Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Back to the Swamp: N1 Curse of the Reptile God

Yo' Dicechucks, you've been silent since July. What the heck are you up to?
Thank you for asking. What happened was this: I started playing 5E online--using a psudonym of course--during the pandemic. Someone leaked this secret to the OSR police and they busted me on charges of Taking Opportunity Attacks in the First Degree and Rolling Charisma Checks with Malicious Intent. The outfall is that my blogging rights have been revoked. DiceChucker Enterprises Legal Team has been working on getting a reinstatement; they've managed to get a temporary easement that allows me to post old material that was written before I went afoul of The Law. So here is a piece I wrote up 7 years ago when I went on my N1 tirade. Read it quickly, before the pigs shut me down again.

I've gone on record as saying that the Naga in the basement of N1 was perhaps not the best choice of critter to base your entire cult on. Besides being far too powerful an opponent for the posse of novice PCs who are supposed to be going through this adventure, the naga charm ability is just a Mass Charm spell which doesn't really create the creepy side effects that the module calls for. The cursed townspeople of Orlanes often were characterized as losing interest into complete apathy regarding their work and or family. And the cursed cleric of Marrakesh was so far gone that he defiled the sacred tomes at the church and kidnapped a young girl from the neighborhood to be his sex slave. Nothing about a mass charm spell would cause that sort of reaction.
Of course you could just change the Naga so it's a less powerful critter, but then it seems unworthy of your worship. How about an ancient artifact of evil? I like the sound of that because it allows us to redefine the charm to handle the range of results that are described in the module. So instead of a Naga it's a statue of a magic constrictor snake with a woman's head that comes to life under the full moon. When the statue comes to life it encircles the victim in its coils and infiltrates their will with it's hypnotic gaze. In this way it can manufacture 5-10 new "cult members" per full moon.


  1. I have less issue with the naga being in N! then with some of the violations of "D&D reality" that Niles seems to blissfully ignore.

    Specifically: clerical spells. The naga isn't an actual deity, so I'm not sure how the "clerics" following the thing have access to high level spells. Rather, they should have been stripped of their powers by their own deity. When I ran N1 for my campaign last year, I played them without spells.

    The mass charm I'm more okay with. In 1E I'm kind of used to these spell-like abilities working a little differently from the actual the monsters individual flavor and distinguishes their abilities from the MU's spell list. Harpies, nagas, vampires, etc. all have slight variations on the standard charming.

    One thing I found: elves and half-elves are incredibly useful in this kind of scenario because of their resistance to charm. That was the real kicker for my group and allowed my players (two elves and a half-elf) to defeat the naga with a bit of luck and quick thinking.

    But, yeah...I've seen N1 TPK groups before, especially when I ran the thing as a B/X conversion.

  2. "I'm kind of used to these spell-like abilities working a little differently from the actual the monsters individual flavor and distinguishes their abilities from the MU's spell list."
    I'm right there with you; I think the description of how Explicta converts new mebers--entwining the captive in her serpentine body and whispering sweet, slithery nothings--is an excellent addition. I'm just a bit underwhelmed when something called the Reptile God has a stat block in the Monster Manual. Nothing kills mystique like a stat block.

    1. For whom is the mystique killed? The DM? Or the players?

      The DM already sees “behind the curtain;” it’s a Necessary Evil for the DM to NOT be mystified, because the DM is the one running the game and needs the mechanics to be solid.

      For the PLAYERS: there is PLENTY of mystique and mystery. IF the DM is doing their job right. Which means (duh) communicating stellar narration and painting a vivid scene incorporating sight, sound, and stress.

      I’ve run N1 a couple-three times, with Explicitus being encountered…mm, twice(?) that I remember. In both cases, the players (different groups) were properly awed, repulsed, and frightened/freaked by the situation. I know it SEEMS O So Lacking in magic and fantasy, but it ain’t. Trust in the game, man…it works the way it’s written.

      HOWEVER…if it’s YOU (the DM) that expects to be thrilled and mystified by the adventure…well, there’s plenty of adventures out there that seem written to be READ, rather than PLAYED. Of course, you could also just read, um, good fiction? Or try being a player rather than a DM?

