Last week, I mentioned the idea of running a "fantasy Vietnam" campaign: treating the adventurers as mostly unwilling draftees, gathered up from disparate villages across the kingdom, and trundling them off to hot-spots on the borderland to serve in a rapidly-escalating war agains orcs, goblins, and other inhuman creatures. A dungeon-crawling dirty war, conducted with fire magic and bloody steel.
As a brief side note, a fellow gamer on the OSR Facebook group politely informed me the proper term for the trope is actually "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam." And that the first use of the term might actually be on this Dragonsfoot board from 2005.
He also shared a ton of useful links that I'm still pursuing, which means this idle little thought experiment of mine might expand in scope as I keep working on it.
Anyway, there isn't really a "perfect" edition of D&D to do this with, which means I'll be kitbashing one together, stealing rules from various editions and other OSR systems as I go.
That said, there is a method to the madness, something I'm hoping will become clearer in this post.
As I previously mentioned, one of the guiding principles I'm exploring in this blog series is that the game's rules should imply something about the setting. As such, all of the tweaks and twists I'm making should create a specific effect, either evoking the tropes found in Vietnam war movies, striving to re-create something found on the historical battlefield, or some mixture of both.
One quick admin note before I roll onward. Up until now, I've been working with various B/X retro clones. Some of them are fantastic, particularly James Raggi IV's Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I've talked about how much I love that system before, and I'll stand by that statement. In fact, expect to see more than a few of his ideas of make an appearance in this kitbash.
But from here on out, I'll be using the D&D Rules Cyclopedia as my base document. I just ordered a POD copy from DrivethruRPG. In my not-so-humble opinion, the Rules Cyclopedia is the best edition of D&D ever produced, and arguably the single best product TSR ever made. If you want to follow along, but don't feel like buying a copy, Dark Dungeons is a available as a free, "close-as-you-can-get-it" retro clone.
MASH on the Borderland
It's been three weeks, and four missions down in the tunnels. That smiling little swordsman from Dragonfall was the first to die. A rusty gobbo spear through the gut, then swarmed and hacked to death by a dozen of the little devils. He died crying for his momma.
Bastards didn't even leave enough of him to box up and send back to her.
You still haven't written home. You aren't sure what you can say. The borderland isn't anything like your old militia service back home. Twice-yearly pike drills in the village square didn't do anything to prepare you for this.
How could it?
Last mission, you ended up separated from the party. A gobbo caught you and tried to pin you with one of those poison-tipped knives. You wrestled with him, staring into those hateful red eyes, smelling that rank breath. You only lived because you became more animal than he was. You sank your teeth into his neck, biting until you tasted his black, oily blood.
"Dear Mom" your unfinished letter reads. You haven't gotten any farther.
Easing yourself out of the bed in the adventurers' barracks, you decide to go down to the infirmary. Stitches pull tight beneath blood-crusted bandages, bringing a wince of pain. Some of the newer wounds rip open again. The older ones hold tight, thank the gods.
Three of you made it out of that last tunnel. The healers took good care of you, as always. They even found a bed for Kruppa, the party thief.
Kruppa... He was in bad shape when you got back. Almost didn't make it. The healers managed to stabilize him, but that was about it. Rumors said he stopped breathing last night, and one of the Sisters of Mercy had to perform their sacred "Kiss of Life" to revive him.
Fact was, Kruppa probably didn't have much time. And while forming attachments wasn't smart on the borderland—your first trip into the tunnels taught you that—you found yourself liking him.
You see the gathered crowd from halfway across the courtyard. Off duty kingsmen, civilians, tradesmen... everyone not otherwise engaged in their duties is crowded outside the infirmary building.
You spy Bregan the dwarf, standing on a barrel and cursing to himself, trying to see over the crush. You approach and ask what gives.
"They brought in one of the healing Clerics," the dwarf says.
A healing Cleric? Gods...
You've heard them. Holy beings, so the stories go. Mortals so touched with the divine they could call on miraculous healing powers.
You only half believed they were real.
You only half believed they'd be here, in this gods-forsaken hellhole.
All at once, a ghostly hush goes over the crowd. Something's happening. You try catch a glimpse through the infirmary's stone archway.
What you see is something that looks so out of place you still aren't sure your mind didn't make it up. The woman is saintly-looking, with platinum hair and perfect features. There isn't a speck of dirt on her. For the briefest second, she locks eyes with you. They're the deepest blue you've ever seen. Like the sky itself...
She lays a hand on Kruppa's forehead. She whispers something you can't hear. Then there's a flash. A white light like nothing you've ever seen. It will be weeks before you can even describe the feeling of warmth and love you feel in that moment. For a time, the memory of it almost makes the Hell of the borderlands seem tolerable.
"Kruppa's going to be okay," Bregan says. The crowd's beginning to break up now. You hardly even noticed.
The dwarf nudges you. "Come on," he says. "Patrol's headed north in an hour. Some FNG's out of Hooktooth. Told them we'd tag along. Should be an easy day's work. Earn earn enough for a bed and another meal."
A bed. Another meal. Gods. You remember when life meant more.
"An hour," you say absently. Your voice sounds hollow to your own ears.
You're tired. Your wounds ache. You know you need at least a week to recover. But you don't have it. Right now, you have about forty five minutes. And you need all of it to sharpen your knives, pack your kit, and tie everything down so it doesn't make a sound when you walk.
Because right now, you have to go down into the earth and collect goblin ears.
One of the things I believe a "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam" campaign needs to do is portray the gradual degradation of the PCs from fresh-faced, raw recruits into haggard, bone-weary short-timers. But BECMI simply isn't built that way. Like all editions of D&D, it's built around the idea that your PCs will start out as weak 1st level characters, and get progressively stronger and more powerful through their adventures.
So the first change I'd make is to the way starting Hit Points are generated. The method is one I'm cribbing from Goblinoid Games' awesome Mutant Future, by Daniel Proctor and Ryan Denison.
