Wednesday, September 3, 2014

What's A Wounded Wraith Look Like?

[aka "Yes, I've Been Sidetracked Again"]

Over at Delta's blog, a discussion on the Animal Growth spell has led me down a road of really considering (once again) the significance and literal definition of that hoary term "hit dice."

Personally, I dig on hit dice. I think it's a great short-hand for monsters in the D&D game (or any game that involves a lot of "monster fighting"), providing a measure of a creature's vitality, combat ability, awareness (saving throws), approximate challenge level, and XP value. In Five Ancient Kingdoms, I put hit dice to even more uses including a replacement for armor class and number appearing in lairs.

[bigger monsters and monsters with special abilities are encountered in smaller numbers...go figure]

I like hit dice...I like the easy scaling of them in the early editions of the game. Using the "normal human" as the standard unit of measure (i.e. as the standard 1 HD creature), it's easy to say:

One hit dice represents the ability to sustain one mortal wound.

Or, to put it another way, one hit dice worth of damage is the amount of damage needed to kill a normal human. Larger creatures can take a lot more damage than a normal human...assuming you're talking a weapon that does the minimum damage needed to kill a person (a rocket launcher can "one-shot" an elephant as easily as a human, but we're not talking about modern weapons of warfare). When I imagine an ogre, I'm thinking of something the size and ferocity of a grizzly bear (they do share the same 4 HD), and my mental picture has all sorts of weapons sticking out of the guy, not slowing him, as he wades through a party of adventurers.

It's easy to scale size and ferocity (assuming the monster is aggressive) based on its size compared to humans. A hill giant is listed as 12' tall...twice the height of a human, and presumably proportionate in the other two dimensions. That's why 8 HD is a good measure for the hill giant...he's eight times (2x2x2) the size of a "normal human." Now it gets sketchier as things get bigger...storm giants are 24' feet tall, double a hill giant, but they don't have 64 HD. The challenge to the PCs need to be within reach, right? But then, maybe it's silly for characters (even high level ones) to be fighting something the size of a house.

And, yet, that's "heroic" right? Beowulf (or Turin Turambar) goes out to fight the giant, fire-breathing dragon and somehow manages to win. Hell, sometimes the hero even survives the fight (see Sigurd versus Fafnir).

Of course, such heroic battles are rarely of the "nickel-n-dimey" combats one sees in the fictional duel. The hero finds an opening and strikes home...he's not whittling down a bunch of hit points. Because (as has been pointed out before) you don't kill a whale with a broadsword.

So hit dice, much as I like them, only really works to a point. And I can accept that, if the scale is right (i.e. small enough). In 5AK, sea monsters go up to 30 HD, but that's not really killable by an adventurer...the biggest "bad guy" one will go up against is in the 10-12 HD range. The largest scale "monster" that a small scale hero can reasonably tackle.  How is a cloud giant going to fit down a 10'x10' tunnel anyway?

But HD fall down again when one looks at the opposite end of the mass spectrum...what do hit dice represent for an incorporeal monster? How many mortal wounds can an (already dead) ghost take? In other words, does a wraith bleed?

Going back into my mind's eye again, I don't like the picture I'm seeing.

The wraith/specter monster was based on Tolkien's Nazgul (the Black Riders, Ring-Wraiths, whatever you want to call them). They show up in Chainmail (at least the edition I have) and they are directly referenced in both first edition OD&D and the Holmes Basic set. I'm sure most of my readers are passingly familiar with The Lord of the many combats do you remember taking place that involved going mano-a-mano with wraiths? And how did those fights resolve? I ask only because, if you're going to model a monster on a piece of fiction, you should be able to model the fiction, too.

How many times did Eowyn "roll to hit?"
Incorporeal creatures are where hit a standard measure of a monster...start to break down. Yes, it can model combat ability, and challenge rating, and saving throws, etc. But substance? Vitality? Such a creature lacks these things. Assuming the hero has a weapon capable of damaging such a creature (be it enchanted or silvered or whatever), it would appear that any blow would be likely to disrupt the monster, sending it back (or to) wherever such things go when they're unlife comes to an end. The alternative...that you just keep sticking this ghost with either A) no noticeable effect, or B) the ghost starts "bleeding" ectoplasm or something both seem...*sigh*.  I don't know...too "video gamey?" Certainly, unpalatable to my taste.

