Sunday, 30 January 2011

Lost Data

Today is not a good day. Why not? My laptop has died, taking with it the 1st level Thief's Survival Guide and the 3rd level Necromancer spells article. I'm hoping the problem can be fixed. It seems to be an issue with the power connection (neither the battery nor any of my other adaptors are working). Stupidly, I didn;t back up the files onto my workstation.

But for the time being that means no article today. I should have realised it was going to be one of those weekends when I noticed I'd already painted two of the five hobgoblins I was going to paint, never actually got round to painting the three that were left, and instead wound up painting four completely different miniatures from the Gondor to represent my Lord of the Rings Cardolan army (one of the three Arnor succession states for those of you who find the name vaguely familiar).

The Cardolan list is one of my own devising, essentially an expanded Arnor list from the Shadows of Angmar expansion, with a few additional troops types but continuing the "better fighters than the Gondor version but with corresponding lower courage" theme of the Arnor lists. Oh, plus the knights tend to use bows or throwing spears rather than lances.

I've always loved the idea of a force that knows it's beaten but fights on regardless. That's how it is with the Cardolan and Arnor lists. They know they can't win, but the fight anyway, retreating whenever it looks like the battle is about to be lost (so they can fight again) rather than staying to turn it around (and dying for nothing).

If there's enough interest, I'll put the Army List up here on the Blog. In fact, I'll probably do it anyway. But what I might do is wait till Caroline can photograph the miniatures (as they are painted) and stick the stats up with a picture beside them.

There is good news too (very good news in fact, which completely makes up for everything that's gone wrong this weekend): My better half comes home from Oman tomorrow.

Friday, 28 January 2011

The Miniature a Day Challenge

Last month I (foolishly) declared my intention to paint the equivilent of a miniature a day from the time I left Oman till the end of the year. Well, fear not. I shall rise to that challenge. It's four days since my return, so I have a four miniature debt. Yet I have the weekend off, and it was never the intention to paint one miniature every single day -only to average a minaiture a day over the course of the year.

So, today, I am going to paint five Mordor orc miniatures (including a captain and standard bearer) to add to my hobgoblin horde (which, with my Moria goblins, also doubles as one of my Lord of the Rings armies).

But fear not - I have one last edit to finish for the 1st Level Thief's Survival Guide, more spells for the Necromancer class and seven nominations to announce for the versatile gamer award. Which means there will be plenty more posts over this coming weekend to make up for the relative drought over this last month.

Photographic proof of my painting efforts will be posted as soon as the missus is back in country with the camera. Or rather, as soon as I can persuade her to set up the tripod and click the magic button.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

It's Nice to be Recognised

I'm still in Oman, though this is my second-to-last day, so expect the final two Survival Guide instalments to appear over the next week or so.

In the meantime, I've received a Versatile Blogger award honorable mention from Lord Gwydion over at What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse. I'd like to thank all the little people, you know, the gnomes, the sprites, the halflings....

Gwydion had to tell us all seven things we didn't know about him when he won the award, so, in keeping with the spirit of the honourable mention, I'll do the same.

1: I write fiction. Really good fiction apparently, according to a few agents and editors who've looked at my material over the years. I just never seem to find the time to write. Hopefully, this will change with my forthcoming change of career.

2: I once had a love affair with Games Workshop – right up to about a month after the accountants took over and GW lost it's panache. No, I don't blame GW for the direction it's taken, nor do I rabidly attack it like some folks. But I do miss the good old days when one Warhammer Armies book gave you the lists for all the armies in the game and GW orcs didn't resemble the Incredible Hulk.

3: I love medieval and classical history to the point that I can argue the finer points with professional scholars. I tell myself my amateur scholarship has the side-effect of helping me craft believable worlds and societies for my writing and gaming. Well, I tell myself.

4: My home-brew sword-&-sandals world, Edarnia, has been around for twenty years. Inspired by the Time of Troubles transition in the Forgotten Realms setting, it suffered huge, epoch-changing events with each edition change-over. At least until 4th ed. After 4th ed I made a half-hearted attempt to change it once again using the War of the Burning Sky campaign as a model, but gave up in despair. I have a love-hate relationship with D&D 4.

5: My next Edarnia campaign might go one of three ways: The War of the Burning Sky, a sand-box campaign or a mixture of the two. One edition change-over was based on White Dwarf's classic Dark-Rise over Irillian campaign. It might be time for the Dark to Rise Again.

6: I've been writing my "seminal work", the Zama series for about eight years now.

7: I used to be a Trekkie. Now I like Star Trek but wouldn't say I'm a fan. What changed? It or Me? Probably me.

Now, IF I'm reading this right, I have to nominate 7 bloggers for the same award. Hmm. I have a fair few candidates in mind already. Look out for post number 2 coming soon.

Monday, 17 January 2011

What Every Gamer Needs to Know About Horses

The Care and Handling of Horses:


Contrary to popular belief among fantasy and even historical fiction novelists, a horse is NOT an organic sports car. Riding a horse is not simply a case of putting fuel in one end and then steering the thing as it gallops across the landscape at thirty miles an hour for days on end.

In fact, riding a horse is not much quicker than walking. A good horse (with rider) can cover about thirty miles a day in rolling country. Over the same terrain, a fit man could cover about thirty miles in ten hours (A Zulu warrior could famously run fifty miles or so in a day and still be fit to fight at the end of it). While the top-speed of a horse is certainly much greater than that of a human, unlike early human hunters, a horse cannot run all day without suffering from exhaustion and, eventually, death. Like humans, horses sweat profusely while exerting themselves physically. Like humans, but unlike most other animals; horses tend to sweat across most of their body surface, allowing them to control their temperature for longer periods.

However, horses sweat a great deal, as anyone who has every watched the Grand National can tell you. Like human sweat, horse sweat requires the excretion of a great deal of salt. Horses cannot replace salt from their diet as well as humans can, largely because, unlike humans, horses do not eat meat. This makes it harder for a horse to recover from a hard run.

The best policy for speed is to alternate short bursts of running or trotting with a longer period of simply walking the horse. In fact, even better practice for keeping a horse healthy is to get off the damn thing and walk for ten minutes or so after every hour of riding.

The average horse needs to be rested and fed three to four times a day on a long journey. Especially while carrying a human. To avoid becoming ill, a horse needs at least an hour or so to cool down before it can be safely fed. Likewise, after feeding and drinking it requires at least an hours rest to avoid becoming bloated and ill.

This is one of the main reasons why horses tend to drop dead on a forced march much sooner than a walking human. Remember, a human can vomit. Horses can't. Stomach problems can kill a horse, and often do.

Oh, and be sure to give its muscles and coat a good rub down even after a short run. Horses can get muscle sprains and other injuries as easily as you do.


Ancient, medieval and modern military manuals agree that an average horse on campaign consumes 10lbs of grain and 10 lbs of fodder a day. It also needs about 80 lbs of water. That’s right. 80lbs! An ox needs about 150! It’s just not possible for most horses (especially the larger breeds) to survive on grass and forage alone over a long period (by which I mean more than a few days). Especially if the horse in question has to carry the weight of a rider, as well as his gear.

For a long expedition then, a second horse or mule (to carry the horse food, not extra gear for the humans) is essential. A heavily laden pack mule needs about as much food and water in a day as a horse and can carry enough fodder and grain to keep itself fed for about 27 days. So if a rider has one horse and one mule, he can travel for only about 2 weeks before he needs to stop for more supplies for his animals. Let’s hope the horse is strong enough to carry the human’s food as well as the human.