After rolling 3d6 in order to determine stats—no cheating here—use the player's CON score to determine the number of hit dice the player rolls. Fighters and Dwarves use a d6. All others use a d4.
So for example, a Fighter with with a 13 CON rolls 13d6, coming up with 46 HP. An Elf with with a 15 CON rolls 15d4, coming up with 38 HP. A Thief with 10 CON rolls 10d4 coming up with 27 HP, etc.
Those hit points are all the hit points the character will ever have. Or rather, they're the character's permanent max. No more hit points are gained from leveling up.
It's also important to note that when rolling, you shouldn't apply ability score adjustments for high or low CON scores to the die rolls. Those bonuses and penalties will come into play later, but not at character generation, and not for determining total hit points.
Other benefits to leveling up, such as THAC0 (or Base Attack Bonus if you're kitbashing with a different system), spells, skills, and saving throws, are all still in play. But in Fantasy Fucking Vietnam, characters start with all the HP they'll ever be able to accrue.
The next major change I'd make is that I'd remove Clerics as a player character option. In fact, I'd remove healing magic from the field altogether, except for at rear-echelon, MASH-type units. It would only be available in limited supply, and reserved for the gravest extreme. Most of the time, PCs would simply have to do without.
This gets back to a point I made in the introduction, about how rules—and rules changes—should imply something about the setting. By striking Clerics from the list of available classes, I'm not just removing a bunch of player options. I'm saying something about the way the world around the PCs works.
Clerics themselves could be rare individuals, to the point where no one would ever risk sending them out into the field on a combat operation. There may only be a few dozen of them in the theater of operations, and twice that in the entire world. They'd be highly protected, with 24 hour security details wherever they went. The death just of one would be a crippling blow to the war effort. If one ever fell into enemy hands, a rescue mission would be the area commander's top priority.
And if a long range recon mission happened to learn of the existence of Druids—another class I would disallow for the players—it would have far-reaching consequences. More healing magic, and potentially limitless ability to strike at he goblins on their own turf? Area commanders would undoubtedly hire the PCs to escort them deep into Druid territory, in an effort to negotiate an alliance with the Neutral Druids, hoping to gain a powerful ally in the war against the Chaotic goblins.
Of course, the Druids might not be too happy to see the intrusive humans from the borderland keep, with their unchecked logging and hunting practices. The Druids may see them no differently than they do the goblins.
So what does this mean for healing, then, if magic is effectively cut out of the equation?
The way I see it, they have two options. The first is the Healing skill, detailed on page 83 of the Rules Cyclopedia. In short, a trained character can render first aid and heal 1d3 points of damage on one set of wounds, usually defined as Hit Points lost in one combat situation or encounter.
The second option is recovering hit points through rest. Swiping a bit from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the characters recover 1d3 HP per full day of rest. But to put a house-ruled spin on it, this rest applies only when not in field conditions. Characters must be in a relatively sanitary and safe location, with the ability to keep their wounds clean and protected.
This is also where the bonus ability score adjustment for high or low CON score comes into play. Apply this modifier to each d3 roll as the PCs are recovering, but only when resting in the rear.
For example, let's say you have a thief who lost a total of 22 HP on his last mission. First aid in the field helped him recover 3, so now he's only down 19. Back at the infirmary, the Healers clean and bind his wounds more throughly and put him on bed rest, aka "three hots and a cot." On his first day, he rolls a 2 on his 1d3. But his CON score of 14 gives him a +1 bonus, bringing that up to a 3. So by the end of day one, he's only down 16 HP.
On the other end of things, the thief's wizard companion lost a total of 12 HP. Back at the Infirmary, the Healers again do their best, binding and cleaning his wounds and putting him on bed rest. But the wizard's CON score of 5 applies a -2 penalty to all rest and recovery rolls. Rolling a 1d3 for his first night, the player comes up with a 1. Applying the -2 penalty, the result is that the wizard's wound festers, and he actually takes an additional point of damage overnight.
Taking all of these rules changes together—high HP at character generation, rare or nonexistent healing magic, and slow natural recovery times—what happens is that a very different sort of play style emerges.
You have PC's who gradually get better at fighting, even as they're being physically ground down by the grueling operational tempo. To help maintain the effect, I'd be careful not to allow too many R&R days in between missions. The idea is after that first mission into the tunnels, at least half of the adventuring party would begin every dungeon crawl as "walking wounded," sometimes missing as much as 10 HP or more.
The other idea is that for a grievously wounded character—one who's been denied magical healing—it can take up to a month to fully recover from injuries. And characters with a low CON score may just fester and die in the hospital altogether.
Admittedly, the changes made in this segment of my kitbash experiment are big ones, but that's because they're intended to produce big effects. The PC's in a Fantasy Fucking Vietnam campaign shouldn't be eager adventurers looking for increased fame and fortune. They should be wary survivors facing mounting exhaustion and eroding ideals.
I still have more rules changes to talk about in the coming weeks, most of them smaller and far less dramatic than this one. I have some thoughts on using simplified crit tables in conjunction with exploding damage die, for example. And I'm still noodling around with how to mess with skills and proficiencies.
Anyway, I think you've all earned some R&R. Go ahead and kick back, drink a cold beer, and blast some Hendrix tapes. Do your best to forget the world outside the wire.
Also, be careful who you let into your hooch tonight. Scuttlebutt says the gobbos caught and tortured an illusionist last week. Patrol found his body just north of the Ogre's Fist. What was left of it, anyway.
But they didn't find his spell book. Consider yourselves forewarned.
After sharing my house rules to make D&D combat a bit more interesting last week, I got a request for a written play example. I also got a few questions about things that weren't addressed or clear in the original post. I'll address those first, and then move on to a short play example.
As I mentioned last week, this is basically a simplified version of the Palladium/Rifts combat system. While it won't fit everyone's play style, the overall effect has been to make combat a little grittier without adding much more book keeping. My current players love it, and I'll probably end up using some variation of it for the foreseeable future.
