Monday, September 23, 2019

Willow the WTF?!

It was a hard weekend for the Seattle sports least for one like me, who doesn't pull for the Huskies. Saturday starting with my 3rd graders soccer team being stood up by our opponent. Then my kindergartener's team got blown out by about 20-1. The boy's premier team could only manage a 1-1 tie with my kid missing on a direct kick by inches. Stayed up till midnight watching the Cougars blow a 32 point lead, despite a QB throwing nine touchdown passes. Then sat in the pouring rain watching the Seahawks throw up all over themselves against Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints while all three of our division teams (Rams, Cards, Niners) won their games. Oh, yeah...and the Sounders lost 2-0 against DC United and old man Rooney. Come on, man.

[yes, the Mariners lost, too, but they've been doing that since May...well, really since 1977. I wouldn't have even known there was an M's game Sunday if I hadn't looked it up]

So I'm a little tired and hoarse and cranky today. Mostly dried out at this point (save, perhaps, for my liver) but still a little salty.

Which is what leads me to say, WTF Gygax? Will-o-the-wisps? Are you kidding me?!

It's been a long time since I played AD&D, and I don't ever remember using will-o-wisps as a monster. I didn't include them in my B/X Companion because I consider them more of a trap/trick (little bobbing/floating lights that lead adventurers to their death) than a monster to be faced and beaten. It's been a long time (decades) since I've bothered reading the description in the MM, but one of Icespire Peak's adventures features three will-o-wisps as the main (only) encounter/ adventure that is fairly lucrative from a loot perspective. And so I was checking the original stat block to see what kind of challenge this really was.

Holy crap. Negative eight (-8) armor class. Nine (!) hit dice. 2d8 damage per attack. Immunity to most magic spells. 18" movement rate.

These will kill you
dead...and eat your soul.
Forget the white dragon. A young adult white dragon has 24 hit points in AD&D...just one will-o-wisp would have no problem taking down a dragon, let alone three.

What the heck is this supposed to model, exactly? Even in their original appearance (the Greyhawk supplement), they were this beefy...I can understand giving them a high armor class OR a high number of hit dice, but not both. The thing has an AC equal to Demogorgon (or, as written in Greyhawk, plate +5 and shield +5), and hit dice nearly equalling a balrog. With a speed far exceeding any human adventurer, the ability to alter its shape or turn invisible at will, and its huge AC, why would it ever be cornered? Considering its immunity to spells, how can one ever expect to reduced in hit points to the point that it will give up its treasure?

This is a really weird (or really poor) monster design, in my opinion. And it irritates me. And it irritates me to have such a creature in an adventure, any adventure.

But then, maybe I'm just irritable this morning.


  1. Make them manageable. You can do it, you’re the DM.

    1. My job is to run the game, not rewrite the monsters. The less I have to redesign, the better.

  2. As with a lot of the stuff from the Greyhawk supplement, the origin of this monster seems to have been very idiosyncratically tied to play in Lake Geneva c. 1974 - presumably Gary and/or Rob wanted something that would be nearly impossible to kill, even by overpowered high level characters, so they gave it very high HD, the lowest possible BTB AC, and immunity to almost all magic. It's worth noting, though, that as originally depicted they only attack "when cornered" and otherwise all they do is try to lure people into traps and wait for them to die (at which point they eat their souls). That's a key omission from the MM description that (unintentionally?) totally changes a nuisance monster (it will try to lead you into traps and is almost impossible to kill and has a rich treasure but you're very unlikely to ever get it) into an apex predator. Anyone who's played module T1-4 is likely still scarred by the infamous TPK-bait encounter in which 4(!) will-o-wisps ambush the party.

    As a nuisance monster that's almost impossible to kill they kind of make sense (though I agree with you that, having super-low AC and almost total spell immunity there's no reason for them to also have high HD - if you can manage to hit them they should probably be a one or two hit kill) but when you take away the "only attack when cornered" limit and turn them into hunters a la T1-4, then you really need to start coming up with an explanation for why will-o-wisps don't (or maybe do?) rule over almost all the other monsters.

    1. Right. And there's absolutely nothing in the 5E version about it being anything besides such an "apex predator."

  3. I'm pretty sure this was just a really blunt way of modeling the trope "one does not actually fight Will o' the Wisps"

    And indeed, in modern games, players will spend way too much energy trying to get the kill on those things, and they probably will succeed, ruining the trope. As GM, the mature way to handle this is just have the Wisps fade away once you're well and stuck in whatever trap they were leading you into. But saying "ok the wisps are basically invincible" works too, even if it's incredibly blunt. Besides, it's pretty funny when the battle crazy PCs try to fight one and it just zooms and zips around them.

    The big problem is that it has an attack, but that doesn't mean the attack should be used. The Will 'o the Wisp attacks only when the PCs do something supremely obnoxious. Even then, it's more of a warning zap at that point. Treating it as a monster that is trying to kill the PCs and having it attack every turn is just unfair with those stats.

    I'm not going to deny that this is probably bad design for a foe and it's probably be better design to use it as a trap with no stats, but I kind of love it.

    1. I agree with this, but in a 5E adventure where it is EXPECTED that players fight the monsters (because combat is the expectation of the edition, where it is tied to the advancement system) it sets up the most ridiculous scenario doesn’t it?

