Necrology: Satyavati

Tomb/prison of Ibarkaju

It seems like analyzing player character deaths might be a good way to discuss the issues of risk and fairness, so I am going to make this a regular feature. This exercise is not intended to be a celebration of lethality or a collection of macabre DM trophies. Instead, I want to think about the interplay between clues, hazards, and player decision-making. Basically, I’m interested in reflecting on the actual play experience of specific character deaths because I think they can help inform scenario design. Rulings required to adjudicate will also be noted.

The first entry is a relatively straightforward death. The magic-user Satyavati was slain by animated statues that were guarding the tomb or prison of an ancient wizard. This is how the session went down. The party entered a 50′ x 30′ hexagonal chamber that had pillars carved in the form of stately warriors running down the room. At the north end was a plain stone slab upon which was lain a perfectly preserved body in loin cloth. There was writing all over the body and slab recounting wizardly crimes. The figure on the slab was holding a stone tablet over his chest that was inscribed with magical symbols.

Satyavati cast read magic on the tablet, and it turned out to be the equivalent of a scroll of protection from evil, which he cast. As the characters were investigating the area around the body, two of the columns animated, stepped down from their pedestals, and attacked. There were several rounds of combat (one of the PCs needed to make a save against paralysis, which was successful; though the players didn’t know what it was for, it still scared them and they retreated).

As they moved away from the slab, the statues disengaged and resumed their pedestal positions. Safely at the south end of the room, the characters regrouped. Someone suggested that Satyavati approach and continue to investigate since he still had protection from evil active and had not been attacked previously. They didn’t know whether or not it would ward away the statues, but thought that it would be worth a shot. As he approached, the statues animated and attacked again. Satyavati lost initiative, and was reduced to 0 HP by the attacks. He then needed to make a save versus death (we don’t play with auto death at 0 or negative HP, but instead use a saving throw) which was automatically failed due to a previous effect (which the player knew about).

Ramanan (the player of Satyavati) described the session thusly:

The party ventures off to the glass forest of Pahvelorn. They investigate the statue of St. Azedemar, the disgraced cleric / wizard killer. They move on toward the Ziggurats, and come across some 6-legged moles, who are being eaten by a werid fury centepede snake. A battle ensues, but the party of Gavin are victorious. Entering the Ziggurat, a staircase leads down to a submerged chamber. The party manages to cross the first room they find, despite a giant ooze that makes their life difficult. The second room contains an altar, which the party decides to muck around with–twice: Satyvati didn’t survive the second time. My next saving throw is a automatic fail. DEAD!

Referee note: the chamber with the ooze was partially flooded, not totally submerged. The “automatic fail” saving throw was the result of a “natural 1s” LotFP table (from Green Devil Face 5) that we have been using, the text of which is:

7. Your next saving throw attempt automatically fails.

Yes, this effect is dissociated, but we have been having lots of fun with this table.
Were any rulings required? I needed to decide if animated statues counted as evil for the purposes of the protection from evil spell. This is something that I had already determined beforehand, though the players did not know the mechanics. Undead and summoned creatures are “evil” but constructs are not unless they are possessed by a spirit. I’m in favor of things like this being mysterious and requiring experimentation and discovery. The danger was clear here, and the choice to potentially reengage with the statues was made explicitly. Further, there were a number of second chances involved (initiative, statue attack & damage rolls), so chance could have still saved the intrepid magic-user.

RIP Satyavati, magic-user 2 (picture by Gus L)

18 thoughts on “Necrology: Satyavati

  1. LS

    In the spirit of analysis, I do think it was a little strange that Satyavati was unable to take any actions prior to being attacked.

    Since his entire purpose in moving into the creature’s range was to see if they fled, I would think that the moment they made any move toward him he would have automatically fled. Something on par with what we’d call a “prepared action” in 3.X.

    1. Brendan

      True. Seemed natural in play though. I mean, approaching a monster to see if it was affected by protection from evil seems like it should trigger an initiative roll.