First, the miscellanea:
1. Damage causing spells like magic missile completely bypass armor and affect hit points. This makes wizards much more dangerous at low levels. The tactical effect is that they become priority targets for any intelligent enemy with a ranged attack. When fighting smart opponents, it's a fairly even trade off.
2. Spell casters are not expressly forbidden from wearing heavy armor, but it does restrict their movement and affect casting. I allow for casters to wear leather type armor with no effect. Chain and heavier armor reduces casting to once every other round.
3. Defense rolls are just a d20 plus Dex bonus, and attack rolls are made with d20 plus STR plus Base Attack Bonus (or proficiency, if used). As the characters level, the attack roll totals will gradually supersede the defense roll totals. This is a feature, not a bug. The best defense is a strong and aggressive offense. Experienced characters (especially warriors) know and have internalized this.
4. Combats featuring singular monsters versus PCs with gangs of henchmen generally favor the PCs and henchmen. Again, this is by design. In a world with dragons, giants, and ogres, a human settlement's only possible defense is to find these monsters and attack in force. Think of the villagers with torches and pitchforks storming Dracula's castle in the old movies. Smart monsters have to use the same tactics humans do in order to survive: defensible lairs in difficult-to-access places, traps, and escape routes. If the PCs manage to surprise a giant in the middle of a field, and surround him with twenty henchmen, then they've either executed a brilliant ambush or found an incredibly stupid giant.
5. Most monsters don't have DEX ratings, so I assign a Defense modifier based on their Hit Dice, just like I do for attacks. A good rule of thumb is that the Defense bonus shouldn't exceed +3 for most "normal" creatures, since that's about the top range possible for the PCs. Certain "elite" monsters and supernatural creatures, like vampires, demons, or dragons, can have higher defense bonuses, but it's rare.
6. Creatures with claw/claw/bite get three total actions per round, rather than getting a seperate attack and defense action for each. This has the effect of nerfing them slightly, but they still get one more possible combat action per round than a PC does. Again, this enforces the "strength in numbers, fight smart or die" ethos of the system. A sabretooth tiger versus a single mid-level warrior is probably going to kill him. That same sabretooth tiger versus a gang of six zero-level villagers, on the other hand, had better run away.
7. Defense rolls are only possible on attacks from the front, or attacks the character is otherwise aware of. Furthermore, any attack that occurs from behind gets an additional +4 to hit, which also translates to a greater chance to bypass armor. Short version, a surrounded character or monster is probably going to die unless they can find some way to escape.
8. Henchmen and mooks. To reduce my own book keeping for peon characters, I usually just bump up a mook monster's hit points if they're wearing armor. Instead of tracking the extra 30 Armor Points for a goblin, I just rule that it's a ratty old thing that only offers partial protection and give him 15 extra HP. I also use a natural 20/critical hit rule. Against "elite" or boss monsters it's an extra damage die, but against mooks I rule that it's an instant kill. The flip side, of course, is that any natural 20 I roll can insta-kill a PCs henchman.
9. Spell casters can still only cast one spell per round. They're still entitled to use their second action as either defense or as an attack, but they cannot cast a second spell with it.
So with all that in mind, plus the basics detailed in my last post, here's a brief skirmish using these house-rules.
Example of D&D Active Combat:
Brogar the Barbarian and Mingol the Mage have been hired to destroy a werewolf pack that's been terrorizing the area. With the aid of four experienced wolf hunters, they've located the werewolf den in a small hillside cave. The original plan, which involved building a fire in the cave's mouth to smoke them out and killing them with silver weapons, can't be followed anymore because of fears that a missing village girl is inside the den.
With the girl's safety becoming the character's primary concern, the players settle on a hard, fast frontal assault as the best remaining option. Brogar takes point, directing two wolf hunters to get on each side of him, forming a wedge. Mingol hangs back, protected by the wedge and ready to give ranged support.
Partway into the den, the characters hear a savage snarl. Two of the werewolf cubs come bounding up out of the darkness. The DM instructs everyone to roll a d6 for initiative.
Brogar rolls a 4. His DEX bonus of +2 brings it up to a 6.
The four wolf hunters (henchmen characters) get a 3.
The two werewolf cubs (mook monsters, but tough ones) roll a 5.
An adult female werewolf (waiting around the bend in the tunnel and unseen at the moment) rolls a 4
Mingol rolls a natural 6.
Mingol, having won the initiative roll, has the option to go first. Instead, he declares that he's holding action.
Brogar goes next. He swings his axe at one of the incoming cubs, using one of his combat actions. He rolls a 10, but his +2 Strength bonus and his +4 Base Attack Bonus bring the total to 16.
At the same instant, the werewolf cub rolls a defense. Even at 3 HD, a +1 bonus to his roll seems fair. The cub rolls a 7, which barely totals half of Brogar's attack roll after adding the +1. Brogar's attack is successful. He rolls a 7 for damage.
The adult female werewolf holds her action, choosing to remain hidden.
The werewolf cubs go next. The first one to strike is the injured one, and it attacks Brogar. It rolls a 12, which becomes a 13 once the +1 attack bonus is added.
At the same time, Brogar makes a defensive roll, burning up his remaining combat action for the round. He rolls a 10, which becomes a 12 when his +2 DEX bonus is added. The werewolf cub's attack is successful, but not good enough to bypass Brogar's armor class of 14. The werewolf's claws rake down his leather armor for 8 points of armor damage.
The second werewolf attacks the wolf hunter immediately to Brogar's right.. The wolf hunter burns one action to defend, but the werewolf cub rolls a natural 20. The cub pounces on the hunter, riding him to the ground and sinking his fangs into the man's throat, killing him instantly.
Mingol states that he would like to use his action now. He casts magic missile, sending two projectiles directly at the werewolf that's down on top of the dead hunter. They total eleven points of damage to the monster's HP.
