Friday, October 7, 2011

Death of the Deathless

I don't enjoy combat encounters which you win simply by dealing so-and-so damage to the monster. I guess they are all right as appetizers, but as a main course they're hardly filling. There's something very anti-climatic in meeting the final bonus and simply trading blows until one of you runs out of hp.

Significant encounters should challenge the players' brain more than the PCs' brawn. Furthermore, I think the best encounter should allow each class to shine and each player to feel important. In this regard, Koschei the Deathless is simply the perfect villain.
Perfection. This is how it looks like
Art by Smolin

My Koschei is a deathly thin and pale old man clad in black steel, with cruel and cynical eyes and a sardonic smile full of rotting teeth. He lives in a gloomy castle full of skeletons, giant spiders and damp callers. Koschei is not very powerful, but after several turns it should become apparent to the players that they simply cannot harm him, sending them on a quest to find out his weakness. Note that kids are very persistent and unless you explicitly state them a fight is hopeless, they are likely to fight to the death.

The Eladrin Fey Knight (MM 102) stats make a good Koschei. I suggest replacing the fey step with the darker Shadow Jaunt (MM 279) and making Harvest’s Sorrow direct damage from Koschei to his minion and not vice versa.

Investigation should reveal that Koschei's soul is hidden separately from his body inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under an oak, which is on an island.

Now, I like to make all these supernatural and really tough to crack. The island is protected by sea monsters and requires a master navigator to get to. The oak tree is protected by a powerful primal spirit that isn't too excited about people messing with its roots, requiring nature/spirit-based characters to devise ways to placate the spirit and extract the chest without harming the oak. The iron chest summons golems that the group has to fight while the rogue cracks the complex lock. The hare is the Monty Python bunny... Okay, I've started losing it... but you get the idea, yes? EVERYONE gets to contribute their expertise in finding Koschei’s death.

"Would you leave that bloody rabbit alone?! We have company!"

A dramatic, though not very believable way to end this is to have Koschei show on the island as the PCs are breaking the chest and attack them, forcing the group to multitask and think on their feet.

By the way, the above picture is the work of the Russian artist Ivan Bilibin, my favorite illustrator of Russian folklore. No one brings the old folk tales to life better than him.

We'll end today post with a little quiz:
Which classic D&D adventure has a villain inspired by Koschei?


  1. Very neat way to play with folklore. I like it.
    Also, the concept feels like a folk version of a Liche.

    -Jeff Queen

  2. It's true, though part of the schtick here is that getting to the needle, even once you know where it is, is still a major headache. Also, Koschei is more appropriate for lower levels.

  3. Bilibin is one of my all-time favorite illustrators.
    Also, Mignola deals with Russian folklore a lot, especially in Hellboy: Darkness Calls, which features Koschei the Deathless as well as Baba Yaga.

  4. To answer the quiz question: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth had a demon named Kostchtchie.

  5. About challenging the players brain.
    I remember something from a GURPS manual i read once, advantages. For example an unobservant player could have an observant character and roll about whether the DM would tell him things that should be noted.

    Is there something similar in D&D?

    (note: psilorder = Erik Norén. changed my posting id.)

  6. Well, nothing like that in D&D proper, but there is an advantage which I stole from White Wolf and applied to D&D in the form of a feat. It's called "common sense" and is very similar in effect to what you described.

    Of course, if a person had common sense, he wouldn't go adventuring in the first place... :P

  7. I guess the common sense thing is why modern computer rpgs (i sadly don't play any pen and papre ones) seem to avoid professional adventurers.

    hmm, or it might just be that i haven't seen them as such.

    speaking of computer rpgs. Do you play any? if so, have you played Dragon Age (1 or 2).

  8. I'm afraid I haven't played CRPGs in a while now. Last one I played was Baldur's Gate 2, which was an exquisite pleasure.

  9. Countries all over the world possess their own unique folklore and fairy-tales that reflect their heritage and culture.