Bonded Treasure, aka The Smaugian Gambit

The Council of Wyrms boxed set for AD&D 2e is an imperfect melange of ideas, and probably way more fun to read and daydream about than it is to run. It is, however, teeming with dragon-focused rules paraphernalia, and among them, the rules for bonded hoards. Essentially, this attempts to make gameable the traditional Germanic folkloric conception of dragon treasure. A dragon that sleeps and rests on its hoard gains a connection, a bond with it. The dragon becomes more powerful, but in turn, it stores some of its energy within that treasure. A dragon that loses parts of its bonded hoard is therefore weakened until the hoard is either restored, or suitable replacements can be found.

I think this is brilliant. It’s like treasure-phylacteries on a lower scale. And more importantly, it gives the dragon’s hoard a new narrative and in-game role without invalidating its former role as loot and reward. It also provides a rationale for monster treasure-hoarding. These objects are not just shiny and pretty – they are literally a way for the monster to survive and grow! Smaug didn’t sit on the hoard of Erebor just for fun, now did he?

Dragon’s Hoard by Stephen Hickman.

And why stop at dragons? Plenty of monsters could have bonds with their treasure. The traditional undead guardians of withering tomb complexes are an obvious choice. A medusa’s bonded treasure could be its pertrified former lovers. A giant’s hoard might be its trophies of slain enemies. And so on. As long as the loot is transferable, the bonded treasure can work, even if it is essentially worthless to the PCs.

Here are some example tables based on the idea.

Generic Germanic Folkloric Dragon

For every 20’000 gp worth of treasure or magic item lost, roll 1d6 for ability affectedAbility affected
1Lose 6 hp.
2Breath weapon only half strength.
3Can fly for no more than one minute a day.
4Lose highest-level spell-casting ability.
5Worsen saving throws by one HD category.
6AC worsens by 1d4.
Adjust as needed if dragon collects books, scrolls, art, cheese, or other item type as its primary treasure.

Tomb-Haunting Ghouls (Effects Apply to All Ghouls in the Tomb)

For every 1’000 gp worth of tomb ornaments, votive gifts and grave goods lost, roll 1d6 for ability affectedAbility affected
1Counts as a 1 HD undead for turning purposes.
2Lose 2 hp.
3AC worsens by 1d3.
4Victims get +3 on saving throws against paralysis.
5Saving throws are all rolled at disadvantage.
6Roll d4s for hp, not d8s.

Grim Fire Giant

For every 8’000 gp worth of trophies, magic items, and fire-themed jewellery lost, roll 1d6 for ability affectedAbility affected
1Lose 10 hp.
2Morale worsens by 2.
3Worsen saving throws by 1 HD category.
4AC worsens by 2.
51d2 guardian monsters leave.
6Roll d6s for hp, not d8s.

Territorial Basilisk

For every petrified victim smashed, 2’000 gp worth of jewels lost, and every magic item lost, roll 1d6 for ability affectedAbility affected
1Petrifying touch ability lost.
2Saving throws against petrifying gaze made at advantage.
3Lose 8 hp.
4Worsen AC by 2.
5Worsen saving throws by 1 HD category.
6Move reduced to 30′ (10′).

Monsters from the Slush Pile

The last few weeks have been quite busy with moving and adjusting to a new life situation, leaving relatively little time for the blog. I intend for that to change soon, and continue the Thrasos posts. Until then, here are some OSR-style monsters from the slush pile, statted in a vaguely-OSE way. Their creation was part drawing practice, part meditation on monsters in the wake of going through the 3.5 Monster Manuals and the amazing Fire on the Velvet Horizon by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess.

Put the Fear of Gob In Them

Battle Brothers is a 2015 video game about leading a mercenary company in a dark fantasy world with a deliciously and balefully old-school, no-mercy, gritty sensibility. And, amazingly, it manages to make a positively terrifying foe out of the humble goblin. Why? Because its goblins fight dirty, they fight smart, and they fight like cowards. They use every trick in the book: poison, traps, immobilizing attacks. It’s all very Tucker’s Kobolds.

Good stuff. Let’s use it.