The three remaining wolf hunters go now. The one to the right of his dead comrade turns and stabs at the injured werewolf cub's unprotected back. He only rolls a 4, but with the +4 bonus he gets from attacking from behind, he scores an 8. His sword deals 6 damage, reducing the cub's already depleted HP to 0 and killing it.
The two hunters to the left of Brogar move to encircle the cub to his front. Having burned both of its actions already, the cub gets no defensive actions against the hunters. Both hunters roll above a 5, and their combined attacks deal a total of 10 damage.
Since the cub has used all his actions for the round, and the hunters each have unexpended actions, both opt to spend their second action on another attack rather than defending. They both roll again. The first hunter rolls a 2, missing entirely. The second rolls a 12, delivering the fatal blow with 6 points of damage.
No sooner does the werewolf cub fall than a booming roar fills the tunnel. The enraged female werewolf charges from her hiding place at the nearest wolf hunter, rolling a 13. As a 6 HD monster, she gets an additional +6 to hit, bringing her total to 19.
Having expended both combat actions to finish the cub, the wolf hunter gets no attempt to protect himself. The werewolf rolls 1d8+2 for damage, totaling 9 as her claws rip into the startled hunter. The werewolf burns her second action delivering another claw strike to the hunter, again delivering 9 points of damage. This reduces the hunter's HP to 0, killing him.
The adult werewolf, as a monster traditionally assigned a bite/bite/claw attack, gets a third action. She spends it by launching herself at Brogar. She rolls a 16 for her bite attack, totaling 22 with her +6 to hit. Brogar, also having expended his available actions for the round, gets no defense beyond his armor. The 22 easily beats his armor class of 14, and the werewolf sinks its fangs into the upper flesh of his arm for four points of damage. Borgar successfully saves vs poison, avoiding being infected by lycanthropy.
The round is now over, and round two begins with Mingol's action.
Mingol chooses not to hold his action this round. He casts a protection spell on Brogar, granting him a +2 bonus to his AC, his saving throws, and his defensive rolls.
Brogar goes next. He spends one action attacking the werewolf. He rolls a 16, which his +2 STR bonus and his +4 Attack Bonus bring up to a 20.
The werewolf spends one of her actions defending, rolling at the same time. She rolls a 7, which her +3 Defense bonus only brings up to a 10. Brogar buries his silver axe in her hide for 6 damage.
The werewolf—who rolled a 4 back when initiative was called--goes next. She rolls a 9, which her attack bonus brings up to a 15.
Brogar expends his remaining action rolling a defense. He rolls a 10, which becomes a 14 when his DEX bonus and extra bonus for the protection spell are added. The werewolf's attack succeeds, but since the protection spell also grants him a +2 to AC, her claws only strike his armor, dealing 8 points of armor damage.
The two remaining hunters go next. They roll a morale check. One fails and flees back toward the tunnel entrance. The other succeeds and moves to attack the werewolf. He rolls a 17.
The werewolf—who, again, is entitled to three actions as opposed to most characters' two—uses her remaining action to defend. She rolls a natural 20, neatly dodging and earning an attack of opportunity. She rolls an 18, which her bonuses bring to a 24. She also maxes the damage roll, delivering 10 points of damage to the hunter and reducing his HP by more than half.
The round is now over. Round three begins, with initiative once again passing to Mingol.
Again, this is actually far less complicated in play than it looks on paper. As long as the DM has a handle on it and can guide the players along, it runs pretty smoothly. Some players and DMs may feel like it's too crunchy or adds too much book keeping to combat, but that hasn't been my experience. For my table, it strikes a good balance between grit and abstract, hitting the sweet spot that all the players seem to appreciate. They're having, fun, they're engaged, and they're always looking forward to combat encounters now.
As a DM, what more could I ask for?
About three or four sessions into my current campaign, I noticed that my players didn't really like the abstract nature of D&D combat. No matter how much narration and dramatizing I did, combat just felt too passive to them. Specifically, they wanted to do something besides stand there and take it while the enemy rolled against their AC.
Now, one thing I'll say in favor of D&D combat RAW. It's streamlined. And if the players are happy enough to fill in the blanks by imagining feints, dodges, and other maneuvers happening in between declared actions and combat rolls, then it's fine.
On the other hand, way back when I was a wee player, I had the same reaction. I kept trying to declare dodge or parry on the enemy's turn, and it took a little while for me to get comfortable with everyone rolling against a static number to simulate combat.
Which is probably why I gravitated to Kevin Siembieda's Palladium System games so strongly. Divisive as hell within the RPG community, absurdly crunchy, and badly imbalanced even by early 80's game design standards, the Palladium games nonetheless had a gonzo weirdness to them that I loved. Even though I could never get my early groups to accept a sci-fi/fantasy mashup like Rifts, I bought sourcebooks for everything under the Palladium sun, mining some of the stranger fantasy elements for my own D&D games.
As I was also getting heavily into anime at the time, I had a special fondness for the Robotech line. At one time I owned every single sourcebook Palladium published for it, despite my regular group having even less interest in it than Rifts.
Anyway, my old group's strict definitions of what fantasy was and wasn't—and their almost fanatical opposition to genre mixing of any kind—is a subject for another time.
But if there's one thing I always thought Palladium games got 100% right, it was the opposed roll combat mechanic. Yeah, it kind of broke when scaled up to higher levels. Tracking multiple character actions, plus massive amounts of Armor SDC, Character SDC, and Hit Points got to be a pain in the ass. Especially after level five or so.
But the basic idea of the defender being allowed to dodge by beating the attacker's d20 roll was—and is—gold. And even though I was never able to convince my players to pick up a full Palladium game, a variation on that opposed d20 roll has been a longtime house rule of mine when running D&D.
For one thing, it keeps the players from feeling like combat is just an abstract game of roshambo. Every time I've introduced it at one of my tables, the players get much more involved in the battles. They suddenly feel like they're playing for stakes.
