• Let's Read the 4e Monster Manual/Vault: Bear

    Cave bear (left) and Dire Bear (right). Copyright 2008 Wizards of the Coast

    We have bears in the real world, so they don’t require much in the way of introduction. D&D has always included a variety of bears in its bestiaries, their various real-world species lending themselves well to the “pallette swap” approach preferred by its older editions.

    After going through a few Monster Manual-only entries, we finally arrive at one that exists in both books. The Monster Vault has an appendix with stats for mundane animals, likely a response to complaints from traditionalist players that the original Monster Manuals didn’t include any.

    But wait! If the Monster Manual doesn’t have anything on mundane animals, what does it say about bears? Let’s find out.

    The Lore

    They’re bears. Large, omnivorous, inhabit temperate or colder areas. I wasn’t aware of it until recently, but it appears the “Bear Lore” entry in the Monster Manual is kind of a running joke among 4e players. It’s structured just like the lore entries for weirder monsters, so it ends up telling us a PC needs to succeed at a DC 20 Nature check to know that bears attack with their claws.

    IIRC, while real-life bears can be dangerous, they usually don’t go out of their way to attack humans, so most bear encounters will be peaceful. Of course, this being D&D, you can encounter some bears that don’t exist in real life and that are far more ornery.

    The Numbers

    Combining the two books gives us three different bears: a mundane Bear (MV), a Cave Bear (MM), and the ever spiky Dire Bear (both). All are Unaligned natural beasts and have Int 2.

    The Bear likely represents a brown bear. It’s Large, and a Level 5 Brute with 80 HP. It attacks with its claws, and can use a Bear Grab about twice per fight (it recharges when the bear is bloodied). This allows it to make two claw attacks against the same target, and if either one hits the target drops prone and the bear grabs it if it has fewer than two creatures grabbed. This ain’t no normal bear hug. At the start of the bear’s turn, it deals automatic damage against any creatures it has grabbed.

    The Cave Bear is meant to represent a species that’s extinct in our world. It’s a Level 6 Elite Brute with 170 HP, but for some reason it’s only Medium. It’s more of a striker than a grappler: aside from its claws, it has a Cave Bear Frenzy that does claw damage in a Close Burst 1 and recharges on a 5-6. That’s a bit less multi-strike ability than I’d expect from an elite monster, but not too much less.

    The Dire Bear follows the “bigger and spikier” theme set for dire animals in Third Edition. The Monster Vault version is merely an update of the Monster Manual, so I recommend using that one in all cases. It’s a Large Natural Beast and a Level 11 Elite Brute. Its basic attack are its claws, but it will rarely use that. The Dire Bear’s real go-to ability is Maul, which is at-will and allows it to make two claw attacks. If both hit the same target, the bear grabs the target if it has fewer than two creatures grabbed. This grab requires a secondary attack in the MM version, but not in the MV one. The bear can also use a standard action to deal lots of automatic damage to a grabbed creature (that’s where you use its action point).

    Suggested encounters in the MM are: Level 6, two cave bears and one bugbear strangler (“us bears gotta stick together!”); and level 11, 1 dire bear, 1 ettin spirit-talker, and 3 ogre minions.

    Final Impressions.

    Well, they’re bears. While there’s nothing terribly exciting about them lore-wise, they do their job mechanically (particularly the Monster Vault variants).

    One thing that might be fun is to have an evil druid as a villain, using charmed bears to do his bidding. Have the party be on the receiving end of the Aggressively Hegemonizing Ursine Swarm for once.

  • I Learned Something About Fighter Planes

    I’ve been playing a lot of Ace Combat 5 and 7 lately, so I have fighter jets in the brain. And today I learned something I’d never have thought was possible from looking at the way those games or RPGs like GURPS model them.

    Apparently, modern fighter planes are so fast they can shoot themselves down by outrunning their own cannon fire! Implausible, you say? Well, if you read this bit of news you’ll see that it actually happened in January of this year with an F-16, and that there are records of at least one other incident from back in 1956 with a Grumman F-11.

    The gist of it is that shells are fired from the aircraft’s cannon at a speed equal to that of the aircraft plus their muzzle velocity, as you’d expect. However, they’re quickly slowed down by drag, so it’s possible for a plane flying at high speeds to accelerate past the bullets it just fired and maneuver itself into a position to be hit by them.

    GURPS and most RPGs just tend to treat projectiles as having infinite speed. A character shoots, and the bullet flies out to its maximum range before the end of that character’s turn. This is a pretty decent approximation for the type of combat that usually happens in these games, which is between people on foot and at relatively short ranges. GURPS Tactical Shooting does have some additional rules for projectile flight time, but those are optional and mostly meant for snipers1. None of the existing rule sets contemplates the speed and ranges involved in jet age air combat.