Horses run the full range of personality types found in most animals. But on the whole, they have an annoying tendency to be lazy, stupid, self-destructively curious and even, in some cases, malicious.

The average NPC horse can be developed in a fully fledge character all of its own. In the novel, “Ash,” by Mary Gentle, each of the title character's three horses had it’s own, well-developed personality. Don’t overlook the value and potential of a character’s mount as a storytelling character.

Secondly, from a roleplaying perspective, most horses have a healthy sense of self-preservation. A hero cannot simply jump on the back of any old nag and expect it to charge cheerfully off into battle with him. Horses are stupid – but they're not THAT stupid. Like most humans, they aren’t too keen at the thought of riding into battle. It takes years to train a modern day police horse not to shy away from crowds, let alone rioting mobs. Warhorses were specially trained and bred for battle. A warhorse would be at least three years old before anyone would even consider riding them into a fight. An untrained horse will buck, shy away from, and even throw a rider it has known for years in order to avoid a battle or a fire. Don’t even THINK about trying to take one near an elephant. Not unless you want to be trampled by a very angry dobbin! Elephants terrify horses who have not been raised around them.

That being said, it`s not unknown for even a simple riding horse to stand valiantly over its fallen rider, defending it to the last. The poor thing would be foaming around the mouth in terror at the time, mind you, but it does happen.

Horse Riding:

It can take weeks of practice to learn to ride a horse properly. A very painful experience let me tell you, especially for the inner thigh and, as many writers forget, the calves. The latter can become especially painful if the stirrups are not adjusted correctly or absent altogether. Which reminds me, don’t bother using shock cavalry tactics if the riders are bareback or without stirrups. Charging with a spear poised like lance when you don’t have a stirrup is a sure way to end up on the ground with your opponent laughing at you as he shoves his sword through your gut. Before the invention of the stirrup, cavalry were strictly scouts and skirmishers rather than shock troops.

Most horses are either bridle or stirrups trained. That is, most horses are trained to respond to instructions given either by tapping the bridle against the side of the neck or by poking them in the ribs with your heel, stirrup or spur. A very few horses are trained to respond to verbal commands or pressure from the riders knee or thigh. Some horses may be trained in two or more such methods. Generally, show horses and gentle riding horses are trained to the bridle. Less delicate horses, and breeds trained to military or police service, (or used in some other role where the rider is likely to require use of both hands) are generally stirrup or even knee trained.

So make sure your hero knows what sort of commands the horse will respond to when he jumps down upon its back - perhaps he takes the time to observe how the locals ride while scouting out the scene of his latest escapade, for example. However, the potential comedy value in having a stirrup trained rider jump onto a bridle trained mount to make his escape is immense. It’s one I`ve used to good effect myself more than once.


There’s a reason many cultures (but not all) insisted that warhorses be either geldings (yes, horses can be eunuchs too) or mares.

All too often, the hero of our tale rides around on a big stallion. Owww. Not good. While its possible to ride a stallion, you’d have to be mad to do it. Especially if you happen to be female and aged between 12 and fifty.

Generally a stallion is used as breeding stock and that’s it. For one thing, stallions tend to be a mite rowdy at the best of times and downright uncontrollable around a mare in season. Plus it’s no myth that menstruating female humans should avoid being anywhere near a stallion in heat. Male horses really do pick up on female pheromones, and can become difficult to handle around human females experiencing that time of the month.

So for Red Sonya that horse was all wrong (sorry Howard, you’re a writing legend and one of my literary heroes, but a Texan should have known better). In fact, several historical records feature anecdotes regarding some damn fool who tried to ride into battle on a stallion. Most end with him lying in the dirt inside a circle of his mates all pointing fingers at him and laughing themselves sick. The rest end with him lying in a circle of enemies with a great big bloody spear in his gut.

WHich is not to say that stallions can't be warhorses - some folk see a more forceful character as an advantage in a warhorse. Just not everyone.


So as you can see, horse’s and cars really don’t have a lot in common, other than the fact the crap that comes out of the back end isn’t exactly good for global warming. The best way to find out about horses is to go and ride one. I heartily recommend it to you all. I also hope that this article has been of use to you. Let me know if it has been, in which case I`ll probably do another in a similar vein.

Note: I'm still rather busy in Oman. I came over to visit family/scout out the job market and ended up doing a customer service intervention. This is an older article I wrote for a fantasy/sci-fi writers community a while back. I'll have the next survival guide (and the rest of the Necromancer articles) up as soon as I can.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Strength of Stone: 3 New Magic Items

Having been working hard out here in Oman, I haven't been able to finish off the "Survival Guide" series yet. Here's a little something to keep you busy while you wait.

Serenity's Stone:
An unremarkable lump of blue crystal veined with gold, Serenity's Stone has often been regarded as little more than a curiousity. However, this (very) minor magical item guarantee's the bearer a restful nights sleep, free of nightmares (even magical nightmares, but not those sent by a divinity). In fact, so restful is that sleep that the character carrying it can obtain rest equivilent to a full eight hours sleep (recovering hit points as normal) in a mere four hours. Characters who sleep for a more normal eight hours recover twice as many hit points. This magical item has no effect on characters who do not require sleep.
Value: 400GP, 40XP.

The Succession Stone:
A chair shaped lump of granite, craved with runes in many tongues and so old that many are no longer recognisable. It is ancient devide for testing the veracity of claims to property, everything from land and livestock to the throne itself. Any being asked (in any language) if he is the true heir or owner of a given item may not leave it until providing an answer (strength score or even divinity is irrelevent, only answering the question or the use of a wish or limited wish will free the seated being. A truthful answer will allow the seated individual to rise unharmed. Those who lie will suffer the effects of a Disintegrate spell as cast by a twentieth level caster. Weight: 3 tons.
Treasure Value: 150,000GP, 15000XP

Stone of Shattering:
Seemingly a normal slingstone with a single rune graven upon it. A slinger who speaks this rune as a mantra while whirling the stone unleashes the stone (and it's magic) upon the unsuspecting foe. As it flies from the sling, the rock grows exponentially, eventually reaching the size of a trebuchet stone. Damage and area of effect as per a stone thrown from a Trebuchet. No attack bonus. Does not count as a magical weapon for the purposes of affecting creatures immune to non-magical weapons. It is, in effect, little more than a catapult stone with a reduce spell of an especially long duration.
Treasure Value: 150GP or 15XP.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The 1st Level Party's Survival Guide

At no-time in a characters adventuring career is he more at risk of suffering a TPK than a first level. Here's a quick guide on avoiding the common pit-falls that can bring your party (and your game) to a messy end.

No adventuring party absolutely has to cover all four basic classes: Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric and Thief, but your chances of a successful adventure (let alone survival) are much higher if you do. Of them all, a first level Magic-User is possibly the most dispensable – but don't discount the power of a single sleep spell. That one 1st level Magic User spell has probably saved more first level parties from total destruction that the ubiquitous Cure Light wounds ever will.

If you haven't been able to cover all four classes, then consider the possibility of multi-classing. Multi-classing has it's disadvantages (slower level progression means slower hit point gain) but in a small party it can help to cover all the basics -at least until you can hire on some NPC adventurers or henchmen to cover the gaps.

