[Review] Beholder Magazine #2 (OD&D); Echoes

The second issue of Beholder Magazine and already we are in a bit of a slump. Nothing has drastically altered but it seems like most articles are a bit below the first one.

The Loner. New classes in Beholder continue to suprise, if only because gameplay ramifications are at least considered. I would include new classes only if the milieu was greatly different from the usual fare but if I was inclined to do so, I could do much worse. The Loner is specifically meant for very small parties and combines abilities of the Ranger, Monk and Thief into a sort of freakish survivalist hybrid. The result is an always Chaotic hermit class with the powers of Tracking, moving silently, hear noise etc. who gradually gains immunity to various hazards like poison, disease or cold, coupled with infra-vision and mobility powers like the ability to swim, and at 10th level, to fly. Combine this with the ability to go without food for several days, a complete inability to wear armor but an AC that increases by level and severe magic item restrictions, and you have just the sort of weirdo homebrew class that can liven up your campaign. The almost complete lack of offensive power renders playing it a challenge. Maybe for some sort of heavy Hecrawl campaign?

Traveller. A Traveller article on programmable machine guns, new types of grenades and laser guns. I don’t play Traveller so I can’t ascertain the quality.

Monster Summoning. Maybe I was too bummed out by the ending of the magazine. Most of the monster entries are good and channel a sort of OD&D or early White Dwarf energy. Caterpillar Centaurs that mentally control animals and use them to get away from trouble. The Albatross, which if killed will cause a curse to fall upon the killer (with a note to have some other birds look like the damn things). Vampire bats. Triangular constructs with electrified tentacles that react to water as if it were burning oil but that will electrocute anyone who attacks them with metal. A bizarre foam man with foam dogs that drains intelligence. A plant with dragon heads that actually breathe fire (the SnapDragon). And one controversial entry that we discussed on the Discord. A sort of slimy Umber hulk, but its attacks are coated in potion of delusion. The target will think he has taken no damage (the DM says you are hit, but not damaged), and then in a later fight, it turns out your hp was in fact reduced. I think if it had covered what happens if, say, the character is investigated by his compansions, this would sort of work. As is it is a bit of a rotten trick. Almost good.

Thoughts on Combat. An article that is rambly, discussing various extra rules to complicate basic OD&D combat and has aged poorly mostly because anyone reading it today is going to be intimately familiar with the options thus discussed and is going to know to avoid them like the plague. A second problem is that it provides an overview but neglects to discuss the effect of introducing each mechanic on the gameplay. The option of porting over mechanics from RQ or Chivalry & Sorcery (does anyone remember that?) is discussed, but the drawbacks make it seem unappealing. So too having players write down their actions for next combat round, critical hits, fumbles (I hate fumbles), limiting Dex bonus for heavy armor, this is all material that is ultimately detrimental to the players. The concept of Touch AC is also extrapolated from the nature of a hit, interesting for a magazine that came out somewhere around the first edition DMG.

New Spells. Suprisingly restrained entries, some bordering on useful. I am not talking about some Tome of Magic edgecase bullshit (although those are here too). I am talking about practical stuff that you might take. Fuse (lvl 1 MU) simply replicates a mundane fuse, in which case it is almost always more practical to simply carry that instead, and Block Transformation (lvl 4 MU) allows a saving throw, so while it might theoretically be beneficial to prevent a phase spider from jumping, or an aranea from polymorphing, level 4 is much too high for a single target saving throw negates spell. Bump down to 2? The good spells are Water Walking (Druid 2) and maaaybe Locator (MU 2), a sort of tracking beacon whose position can always be instantly known to the caster, although the duration of 1 turn/level makes getting some use out of the last one very difficult. 1 in 4 is on par for new spells I suppose.

Petrarch’s Tower & The Vaults of Experimentation.
Guy Duke & Michael Stoner
OD&D (+ Greyhawk Supplement)
Lvl 2 – 4

The main event. Format is similar to last issue’s entry: Competition dungeons, with small cast of premades, scoring list etc. and perfectly useful in one’s campaign with only the most minor of adjustments. Your usual OD&D dungeon, so creative, sometimes wild individual encounters, tricks and traps, with almost no pretense of emulation. In this particular case it might not quite work but you could probably run this and it would still not be boring. Bonus points for premades with names like Og (son of Thog) and Stroller the Ranger.

The Wizard Petrarch has found the ‘Three Thousand Steps of The Abyss’ leading to the dreaded Vaults of Experimentation and constructs his tower atop of the cliff, meaning the only means of egress is through the vaults proper. These are soon reinhabited as Petrarch begins populating them with all manner of experimental monsters to protect his designs of breeding an evil form of Giant Eagle and terrorizing the region. Nothing has been seen of the absolute nightmare for 300 years so the local village decides enough is enough and has comissioned a band of heroes to clean out the menace.

Map is cleanly done, a location that makes no pretense of versimilitude but is interesting to explore, with keys, revolving rooms, winding corridors and bizarre hazards. Secret doors are absent. Cryptic warnings emblazoned on the doors warn of the terrors within. Occasional descriptions add to the unnatural atmosphere: The ceiling is 15′ high and lit by an iridescent fire-glow emitted from capillary vessels lining the walls. The vessels contain a diluted solution fron the glands of a Fire-Beetle.