I also feel it does a better job of simulating the "grit" of combat. Armor as damage reduction just feels more intuitive than armor making someone harder to hit. It also means armor wears out over time. It's an expendable resource that has to be managed, like water, food, and torches. Not to mention the need to find an armor smith in between battles. Suddenly, long journeys into unknown territory become a much more dangerous affair.
So without further ado, here's my house-ruled Active Combat System. It's basically a stripped-down, bare bones version of Palladium's more intricate combat mechanics. If you're already familiar with those, then you won't find much new here.
Once the DM has a handle on it, this system is actually much simpler than it looks. Doing the opposed rolls simultaneously doesn't really take any longer to resolve than rolling against a character's AC. It adds a layer of player participation to the combat round, without adding much more bookkeeping.
It also affects combat in some interesting ways. With each character only getting one chance to defend in a round (or two, if they forego an attack), mobs of low level enemies like goblins suddenly become a deadly threat to even the highest level characters. Sure, the first twenty or thirty hits will get eaten up by that nice, expensive suit of chainmail. But remember, once it's rendered useless, any undefended roll of 5 or greater is a success. It won't take long for those little bastards to make hamburger out of the toughest warrior under those circumstances.
It hasn't happened in my current group yet, but as armor gets torn to shreds and healing spells run out, a fighting retreat often becomes the smartest course of action. I've seen the tanks form a barrier, using both actions to defend just so they can buy time for the other PCs to escape.
In short, these rules force the PCs to be much more careful about their tactical situation. It won't be a good fit for everyone's table. Hell, it hasn't even been a good fit for all of my tables. But if your players are starting to see combat as a repetitive slog, then it might be just what your group needs.
For part one of this series, click here. For part two, click here. For part three, click here. For part four, click here. And for part five, click here.
To close this little experiment out, I'm going to end right where the games do: with Dracula. Now, statting out the big boss for a Castlevania game could be easy. After all, he's a vampire, right? Why not just use the same Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game template I did for Carmilla?
Well, that gets back to what I said in my last post, about Ravenloft and Castlevania being two properties with different feels to them. Case in point: Strahd Von Zarovich is probably my favorite D&D villain of all time. He's devilishly smart. He's an accomplished wizard, who uses both magic and his environment to his advantage. But he's basically just a standard vampire, with a few tweaks to his power level. A canny-enough group of PCs could conceivably surprise him in his coffin, drive a stake through his heart, and end the problem. It's not likely, mind you, but it's possible.
Dracula from the Castlevania series, however, is another matter entirely. The climax is always a pitched battle, with Dracula taking on multiple forms. His human facade melts away, revealing a hideous, demonic nature. Only by defeating his final form (however many he goes through), do our heroes save the day.
And sure, part of that is because it's a platformer game, and platformers always end with a big boss fight. But I also think it's an essential part of the franchise. Simply put, if you're running a Castlevania-themed game, the only way to make it "feel" like Castlevania is to end it with an epic, shapeshifting, "now-face-my-TRUE-power"-style boss fight.
To that end, the first thing to realize is that Castlevania Dracula isn't really a vampire. Not in the Bela Lugosi/pop-culture/European folklore sense. Castlevania Dracula is really a maō, or Japanese Demon Lord.
Don't just take it from me. The Japanese title of the first game is Akumajou Dracula, or "Demon Castle Dracula." The akuma is an evil fire-spirit in traditional Japanese folklore, and when Christianity came to Japan in 1549, Akuma was the name applied to Satan. Language drift being what it is, "akuma" was sometimes shortened to "ma," meaning devil or demon, and maō is "demon ruler" or "demon king."
This article on Legends of Localization goes into more detail, but for our purposes it's enough to know that Dracula is much more than a vampire.
With this in mind, I decided to stat out three of Dracula's forms separately. I did use a modified vampire for the first one, since it seemed appropriate. For the second, I leaned heavily on the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game Infernal races (specifically the Malebranche and the Vrock). The last one—based on the cluster of floating heads from Castlevania III--is a modification of the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game Giant Flying Brain.
But enough talk! HAVE AT YOU!
Vlad Dracula Tepes (First Form)
Armor Class: 21
Hit Dice: 12 (attack bonus +12)
No. of Attacks: 1 or magic
Damage: 1d10, or magic
Movement: 40' or 60' (fly)
No. Appearing: 1 (Unique)
Save as: Lvl 12 Fighter
Treasure Type: Special
In his first form, Dracula appears to be an abnormally large vampire. He resembles an 8' tall human male, with pale skin, dark hair, and flaming red eyes. His canine teeth are sharp, and his features are vaguely lupine.
Like mundane vampires, in this form Dracula casts no shadow and no reflection. Unlike common vampires, he is perfectly capable of crossing running water and entering another's home without invitation. Additionally, mirrors and garlic have no effect. He may pretend to have these weaknesses at first, in order to lure his enemies into false confidence.
A cross presented with conviction will keep him at bay, provided the wielder is at least level 3 (for more information on this weakness, see the Vampire, p. 124 of the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game). He may also be turned, but the Cleric attempting to do so faces a -5 penalty.
Dracula is immune to Sleep, Charm, and Hold spells. He does not use weapons, preferring to use spells in combat. If forced to fight physically, he slashes at his enemies with his claws for 1d10 damage.
Dracula is not known to bite in combat. However, his bite inflicts 1d3 damage, and drains two level of energy for each round he continues to feed. While feeding, he suffers a -5 Armor Class penalty. Victims reduced to 0 hit points by in this manner die, and they will rise again as vampires during the next sunset. These new vampires are permanently under Dracula's control, and always act as if under a Charm spell.
Dracula has access to many magic spells. One of his preferred methods of attack is to cast Teleport (which he can do at will) to take an advantageous position behind his enemies, and then attack from a distance with Hellfire. For purposes of spell duration and saves, Dracula's Caster Level is 20.