    Do we need specific rules for this hazard? I would say not. It’s even more of a niche situation than long-range sniping, and the bookkeeping required to track it would not be all that fun even in a realistic game about air combat. No, what we have here is an excellent result to use if someone rolls a critical failure on a Gunnery or Pilot test. Even if you go on to become the Ace of Aces, your squadron-mates will forever embarass you with stories of that one time you shot yourself down.

    1. Who are famous for not moving at supersonic speeds. 

  • Let's Read the 4e Monster Manual/Vault: Battlebriar

    Warthorn (left) and Earthrager (right). Copyright 2008 Wizards of the Coast

    Today’s monster is the Battlebriar, a plant creature that’s entirely new to me. It exists only on the Monster Manual.

    The Lore

    Battlebriars are weaponized biotech! These plant monsters were created to serve as living siege engines. A direct quote from the book: “They can destroy massed formations of lesser troops, storm defended embankments, or bring down fortifications.”

    Being plants, these living engines of destruction are surprisingly low-maintenance. As long as a battlebriar has access to water, fertile soil and sunlight, it can live forever. This makes them good guardians in addition to being siege weapons. Fey creatures like to use them to guard their strongholds. Other battlebriar users include Hill Giants, which I found quite interesting. Sometimes they also escape their masters and go live in the wild.

    Battlebriars are Unaligned and have Int 3, so PCs are most likely to fight them when going against their masters. A wild battlebriar will likely leave the PCs alone if they don’t provoke it, though of course they might have no alternative if it’s blocking their goal.

    The Numbers

    We’re given two stat blocks for these things.

    The Warthorn Battlebriar is a Large natural animate (plant), and a Level 14 Controller with 141 HP and a ground speed of 6. It has an aura of Grasping Thorns, with a 2-square radius, that makes its area difficult terrain for enemies and deals 5 damage to any that start their turns there. This thing has dozens of branches constantly flailing around!

    Aside from a reach 2 claw as a basic attack, it can also fire thorns from those branches in a close burst 2. This targets Reflex, dealing damage an slowing targets for a turn. Furthermore, its claw attacks pull victims towards the monster. Getting away from this thing is quite hard: you’re slowed, in difficult terrain, and when you manage to get away it pulls you back. It also has threatening Reach, and so can make opportunity out to its full reach of 2 squares.

    Its big brother is the Earthrager Battlebriar, a Huge elemental animate (plant). It’s a Level 28 Elite Brute with 634 HP, a ground speed of 8 and a burrow speed of 6. It’s made out of vines rather than thorny brambles, so its 3-square aura pulls enemies towards it. It’s the Reach 3 claws that do the slowing. It also has threatening reach, and it can trample - that last bit is how it attacks several characters at once.

    It resembles the Tarrasque in its tactics when on the offensive. When used as a guardian, it burrows and uses tremorsense to detect intruders, erupting below them to fight.

    The suggested encounter is level 14, a Warthorn being used as a weapon by a party of 2 cyclopes and 3 hill giants.

    Final Impressions

    Living siege engines are always cool, and these are nicely thematic for fey or elemental Earth-themed opposition. I liked them. Like every other MM monster, they need the damage fix, but other than that I see no fault with them. I like that their abilities match their in-world roles. The warthorn is your infantry killer, and the Earthrager with its burrowing and trampling ability makes short work of castles and walls.

    The Earthrager is the sort of weapon a mortal or fey army would round up to fight the Tarrasque… or, since it’s elemental, it might itself be a prototype or herald for the Big T.

  • Let's Read Hell's Rebels: Part 2, Part 3, Part 2

    Welcome back to Let’s Read Hell’s Rebels! On our last installment, the PCs explored the underground base under the ruins of the Lucky Bones casino and cleared out a nest of diabolic cultists, but all of that only covered half of the first level of the dungeon. Here we’ll go through the other half.

    Lucky Bones: Haunted Opium Den

    The Haunted Opium Den occupies the northern half of the level 1 map. It shares the same basic traits: 8-foot tall walls, pervading moisture, swollen and stuck doors. The main difference is all the doors here are closed, there’s no illumination, the temperature is just above freezing, and the mournful moans of lost souls echo through the hallways. In other words, it’s obviously haunted.

    The party can access this sub-level through the door on C7, which as mentioned before is protected by a complex lock and an arcane ward. PCs with the right spells and skills just might be able to get through it on their own. Otherwise Octavio can hook them up with an NPC spellcaster to break the seal once the cultists are cleared. “Lucky” PCs might also find a secret passage in the hideout that leads to the bottom of a pit in this region, right into a faceful of yellow mold.