Ideal party composition is very much a matter of opinion beyond the “base-four”, but generally speaking multiple fighters and clerics are more useful than multiple magic users and thieves. A party with more Magic Users and Thieves than fighters is going to have a very hard time keeping the former two out of melee combat. Likewise, a party with too few clerics will have a harder time keeping everyone alive.

My own personal preference would be for the fifth party member to have a level of fighter and the sixth to be a cleric. However, old school parties are usually much more organic than that. Planning your party composition is very much a development of later editions. Trying to survive with a grossly imbalanced party is just part of the fun.

Old school adventure modules often have a list of rumours the party can learn about the Dungeon before heading off. Often these rumours are simply outright wrong, but sometimes they provide hints of treasures to be found. More often than that, they may very well save your characters life. If you hear a rumour about chambers full of extremely life-like statues, then you know to bring along mirrors and blindfolds in case you run into something like a medusa. If you know the caves are occupied by two different types of orc's, you might want to bring some gifts to bribe one tribe into an alliance while you take on the other.

Don't forget to check back regularly to see if there are any more rumours to be heard. You will rarely hear them all before setting off and your sources might remember something important they forget to tell you the first time you spoke with them. Paying a sage for additional information is going to be well beyond your means before your first venture into a dungeon, but don't discount the value of learning local history. If you learn that the ruined castle once held a chapel to Orcus, you know to expect un-dead.

Numbers count, especially at first level. Even a few zero level mercenaries to bulk out the shield wall can mean the difference between success and failure. Arm them with spears or pole-arms so that they can fight from the second rank (behind your fighters), give them bonus' and loot after a hard fight (to keep them loyal) and assign one or two of them to the last rank to act as rear-guard.

Yes mercenaries are very expensive (especially if your DM rules that you have to buy their gear for them or, as I do, insists that they receive the price of their gear as a “hiring fee” for their services) but their presence may save your life. If you really can’t stretch to hiring a mercenary or two (or ten), then consider buying a few dogs as an alternative.

Torch-bearers are another popular choice. Fighters and clerics need both hands for their weapons and shields; Magic-Users tend to have a weapon in one hand and must keep the other hand free for spell-casting. Thieves tend to need both hands to wield their crossbows, pick locks and disarm traps. Hiring on a local to act as a guide and carry a torch is surprisingly cheap -though you should strive to protect these ill-armoured civilians well. Losing one too many torch-bearers is a sure way to earn the enmity of the locals. If that happens, inns may close their doors; temples may “run-out” of cure spells and traders need to “order in” essential supplies.

Mule-Skinners are another useful hireling. Hardy as mules often are, it's not always wise (or possible) to take them into the dungeon with you. A mule-skinner and one or two mercenaries allow a party to set up a secure camp (with the mules) while you and the rest of the hirelings venture into a dungeon or other location.

Link-boys are a choice favoured by many parties. Personally, I don't hold with the idea of leaving a poorly armed village lad standing at every junction you pass with orders to call out if they see a monster coming to eat ‘em. The side-effects of too many slain link-boys are much the same as those mentioned for the torch-bearer above – and the link-boy has an even lower life expectancy than the torch-bearer.

Some parties employ local down-and-outs, captured brigands, madmen and village idiots as “pole-men”. Literally, their job is to poke about anything suspicious with a ten foot pole. This sort of hireling (and they are usually prisoners who have been given a “second chance”) has the lowest life-expectancy of all. It's not quite as cheesy or beardy an option as herding life stock down dungeon corridors to set off any traps, but it's not far off. It is, however, entirely in keeping with the ideals of various evil or “mercenary-type” adventuring bands.

Finally, you have the less common cooks, camp-followers (including craftsmen and other specialists) and chaplains. Cooks and camp followers are exactly than, but unless you have a huge party and dozens of hirelings, they are not really necessary. Remember, you’ll have to feed (and carry supplies for) every hireling you have. Chaplains, on the other hand, are non-adventuring priests and clerics who accompany the party to act in a support role as healers. Good luck convincing a local town priest or monk to hire on with you, but I have seen it done before (usually the result of a charm person spell or choosing a non-combatant cleric as a henchman or follower). You're unlikely to need, afford or want any of these at first level.

It's no uses standing arguing at the junction of a dungeon corridor. There's no surer way to attract wandering monsters. To prevent arguments, select a chain of command and appoint roles prior to entering any dungeon. The roles don't have to be assigned to the same characters all the time. You can swap them about if you wish. Just not while you’re still in the Dungeon.

It's the caller’s job to pick directions of travel, chose where to rest and decide when to fight or negotiate. One simple rule for the rest of the party: don't argue. If you don't like his choices, tough. Fire him when you're outside the dungeon and elect (or select) a new one.

Remember, anything that happens to the in-game map happens to the real-world map as well. So don't give this job to someone who is likely to get separated from the party (such as a scout) or who is likely to get himself killed (such as a Magic User). A cleric is usually ideal as they have the right balance of hit points and role (second rank fighter) to maximise survivability. Make copies and never, ever rub out part of the map at the gaming table. If you think you’re lost, start a new map from where you are now and work back to a spot you know. Then combine the two maps on a new piece of paper later. Make copies. Keep them somewhere safe (for example, with the same person who looks after the party cash). A money-lender, pawn-broker, banker or a character’s family are all good choices. This is not just in case you lose it. Maps are valuable – you can sell or trade your copies to other adventurers.

Of all the party roles, this is the one which MUST be given to a player who both wants it and has the patience to do it neatly. Messy maps are useless. Maps made by a reluctant mapper are worse than useless. If it comes down to a choice between a reluctant mapper and a mapper whose character is likely to die or lose it (whether due to theft, carelessness, or being dunked in water/engulfed in flames) then award the job to the player who wants it. Just badger him into making plenty of copies after every session.

The final important party role is that of the recorder, or note taker. You never know when a piece of seemingly random information will come in useful later. Additionally, there is a good chance that the characters who originally obtained a piece of vital information earlier in the campaign might all be dead by the time it becomes relevant. If the party has kept an in-game or in-character chronicle of their adventures (like the mercenaries Glen Cook’s Black Company books) then the DM has no excuse to turn around and tell you that your characters don't know the information. Just bear in mind: the real world “Chronicle,” like the map, is subject to the same rules as the in-game map. If the in-game map is lost or destroyed, the GM takes the real world map away. If the in-game Chronicles are destroyed, the DM won’t let you refer to the Chronicle either. Again, store them in a safe place between expeditions; make multiple copies or (better still) do both.

Don't rely on any journals or campaign notes kept by the DM. These are written for the DM, by the DM (although if he’s anything like me he will let you read them for entertainment purposes), and don't actually exist in the “game world”. Therefore, while you are players might be allowed to read and reference them, your characters cant. Keep your own journal and you can't go wrong.


Always pack twice as much food as you think you'll need for the expedition. Weevils, bad weather, getting lost, accidents, hungry bears: all can account for more food than you might expect. It pays to be prepared.