Dracula can command common nocturnal creatures. Twice per day, he can summon 10d12 rats, 5d6 giant rats, 10d12 bats, 3d8 giant bats, or 3d8 wolves. The creatures must be nearby to be summoned. Once called, they arrive in 2d6 rounds and obey his commands for 2 hours.
At will, Dracula can transform into a swarm of 4d4 giant bats. The bats are identical to those detailed on p. 58 of the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Dracula often uses this ability to flee the area when surprised or overmatched. As long as even one of these bats survives, he is capable of returning to his first form, retaining the same number of Hit Points he had before transforming.
Dracula also has the common vampire's Charm gaze, which his victims must save vs Spell to resist. Victims save at -4.
Dracula cannot be harmed by non-magical weapons. Reducing him to 0 Hit Points or exposing him to direct sunlight for more than 5 rounds only destroys his first form, causing him to assume the next one.
1st Level Spell
Range: 100' + 10'/Level
This spell causes a small ball of fire to shoot forth and strike a target of the caster's choosing, causing 1d6+1 damage. The target must be at least partially visible to the caster. For every three caster levels after 1st, an additional fireball is generated: two at 4th level, three at 7th, four at 10th, and the maximum number of five at 13th level and above.
Vlad Dracula Tepes (Second Form)
Armor Class: 24
Hit Dice: 14 (attack bonus +12)
No. of Attacks: 1 or Special
Damage: 1d10 or Special
Movement: 30' or 15' (fly)
No. Appearing: 1 (Unique)
Save as: Lvl 14 Fighter
Treasure Type: Special
In his second form, Dracula resembles a huge, ugly, gargoyle-like creature. Membraneous wings connect his arms to his torso. Ram-like horns extend from the sides of his head.
Dracula is incapable of true "flight" in his gargoyle form, as his wings cannot support his massive body. However, he can use them to leap vertical and horizontal distances of over 15 feet. He uses this ability in combat, leaping at his enemy and slashing for 1d10 damage with his feet.
He is also capable of breathing modified Fireballs at will. Dracula's fireballs are treated as if generated by a fifth level caster, causing 5d6 damage, and having a range of 150 feet. Rather than saving vs. Spell for half damage, his targets are allowed a save vs. Breath Weapon to avoid damage altogether.
While in this form, Dracula can only be harmed by magical weapons and spells cast by a character of 3rd Level or higher. He is completely immune to Sleep, Charm, and Hold spells. Additionally, as he is no longer assuming the shape of an undead creature, he cannot be turned. Reducing Dracula's Second Form to 0 Hit Points does not kill him. It only causes him to assume his Third and final form.
Vlad Dracula Tepes (Third Form)
Armor Class: 14
Hit Dice: 24 (attack bonus +1)
No. of Attacks: Magic or Special
Movement: 30' or 15' (fly)
No. Appearing: 1 (Unique)
Save as: Lvl 14 Magic User
Treasure Type: Special
In his Third and final form, Dracula appears as a massive cluster of 4d4 giant heads. The heads float 5-15 feet in the air, continuously pulsating and moaning. Upon first seeing this form, all creatures must save vs Spell or be paralyzed for 2d8 turns, as if targeted by a Hold Person spell.
In this form Dracula can cast spells as a 14th level magic user, although for purposes of damage, spell duration, and saves, his Caster Level is treated as 20.
Additionally, each of the heads in the cluster drips a corrosive acid from its mouth. The acid causes 2d8 points of damage. Those hit by the acid drops must make a save vs. Breath Weapon. If unsuccessful, the acid dissolves 1d4 random unenchanted object on the target's person, rendering them useless.
When Dracula's Third Form is reduced to 0 Hit Points, he is not killed. His spirit is either returned to the primordial chaos beyond the world, or it is absorbed by the walls of Castlevania itself. Dracula will Reincarnate into his First Form in exactly 100 years, unless outsiders attempt to revive him early.
This is part of a continuing series. For part one, click here. For part two, click here. For part three, click here. And for part four, click here.
While the previous posts in this series have mainly been concerned with showing how to adapt Lamentations of the Flame Princess' various character classes to Castlevania-appropriate archetypes, this post will handle the setting of Transylvania itself. And while I dipped into Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and Symphony of the Night to build a D&D style adventuring party with, neither game really offers much in the way of setting material outside the castle.
For that, I'm going to go back a little farther into the franchise's history, to the much-maligned proto-Metroidvania, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest.
Please, hold all torches and pitchforks until the end.
Just a brief side note: If I really were to run a Castlevania-themed campaign for a group of PC's, I'd probably lean heavily on Simon's Quest to do it with. While the 8-bit NES wasn't quite up to the developers' ambitions, the game has some good bones to build off of.
I would probably have the players roll up original characters, with at least one being the next heir to the Belmont line. I'd have the game take place a few years after one of the "major" Dracula battles outlined in the main series, and have the Belmont player character's relative be suffering from the same curse Simon did: The wounds taken in his battle against Dracula are not healing. He is slowly dying. As his condition worsens, he has visions of becoming a creature of the night. A fortune-teller reveals the truth. If he dies before the next full moon, he will become a vessel for Dracula to be re-born, stronger than ever. The only way to lift the curse is to bring Dracula's spirit back into its previous body. But Dracula's minions have scattered his remains, to ensure that his curse will run its course.
Honestly, the only major difference in the set-up would be that the "cursed" Belmont wouldn't be accompanying the PCs. I'd hole him up in the basement of a church, surrounded by garlic and crosses, with monks praying over him day and night. It would then be up to the group of relatively green and inexperienced adventurers to run a desperate race against the clock, with only minimal guidance from their mentor.
(I'd also make sure that the enemy kidnapped the cursed Belmont as the night of the full moon approached, giving the PC's one more thing to worry about. But that's just me...)