    Our opposition here consists entirely of undead haunting the places where they died or guardian creatures bound by sorcery. Since no one leaves their assigned rooms, there’s much less pressure to finish this area in one go than there is for the hideout. Two of the encounters (Lorelu and the wretchghosts) can even be avoided if all the party wants is to make a beeline to level 2, but all the undead in this area must be dealt with eventually before the complex becomes usable as a base.

    Here’s the room key:

    C10. Private Rooms: Accessible from C7. Fancy furniture rotted by time and moisture. Each contains a valuable hookah still in good condition.

    C11. High-Stakes Hall: Accessible from C7. Large card table with several seats. The corpse and ghost of Guildmaster Lorelu are here. The ghost will invite the PCs for a few “friendly” games of Odds and Evens. See below for details on this.

    C12. Opium Den: Accessible from C7. Squat columns, claustrophobic curtained alcoves. Three wretchghosts (see below) haunt this room and attack the living on sight. Their corpses lie here and are loaded with fancy jewelry.

    C13. Infested Pit: Accessible from C7. An obvious, 20-foot deep pit. Rotten rope-and-pulley device across it will crumble if anyone tries to use it to cross. Narrow ledge on south side allows passage with an easy Acrobatics check (DX in GURPS). Northern ledge looks similar but hinges down like the ones in C4 to drop people into the pit. The bottom of the pit contains the skeleton of a giant snake and a whole lot of yellow mold. It also has a secret passage leading to C4. PCs coming in from the other side of this passage for the first time will also be exposed to the mold.

    C14. The Watcher In The Walls: Accessible from C13. Floor tiled in odd patterns of red, green, blue and yellow tiles. A bound advanced xorn waits in the walls and will attack anyone who tries to cross the room without stepping on tiles of only one color (Lorelu can reveal this information). Yellow tiles contain secret compartments (single Perception/Observation test to notice them all) full of stolen money and jewelry. The corpses of two opium den clients killed by the xorn contain yet more jewelry.

    C15: Master’s Office: Accessible from C14. Large conference table, filing cabinets lining the walls, moldy portraits of all three guildmasters. A bunch of coins and a dagger of venom are on the table. The files contain a lot of obsolete ledgers, a bunch of deeds for property in Vyre that will be useful in the next adventure, and a poem with a circled passage that will be useful in C16.

    C16. Smuggler’s Well: Accessible from C14. Heavy battle damage on walls, old skeletons belonging to Grey Spiders and Torrent Knights. Six ghasts lie amid the inert skeletons. There’s a big well in the center, capped by a heavy stone slab decorated with a xenopterid statue with gemstone eyes (looks like a man in a trenchcoat from a distance). Pressing the eyes in the sequence circled in the poem found on C15 causes the stone to slide and open the way to level 2. The wrong sequence or any attempt to destroy the capstone summon a fiendish xenopterid that attacks the party. Only one such beast can be summoned at at time, but this keeps happening until the party gets the sequence right or manages to fully destroy the stone. Treasure includes scattered coins, jewelry worn by the ghasts, a +1 mithral short sword and a vest of escape amid the bones.

    Opposition Notes


    If the PCs win a round against the halfling ghost, she answers a question from them. If she wins, the gets to drain a bit of the opponent’s life. The rules for Odds and Evens are at the start of the adventure book, initially presented as a harmless game you can play back at the Tooth and Nail. I think I glossed over it when describing that tavern, but it’s a nifty bit of foreshadowing when you know what it’s for.

    Lorelu remembers little of her life but has fairly good knowledge of the dungeon’s layout, traps, and current events - even stuff from the second level. Her answers are true but somewhat cryptic, and if she doesn’t know the answer to a question “I have no idea” is valid as far as the game is concerned. The life drain she employs on a loser causes damage to a random ability score.

    The list of things that will make the halfling flip out and attack the party is quite long: disturbing her remains, displaying symbols of the Order of the Torrent, winning more than eight games, getting caught cheating, and of course picking a fight.

    Lorelu is a classic D&D ghost, meaning she’s insubstantial, has a monstrously damaging spectral touch, can drain life as described above, and layers all of that on top of the abilities she had in life as a level 6 rogue. Yes, the spectral touch can be used for sneak attacks. Fortunately for the party, she will not pursue them beyond the door and “resets” to a friendly attitude when they go back in. The one way to destroy her for good is to expose her bones to sunlight. If the PCs think to ask her about that, she will let them take her remains to the surface and will no longer attack.


    Wretchghosts are a new monster described in this book. As you might expect, they’re the ghosts of people who died from withdrawal. They’re associated with a specific drug (opium in this case), and their touch can get people addicted to it. They have bonuses against people addicted to the same drug as themselves, but these people can also bypass their insubstantiality and resistances.