    2. LS

      When I imagine myself in this scenario though, I have a difficult time picturing how the monsters would get the first move.

      Since they’re statues, any movement should put me on edge. So the moment they twitch to life, I’m ready to turn and run. But I stay to see if they’re coming to life so they can run away from me. The moment they move towards me, I’m already fleeing for my life.

      Now, in my mind, I imagine that they animate 10ft or further from the player, which I think would give the PC ample space to turn and flee. If they animate within arm’s reach of the PC, I could see how the PC’s escape would be a more contentious issue.

      I might have modeled this as a circumstance bonus to the initiative roll. +1 or +2.

      Of course, no one in that session felt as though this was unfair. We mourned Satyavati, but we all recognized the risk he took. But at the time I did think that I probably would have handled it a little differently than you did. Since you’re looking for analysis, it seems an appropriate time to say as much.

      And I concur with Alec below. This is a good idea. One I may steal from you.

    3. Gus L

      I had almost exactly the same problem with animated statutes in ASE. The first time they animate it all makes sense. Once they de-animate though players will mess with them and try to destroy or trap them without animating them. Then they will taunt them under the assumption that they can repeatedly flee the statutes without danger.

      I think the solution is 1) explicit rules for the statutes. Area they will move through, conditions of action, and speed of action. The other thing is to make clear that initiative isn’t just about that first second of battle – it’s a determination of a cascade of random variables as to who gets the first good swing in.

      We don’t know that Satyavati didn’t try to run – maybe the statute was quicker than him, maybe he stumbled, perhaps the statute even threw it’s stone sword at him.

      These sorts of justifications would have come in handy when Huxley was pounded to paste by the ASE statutes as well, but one has to be ready with them I guess.

      Animated constructs are tricky.

    4. Eric

      Reading through this, I’m surprised just how similar Huxley’s and Satyvati’s ends were, from the player perspective: “[statues] which the party decides to muck around with–twice: Satyvati didn’t survive the second time.”

      Animated statues are classic “room tricks” – one of those cliches that endures because it works so well. Players often can’t resist messing with them, no matter what their better judgement says.

      Closing with a favorite animated statue of mine:

  2. JD

    I agree, very nice idea! I’m looking forward to it.

    And initiative is a good way to handle a situation like this. That’s what initiative is for, after all. Doesn’t mean he has to be last, just that he might be. And with the statues I’d imagine the only movement they’d do is a strike with full force, with no tell before that. If anything, the statues might have a bonus on initiative…

    All in all it sounds like a very fair solution to me.

  3. Hedgehobbit

    Why did there need to be risk involved? Why roll the dice at all? If the PC ran away, they would be back to where they were before, armed only with the knowledge that one certain spell didn’t work against one certain monster.

    What you have done is teach the players that it isn’t worth trying anything risky or unusual unless you’ve got the HP and AC to take a punch. That Magic Users should just sit in the back and cast spells.

    You had a magic user trying to investigate a magical construct. That 100% in the realm of what you want to encourage your players to do!

  4. Gus L

    I’m going to defend the GM decision to have the construct get an initiative roll here, while saying that yes investigating magical construct is what wizards do.

    Pahbelorn is a conciously old school game played with modded lbb rules. It is intentionally murderous. There was no trick here. There was a concious risk that didn’t pan out. All the PCs regularlly take these sorts of risks and the tension is part of the fun.

    Last session the Cleric tank was mobbed by skeletons – he barely survived, but had my thief been the first through the door that would have been curtains for the 5th level guy. It would have been fair as well. As a concept Pahvelorn is supposed to have this play feel – and it really works.

  5. Hedgehobbit

    I’m not saying the player was tricked or screwed. Just that not all encounters with monsters, even hostile monsters, must be resolved by the dice (using the character’s skill as it were). A animated statue is more of a trap than a monster so it could have been treated as such and resolved that way. It’s not a lethality thing. I’m not saying this just because a PC died.

    I do this for all the trap monsters. For example, if the PCs see a Piercer, they can walk under it and jump out of the way when it drops. The monster doesn’t get an attack roll. It is merely a trap that was avoided.