Random tables includes monsters from, what I assume are entries in White Dwarf (at least some of them, the individual entries are not noted) and other, more obscure magazines. Like the Volt, Goldeater, Nilbog and the Eagle Ape. Waitaminute.

Source: Fire on the Velvet Horizon

Apparently this thing first appeared in Underworld Oracle #4, a completely obscure magazine from Jan 1978 that I would have never learned about if I had not looked at the random encounter table. Anyway, it is hardly surpising that the existence of the Owl-bear would prompt further animal-chimeras, but it is interesting to see the same combination arrived at 40 years apart [1]

Back to the adventure: Encounters proper have the OD&D feel but, with the exception of the tower, exist in isolation. There is no attempt at greater organization. Monsters are often unique and bizarre, exactly as you would expect in a Vault of Experimentation. A humanoid of red slime and his soul-sucking ball of red light. A brownish worm creature with a weapon that temporarily petrifies people. Killing Grass. An eerie but normal sized golden frog whose touch causes death (non-aggressive). Riddles provide clues as to the nature of the inhabitants. Keys hidden or scattered throughout the dungeon provide a reason for backtracking. Ogres bowling with the victims of a cruel paralysis trap, a bucket of paralysing lotion placed above the door. A brain in a jar poses a riddle and you have 10 minutes to find out the answer.

And with P4 & P5 we of course hearken back fondly to the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng and then we spit on the ground and make the warding sign against evil.

This adventure all has all the energy of youth. But so too all the impetuousity of youth. So you get a encounters that have been placed more or less haphazardly across the map, with the two overarching devices of a keyhunt and a set of strangely colored tiles scattered about that combine to determine the strength of a wish spell to tie it together (I mean there is a plant-poison that can be used against the murder grass too I think).

The tower proper is a little bit better. Proper alarm, Gnoll guards with trained giant lizards, a guardian dragon in a room with alchemical stuff that can explode, a fucked up torture chamber with writing on the door “Thou shalt do Evil, Thou shalt rever the name of Satan, Thou Shalt do no good, Thou shalt denounce all goodliness, This Shalt Thee Obey or wilt thou pay in Pain.” And then a guy called Urak the Terrible, busy torturing people. Proper showdown with Petrarch II at the end, who even has a rudimentary escape plan.

The adventure notes that treasure might be a bit heavy on the magic side for the campaign variant, with everything from ropes of entanglement, a figurine of wondrous power, a one-use lightning bolt, some potions. I think it’s on par, the treasure is generous but finding or obtaining all of it is going to be beholden only to the most skillfull players. It is a bit odd that the final stretch has almost no treasure, although the opportunity to get a Wish spell might compensate for that. Treasure amounts are on the low side for a party of 5 characters of level 2-4 but not insultingly low, on the order of 10000 max.

I don’t quite feel this one as much as the last one but it is not bad. The prisoners as henchmen add a bit of spice. Still not much in the way of faction play, order of battle or versimilitude. There is more interaction in the form of a spectral old man, the golden bird and the henchmen, and the hazards are fantastical and interesting. Map is weaker then the first one, weird encounters are a bit stronger, probably the biggest difference.

A ***. Not great but probably a good time, especially if you can lean into the weirdness of the vaults, and use it to paper over the ideosyncracies. I appreciate the lack of padding in these adventures, they seem to be floating at around the ideal weight class.

Why did I think this issue was worse?

Magic Jar. Right that’s why. A few promising entries like the Snake Arrows and the Anti-Gravity Rug are certainly welcome, and seem suitable additions to the canon. There’s no-brainers like halfling rocks that function like 6 HD fireballs. A lot of it is theoretically interesting but seems a bit unbalanced. A shield with a drill that allows you to puncture any surface. Augury dice, which function as the spell, but then there’s no limit to how often you can use them. A Weather ring that can affect any type of weather within a mile, again, no limit or charges. Spell potions that function as scrolls but can be used by anyone. I feel the upper limits of item strength in the DMG are there not to be eclipsed and any new items should strive to remain within the boundaries of the extant items, with few exceptions. Holy armor that protects against Level Drain and forces all undead to make a save vs death or run away in fear is another example of something that would be an artifact or on par with a Holy Avenger. And why is there no GP/XP value for these things?

[1] This is certainly not to be taken as any sort of accusation. Parallel evolution happens frequently even in the ecologies of the mind.

5 thoughts on “[Review] Beholder Magazine #2 (OD&D); Echoes

  1. Okay, “vaults of experimentation “ sound pretty cool. That’s right up there with the Body Banks of the old Micronauts comics.

    Armor that protects against level drain should *never* be allowed within a D&D campaign. Sheesh!

    Wasn’t there an albatross listed in the last (or a recent) adventure you reviewed? I feel like I’ve seen this here, in the last couple months.


  2. “I feel the upper limits of item strength in the DMG are there not to be eclipsed and any new items should strive to remain within the boundaries of the extant items.. .”

    Don’t forget these early issues predate the DMG, when all was wild and untamed and shit like this was commonplace..


    1. Welllll…okay. But Eldritch Wizardry was published in ’76 and it included many of the artifacts and relics that would later see publication in the DMG. There *were* precedents set as to what truly powerful magic items looked like (and they looked like items with substantial drawbacks, too).


  3. I also appreciated the amount of writing and resources that were provided. It made the information easy to understand and follow. I will definitely be sharing this blog with my colleague and family.


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