In every party, make sure you have at least two of all the following items -and make sure they are not both carried by the same party member. Just in case:
• 10 foot pole (for probing dangerous looking spaces)
• Hammer and Iron Spikes (for nailing doors closed -or keeping them open- as the case may be)
• Axe (for chopping down doors and barricades)
• Shovel or Pick (for when digging becomes necessary)
• 50' Rope
• Large sacks (for carrying treasure)
• Small Box (for carrying gems)
• Scroll Tube (for scrolls and paper)
• Chalk (for marking your route and taking rubbing's)
• Plum Line (for measuring gradient)
• String (for measuring rooms)
• Marbles (for testing slopes or slowing pursuit)
• Small Mirror (for checking round corners)
• Soap (for cleaning foul smells that might attract monsters)
• Wine (not for drinking, but for neutralising acids)
• Wooden Club or Staff (for fighting rust monsters and the like)
• Small sacks of silver coins or beads (for bribing monsters)
• Fresh food (for bribing non-intelligent monsters)

If you have healing potions, make sure that you don't give them to the cleric to carry. If the cleric falls down a crevasse or gets incinerated by some trap, then you've lost your cleric and your potions. If that happens, you may as well go home.

If this sounds like a lot to carry, well, it is. Buy a mule or two to carry it to the dungeon. Most of this stuff (axes, picks and shovels in particular) can be left at the camp-site until needed. When you come across a situation where you need them, by-pass it, complete the expedition and return to camp. Collect what you need after resting and go back. You have established a secure camp-site haven't you? No? You should. Here's why.

At first level, you're going to have maybe one or two (at most, three) combats before it becomes sensible to retreat, rest-up and return to the Dungeon. A good time to leave is when the clerics and magic-users have used up all their combat and healing spells for the day. Don't give into temptation and try just one more room. Remember, you might still have one or more encounters while leaving the dungeon. To say nothing of encounters on the way home.

Unless your home-base is very close to the dungeon, it's often better to make camp close-by rather than return home after every foray. The camp should be close enough to the Dungeon that you don't risk having more than one encounter on the way back to it but far enough away not be stumbled across by any dungeon denizen patrols. Make sure it’s on high ground, in case of rain, and to provide a good view of the surrounding countryside. Don't light a fire unless you have to. Sure, fire keeps animals away, but this close to the dungeon it might attract something worse than a few wolves.

You can leave a few hirelings or recuperating player characters behind to guard it and the spare gear. There should be just enough people left in camp to maintain a watch. If the camp is in danger of attack, there should be able to pack up and leave quickly. Move to the previously designated alternate site (which might even be all the way back to town) and wait for the others to arrive.

The advantage of setting up a camp is that it increases the amount of time spent on site and reduces travel time back and forth. Pack up and go home when your supplies of food, arrows and so forth begin to run out -or as soon as an agreed number of party members and hirelings have been reduced to negative hit points and require bed rest to recover from wound penalties. Sell your loot, heal your wounds, buy new equipment and spells, train, rest, gather rumours, identify magical items and learn new spells.

Then go back and start again. But before you do...

Most of the time, when you venture into a dungeon, you will simply be exploring, in itself this is a perfectly acceptable objective. On such occasions, bring your best gear and as many people as you can. On other occasions, you might decide that your objective is to wipe out that orc lair (or some other faction) once and for all. Again, go in heavily armed and with as many hirelings as you can afford. However, you also might enter the dungeon with the goal of establishing an alliance or peace treaty with some of the denizens. In which case, you might want to bring lots of gifts. If you want to scout out a certain part of the dungeon (say before attacking the orc lair) then wear lighter armour and leave the hirelings at home. You want to make as little noise as possible and, since you aren’t there to fight, you want light armour so that you can run away effectively if you are discovered or run into a threat you can't handle. You might enter a dungeon in order to retrieve a particular item (or individual) for the dungeon. In which case bring only as much gear as you think you will need to achieve your objective and be prepared to dump as much of it as possible so that you can flee quickly once you have it.

Most importantly of all, stick to the plan. If you have come on a simple scouting mission, don't spend time trying to solve a puzzle or fight a monster that guards a vast treasure pile you've located. You're there to scout, not fight. Come back and investigate what you've found in more detail later, when you're equipped (and prepared) to stay in one area for a long period and have the man-power to take on any foes that might stumble across you while you linger. Once you have what you came for. Leave. You have fulfilled your objective. Don’t be tempted to explore down one more corridor. Your object (or person) might be lost as a result.

Establish some routine marching orders for common terrain and environments early on. This serves two useful purposes: you won’t waste game time explaining to the DM where your character is standing in relation to everyone else at the beginning of an encounter and neither will you waste time arguing with the DM about where you would be standing when you are ambushed.

It also means that everyone (player and character alike) is more likely to know his or her individual role in any given situation. Common marching orders to establish are:

• 10 wide ft. corridors
• 5 ft. wide corridors
• searching a room
• searching a corridor
• checking/entering a door
• resting
• crossing a junction/intersection
• in the open (wilderness areas or large caverns)
• on the march (roads or close terrain)
• Wilderness camping.

Be ready to adapt these at any time, as new members join, older members die and current members are injured.

As a rough guide, it helps to have fighters in the front ranks and magic users in the middle (where it's safest). Depending on your style of play, you might have clerics in the middle ranks or place them in the rear rank (perhaps accompanied by any extra fighters or hirelings) to guard the rear. They can come forward when healing is necessary or, if you prefer, the wounded can fall back to their location. Thieves can scout ahead and on the flanks, but should return to the middle ranks when combat is expected or anticipated (such as when they spot a foe while scouting or approach a known guard post or high traffic area). Some parties like to use a thief to help guard the rear instead of a cleric. In the smallest parties, with no hirelings, the cleric often stays at the front with the fighter, but this becomes problematic when the cleric needs to start casting spells.

Mercenary hirelings should fill out the remaining front-rank spaces. If they have spears or pole-arms they can be stationed in the second rank, behind the fighters but ahead of the Magic Users, where they can still fight. If you have sufficient hirelings, they can also be used to form the rear rank. Swap out wounded hirelings in the front rank for those in the second and rear ranks as required. Don't waste healing magic on them except to save their lives or establish higher loyalty.

Torch-bearers should be liberally scattered in the formation (but never in the front or rear rank) to provide sufficient light. It often helps to have the torch bearers throw extra torches over the heads of the front and rear ranks to further illuminate an underground fight. A torch-bearer can also be instructed to throw a torch at a group of foes who have been hit by oil.

Pole-men, if you are using them, are usually placed ten to fifteen feet ahead of the main body (just at the edge of the torch-light) tapping and poking away with their ten-foot poles (sometime supervised by a thief character). Depending on how callous you and the rest of the party are, you MIGHT want to let them push their way back into the middle ranks once the fighting has started. But only if you trust them enough not to stick a blade in your back while you’re busy fighting.

Lastly, don't throw your weight around outside the Dungeon. You're going to be relying on the local townsfolk for advice, recruits and supplies. Piss them off and you'll get nothing from them. You might even find yourselves run out of town. Keep them sweet with gifts, high-spending, slaying dangerous beasts and simple good manners. And when you find yourselves in trouble, it could be the townsfolk who come to rescue you.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The 1st Level Fighter's Survival Guide

Okay, so you've got your high strength, your ten hit points and the biggest weapon you can buy. You can almost taste second level and you haven't even been in your first dungeon yet, right?

Wrong. Statistically speaking, you've got almost as much a chance of dying at first level as the party magic-user. Here's why: when the fighting starts, you're always the first in line. Here's how to minimise the odds.

