Horns, Scales, and Tails: Design Choices
//The following is lifted straight from the Appendix of Horns, Scales and Tails.
Many design choices in Old-School gaming are arbitrary, so I wanted to explain some of mine. In this section, I examine each of the classes from a meta-level. Why did I make the design choices I did? How do I intend for these classes to be played?
Arguably the most iconic part of 4th Edition, dragonborn are kind of divisive. Playing a humanoid dragon perfectly captures that edition’s high-power feel – and people either loved that or hated it. Dragonborn also didn’t have a single clear precedent in mythology or fantasy literature, the ways elves or gnomes did. They were something new and different. Thus, my motivation to bring them to Old School Essentials: see if I could take something new and make it feel like it always belonged.
Ideas and Inspirations
The expectation of playing a dragonborn is that you’re tough, and you have dragon powers To bring the class into OSE, I started with the Fighter chassis. However, I used the Dwarf’s experience values. I wanted it to be another “Spicy Fighter” option, like Dwarf or Paladin.
One minor tweak I made: dragonborn have a superior save vs. dragon breath. It just felt right.
The most important feature of dragonborn is that they have a dragon’s breath attack! I decided early on I wanted this mechanic to work exactly like a dragon’s – which means it deals damage equal to the dragonborn’s current hit points. Which is, potentially, a lot.
This sets up a dilemma for the dragonborn player: using the breath attack early maximizes the damage it inflicts. The longer you wait, the more damage you take and the less damage it deals.
True dragons get three breath attacks per day. It felt fair for dragonborn to have to work their way up to that.
I wanted dragonborn to have a drawback, like a Paladin’s Vow of Humility. Then I thought, “what if it was the exact opposite?”
Greed compels dragonborn players to hoard wealth and be stingy with magic items. I’m sure, in most games, this drawback would be very easy to avoid.
However, if I were playing a dragonborn, I would only stay a few gold pieces ahead of the next wealthiest player. I’d want to see-saw between reckless extravagance and infuriating stinginess as my character wins big, overspends, then gets jealous of their allies.
Sometime around 3rd Edition, kobolds traded their fur for scales and picked up an association with (and reverence for) dragons.
In the spirit of that affiliation, I thought it would be fun for dragonborn to get kobold followers. I imagine a big, broody warrior on a stolen throne amidst heaps of treasure, with a bunch of little scaly scamps attending to his every need (and annoying the hell out of him).
Lizardfolk are, in my opinion, a supremely underrated and underused monster.
Every time I’ve run Keep on the Borderlands, I’ve framed the lizardfolk south of the Caves of Chaos as a dangerous wildcard. Their leader has already been corrupted by Chaos. Unless he’s deposed, the lizardfolk could give the monsters the numbers they need to overwhelm the Keep.
Plus, Warhammer Fantasy has its iconic Aztec-themed lizardfolk army, with its dinosaur mounts. Merciless jungle-dwelling servants of ancient aliens? That’s awesome!
Ideas and Inspirations
Lizardfolk in Dungeons & Dragons have stayed remarkably consistent (and remarkably boring) across editions.
· They are amphibious and live in swamps.
· They use crude, primitive tools.
· They eat other humanoids.
… And that’s basically it! Later editions have elaborated on each of these traits, but lizardfolk have never enjoyed as much depth and attention as, for example, orcs. All this to say I had a lot of room to maneuver.
To start, I based my Lizardfolk class on the halfling – a scrappy fighter with some sneaking skills. However, lizardfolk can sneak in marshes and swamps, instead of forests.
Scales and Teeth
Much like their counterparts in other editions, my lizardfolk have natural armor and weapons. This reduces a lizardfolk’s need for equipment, which emphasizes their self-sufficiency.
My lizardfolk can’t wear armor at all – but their scales count as chainmail, and I boosted their hit points to a d8 hit die.
Long-term regeneration is something I’ve always wanted lizardfolk to have. Think about lizards regrowing their tails. Trandoshans from Star Wars can do it! Why not lizardfolk?
Lizardfolk regeneration requires them to eat twice as much food. This, mechanically, gives the lizardfolk (and the player) an incentive to be less picky about what they eat.
This ability was inspired by the 5th Edition lizardfolk ability. Being able to make mundane gear out of dead monsters is fun and useful (thinking A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords).