    2. Mmm, it IS ridiculous that a 5E scenario would force (or encourage) you to fight a bunch of enemies that were created as lures for traps, but in 5E's "defense", the Wisp is so much easier with it's 5E statblocks. If it weren't for it's ability to go invisible, it'd be scarcely more tough than an ogre (and shares the same CR, for what that's worth). So, the 5E statblock is actually designed for fighting, while the AD&D statblock is designed for an (overly) elaborate trap encounter. I would never use the AD&D Wisps in this 5E context

  4. Let's take the AC first. -8 sounds really awful, but for a 15th level fighter without a bonus weapon, that is only a 14 to hit. A fighter of that level is likely to have a +3 weapon, so that's an 11, a 50% chance to hit. As well, the fighter is going to have two attacks per round. The damage delivered is going to come pretty fast.

    The will-o-wisp does only 2-16 per round, once, and attacks as a 9HD creature. It needs a 12 to hit AC 0 and I don't know any fighter that is only AC 0 at 15th level. The fighter can take that damage and the will-o-wisp is sure to go down first.

    A wand of magic missiles will manage just fine, so obviously the party should have one before taking on three will-o-wisps. Detecting invisible creatures, by the rules, is doable by 15th level.

    There's nothing wrong with the monster. I've used them to very good effect; they make a good positive spirit monster if the party needs to talk to a dead person who is not evil.

    If there's a problem here, it is the module, which (I haven't seen it) misjudges the level of the party. Obviously, there seems to be a problem with the lack of creativity in DMs who see everything that can't be affected by magic as overpowered. Ridiculous. An 18+ strength fighter at 7th level has a 20% chance of hitting a wisp; two or three would do fine. And it wouldn't be any harder than hitting a 1 AC creature when the party is at a lower level.

    Calm down, people.

    1. Ah, yes...probably should have mentioned that the adventure is designed for characters of levels 4th-5th (though the scale of character effectiveness in 5E is pretty wonky; that’s more like 10th - 12th level in AD&D...maybe).

    2. Having said that, I appreciate you providing some insight as to how you’ve used them (and that they worked fine).

    3. So it is not the monster, or AD&D, but the dum'fk module designer. But that's no problem, because the DM is going to fudge the hell out of the monster's attacks anyway, right? I mean heck, the wisps are each only going to hit once for 30 rolls, so it's a breeze for 4th levels to take on this sort of enemy. Can't forget the ever-important "hero" factor, that must be designed for.

      If you would just trust your genius, JB, to make a game world out of the whole cloth of your extraordinary game experience, which you demonstrably have through the way you write and the way you have of looking at things through the lens of your expertise, and STOP thinking that the lax, half-assed world of published materials will somehow inform you as to something you already know better than the industry, you'd waste far less of your time trying to pound your square peg into the nonsensical roundish hole of these module mentalities. Just look at how the module caused you to skew the dangerous elements of the 'wisp into something irrational!

      It's not immune to breath weapons, is it? So your white dragon is going to turn the thing into an icicle in two quick snorts, followed by breaking the thing in half with it's teeth. More dangerous than a dragon that can cause 24 damage to a dozen people at once? Really?

    4. *sigh*

      Alexis, you are right (of course). But right now I’m just trying to make a buck, in the absolute crossest way possible: re-writing a 5E beginner module.

      You know the old saw “if you can’t beat them, join them?” Well, at this point I’ve realized I can’t ‘beat’ them but (unwilling as I am to be a joiner) I might show them up. Some will certainly judge that as small minded and petty of me (including myself), but dammit I need to do something to occupy my brain, I *do* want to ‘keep my hand in’ (with regard to writing/designing), and...well, it’s not something I’ve really tried.

      People are always saying (not just to me, and not just about D&D): “Quit your bitching! If you think you know so much, why don’t YOU do better?” Fine. I’ll give it a shot. And maybe it will suck. But I’ll give it a shot.

      Blogging about the will-o-wisp is just a placeholder showing how I’m going through this text line-by-line and working on my rewrite. ‘Cause I’m an ass, I guess.

    5. I understand. Be advised, however. You can't drink half the kool-aid.

  5. Will of the Wisp.

    HD 1hp
    AC 0*
    Atk 1** or special***
    Dam 1hp + 1d6+2 INT Drain ****
    MV 40' fly
    ML 6
    SV F6

    *Will of Wisps are immune to all normal and magical weapons except for the bones of thier previous victims. They are also immune to all elemental attacks and magic, except divine fire (flamestrike etc).
    ** Will of the Wisps only attack in retaliation or against trapped victims.
    *** The wisp can rythmically pulse acting as a charm on animals and those with a WIS of 9 or below. Save v. Spells or follow the wisp (into a trap, bog or quicksand).
    **** The touch of the wisp drains will and mind, following the body to a husk. Points lost will return at a rate of 1d6+2 per session/week.

  6. For converting a monster that doesn't exist or is dramatically different in AD&D, there's really no need to fret. Just cut its hit points by half, giving an average of 11 which you can then convert to 2+2 HD. Then reduce its damage by 25-50%, so take that 2d8 and reduce it to whatever value between 1d8 and 2d6 strikes your fancy - I might go with 1d10, I like ten-sided dice. Convert to descending AC, and then make it 1 or 2 classes worse (unless it would already be 7 or worse), so let's say the converted will-o'-the-wisp is AC2 to keep it hard to hit. Keep or discard any resistance, immunity, and/or special ability at your discretion.