The typical fighter has four weapon proficiencies and, in most cases, the novice player in question will blow them all on a dagger and a couple of different types of swords, maybe with a longsword specialisation. No, no, no, no. Here's why.

First off, a dagger is a crap weapon for a fighter. Sure you'll probably own one, but as an eating utensil, not a serious weapon. Even medieval knights didn't consider a dagger a worthwhile backup weapon. They carried a sword and something else. So first: Don't waste a precious slot on something as useless as a dagger. Sure, magical daggers are quite common, but be reasonable. What would you rather fight with, a normal longsword or a dagger +1. How many magic-damage only enemies are you expecting to be fighting at first level anyway?

Secondly, do take a proficiency in either longsword or broadsword. They're extremely versatile weapons and just about the most common type of magic weapon you can find. They also do great damage and count as a fashion accessory. Even in towns where carrying weapons is outright banned, the sword is often an exception. Why? Because it's considered the weapon of gentlemen and trained soldiers, too damned expensive for your common riff-raff and troublemakers. Folks who see a man with a sword on his belt think he's either high-born or a disciplined soldiers unlikely to cause trouble. Folk who see someone march through town with a great big bloody axe strapped to his back think they're looking at a nutter. Be warned.

You should ALWAYS choose a ranged weapon as your second proficiency. There will always be the (hopefully, not too common) occasions when you find yourself under attack from a foe you can't melee. Whether this is because they are shooting at you from a boat, your opponents can fly and you can't, because you really don't want to let them touch you (level draining or disease causing undead for example) or because you were dumb enough to get ambushed in a steep sided gulley is irrelevant. You're still going to feel damned stupid if your big bad “Fighter” can't bloody well fight back. Even a simple throwing hammer or sling (which also covers the “blunt” weapon requirement) is better than nothing at all.

The remainder of your choices really depend on how many slots you intend to spend on specialisation (you should always spend at least one on this manner) but if you don't intend to double specialise then one should probably be spent on a secondary melee melee weapon. If you've already taken a sword as your main weapons, then don't take another damned sword. Or an axe for that matter. Swords can stab and swing, but they don't tend to bash too well. And bear in mind that several of your most common types of foe at early levels (e.g. skeletons, animated objects) take little or damage from slashing and puncturing weapons. With this in mind, you can't go wrong with a blunt weapon, such as a mace, flail or warhammer, as a secondary weapon.

Depending on the rules set your using, half damage from your main bladed weapon might still be more than a single handed blunt weapon can dish out. So if that's the case (and you have the strength for it) consider selecting a two handed blunt weapon as your backup.

However, if you expect to be part of a large party (either because your have a large number of players or plan on taking on hirelings) it might be worth your while considering a pole-arm for your secondary weapon instead. Yes dammit, you heard what I said: a pole-arm. All right, it's not the first sort of weapon westerners think of when they picture a hero, but what about Hector and Achilles? The ancients didn't fight primarily with a sword; they used a spear. Hell, according to the writings of some ancient Hellenistic Greek generals, the Greek's didn't bother to train a man how to sword-fight at all. They expected sword-fighting to come as naturally as punching. It was spearman-ship, not swordsmanship that was the measure of a warrior.

Now consider this. The favourite foot weapons of English and French knights during the latter half of the Hundred Years War were the humble poleaxe and the lucerne hammer. Fact is, the pole-arm, any pole-arm, is an extremely useful proficiency to have. For one thing, if you know how to use a pole-arm (even something as simple as a long-spear) then losing half your first level fighters hit points when the cleric's out of cure spells isn't the end of the world (or the adventure). You can simply slip back into the second (or even third) rank of the party and continue to fight from there.

I'm sure I don't even have to mention the pleasures of facing a charging foe when you have a pole-arm set to receive the charge. Every gamer out there has been stupid enough to charge a halberd wielding orc at least once. Only you know your DM (and your campaign) well enough to know what you're likely to need more: a pole-arm or a blunt instrument. I would not recommend taking one of both, as then you would lose the chance to specialise (and you MUST choose a ranged weapon for one of your slots). However, long-spears and clubs are dirt cheap. You might consider equiping your character with one of each regardless of your proficiency choices. Minus 2 to Minus 4 (depending on rules system) to your attack rolls for non-proficiency should you find yourself in a situation where you positively have to use one is still a lot better than winding up in that situation and not having one at all. On the other hand, IF you can afford it, there's always the prospect of the lucerne hammer. An excellent proficiency choice: pole-arm and blunt weapon in one. You can't say better than that.

Always specialise. And what's more, specialise with a melee weapon. You already get multiple attacks with most ranged weapons and they cost a lot more slots to specialise with. Unless the party already has a surfeit of melee fighters and you really want to play a Legolas clone, don't do it. The big question then becomes: how many slots do I use to specialise with? One or two? The extra bonuses for sinking three slots into a single weapon are excellent, but you must weigh up the pros and cons. For one thing, you get a lot less benefit from giving up that third slot than you do for giving up the second. If you do choose to sink three slots into a single melee weapon, then you really should use your fourth (and final) slot for a missile weapon. However, be warned: not all DM's (or rules systems) allow you to double specialise so check with the DM first. The same comments I used above regarding non-proficiency penalties, blunt weapons and pole-arms might seem to apply to this choice as well (at least at a casual glance) but trust me, they don't. Regardless of how often you expect need a blunt weapon or pole-arm, you'll likely use a ranged weapon more. If you really think you’re going to need a blunt weapon or a pole-arm so badly and still want to use up three slots on a specialisation, then your better off putting all three slots into the blunt weapon or pole-arm in question. As an optional compromise, choosing a sling or throwing hammer or is a good option for your fourth slot, as this will provide a blunt weapon and a ranged weapon in a single package.

Finally, remember that some weapons work just as well as ranged weapons as they do in melee – spears, javelins and hand-axes are good examples. If you’re going to sink three slots into one specialisation (especially a blunt specialisation) then be sure to consider one of these versatile weapons for your final slot.

This is a tough one. At early levels, your job is every bit as much about dishing out damage as soaking it up. A shield means you're less likely to be hit, which will keep you alive longer (especially at low levels). Even with full hit points at first level, you're unlikely to take more than one or two hits (without healing) before going down. That shield gives you a 5% greater chance of avoiding a hit each time you’re attacked.

On the other hand, a two handed weapon gives you a better chance of making sure the opponent goes down the very first time you land a blow. A foe that's unconscious or dying can't very well strike back (unless you're both acting on the same initiative segment that is). In many ways, it comes down to your character concept and your play style. However, if you chose a two handed ranged weapon for your ranged weapon proficiency you may as well select a two handed weapon as your primary melee weapon – you'll have only one weapon to drop and one to draw when the enemy get close.

Likewise, if you chose a one handed ranged weapon (such as a sling, javelin or hand-axe) then you should probably choose a shield. Again, it means you only have one item to drop and one item to draw when your foes close to melee range, and even when the enemy are at range and shoot back you'll still have that shield to help keep you alive.

I know, I know. You're young. You want the glory of swinging your sword left and right, felling enemies in neat rows like the wheat from your daddy's farm at harvest time. But don't just go charging in. Attacking is never the best policy. For one thing, you won't do your friends much good if you charge straight at the orc's, and fall head first down a pit you didn't know about, will you? If you don't know the ground, don't charge along it. You're packing a missile weapon (you should be, anyway) arn't you? Shoot at the buggers first. There'll be plenty of time for swordplay later. Every foe you drop before reaching melee range is one less you'll have to worry about taking damage from later. On top of that, you'll often have more attacks per round with a missile weapon anyway.