Anyway, there are a few resources I'd recommend using here. First and foremost is A Guide to Transylvania, which I mentioned back in my Alucard post. The PDF is available on DriveThruRPG for about eight bucks. The crunch inside is AD&D 2e specific, but everything else is system agnostic. This book details everything from Transylvanian history, to peasant superstitions, to secret societies. No other supplement will help you fill in the details of the Transylvanian countryside as well as this one.
The second (more expensive) resource is the current D&D 5e Curse of Strahd campaign book, which is an update and expansion of the original Ravenloft module. Why this one instead of the (many) older ones? First, it's widely available in hardcopy. And while I'm not completely in love with what I've seen of 5e's rules, you just can't deny that Wizards of the Coast puts out a high quality product these days. This thing will survive some wear and tear at the table. Second (and more importantly), it maps out and expands the land of Barovia far beyond what the older editions did.
The third (completely free) resource is the Transylvania map that appeared in the old NES Game Atlas. A high-quality scan is available here at castlevaniadungeon.net.
The simplest, easiest way to take care of mapping the Transylvania countryside is just to use the foldout map that comes with Curse of Strahd and swap out the names. For example, swap out the starting village of Jova from Simon's Quest with the Village of Barovia from Curse of Strahd. Swap out Yomi—the nearly-abandoned town just outside Castlevania—with the destroyed village of Berez.
While this won't be 100% faithful to the geography on the Castlevania map, enough of the landmarks in Simon's Quest have a rough Barovian equivalent to make it work. Below are some suggestions, with corresponding map and page references.
Castlevania Location / Barovia Location / Curse of Strahd Foldout Map Location / Curse of Strahd Page Reference
Town of Jova (Area 1) / Village of Barovia / Location E / Page 40 - 48
Town of Aljiba (Area 16) / Village of Valliki / Location N / Page 95 - 124
Yuba Lake (Area 14) / Lake Zarovich / Location L / Page 38
Town of Veros (Area 6) / Village of Krezk / Location S / Page 143 - 156
Town of Yomi (Area 48) / Ruins of Berez / Location U / Page 161 - 166
Laruba Mansion (Area 36) / Wachterhaus/ N/A (Located in Vallaki) / Page 110 - 115
Brahm Mansion (Area 21) / Argynvostholt / Location Q / Page 129 - 142
That should be enough to get the idea. That said, I'd probably also swap out some of the obviously non-European names with some real-world Transylvanian ones. Targoviste for Aljiba, for example.
One pro to this approach is that it requires relatively little prep time, especially for an inexperienced DM. Curse of Strahd has plenty of fleshed-out NPCs, side-quests, and description boxes for just about every building and room, if you decide to use them. You can use the encounters, too. Stat conversions from 5e to LotFP are simple: Just use the closest equivalent monster from the free Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, and add two to the creature's Armor Class. Don't sweat the other details.
Me? I probably wouldn't go that far. I'd probably just use the maps, crib or ad-lib all of the descriptions from the Transylvania Guide, and wing it with the NPCs and encounters. Similarities aside, Castlevania and Ravenloft are two different properties, with two entirely different feels to them. Relying too heavily on the published material just means you're playing Curse of Strahd. Which is okay. But it isn't Castlevania.
Which, of course, leaves open the question of Castlevania itself.
The Castle Ravenloft layout in Curse of Strahd is unchanged from the original I:6 Ravenloft module. It makes a perfectly serviceable stand-in for Dracula's Castle, provided you're taking your inspiration from the first couple of games. But if you want something closer to the sprawling, changing, living embodiment of Chaos featured in Symphony of the Night and most of the later games, you'd be better off creating your own funhouse-style Mega-dungeon. As with anything, which you choose will depend heavily on your group, their preferences, and their play style.
Before I close this installment out—and since I'm already mining Castlevania II for ideas—I'm going to give some sample stats for that game's two Boss monsters. For Carmilla, I used the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game version of the Vampire, with almost no modifications. For Death, I re-skinned the BFRPG Lich, added a bunch of Hit Dice, and swapped out his spell casting for a handful of specific, spell-like abilities.
If neither one seems challenging enough, both are easy enough to scale up in power. After all, when it comes to "end game" content, you're bound to have a pretty high level party. Watching them effortlessly steamroll the final bosses would be sort of anticlimactic. If that's a concern, my personal preference is to creatively choose the location for the encounter.
Instead of meeting Carmilla in her vampire lair right away, why not have the PC's encounter her at a masquerade ball, using the powers of her enchanted mask to appear as one of the living? Force them to use roleplaying and guile to maneuver her to a place they can fight her without harming innocents. What about having the PC's run into Death on the grounds of an old battlefield or cemetery? He could raise dozens of allies among the dead, forcing even the most powerful group of PCs into a pitched battle for survival.
Granted, if you're planning to use Castlevania II as your template, you could always just let the PC's walk right by them with no consequence...
(Note: the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules assume ascending armor class and a base, unarmored AC of 12. If using these creatures with a system that has a base AC of 10, simply subtract 2.)
Armor Class: 21
Hit Dice: 9 (attack bonus +8)
No. of Attacks: 1 weapon or special
Damage: 1d8, or by weapon, or special
Movement: 40' or 60' (fly)
No. Appearing: 1 (Unique)
Save as: Lvl 9 Fighter
Treasure Type: Special
Beautiful, vain, and cruel, the aristocratic vampire Carmilla is one of Dracula's most ambitious servants. Famous for her inventive and sadistic tortures, she is best known for bathing in the blood of young women. She possesses Carmilla's Mask, a powerful, cursed artifact.
Like all vampires, Carmilla casts no shadow and no reflection. She cannot cross running water, and may not enter another's home unless invited. She cannot tolerate the strong odor of garlic, and will recoil from a mirror or from a cross presented with conviction (for more information on these weaknesses, see the Vampire, p. 124 of the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game).
