Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's THIS For...? (Best of Dragon 1-5)

After taking a look at the old Lankhmar: City of Adventure supplement and reporting upon all that which I therein beheld, people asked for more reviews of old things. So here goes...

This time, the kind people at Troll & Toad have delved into their warehouse full of used game stuff and sent along The Best of Dragon Magzine Volumes 1-5.

So, what's in there? Mostly, what's in there falls into the following categories:

-Has Long Since Been Integrated Into The Game
: i.e. Here's a new class: the ranger! If you're a historian of the game, like James M. or have a penchant for saying "what kind of great game could I throw together by taking what appears to be a misprint here in the illusionist description seriously" like Jeff R., then this is great. If you're like me and let James and Jeff comb through first drafts of old game ideas so you don't have to, this is filler.

-Conceivably Useful To Some Other DM Somewhere, But Not To Me: i.e. "Shlump Da Orc" explaining that asbestos weighs 125-175 pounds per cubic foot or Roger Moore finally explaining what exactly the fucking Astral Plane is.

-"Humor"


-NPC Classes: If it's an NPC class, do we really need all these level-progression charts and shit? Do your PCs really go "Well we'll consult the alchemist--but only if you can tell me exactly how many experience points she has." And if you've managed to snag a professional jester or duellist and make them into a henchman long enough that s/he's started accumulating xp, can't you just say s/he advances as fast as the slowest advancing member of the party and be done with it?

Most of these NPC classes do exactly what you'd think they do, and so don't really seem worth the expense, with the exception of the oracle and the witch, which seem to have had some genuine research and/or creativity put into them and have ideas in them which might conceivably make a campaign more interesting and complex.

-Random Tables Full of Random Adjectives: Hey, I like my random tables as much as the next guy, but the day I can't find "5-Orange, 6-Blue and bumpy" on the internet or just make it up is the day they need to put me in the ground.

-Antedeluvian DM Advice: "When drawing your map, first sketch in major terrain features..." Ok, sure, I'll try to remember to do that.

So...

Stripping out all that, what struck me as interesting was...

Volume 1 has an article on witches comparable to a really long and involved entry by one of your favorite D&D bloggers about how you might run a witch class, with spell descriptions and items that never made it into canon. Not gold, but solid. And wacky.

Also, Volume 1, predictably, corners the market on retrogroovy ads and pictures, including the wad of solid genius illuminating the top of this here blog entry. The other Best of Dragons are sadly light on cool pictures--in many cases they seem to have commissioned newer, lamer art to replace the art from the original issues.

Volume 2 is the best of the lot, and includes an article containing short but evocative descriptions of alternate vampires (including the Blautsauger, which has no skeleton and huge eyes, and the Alp, which appears to be a butterfly) complete with esoteric vampire-killing methods.

It also has two excellent articles on how to use the mathematical concept of the tesseract to generate crazy Escheresque dungeon architecture with weird gravity. They do a great job of not only explaining the geometry well enough that you could map it, but describing it convincingly enough to make it sound like fun in a game. Inspiring as fuck.

This volume also has a lot of Gygax musings, if you're into that sort of thing, and the notorious-but-boring "Politics of Hell" article wherein Satan is provided with D&D stats.

Volume 3 is pretty dull if you strip out all the stuff that later made it into Unearthed Arcana. This begins the more clearly Silver Age products--corporate design, no ads.

Volume 4 has a decent roll-a-one fumble table that includes damage to the weapon, and a detailed article on runes including both history and possible D&D uses.

Volume 5 has the Oracle class--containing 20-odd forms of -mancies, what kind of information can reasonably be gleaned from each, and what level the oracle has to be to perform them. Full of adventure seeds, if you think about it

It also has a couple Ed Greenwood articles on pre-modern firearms, in historical context and with game stats. Though I'll probably never use this stuff, it is thoughtful, careful, interesting, and displays pole-arm-like fine detail.

And if you still need to know more before handing over your hard-earned dollar, just hang on for the comments, where lots of people will write in about all the awesome articles that they like that I didn't.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Your Face, Dungeon Master

It's Wednesday, time for some show notes:

Here we see the party after 8 hours of D&D--some people are tired and some are drunk* but they all want to get out of the dungeon, so we keep going...

Some people can't stand DMing when everyone's gone loopy, I think it's funny. Like war, D&D should always begin with exquisite order and preparation and end in total chaos.

This battle was entirely vertical. Frankie aced the spider queen.

Connie and the oil: Of course there are more than 2 kinds of oil, but I meant 2 kinds that the party had gotten their hands on so far.

The blanket scheme: It wasn't the worst plan, but, seriously, no matter what Sasha says, you roll a one and that's that.