And even more importantly, if you charge forward, you'll ruin any chance your party Magic User had of casting a spell that might take down a swathe of them all at once. He's going to think twice about unleashing that sleep spell if there's a good chance you'll be one of the ones to keel over. He wants the enemy dead, after all. Not you (you haven't done anything to annoy him now have you? No? Good).

There's another darn good reason not to go charging every monster in sight. In fact, there's several. If you’re not faced with an opponent from a group you already have “history” with, you might even want to forgo shooting at all. After all, you don't want to be fighting against every faction in the dungeon at once do you? A few well placed alliances here and there (perhaps even something as basic as a safe passage greased with a few hundred silvers) can save you a great deal of trouble. Especially if the risk: reward ratio from combat is low, as with most wondering monster encounters for example.

Secondly, charging leaves you (and the rest of the party you’re supposed to be protecting) exposed. You're exposed because of the penalty to your AC (I dread to think of the results if they have pole-arms set to receive a charge). The rest of the party is exposed because their whole front fighting line just charged off, giving anyone who can get past them a free run at the weaker thieves and magic users in the middle rows.

Finally, if you do charge in to combat, then you've essentially hampered the efforts of every missile or ranged attack specialist in the party. They can't shoot at the enemy (or cast spells at them) if they risk hitting you too. That means you're entire party is fighting with one hand tied behind your back. Worse, you're encouraging the squishier, less heavily armed spell and ranged weapon types to close to melee to support you. There's a reason these types prefer to kill foes from a distance. It's because they tend to die rather easily (and quickly) when things go toe to toe.

And in any case, just think. If you let them come to you -and they are hostile- and you have a nice, long pole-arm, that means you do double damage on the set to receive. Gruesome, beautiful and ugly (for them) all at the same time.

Form a shield-wall: a line of fighters, clerics, hirelings and other high AC types that form a line (hopefully several ranks deep) between the enemy and the more vulnerable members of the party. Ideally, even the clerics should be in the second or even third rank, where they can concentrate on healing rather than fighting. But don't forget to put a few melee competent types at the back as well, just in case you get attacked from the rear during a fight. Clerics and Thieves are ideal for guarding the rear -as are a few, hirelings, if you have them.

Break the line, whether by charging, running away, or pursuing a fleeing foe and you’re no longer doing your job. What's your job? killing bad guys and keeping the bad guys from killing you (“you” also including your fellow party-members). Before chasing down that fleeing foe, think about what's more important: sticking your sword in this guy or keeping the squishier party members out of melee? Unless there is a real risk the fleeing foe might bring back more trouble than you handle, it's usually the second option. Besides, if you've listened to any of the advice you were given earlier, a fleeing foe is not a problem. Just shoot em. You do have a missile weapon, don't you?

In short: Explore aggressively. Fight defensively (and sensibly).


Battles are won by terrain as often as by skill or magic. Don't forgo any opportunity to use the terrain to your advantage. And beware of the enemy's attempts to do the same to you. Combat in a corridor or from one side of a doorway limits the number of opponents than can fight you at a time. Equip yourselves with pole-arms and the second and third ranks can fight the same foes as those in front (manoeuvring some of the longer pole-arms down a corridor can be tricky though). In fact, the second rank is an ideal spot to put those relatively fragile (but expensive) hirelings. Arming them with pole-arms and keeping the party fighters between them and the monsters might keep them sweeter for longer (and reduce their demand for higher wages or danger money).

However, when fighting in dungeon corridors always remember that your enemy will know the terrain better than you do. We've already discussed the folly of charging down an unexplored corridor. Bear in mind that a smart enemy will try to use the terrain to outmanoeuvre you and attack from the flank or rear. If you see one or two of the enemy at the back run away, chances are they are going for reinforcements. If you see more than that number break-away, chances are they are going to try and hit you from another direction while you are still fighting the ones in front. Either way, it might be worthwhile slowly retreating back to a more defensible spot -one where you know and can cover all the entrances and exits. If you can guard a flank with a trap you circumnavigated earlier or can reset so much the better. Make the enemies traps work for you as much as they can, not just against you.

Don't be afraid to kick over tables or stand behind barrels, pillars sacks or low walls either. Anything that boosts your AC or provides cover will help keep you alive longer. Just remember that you're better armoured than the party's Magic-Users and thieves. If it comes to a choice between you or the Magic User, don’t be selfish. Let the Magic User have the cover.

Finally, should you ever find yourself surrounded or cut off from your companions (it happens more often than you might think) you can do a lot worse than put your back to the wall. Don't stand in the middle of the room like a numpty. In the open, as many as nine creatures might attack you at once. With your back to the wall, you might be facing three to five (depending on how big they are). For best results, try to keep a doorway between them and you. If only one can get to you at a time through the doorway, you'll do a lot better than fighting nine at once. In fact, you're a lot more likely to beat nine opponents one at a time than to beat nine all at once. And by the way, this doorway thing works really well against lone, hard-hitting monsters such as ogres as well. It helps you keep the squishy magic users and thieves out of reach and you cycle in a fresh fighter every time the door-defender takes a hit. While the second fighter holds the door, the first fighter gets healed, ready to take over again. Meanwhile, everyone with a pole-arm who can gather round the door-defender can take a swipe at the ogre or whatever as well. But frankly, at first level, if you come across something as big and tough as an ogre, you should really be thinking about running away -or killing it from a distance, with ranged weapons. ESPECIALLY if you think it could be poisonous. Even giant centipedes are better killed at a distance than by fighting hand to hand.


Why? Because it's the clerics job to keep you alive. If you do your job right, he'll be more than happy to cast every healing spell he has on you and your fighter buddies. If you mess up, he's to busy healing the wounded thieves, magic-users (and even other clerics) you stupidly left exposed. Think of it as another incentive to keep the squishes safe: if you've kept them out of trouble, then that means the cleric has all the more healing available for you. And keep him (or her) safe. Dead clerics don't cast many cure spells. Come to think of it, any dead cleric you see that's still casting spells probably isn't going to be very friendly.

Keep the Magic User safe, preferably behind a steel ring of you and you’re fellow bruisers or hirelings. Why? Because he's your nuke, the ace-in-the-hole that will pull your fat out of the fire when things seem hopeless. When you're surrounded by a half dozen enemies and down to your last hit point, it'll be him that sleeps them all so you can escape. When you need busted out of prison because you got yourself into a brawl the night before, it's the mage that will charm the prison guard or magistrate into letting you go. NEVER leave the bad guys a direct line of sight to the magic user. And make sure that there's always at least one of you big bad fighter types close to keep anything from getting too close to the magic-user -or at least, close enough to get it's attention if it does. Your squishy magic-user friend may be a snotty nosed intellectual pain-in-the-arse (and probably deserves a good slap) but he's YOUR snotty nosed intellectual pain-in-the-arse. Even a scabby goblin with a dagger has about a fifty percent chance of killing your first level magic-user friend in the very first combat round. Even more so if the goblin had the brains to charge

Keep the thief safe. Why? Because if you're thief goes down, you'll be the one sent forward to spring any traps the hard way. Never discount the thief's ability to open locks without giving the monsters on the other side of the door a hint that you're there. Once you've been on the wrong side of a surprise round or two yourself, you'll understand how valuable their stealth and lock-picking skills really are. Sure you can kick or batter down just about any door you come across. But do you want the whole dungeon to know where you are? Finally, don't discount the thief’s ability to back-stab. Whether he's sneaking up on a sentry to make a silent kill or moving forward into melee once the shield-wall breaks down (as it inevitably will), that back-stab bonus can be a life-saver. Once he's killed the ogre that's killing you with a well-timed knife in the back, you'll come to think of him as more than just lightly-armoured fighter with wandering fingers. In other words, you'll be keeping an eye on him for more than just the suspicion he's after your coin purse.