Carmilla is immune to Sleep, Charm, and Hold spells. If unarmed, she will treat her hands like claws, raking her target for 1d8 damage. When armed, her vampiric strength gives her an additional +3 to damage when using melee weapons. Her bite (though seldom used in combat) inflicts 1d3 damage, and drains one level of energy from her target for each round she continues to feed. Feeding places her in a vulnerable position, and she suffers a -5 to her Armor Class.
Victims reduced to 0 hit points by Carmilla's feeding die, and they will rise as vampires during the next sunset. These new vampires are permanently under Carmilla's control, and always act as if under a Charm spell.
Carmilla can command common nocturnal creatures. Once per day, she can summon 10d10 rats, 5d4 giant rats, 10d10 bats, 3d6 giant bats, or 3d6 wolves. The creatures must be nearby to be summoned. Once called, they arrive in 2d6 rounds and obey her commands for 1 hour. If she chooses, Carmilla can also assume the form of a giant bat or a giant wolf at will.
In addition to the above abilities, Carmilla also shares the common vampire's Charm gaze, which her victims can save vs Spell to resist. Unlike her more common brethren, Carmilla's charm is exceptionally powerful, imposing a -3 penalty rather than the standard -2.
Carmilla cannot be harmed by non-magical weapons. Exposing her to direct sunlight for more than 1 round destroys her, and submerging her in running water causes her to lose 1/3 of her Hit Points per round for three rounds, with death occurring on the third round. Any other method of reducing her HP to 0 merely incapacitates her, causing her to fall into an apparently death-like state. But if her body is not exposed to sunlight, submerged in running water, or burned, she will begin to regenerate 1d8 hours later, at a rate of 1 hp per turn.
Carmilla's Mask (Artifact)
This artifact is a smooth, silver mask, closely resembling the kind commonly worn during masquerade balls. When the mask is placed onto a human or a dhampir, dozens of hollow, silver spikes appear in the inside, causing it to latch onto the victim's face, and inflicting 1d3 damage. Each round the victim is prevented from removing the mask, it drains 1 energy level, feeding as a vampire, until the victim is reduced to 0 Hit Points. Once dead, the victims do not rise as vampires.
If the mask is freshly fed, bloody tears will pool in the corner of its eyes, and for the next 1d12 hours it will convey several abilities on any vampire that wears it. While wearing the mask, the vampire casts both a shadow and a reflection. Garlic, holy symbols, and holy water have no effect. The vampire may enter any home with no invitation, cross running water, and even walk in the sunlight—although this last will still be uncomfortable.
Additionally, victims of the vampire's Charm gaze suffer a further -2 penalty to their saving throw.
Armor Class: 26
Hit Dice: 15 (attack bonus +10)
No. of Attacks: 1 touch, weapon.
Damage: 1d8 touch+drain, by weapon.
Movement: 30' or 60' (fly)
No. Appearing: 1 (Unique)
Save as: Lvl 15 Magic User or Cleric (use lower)
Treasure Type: Special
Death is Dracula's top lieutenant. Fiercely loyal to his master, Death will fight to protect him at all costs. Death's actual nature is unknown, although he is believed to be an evil manifestation of pure Chaos. His physical form resembles that of the classical "Grim Reaper," a skeletal body wrapped in a tattered cloak. He carries Death's Scythe, an artifact-level magical weapon.
Upon first encountering Death, all intelligent, living creatures must save vs Spell or flee in terror for 2d6 rounds. Even on subsequent encounters, Death's gaze is terrifying. All creatures that meet it must make a save vs. Spell or be paralyzed with fright for 2d4 rounds. Dhampirs, due to their half-undead nature, get a +2 bonus to this check.
Death prefers to attack with his scythe when possible. If forced to make a physical attack, his touch causes 1d8 points of damage and drains 1d4 points of Constitution, while simultaneously healing him for the equivalent amount.
The Constitution loss is permanent. It can only be healed by the casting of a Restoration spell, at a rate of 1 point per casting. If a character's Constitution score falls to 0, he or she immediately dies, and rises the following round as a lesser wight. This creature is identical to the wight described on p. 126 of the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, except its attack causes 1d4 points of damage and 1 point of Constitution loss. All characters killed and transformed into wights are considered permanently dead, and cannot be Raised. They may still be Reincarnated.
Death is able to cast Speak With Dead, Animate Dead, and Raise Dead at will. And while he rarely feels the need to disguise himself, he is able to do so with the aid of Polymorph Self. Additionally, Death is always treated as having an active True Seeing spell cast on his person. For purposes of spell duration and saving throws, Death's caster level is 20.
Death is immune to all non-magical weapons. Like all skeletons, Death only takes half damage from bladed weapons, and only one point from arrows, bolts, or sling stones (plus any applicable magical bonus). Additionally, he is immune to Sleep, Charm, and Hold spells. Death cannot be turned by the cleric's Turn Undead spell.
Death cannot be permanently killed. When reduced to 0 Hit Points, Death's physical form is destroyed, and his spirit re-joins the primordial Chaos outside the world. After 1d10 months, Death will Reincarnate on the physical plane, although in a weakened form equivalent to a wraith (see Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, p. 127). He must then drain the equivalent life force of 2x his normal Hit Dice (a combined 30 levels) in order to regain his full strength and powers.
Death's Scythe (+3 Great Weapon)
Like Death himself, Death's Scythe is believed to be an evil manifestation of Chaos. In combat, Death's Scythe delivers 1d10 damage, with an additional +3 magical damage bonus. On any natural attack roll of 18 or better, the target must save vs Magical Device or die instantly. Any mortal being who attempts to touch the handle of Death's Scythe must make the same saving throw, but at a -4 penalty.
3 times per day, Death's Scythe can create 1d3 Phantom Sickles. These are smaller, ghostly sickles that spin out towards their intended victim. The sickles last for 1d4 rounds, continuously attacking, and causing 1d6+1 damage per successful hit.
Creatures killed with Death's Scythe may not be Raised, but they may still be Reincarnated.
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