Next week:

The first Justine Jolie episode. It's sunny, everyone is rested and sober, and they get to find out all about what's in that Goblin Palace.

Click here to see it bigger and without the banner ad.


_____________
*Apparently on a very sweet white wine Danny Wylde (straightedge) picked up at the liquor store--Sasha hated it, Frankie loved it and Mandy, while acknowledging its failings, nonetheless found it in her heart to accept it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

No Wonder Vampires Are So Lonely

...reviewing all the monsters, you'll notice there's only one decent monster that starts with V. Unless you count the Vargouille, which is a type of vampire.

Vampire

The usual problem with vampires in D&D is squaring the typical (and very interesting) conception of a vampire as a spooky Machiavellian subtle horror movie monster with the fact that the easiest thing for a vampire to be in D&D is a guy just like you who hits you with things and can turn into a wolf or a bat and is really hard to kill. Basically a sort shape changing Goth-themed super villain

I'll just record a few rules you might be able to use to make a spookier vampire:

A vampire can never (and knows it can never) touch the same victim twice--so if it goes after you, it's going all the way.

A vampire can never appear to the same person in the same form twice--so you never know if you're fighting the vampire or just one of its minions.

A vampire can never change shape in front of anyone else and if reduced to 0 hp it will have to be rescued.

Vargouille

My best shot at the vargouille was this.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Two Monsters That Begin With U Have Nothing In Common

All the monsters...U time.

Like its good friend Q, U has but two monsters:

Umber Hulk

In the comics, the Hulk got his name 'cause he was marauding around and some soldier said (approximately) "It's some kind of....hulk!" Do you imagine this thing got its name because it waddled out of the shadows and some terrified henchman went "oh no, it's some kind of...hulk! A-and it's umber!"

In recent years, illustrations of the umber hulk have turned it from its original Kirby-esque form into a sort of bipedal giant flea. The original at least has wackiness on it's side, the new one is the kind of thing that'd look really great in the 3d animated giant bug movie but has very little cache in the imagination. The original umber hulk--if we ignore the comic bookiness of the picture-is really not too far from a Bosch demon: it looks at you and you are confused and then it bites you with mandibles. I think my real issue with the hulk as originally presented is that it's treated like an ordinary species rather than some abyssal abomination.

Unicorn

We are all the way down to u, very near the end, so you probably already know--if you've been reading these since the beginning--two things I'll say up front:

-the unicorns I'll use will be nasty or gruesome or gritty or appalling victimized and,

-the girls would desperately like to get their hands on one.

But what else? Long before Christians or even Europeans got ahold of unicorns, their defining feature was untamability--it signified this to every culture that ever dreamed of a horse with a horn. Why?

Well, what's a horse? To the kinds of people who sit around thinking up things to engrave and to symbolize, a horse is an aid to war. You ride on it so you can fight people and the horn is a weapon. In other words, in a unicorn you've got the horse and you've got the sword, so who really needs a guy since all they really do is sit on the horse and hold the sword? It's the premodern equivalent of a tank. So a unicorn very neatly symbolizes self sufficency--it is, if nothing else, independent.

This is perhaps why riding a pegasus into battle seems a little bit less overkill than riding a unicorn. It's actually a kind of interesting paradox: no matter how it's set up, the point of the unicorn is generally going to be that the PCs want the unicorn--but the other point of the unicorn is that the unicorn makes the most sense when it's independent. Doing pretty much the only thing a PC could do with it takes away the very thing that makes it itself.

Most monsters you can only kill their bodies, but a clever enough PC can actually do worse to the unicorn: it can rob it of meaning.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

T Monsters Are Funny

All the monsters--T.

The monsters that begin with T are a little funny. Some are downright silly.

Thought Eater


Mandy: This is just Psyduck from Pokemon except before Pokemon. The joke about psyduck was that he was stupid and bumbling.
Zak: But aren't psychic monsters always smart?
Mandy: Let's look up psyduck in the Wikipedia.
Zak: No! I don't wanna look up Psyduck in the Wikipedia.
(Mandy looks up Psyduck in wikipedia.)
Zak: Do you think that the Psyduck was based on the Thought Eater?
Mandy: I think the Psyduck is better than the Thought Eater, but yeah, based on it.
Zak: Why?
Mandy: It has a whole back story like the Psyduck has a headache and it pretends to be stupid in order to lure people into a false sense of security--it has more character. This thing is just a dumb predator that's like (duck voice) I'm gonna eat your brains!
Zak: So if you were running a game would you include a Thought Eater and just give it Psyduck's back story?
Mandy: Maybe, I'd probably do some other adjustments.
Zak: Like what?
Mandy: I'm not gonna tell you 'cause then you'll do it like when I mentioned the Shrieker as a kind of spell and you were all like 'oh now that I think of it there's all kinds of ways to use Shriekers as spells.'
Zak: No, sugar, I'm gonna leave that one for you to do.
Mandy: What the Shrieker as spell or the Psyduck?
Zak: The Psyduck.
Mandy: I'd rather have the Shrieker spells.
Zak: You wanna run the game on Friday?
Mandy: Sigh.