  6. LS

    I’ll chime in with Gus L here in defense of the game.

    I currently play the only magic user in Pahvelorn, so I can say for a certainty that I don’t feel discouraged from experimentation.

    Am I cautious? Yes. I’m cautious as fuck. I’ve already lost 3 characters and I don’t want to lose another. (Though I’m sure that if I do, it will be justified.)

    As a player, Satyavati’s death taught me that casting protection from evil on myself in an attempt to test a monster’s alignment is a bad idea. In the future, maybe I’ll cast “protection from evil” on a rat, tie it to a 10′ pole, and test a monster’s alignment that way!

    The unforgiving nature of Pahvelorn breeds creativity, not fear. At least that is what I’ve seen in our group, having played with them for about half a year now.

  7. Brendan


    Perhaps worth noting that I see animate statues not as mundane statues that animate, but rather immortal monsters that remain still.

    For comparison, have you ever encountered a really dangerous creature in real life, such as a mountain lion or bear? Consider a bear in a forest clearing. Say you have an “anti-bear spray” that you want to test so you approach said bear. Would you be confident in your ability to definitely escape unscathed if the spray was ineffective?

    So, in this case I don’t think the trap analogy is accurate, at least based on my assumptions. Green slime is a trap monster. Statues are fully autonomous monsters, even though they may have very specific programming regarding how they will react (for example, only attacking characters if they touch something or maybe only attacking characters as they leave an area).

    That said, I appreciate the feedback. Please try to poke holes in my reasoning! That’s the point of the exercise.

  8. Hedgehobbit

    Checked the 0e rules on situations like this (U&WA pg 12). If the PC is at least 20 ft away from the monster and trying to flee, you compare movement to determine if the monster can engage. If the monster is within 20 ft, the combat rules (ie initiative) are used. I don’t know the range in this case nor what the PC was attempting.

    There’s a similar situation in the example of play in the old Empire of the Petal Throne book. Only there, when the monster animates, a giant cage drops from the ceiling trapping the PCs in with the monster. Giant cages are one of the traps found in the old Dungeon board game but something you don’t see much of these days.

    1. Brendan

      Giant cages aren’t used enough. The Pahvelorn PCs have actually encountered one (in the caves below the demon mansion), though it had already been triggered before they encountered it.

    2. Gus L

      Oh Gad the cage, and the numerous crystal imps. With the flasks of discombobulation. Those guys were terrifying.

      We ran. we escaped without incident in fact.

  9. LS

    I was just going through Modlvay to copy the spells for my players. And I found something relevant to this discussion. The description of that spell (in that book) actually mentions living statues.

    This spell circles the cleric with a magic barrier. This barrier will move with the caster. The spell serves as some protection from “evil” attacks (attacks by monsters of some alignment other than the cleric’s alignment) by adding 1 to the cleric’s saving throws, and subtracting 1 from the “to hit” die roll of these opponents. The spell will also keep out hand-to-hand attacks from enchanted (summoned or created) monsters (such as living statues) but not missile fire attacks from these creatures (see COMBAT). The cleric may break this protection by attacking the monster in hand-to-hand combat, but still gains the bonus “to hit” and saves.

    1. Brendan

      It’s interesting to see how the text of later editions changes based on rulings that were pretty obviously needed commonly during play.

      Of course, being from Moldvay it’s not directly applicable to Pahvelorn.

      Here is the text of the OD&D spell:

      Protection from Evil: This spell hedges the conjurer round with a magic circle to keep out attacks from enchanted monsters. It also serves as an “armor” from various evil attacks, adding a +1 to all saving throws and taking a -1 from hit dice of evil opponents. (Note that this spell is not cumulative in effect with magic armor and rings, although it will continue to keep out enchanted monsters.) Duration: 6 turns.

      Incidentally, I’ve been running protection from evils such that it moves with the caster, but given the demonological flavor, I probably shouldn’t. It should probably require a literal circle be drawn, using salt or some other ritual component.


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