I’m sure players will find a lot of creative uses for being able to make enemies into items. However, the real gem here is that you can turn slain creatures into rations. Remember the people-eating trait? Yeah.
High Level Lizardfolk
A lizardfolk character probably isn’t going to be a frontline fighter for the party, but they make for a good scout with reasonable hit points and some useful abilities.
I kept the halfling’s low level maximum (8th level) because it felt right for Lizardfolk, too. Lizardfolk don’t build strongholds. They don’t form kingdoms or empires. That’s not their style.
A high-level lizardfolk’s capstone ability is based on the Ranger in OSE: Advanced Fantasy. Lizardfolk can recruit other lizardfolk, or some swamp monsters, and be content. The way lizardfolk see it, their teeth and their scales are all they need. What’s the point of a castle?
During 4th and 5th edition, tieflings became one of the most popular and most played races in fantasy RPGs. People like characters with horns!
I, personally, am not an exception. I love playing tieflings. They are edgy disaster characters. The horn styles and range of colors mean there’s a lot of visual variety to play with, too. Overall, just a lot of things to like.
Ideas and Inspirations
The archetypical tiefling character is the tiefling warlock. As if your bloodline wasn’t cursed enough, you’re selling your own soul as well. It’s torturous “sins of the father” roleplaying, and people love it. So that’s what I leaned into.
Warlock doesn’t have a direct analogue in Old School gaming, but what does that class do? It damages and debuffs enemies with magic and curses. Outside of combat, you’re a shifty trickster type.
So, I started with a cleric/thief hybrid. I threw in infravision (90’ instead of 60’) and some Thief skills: Climb Sheer Surfaces, Hide in Shadows, and Move Silently. All skills an ostracized devilkin could use to get out of trouble.
My tieflings prepare and cast spells like clerics, with two exceptions: spells that can be reversed can only be cast reversed. This immediately puts all those wonderful buff and healing spells tantalizingly out of reach. What does that leave the tiefling with? Spells like cause fear, darkness, blight, and curse. Bam, we’ve captured that warlock flavor using existing old-school tools.
The second exception is that tieflings get one spell at 1st level. They can’t turn undead, but this little boost lets them immediately make use of their Tiefling’s Hex. Speaking of which…
Tiefling’s Hex lets you “backstab” enemies you’ve affected with a spell. This class is more of a skirmisher – you can’t wear armor and risk hits in melee like a normal cleric.
Tiefling’s Hex also seriously buffs your cause wounds spells. In my opinion, these are next to worthless in a normal B/X game. You’re burning a spell slot for a chance to do as much damage as a regular mace hit.
My intention here is that tieflings will use spells like blight to affect several enemies at once, then use cause light wounds, which combos with the Tiefling’s Hex (+4 to hit and double damage), to finish them off. It even kind of emulates the eldritch blast of today’s warlocks.
Tieflings have a very limited, thief-like weapon selection. There are some throwable weapons (and I’m sure a player could do something silly with that), but no bows, no crossbows, not even slings. This provides another incentive to use the new range of those cause wounds spells.
Start a Cult!
The tiefling is a cleric/thief hybrid, so it made sense for the capstone to be a mix of those class’s capstones. You get a small band, like a thief, but your membership can include evil clerics, thieves, or other tieflings, allowing you to make a cult instead of a thieves’ guild.
Patrons and Alignment
My tieflings are not required to be Chaotic, but their patrons invariably are. What does this mean for a player?
I didn’t want to say, “No Lawful tieflings,” I wanted to make it a roleplaying opportunity.
Tieflings get Chaotic (the Alignment language) regardless of their alignment – a unique exception for the groups that use Alignment languages that lets Tieflings schmooze with Chaotic monsters (I, personally, do not use Alignment languages in my games).
You can play a Lawful or Neutral Tiefling, but you will clash with your patron’s Chaotic interests and frequently earn its disfavor. Are you Chaotic for doing evil deeds under duress? Revel in the moral ambiguity of it all. Maybe, over time, your character starts to enjoy it.
Tieflings who cut ties with their patron keep their powers. This opens the door for a Lawful tiefling to roleplay a redemption/recovery arc. Or go full Sith Lord by trying to usurp your patron as vengeance for the years of control.
Bottom line: let players make their own story out of it. Isn’t that what Old School’s all about?