the game. So far I have created a few Pinterest boards for visual reference and inspiration for the game:

Lands of the Sun: Asasor is a sultanate of humans and halflings. Natives Asasorans of both races are dark-skinned, and the culture has an Arabian/Moorish look and feel. (Artwork of black halflings is hard to come by, so I've pinned several pictures of dark-skinned elves--not drow--to suggest possible looks for this nation's halflings.) The campaign begins in the desert frontier region, where orcs and hobgoblins are recurring threats, so I've included pictures of those races and other desert denizens. Our PCs will include two half-orcs and a human from Asasor or the nearby Lokoran Desert.

Fendorlis: One of our PCs will be a high elf from Fendorlis, the elven kingdom to the north of the desert. This nation was recently conquered by kobolds who serve dragons, so most of the survivors either fled the forest or remain there to carry on the resistance.

Thovalas: Thovalas is a matriarchal human empire on the northern continent. Thovalans are fair-skinned, and their culture is like Rome ruled by Amazons. Our one Thovalan PC is a half-elf, so I've suggested that her player look over the Fendorlis board as well.

I shared those boards with my players this week, and asked them to let me know if they want to use any of the pictures there as portraits for their characters. My wife has already picked this one for her half-orc inquisitor.

Working on these boards has reminded me yet again just much fantasy art out there is blatant cheesecake or fanservice. I've tried to minimize that in compiling these boards. I want the world and its characters to seem real, but things like absurdly impractical armor can easily break that illusion. It's even more difficult when you're trying to find decent pictures of Amazons! (Pun intended.)

I will continue to add to (and occasionally cull) these Pinterest boards as our preparations for the game continue, and as the campaign plays out. And watch for future columns here about "Time of the Tarrasque"!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

One of the most bizarre products ever released for AD&D was the 1st edition module S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. In this adventure, the dungeon is a vast, crashed spaceship, buried in the mountains until a recent tremor uncovered one of the exits. This vessel is packed with alien creatures and futuristic technology, all left to run amok after the ship's crew died countless years ago.

Because of its bizarre environment and weird denizens, S3 was one of the first RPG modules to include a booklet of illustrations. This booklet was as thick as the adventure itself, and included a handful of color pages, making this the most lavishly produced AD&D adventure at the time, and for several years afterward. The interior art and illustration booklet featured many of TSR's most prolific artists, including Jeff Dee, but the overall look was dominated by Erol Otus, who did the cover and most of the brand-new monsters.

I once tried to run this module using the AD&D 2nd Edition rules. As written, the adventure starts with the Duke of Geoff recruiting adventurers to investigate rumors of strange monsters in the mountains, but that sounded far too cliched for my taste. Instead, we used the Complete Book of Humanoids to create a party of evil humanoids banding together to beat the pesky low-landers to the rumored treasure. The game only lasted a couple of sessions, for a number of reasons: first, the party didn't work well together (in retrospect, I didn't give them enough motivation to be allies) and second, the adventure itself was far larger and more unwieldy than I was used to.

Despite that first attempt fizzling out, this adventure is far too cool and weird to not want to try again. I would definitely use a more recent edition of D&D (or possibly a d20 variant) because I am no longer familiar enough with the 1st or 2nd edition rules to use them again after all this time, or to want to. However, which system I end up using will very much depend on what my group is playing if and when I carry through on running Expedition.

Many of the new creatures from S3 were reprinted in the 1st Edition Monster Manual II, and those selections were later converted to Third Edition in The Tome of Horrors. Necromancer Games has since released v.3.5 and Pathfinder versions of this bestiary.

After the release of d20 Modern, d20 Future, and Future Tech, an article on the Wizards of the Coast website discussed how to introduce some of the items from this adventure into a D&D game. "Return Expedition to the Barrier Peaks" gave rules for future tech weapons and armor, as well as converting one of the robots featured in the module to D&D v.3.5. Since then, I have tried my hand at converting the rest of the monsters to v.3.5 (and later found a fan conversion of the full adventure online).

Thanks to the Tome of Horrors being Open Game Content, Paizo was able to include the froghemoth and vegepygmy in the first Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Bestiary. At least one more S3 monster has appeared in a later volume. One of the Pathfinder Adventure Paths involves alien tech appearing in a fantasy world, which spawned a couple of future tech sourcebooks for the system. Those books (or the online SRD) might be useful for converting elements of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and, of course, there is already at least one full-length fan conversion out there.

D&D v.3.5 and Pathfinder are far crunchier systems than 1st Edition, so running Expedition to the Barrier Peaks with either one would require me to track far more information. (Both those fan conversions I mentioned have at least double the page count of the original module, and that's just for the stat blocks and other game mechanics.) That complexity can make for a very rich gaming experience, but can cause some real headaches at times. For example, combats usually take longer than in previous editions, and this dungeon is packed to the rafters (and beyond) with hostile creatures.

I never played or liked Fourth Edition enough to consider running it myself, so let's move on.

I'm still learning Fifth Edition, but the complexity and feel of the rules are a lot closer to 2nd Edition than to Third--it has something of a nostalgic or "retro" feel  but still offers a robust diversity of options. That makes it an attractive option from the perspective of character creation and game play, and the Dungeon Master's Guide even includes a (tantalizingly brief) page on alien technology. On the other hand, I would need to build at least half the monsters in the adventure from scratch, and I'm certainly not up for that challenge...yet. (I would have the same problem with converting this adventure to any non-d20 system--and then it wouldn't be D&D, which misses much of the point of the experiment.)

After some web searching, I've discovered that during the D&D Next playtest (for what would become Fifth Edition), Wizards of the Coast produced a conversion of Dungeons of Dread (a collection of the modules S1-S4). Unfortunately, this playtest packet doesn't seem to be available anywhere online since the final Fifth Edition rules were released. Maybe by the time I can track down a copy of that packet, I'll be familiar enough with the new rules to be ready to run an 8th-12th level adventure in this new edition.

[UPDATE October 2016: Thanks to one of my readers, I now have a copy of the DoD playtest packet.]