      I know, I know…DMing is a thankless job. It also rocks being a god and rockstar (for the players) all in one. I prefer the DM’s seat myself. But, then, I’ve always had an inflated ego.
      ; )

  3. JB: "Trust in the game, it works as written." Sure, but if it doesn't work the way I want it to work, then I'm changing the damn thing.

  4. Mm. So...considering my quote in context (in response to your stipulation that stat blocks kill mystique), I will repeat my original questions:

    "For whom is the mystique killed? The DM? Or the players?"

    My assertion is that it's not the the bits "behind the curtain" that thrill and mystify the DM. The DM gets thrilled by the act of creation; the DM gets mystified by not knowing how the PCs will respond to that creation.

    I mean...that's the game.

    And if that's not working the way you want it to...then, perhaps it's not the game for you? At least, not from the DM's side of the screen.

    But maybe (and I'm just reflecting on this now) that's the real divide between the game as it was originally played and the game as it's played now. Or the expectations of what "game play" is. Popular adventures being written with more attention to style than mechanics. And players looking to have more control over the crunch/mechanics of their character than just playing the game. "No, I want my PC to be like THIS" with minute idiosyncrasies, skill lists, and back stories.

    Probably (maybe), because the DMs are left flailing for applied game mechanics due to the need to write adventures like a magical story. Because mechanical depth by itself isn't "entertaining" enough.

    And, of course it isn't...not when players are spending all their time flexing and twiddling with the minutia on their character sheet, instead of engaging with the game being presented.

    A catch-22 of the game in the 21st century. Leading to non-stop dissatisfaction all around. all means, change it if you dislike it. But if you dislike the way the game is designed to Boy. That's tough. Tough to come back from that.

    I just run 1E (these days) and I find my satisfaction in that. As an old geezer (older than Gygax was when he wrote the damn thing), I take great pleasure in adding to the system where additions are needed (needed in order to make a more robust, mature game). But the thing as set up works very well. For what it's designed to do.

    RPGs are a bit like vehicles. Some are designed to do different things. You might not like the fact that your car isn't designed for "off-road" action, but you can still try to drive it that way (to your sadness). And while you can kit-bash the thing to be more "off-road friendly" the result is likely to be ugly and less efficient than if you'd purchased a vehicle specifically designed for the purpose.

    D&D is a great game. By I heartily disagree with the idea that it can EVERYTHING to EVERYBODY. There are LOTS of RPGs on the market...and some do different things far, far better.

  5. Two things:
    1> Rick, is it any consolation that I got the posse to play DCC once I got a chacne to run the game?

    2> JB, My apologies, I shortchanged your comment. In fact, I thought I had deleted the response that ultimately was published--really that was just a rough draft of a preamble that I had decided to move on from.

    To your original question: for whom is the mystique ruined [by statblocks]? We can probably skip over the obvious answer about players and get to the DM response. If I'm running a module called Against the Cult of the Reptile God, and the purported reptile god is a standard issue, off the shelf monster from the dang Manual of Monstropolopities, my inspiration to run that encounter dies a little.

    The statblock signifies that the reptile God can be killed. Not just defeated or stymied or deterred, but actually murdered to death. And in D&D, if murder can be done, by jove it will be done. Or the PCs will die trying. As a DM, I feel a little less interested in playing out that scene.

    Sure, If I were a good DM--and I'm not saying that I am any such thing--I could kick that scene into shape with my exquisite narrative abilities and clever tactical thinking. But I'm much more likely to do that if I'm inspired by the material. In the case of N! I invested myself in the modge by changing things up and making the Reptile god less know-able. By turning the god's presence into an artifact, successful PCs will have only taken out a magic shrine to the reptile god, the actual god is still out there unknown and, as yet, untouchable, and enraged at their sacrilege. I like that potential ending better than one where a bunch PCs are making boots and luggage out of a naga carcass. Although sounds pretty cool too.

    Incidentally, is that where the term naugahyde is derived from?