As you can see, being the fighter means more than simply swinging a sword at something till it falls down dead. The fighter is easily the easiest class for a beginner to play, but, tellingly, it's also one of the hardest classes to play well.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The 1st Level Magic User's Survival Guide

In most of the D&D retro-clones, no first level character has a harder time of it than the Magic User or his close pal, the Illusionist. With a typical starting AC10 a mere goblin has a fifty percent chance of hitting the character per round. And with just D4 for his hit dice, that first hit is likely to be his last. Given that The Shorn are about to be joined by it's first single-classed Magic-User, now seems like an excellent time to review how to keep your “clothie” alive. Much of what follows is as true for the Illusionist as it is for the Magic-User, with the obvious exception of spell selection.

The best armour a magic user can have is a 250lb hulking,  hairy-arsed growling walking meat-shield. A big (nay, huge)  fighter wrapped in planty of metal, with a huge sword and an even bigger shield. The monsters can't hit you if the party's fighters are keeping themselves firmly between you and the foe. If your group tends to hire on mercenaries, then it's a smart move to equip a few of them with decent armour and good shields, and task them to protect the mage.

But there's more ways to protect your wizard than simply standing behind a wall of hulking metal-clad brutes. Static cover works just as well. There's nothing wrong with a magic user peeking round a corner, quickly casting his spell, and ducking back again. Safely out of sight. Likewise, overturned tables, the space between an open dungeon door and the wall, a handy tree, bush or stone, all make the Magic User a more difficult target for his foes. Most importantly, find yourself a battle-brother or shield-bearer you can rely on. One's whose first instinct upon encountering a foe is setting to receive a charge rather than hurtling into battle himself. When you find an NPC (or, even rarer, a high AC, high hp PC with such restraint) treat them like gold-dust. They're just as rare and about thirty times more valuable.

Finally, whenever your party comes across a protective item that improves your armour class or survivability in any way, grab it. Beg, borrow or steal it does not matter. Nobody, nobody needs it more than you.. Do absolutely everything you can to secure that item for yourself (as far as your alignment allows). That extra -1 to you AC might very well be the difference between an ignoble death and living to see second level.

A 1st level Magic User or Illusionist isn't exactly spoiled for choice when it comes to weapon selection. Depending on the D&D or retro-clone rules you're using, you options might be limited to a simple dagger or staff. Alternatively, you could have as many as five or six options. Typically, these options will include: Dagger, Dart, Sling, Staff or Oil.

The ignoble dagger has it's advantages. They are ubiquitous enough to barely even considered weapons at all – after all, we don't think of our fork as a weapon. An unlucky wizard might be forbidden to take his staff into a king’s hall on the odd occasion-but no-one is likely to insist he remove his dagger. Hell, he's got to be able to eat with something, hasn't he? Another benefit of this commonality is the availability of magical daggers. When you've finally be cornered by that goblin and are looking at a fifty percent chance of being taken out of the fight every combat round, it helps to have that magical attack and damage modifier to improve your chances of putting him down before he does the same to you.

The sling has a number of advantages as an alternative. It can easily be concealed as a simple belt and, when the lead bullets run out, there's always plenty of pebbles lying around to replace them. However, a sling is worse than useless in hand to hand combat. Sure, you can have a dagger as a back-up, but do you know how to use it? When that goblin comes calling, you'll want to be fighting him in melee with something you actually know how to use. Your survival chances are low enough without a non-proficiency modifier subtracting from your attack rolls.

The staff has much of the same advantages as the dagger and does more damage but, unlike the dagger, it can't be thrown effectively, making it a far less versatile weapon. Again, it's fairly innocuous as weapons go. You might legitimately claim it to be a simple walking stick -at least if you’re not advertising your profession through your clothing.

Flaming Oil is another excellent choice -though expensive, you can catch many opponents in the area of effect with a single pot. It's also pyrotechnic-ally appropriate. With some “magic words” and a bit of arm waving, you can have the goblins wondering if that really was just a flaming pot of oil you chucked -or are they in fact facing someone powerful enough to toss fireballs around? A disconcerting dilemma for any foe.

However, the piece d' resistance in the Magic User's arsenal has to be the humble dart. It does as much damage as a dagger on a single hit, is cheap and cheerful (allowing you to carry plentiful ammunition), they can be re-used after every combat, they are usable in melee and, what's more – you get to chuck three of them every round. That's right. Three. That means three chances to hit, which means three chances to do damage. This becomes all the more important when you consider the wizards terrible combat skills. Suddenly, a first level magic user with Affect Normal Fires and Feather-fall as beginning spells doesn't seem so useless any more, does he?

If your DM is anything like me then you've had no choice in your spell selection at all. Instead, you've had to put up with whatever the dice gave you. However, if your character is luckily enough to survive the first session or two, you'll soon have plenty of cash to purchase a scroll or two from the local wizard and (hopefully) learn something more useful.

But which spells should you spend your hard-earned gold on?

Assuming they are available for purchase at all, the three most useful spells for a 1st level Magic User are Identify, Charm Person and Sleep. Magic Missile and other first level damage spells are often a popular choice, but let’s face it, you, the Magic User, are the party nuke. Do you want your spells to have the battle-winning impact of a B52 strike or the snip-fizzle of a damp squib? Yes burning hands looks impressive, but you have to be within 3-5ft of your foe (depending on edition) to use it. What's your AC again? And yes, magic missile hits every time. But what damage does it do? Your dagger does that much. Do you really want your one spell of the day to do as much good as a hurled dagger?

Now sleep on the other hand, is a battle-winner, especially at low levels. Unless you’re fighting undead (when it's as much use as sewage water) pop it when your party is surrounded, or likely to be overwhelmed. Then while the majority (perhaps even all the enemy) slumber, you can kill the ones still fighting before murdering the sleepers. Or, if you still think you can't win (or think you can't kill the alert creatures before the slumbering ones awaken) you can beat feet and retreat. Chances are, your spell has so awed and frightened the foe (they might not even realise their allies are only sleeping) that they will gladly let you go. Just in case you have another one of those spells tucked up your sleeve.

That's the result you want from your one spell of the day. Not D4 damage to a single foe.

Charm Person is not to be sneered at either. Why fight the guards if you can charm one of them into convincing the others to let you pass? Plus, consider how long the spell lasts. How much damage can a single well-armed, well armoured hobgoblin dish out over the course of a charm effect? A hell of a lot. Especially if you keep recasting the spell periodically and don't do anything stupid (like ask him to take a shot at some of his friends). How often have you come away from a near-victory thinking, “We'd have won that if we'd just had one more fighter.”

Best of all, unlike a hireling, you don't even have to pay the guy. He's doing this out of “friendship”, after all.