Tick, giant

Of course, what I want to say--what anyone would want to say--is that giant ticks suck but over the course of this alphabetical exploration I started to wonder if maybe my attitude toward stupid monsters is a little too harsh. All I know is that if I ever do use a giant tick I am going to hear Kimberly Kane say "This thing fucking sucks!"

Tiger

Mandy would like me to note for the record that the smilodon is the only big cat that gets a bite attack.

I would like to note that I think white tigers are a perfectly acceptable addition to a vikingy landscape via Siberian tigers and Micheal Moorecock's Tigers of Pan Tang. I'd have it as a sort of exotic import that somehow managed to thrive.

Actually, starting this alphabetical monster run down has made the wastes between Vornhiem and Nornrik a considerably more interesting place. In addition to white tigers it has snow leopards and maybe even the occasional giant lynx--it used to just be all wolves. I think it's still mostly wolves though.

Titan

The titans in the manual are kind of meh. If I was gonna have a Titan I'd want it to be something really different from a giant--I'd want them to be like the titans in Greek myths or at least the crazier ones, very distinctive--one with like 900 eyebrows and bees for arms and each one different from each other one and like everybody knows that there are these titans around and they're all different just like everybody knows there are a certain number of them, like hockey teams.

Titanothere

Titanotheres, though more closely related to horses than rhinos, represent a rare example of a prehistoric animal being less cool than the modern one. While rhinos get horns, all the titanothere gets is shoehorns which is especially weird since shoes hadn't been invented yet.

Toad, giant

"The ice toads have their own weird language." I said most of what I have to say here under Frog but I just want to note ice toads are as smart as people.

I like to imagine a whole ice city built by ice toads with everything designed for those who hop and have no hands and it's full of devices that can be operated only by the proper use of webbed feet and sticky tongues.

Trapper

Trapper--frequently called the Lurker Below--is, like the Lurker Above, really dumb. The question then becomes is there a way that they might be stupid in the sense of stupid awesome rather than just garden variety stupid?

There is a certain pleasing elegance in the idea of defeating a lurker above by rolling a lurker below out underneath it and letting them fight it out. I also find myself wondering why later editions--generally so fond of variant monsters--never produced a lurker sideways?

Treant

I cannot abide friendly treants. The idea of the woods as a helpful and smiling and comforting thing is as anathema to me as having one of the stones in the wall of a dungeon decide it wants to take care of the players.

The environment is hostile--why else would you be in it? There might be sprites or fairies or even goblins that are friendly but it should be obvious at all events that the natural world itself--and any emanations of it--are absolutely opposed to the PCs and that their movement across it is therefore always a movement behind enemy lines. A friendly tree or friendly bush or a friendly blade of grass or a friendly example of anything that defines the landscape and is everywhere in it suggests that part of nature might want the PCs around. In unique cases maybe but as a philosophical principal, never. A friendly tree implies that at least one of the trees in the landscape isn't a spooky twisty doomforest tree and that is entirely unacceptable.

Triton

Like mermen only allegedly tough. I'm not buying it.

Troglodyte

Troglodytes are a cross between lizard men and cave men and so are like the thing about lizard men I like least. They do have interesting gimmicks though: they have chameleonlike skin and, when angry, they emit a secretion which weakens humanoids. I think the idea of distinct races of lizard men each of whom emit some distinctive sort of slime, though I see no reason why they can't just live in lizard houses rather than caves.

Troll

Giants have to be big, ogres have to be brutal and trolls have to be ugly. The troll doll is no exception. The Skáldskaparmál says:

They call me Troll;
Gnawer of the Moon,
Giant of the Gale-blasts,
Curse of the rain-hall,
Companion of the Sibyl,
Nightroaming hag,
Swallower of the loaf of heaven.
What is a Troll but that?

Wikipedia also says:
"A fairly frequent notion is that the trolls liked to appear as rolling balls of yarn."

Notions about what exactly a troll is vary wildly but to modern ears I'd say the outstanding connotation is ugliness or at least distorted features. I imagine the billy goats' troll as a green thing with a very big head and a very big bump on it's very big nose and a black hat.