  6. Ha! If it isn't the origin of "naugahyde" it sure should be.

    [note to self to include "naga-hide" as a loot item in next dungeon]

    My apologies if I seemed to be challenging your "DM manhood" or something; we are all just WIPs as far as the DM-craft is concerned. Sometimes, in making a point, my opinion comes off as uber inflammatory. Again: MY apologies. And, no, I didn't think you were being terribly flippant or "short-changing" me. Jeez,'s YOUR blog.
    ; )

    NOW...onto the discussion.

    Have you ever read the REH story "God in the Bowl?" That seems to be a fairly direct inspiration for N1. You know what the god turns out to be in that one? A mind-controlling naga. You know what happens to it? Conan murders it to death with one shot.

    That's MY "Appendix N" learning moment.

    If I play a module called Against the Giants, or Vault of the Drow, or Queen of the Demonweb Pits...well, I kind of expect to encounter stat blocks that I'm going to have to deal with. my not-so-humble opinion...this beats the hell out of the alternative. Because I've seen adventures that are the alternative: Lost Tomb of Martek comes to mind. Which is too bad...because Martek is a dick and the PCs should have every opportunity to kill his ass and rob his tomb.

    But nooooooo...that would ruin the "story" of the module.

    I'm sorry. The last coupe years I've spent a LOT of time rewriting Hickman/Weiss trash to use in my home campaign. Their adventures are filled with un-killable, plot-protected villains and antagonists (and "heroes" like Martek), who are only supposed to be defeated in the "appropriate" way at the "appropriate" time.

    Look. D&D is HARD. To paraphrase Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own: "It's the hard that makes it GREAT." Putting a Spirit Naga...which, to be clear, is a Level VII monster per the 1E DMG...against characters under 4th level ABSOLUTELY IS the equivalent of putting PCs up against a "god." Level VII monsters don't even have a chance of showing up until the 5th level of a dungeon (in which case they have a 5% chance of appearing). It's far more egregious than throwing a wight into B2...something people bitch and moan about all the time.

    But you NEED mechanics for such a creature. Because D&D is a game...a game that functions on mechanics. That the thing has mechanics isn't offensive (to me) because DEALING with the mechanics of an over-powered encounter IS the whole 'dealing with a demigod' thang. I've run N1 three times and twice the thing ended in TPK (or, at least, Total Party Domination). The one time it didn't, the players got exceptionally LUCKY.

    But that's D&D. And ALSO Appendix N, come to think of it (many times protagonists are saved by some fortuitous event). It's why we play: to be astounded when such things occur.

    You may be jaded with the monsters in the old MM because you've read them too many times. You've seen all the nuts-n-bolts. I get it, I do. But part of the DM's craft (and, remember, we are all Works In Progress) is finding ways to instill wonder in those cold stat blocks FOR THE PLAYERS.

    You don't need to be awed and wonderstruck to do THAT.

    You won't like the alternative. I mean, you won't like it nearly as much (I speak from experience here, man). YOUR "wonder" and "awe" will come from how the PCs handle your encounters...encounters which REQUIRE mechanics and stat blocks and all the stuff that seems so non-magical. The magic is in the PLAY of the game.

    When I say "trust the process" that's what I mean. Just play the game. You'll see it.'ll feel it.

    And, yes, lugging out loot is plenty fantastic. Have you ever read King Solomon's Mines?

  7. I think I'd change the naga godhood somewhat differently than you've proposed. I haven't dwelt with the module like you have, so take this with a grain of salt.

    Mass Charm doesn't bother me. I'm a big fan of the idea that D&D spells are minimum viable product and what's in the book doesn't reflect the full reality of spellcasting. However, this does require more and constant creativity on the part of the DM, and I recognize that's what a module is supposed to help you with.

    My take on the naga would be that it's actively ascending to demi-godhood. Nagas in folklore are already demigods, so that's not much of a stretch. Maybe it's gathered enough followers and enough worship that it can start breaking into the minor ranks of the pantheon and granting some limited cleric spells to the locals, but not enough that it can't be killed.

    This also hints to the players that their characters could pursue a similar path, given time and dedication.