[as I've written before I have played World of Warcraft in the past, and watching the health bar go down on a spectral spirit that my warrior has to repeatedly hack is just about the least "immersive" thing I find about an MMO"RPG"]

In Chainmail (the first introduction of TSR's "wraith"), you have a monster that can attack quite well (both mounted and on foot), but that cannot be harmed except in "fantasy combat" (such as by a hero, wizard, or individual with a magic weapon). This is different from most other "fantasy combatants" in Chainmail. A hero or ogre (for example) can be fought using the "fantasy combat" system, but they can also be destroyed by good ol' fashion melee or missile fire (though doing so is a tough prospect for the normal rank-n-file troops, seeing as how they need to inflict multiple hits/wounds). Wraiths are immune to "normal" combat...a trait they share with only a handful of fantasy creatures: dragons, elementals, "true" (regenerating) trolls, and truants (though the latter may be sent on fire, even by normal troops). Even lycanthropes and wights can be slain in normal Chainmail combat...creatures that, in D&D, require special weapons to injure.

"Fantasy combat" consists of trying to throw a particular number on 2D6 (the number being dependent on what's doing the attacking). Succeed and you kill the creature. In other words, you either one-shot the wraith or you fail to injure it...assuming you even can injure it. The same holds true for the dragon, by the way (again, mimicking the fictional account of dragon slayers looking for that chink in the armor to bring down the beast).

Anyway..,ugh, this is what's bugging me at the moment. But I've got to take a break to go "fight crime" with (a very small) Batman right now (and probably feed him lunch) so I'll have to return to this topic later. If I can figure out a way to rectify it in a non-irritating manner.


  1. Does a wraith bleed? Hmm... their presence diminishes, that suit of chainmail or robes they are filling out starts to deflate even shrivel, wisps of darkness leak away like smoke from a candle flame, as the malevolent glow where their eyes would be dims the unnatural dread and chill that seems to surround them is diminished.

    Once in a great while those with the sight will see for the briefest of fleeting moments a shimmering memory of the person that the ghost was slip away like motes in a beam of sunlight.

    1. @ JD:

      I don't know...the chill diminishes? So every swing of my magic sword warms the air?

      I was toying with the idea of just giving the things minimum HPs (like 1 per die or maybe even D4 per die), but I'm not sure that's the answer I want either.

    2. Not really warrmig the air more of a removing/cleaning up the blot that is the wraith. They are an intrussion on the natural order so every blow that "landds" is setting things right.

      I can see where you are coming from re the wraithy hp but what about damage causing spells? Should a wraith be more vulnerable to magic missiles or lightning than an ogre is?

  2. @ JD:

    I would think an incorporeal creature would be LESS vulnerable to spells than an ogre. In Chainmail, ogres and trolls are automatically destroyed by fireballs and lightning while wraiths save on a 2D6 roll of 7+.

    It really depends on the cosmology of your setting. If "incorporeal" means "existing in a different dimension" than I'd have wraiths ignore elemental fire and lightning. If magic missile is some sort of "soul shot" (it's invisible, imperceptible, auto-hits)...maybe it drives off or momentarily disrupts the creature. On the other hand, if magical missiles (arrows +1 etc.) can, in general, harm or kill a wraith, than perhaps magic missile should do the same.

    Undead and magic is a tricky least if you want a semblance of logic in your game. If you don't care, you don't care. Do the undead "see" like other monsters? Or are they simply attracted to the "life-force" of the living? If so, do Power Words (like "Blind") affect them? For that matter, how does a Holy Word affect a creature that has no ears?

    I'm not one of those people that argues for physics to trump the "it's magic" argument. I don't think a guy wearing a Ring of Free Action that falls into the ocean should fall all the way to the bottom and squish. But I like the supernatural to operate under some principles...even if those principles (what I call "the cosmology") change from game-to-game and from setting-to-setting.

    I just think that a game where wraiths (or shadows or specters) end up bleeding from multiple wounds, is kind of bizarre. At least in a game where a corporeal troll can see a deep laceration close up in a handful of seconds.