In short, when it comes to selecting your combat spells, “bang for the buck” is the key. Especially at low levels. When you only have one spell a day, it pays to make it a good one.

Finally, Identify will not only save your group a fortune in sage costs, it's also a marketable commodity. If other bands of adventurers plunder ruins in the same environment as you (and you have a reputation for honesty) you might find them coming to you for their own Identifications. It's traditional for the supplicant to provide the material components of the spell where possible of course, and who's to say a little mark up here and there to subsidise your own castings of the spell would be unreasonable? If they don't like it, they can pay 100gp a day to the Sage instead. Who MIGHT get the correct answer after a few days. Or not.

And it's not just Identify that can be used to save (and even make) you money: Mending, Tenser's Floating Disk, Identify. Even Feather-fall and Spider-climb (if you don't mind helping out the local thieves) can be real money-spinners. You just have to think hard about how to market yourself. What does all this money mean for you? More hirelings (more metal between you and the enemy), more healing potions and maybe (just maybe) even enough for a raise dead spell, just in case. After all, who in the party is more likely to need it than you?

Don't be tempted to “waste” your only spell slot on a defensive spell like shield (not unless you can still contribute to combat with a sling, or preferably, some darts). The other characters expect you to be their nuke. If you spend your only spell slot on protecting yourself, they may begrudge you your share of treasure. You might be able to take the long view (that's probably why you elected to play a Magic User in the first place) but don't expect “I need to stay alive long enough to learn a few more spell slots, then I'll be useful” to wash when a simple sleep spell might have saved the lives of some of their fallen companions. There are other (and better and more permanent) ways to protect yourself from harm. As discussed both above and below.

Player Characters being what they are (especially novice PC's) you can't always expect your fellow party members to act with your future health in mind. They'll selfishly leave you open to attack in a heartbeat if it means they can grab the glory or kill just one more fleeing foe. So what you need is someone loyal to you. Someone on your payroll. Now Magic Users don't start with a great deal of cash, but you can pick up a weapon for about 2gp (unless you've gone down the flaming oil route for your proficiency choices) and you don't need to buy armour. That leaves a lot of cash left over. So what do you spend it on? Not the traditional adventurers gear: ropes, hammer, poles and such like. Oh no. get yourself a pen, a scroll-case and some ink. No-one else will think to buy it (except maybe the cleric) and you'll need it for making maps, sketches and taking impressions of strange objects and carvings. THEN get yourself what's really important: your own personal hireling: A bodyguard.

Even if you can’t afford to hire a decently armoured mercenary right away (who could, you'd need to buy his kit for him after all) I suggest plopping down for a war dog or two. They hit just as well (if not better) than your average mercenary and best of all, they come with weapons already attached. If a monster does break through the line to reach you, sic the dogs on ‘em then conduct a fighting retreat.

When it finally comes to the time that you can recruit intelligent hirelings, make sure you recruit a steady, patient, defensively minded type with a liking for a high AC. Never let him leave your side, no matter how much other players whine and cajole you to let him join the charge. Other characters wear their armour, your hireling IS your armour. Equip him with a tower shield, and stay behind him. Pop up, cast your spell, and duck down behind the shield. Simple.

At later levels, your choice of henchman is a different matter. Of course it makes sense for the party magic user to take on other “apprentice” magic users as henchmen. But how does that improve your survivability? Go for a nice heavily armoured cleric instead. As your henchmen, your absolutely guaranteed he'll always be saving that last healing spell for you -and no one else.

Grenade- like missiles are always a good choice as well. Depending on the rules your using, quite often you’re not actually aiming at a target, your aiming at his square. It’s a lot easier to hit an immobile terrain feature than a moving target, but sometimes it's to your advantage to smear a number of foes a little rather than splatter one a lot. Especially when you've just doused them in oil and you know for a fact that hireling torch-bearer is a dab hand with a thrown torch.

Finally, you can't go wrong by stocking up on scrolls -when they are available. Sometimes it can be a hard choice between learning a new spell and buying a scroll for a spell you already know. Just bear in mind that you can go one of two ways with scrolls. Either buy up lots of scrolls for combat spells you already know to improve your combat effectiveness OR stock up on those spells you'd rather not waste a slot on but which are bound to come in handy sooner or later. Identify, Jump, Feather-fall, Wizard Lock, Spider Climb, Reduce and Tenser's Floating Disc are all excellent examples of the sort of spells I mean. Don't try to do both though, or you won't be very effective at either. If there is more than one Magic User in the party, split the two choices between you. One of you stocks the combat scrolls, the other stocks the support scrolls. You can pass scrolls to one another throughout the adventure as needed, so that you both might end up carrying a mixture of both scroll types. But one of you should always be responsible for bringing the support scrolls and the other should be paying for the combat scrolls.

• Your staff is not a ten foot pole. Don't use it like one – and don't let the other characters treat you like a pole-carrier either.
• Don't push to the front to cast a short range spell. If the monsters survive your burning hands spell, who will they come after next combat round?
• The Find Familiar Spell: No, just no. Not till much much later. When you can afford to lose the familiar (and the hit points)
• Don't call attention to yourself. Dress in normal clothes. You want to be mistaken for a torch-bearer or porter. Don't dress like a magic-user and the monsters won't treat you like one. At least, not until you've unleashed your first spell. And by then, it should be too late.
• Don't hang around at the back. Equally, Don't hang around at the front. Right in the middle of the marching order is where you want to be.
• Don't let anyone in the party try to con you into opening the door to a potentially trapped or monster-defended room. Opening doors is a job for men with armour. Don't let them try to make your bodyguard do it either. His job is keeping you alive. Not opening doors.
• Do offer advice on puzzle solving. Do not volunteer to test your theories, no matter how sure you are. You don't have the hit points for it. If it comes down to you trying it yourself or it not being tried at all, choose not to try it at all. Your companions may come round eventually. Proving you're right isn't worth causing you're death.

The 1st level Magic User is without a doubt the least likely character in the game to ever see the heady heights of 2nd level. No matter how skilfully played, there's just too much that can go wrong (either through the fault of another player or even sheer dumb luck) to ever let your guard down for a moment. The hints and tips outlined above can't guarantee that your apprentice level character will live to become the powerful arch-mage of their dreams, but they'll certainly help.

Coming Soon: The 1st Level Fighter's Survival Guide

The Weary Sun

The Weary Sun.

As I write, the sun is sang to it's earthy bed by the call to prayer. Oman is a dream, promised by years of study and more. The city of Muscat is a desert oasis. Palm trees line the broad, sweeping avenues. The back streets and alleyways are full of playing children, squabbling cats and young men leading kids of a different kind home to grace the dinner table. Or rather, they were until just a few moments ago. As the last verses fade into the evening air, a devout silence settles across Muscat. There is not a car horn or barking dog to be heard. Only the insistent chirping of crickets breaks the serene air.

It is a city where traditional Omani values exist side by side with modern shops, venues and entertainment complexes. Yet, unlike so many developing and (in this case) newly developed countries, Oman has not prostituted itself nor sold it's soul to western capitalism. Even the electricity substations are hidden away behind or beneath a stone veneer of traditional Omani architecture. Motorway bridges are held aloft not by simple concrete pillars, but by mighty towers that could grace the strongest and mightiest of the Crusader Castles in countries to the North.

Tonight, I don't feel as though I need to venture down a dungeon to find adventure. Tonight, adventure is already here.