    On the one hand, these former customers of the opium den were nobles and rich merchants, so their corpses have plenty of jewelry. On the other, a few of the PCs are likely addicted to opium after the fight ends.

    No mention whatsoever is made of special ways to get rid of this condition, so I guess it has to be cured the old-fashioned way. The ghosts can also use some spell-like abilities conceptually associated with opium, and go berserk when in the presence of the drug. You can have wretchghosts associated with other substances too, by switching their spell-like abilities.

    The “you’re now addicted” bit could really suck in GURPS, since Addiction there is a significant disadvantage and getting rid of it involves spending quite a few earned character points. Kinder GMs might wish to make it follow standard Affliction rules and have it only last for a few minutes of cold-turkey agony, or make it “permanent” but curable by Remove Curse.

    Other Opposition

    Ghouls have official stats on Pyramid #3/108. Increase their attributes a bit if you want to be strict about them being ghasts. They’re the last of the trapped customers to die here, having reached the battle site and resorted to cannibalizing the corpses before they finally starved.

    Xenopterids are Pathfinder’s version of the Moth Man legend. Man-sized bugs who look like people in trenchcoats from a distance, with sharp claws and a natural talent for grappling. They claw, they bite, they have venom, they drain blood, they have tough shells.

    Final Thoughts

    Pathfinder doesn’t always manage to straddle the line between atmospheric and tasteless, but I think it managed it here.

    The Lorelu encounter is practically combat-free for a perceptive party. That’s a lot more than I expected from the game that uses “attacks on sight and fights to the death” unironically. As for the other monsters, I particularly liked the wretchghosts. It’s fun to come up with new varieties of them for all the weird fantasy drugs in your world.

    Hitting the Haunted Opium Den early might not be a good idea even for parties who can get through the door on their own - they’ll need to conserve their resources for the boss fight at the Cultist Hideout.

  • Where I read the 4e Monster Manual/Vault: Bat

    Copyright 2008 Wizards of the Coast

    Bats are tiny nocturnal mammals who feed on fruit and insects… but those aren’t the bats we’re talking about here. These bats are proper monsters.

    The Lore

    We get two different bat species here. Both are Medium, meaning they’re the size of an adult human and have enough wingspan to get that bulk airborne.

    Fire bats are Elemental Beasts (fire), which are native to the Elemental Chaos but spread to the world through natural passages between the two planes and took root here. In much the same way cats migrated to Australia on ships and became a danger to the ecosystem, I guess.

    Shadowunter bats are apparently native to the world. They’re descended from normal bats who happened to live in places where necromantic energies from the Shadowfell leaked through, and those energies mutated them.

    Both types of monstrous bat have Int 2 and are Unaligned. They take well to domestication, and so might be found as pets and guard animals for people or intelligent monsters, particularly those that share origins with them. In fact, the Fire Bat lore entry specifically mentions azer, which gives credence to my theory that the azer used to be Heroic-tier opponents who got upgraded to Paragon at the last minute.

    The Numbers

    Organizing monsters alphabetically by name means Bats are actually the first real Heroic-tier creatures we’ve run across in the book. Angels had an Heroic-tier variant but it was kind of a footnote among a bunch of more powerful individuals.

    Shadowunter Bats are Level 3 Lurkers that have 38 HP and fight as skirmishers. They’re quite clumsy on the ground, but fly with speed 8. It appears they attack with a wickedly barbed tail, which has a bonus to attack and does extra damage in dim light or darkness. They can use it in a Flyby Attack, moving their speed and making a tail attack at any point (and not provoking opportunity attacks when moving away).

    Hm… if one or more of these attack the party, I’d expect them to do so in an area that’s entirely shrouded in dim light or darkness. You’d think that this would allow them to get the bonus damage all the time, but PCs are likely to be carrying their own bright light sources in these places. So they’re going after the rogue who’s scouting ahead without a light source. If domesticated, their owners should probably employ some trick to neutralize the party’s lights.

    Fire Bats are Level 3 Skirmishers with 60 HP and 10 fire resistance. They fly as fast as shadowunters, and are as clumsy on the ground. Being bats that are on fire, their attack is a touch that does fire damage and ongoing fire damage. Their version of the flyby attack allows them to shift 4 squares and make an attack against anyone they touch on the way.

    The sample encounter is level 3, a party of goblins and their two shadowhunter bat pets.

    Final Impressions

    Functional opposition for when your party ventures into bat country. I think the fire bats work a little better, since the shadowunter’s bonus damage is too fiddly. Changing it so that they only need to start their turn in dim light or darkness to get the bonus would make them work better.

    Since they’re only level 3 regulars, the math bug doesn’t affect them all that much.

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