Let’s try and formulate a vision of goblins taking cues from Battle Brothers but usable at the OSR table. Rather than think of a goblin encounter as a cluster of discrete NPC’s, we can think of it as a situation, an obstacle to overcome. A form of elaborate trap, even. That means we need to keep in mind how to do traps well. Poorly executed traps tend to come across as cheap and as untelegraphed, and very often the problem is a lack of hints and a lack of meaningful ways of interacting with the trap.

The first issue is solvable. Goblins mark their territory. You won’t mistake a goblin-held piece of wilderness for anything else. Bones arranged in warning beacons. The smell of wolf spoor. Wicked runes etched on stones and trees. Goblin country lets you know you’ve entered it.

Goblin territory is peppered with traps and unpleasant surprises. Roll a d6 1d4+1 times below to see what surprises the goblins have laid out.

1Bear trap. If it snaps, 1d8 damage and 50% chance of losing a leg, 50% chance of getting stuck between wicked iron jaws. Clue: Discreetly arranged pile of leaves in an open space, hiding the trap.
2Net trap. Return of the Jedi style. Step on the right place in front of the big tree, and the ground lifts up and catches you in a hanging net. Clue: The vegetation on the patch of grounds looks beaten.
3Tripwire. Hidden among some low scrub. Unless detected, characters will be tripped over when moving across the patch. Clue: None of the local animals move across the spot.
4False corpse. Remains of an expired adventurer clutching what looks like a bag of coin. When opened, the bag explodes into a pale and lung-hostile coughing powder. Clue: The arsenic-white, goblin-shaped handprints and splotches on the corpse’s clothes.
5Poisoned spring. A picturesque natural spring with clear, clean-looking water. Actually poisoned; each hours induces 1d4 liver-rending damage on a failed save, or a level of exhaustion (depending on your system). Clue: The number of dead squirrels, birds and other wildlife in the high grass around the spring.
6Fire ant honey. A naturally-occurring substance that’s delicious to certain species of ants; the goblins smear this stuff on the leaves of ferns and other large-leafed plants that intruders are likely to pass. Ants are attracted, and cause considerable irritation and non-lethal pain. Clue: The colony of fire ants close to the ferns, making expeditions to retrieve their sweet prize.

Each trap overcome brings the character’s closer and closer to defeating the goblins. The goblins, after all, won’t take a fight they’re likely to lose, and assuming the PC’s are keeping eyes and ears open, the chances of the goblins getting the jump on them are slim.

Any trap that successfully activates triggers a goblin attack, as they capitalize on the momentary weakness. Run combat as normal, but the goblins use bastard tactics – most notably, they coat their little arrowheads in poison.

FingerfreezeSave or fingers begin to stiffen and freeze; hands rendered useless for 1d6 minutes.
GibberSave or be unable to enunciate anything but gibberish for 1d4 rounds. Hated by spellcasters.
FeverknockSave or be unable to sleep or rest properly because of feverish symptoms, lasting until cured by healing means.
ColorbooSave or see the world in black-and-white for 1d10 minutes.
NopotionSave or be unable to process potions for 1d4 hours; any potion consumed induces nothing but gagging.
Garnach ExtractSave or begin to swell like a balloon. Makes movement cumbersome, and induces 1d2 damage for each round where rigid armor is worn.

If the PCs avoid getting poisoned and put up a fight, the goblins retreat. Any goblins they down should be counted against the original number of goblins defending the territory.

When all traps/obstacles are overcome and the PC’s push on, the goblins make a last-ditch attempt at repelling the invaders. They probably bring a couple of dire wolflings, or throw some enraged badgers at the characters, or other general nastiness. But they do it at their last possible ambush site. If the PC’s get the drop on the goblins, they’ve earned it fair and square.

In the final struggle, the goblins will retreat as soon as defeat seems inevitable, or as soon as their own life is at stake. Remember, goblins are cowards; they want to live, and the best way to live is avoid a fight you can’t win.

If the PC’s win the last fight, either by sheer grit or by outmaneuvering the goblins, they’ve won. Yay! There’s probably some cool loot in the goblin lair. Surviving goblins retreat and make for other holds. But for now, the forest is safe. For now.

To summarize: Present the goblins as a situation. Present a series of traps and obstacles; sprinkle in some attempted ambushes. Have the goblins fight dirty, draining the party’s resources and testing their mettle. Build towards a final ambush. Play it out. Let the PC’s jockey for advantage against the goblins. If they win, let them savor it.