Another thing about trolls is that, unlike giants, the connotation is almost always undesirable and, unlike ogres, it's not necessarily clear why. The word "troll"--though unspecific--is always insulting. You wouldn't call someone you didn't like a goblin or demon or ogre--that'd suggest they were too tough, or they were genuinely getting to you--but "troll" is just about right.

A troll is a supernatural equivalent (to modern ears) of a maggot or a slug--something undesirable but that reaps no power of intimidation or badassness from it's undesirability. The trolls in D&D regenerate, but even this power is given overtones of grotesquerie in the manual "the loathsome members of a troll have the ability to fight on even if severed from the body; a hand can claw or strangle, the head bite, etc."

Turtle, Sea, Giant and Turtle, Snapping, Giant

Certain turtles live a very long time, but all turtles--because of their slowness and wrinkles--seem old (with the possible exception of the odd cartoon turtle or baby red eared slider). This gives them unusual pathos for reptiles: you can feel bad for a turtle, and if you watch them you frequently do.

The other thing about turtles is that they have this piece of architecture on their back--so symmetrical and structural (and attached more incongruously than a crab shell to a crab). These two characteristics combine to suggest the common idea that the turtle is part of the earth or connected to it.

These to me are the really interesting giant turtles, the turtle that has the whole world on its back, or the turtle that has an inhabited island on its back or the turtle who's head and limbs stick out from some fantastic gem.

Tarrasque

The tarrasque never seemed weird enough to me. It's supposed to be the most terrifying and earth-shattering monster, but it's presented as just a stack of (very high) stats. If there really was a tarrasque I would want it to be storied and tabooed and steeped in philosophical mystery, I would want it to have obscure effects on the colour of goat's horns and fishwive's dreams. Anything that wants to be taken seriously as a god or a demon has to be thought about as often and as seriously as a god or a demon.

The tarrasque of Christian legend is one of those mix-and-match medieval terrors (turtle shell, lion head, etc) native to the margins of illuminated manuscripts. St. Martha used her feminine wiles to tame it. This is all fine and good, but a great deal has been not so much lost as re-scripted in the translation--the tarrasque-as-medieval-Godzilla and the tarrasque-as-fable-fuel will take some work to hybridize or reconcile, but it might be worth it.

The thing about D&D is the obvious lateral thinking solutions (showing the medusa a mirror for example) are part of the monster description to begin with. To redesign the tarrasque as a puzzle monster would take considerable cleverness on the DMs part, the solution to the tarrasque would have to be unexpected yet at the same time couldn't just be some random obscure thing (say, if a bluebird kisses it on the cheek it dies). Of course, the tarrasque is somewhat of a puzzle monster already--common solutions include wishing it into the center of the sun or building walls of force around it and then filling it with water, but both those include a considerable quantity of brute force in addition to brains.

A good puzzle-tarrasque would, I'm thinking, be something along the lines of the tarrasque cannot be killed by anything that moves or anything that has seen the moon or something like that.

Thri-kreen

Why have a tri-kreen when you could just have a giant praying mantis? Because thri-kreen have hands and also because they have those cool three-bladed weapons that they throw. I never liked the S&M-gladiator look that they had in some pictures, but mantis men seem like a fine idea and mantis women absolutely nightmarish.

Troll, marine (scrag)

See this.

Friday, April 23, 2010

"S" Is Where The True Classic Monsters Hide

Perusing all the monsters alphabetically, "S" is clearly the mother lode. "D" has demons, devils, and dragons, but for real-life terrors--sharks, snakes, skulls, scorpions, slugs--you can't beat "S". Things that start with "S" have been frightening people since before the letter was invented.

Sahuagin

Along with the ixitxachitl, the morkoth, the masher, and several other pointless underwater monsters were apparently created by Steve Marsh for the Blackmoor supplement in 1975 (if you spend more time researching than I want to then I'm sure you can figure out what's Marsh and what's Arneson and what's Gygax here, ANYWAY...).

The sahuagin entry is one of the longest in the book and details sahuagin society extensively though god know's why. I think Marsh was working in the wrong medium: his manta ray philosophers and brutal shark men and crazy fish might have been great in a pulp novel or in a Jae Lee-illustrated run on Sub-Mariner but, as gaming material, all these interlocking, backstoried monsters boil down to is a set of stats and a small crappy black and white illustration (or, in later editions a cartoony, superdeformed color illustration). And in that medium, they do not come particularly alive.

There are lots of details about the organization of sahuagin society with weapon lists and percentile charts, but no details on, say, what makes them any different from underwater hobgoblins or what weird beliefs they might have or the peculiarities of their architecture or beast-of-burden breeding practices. Telling me the percentage armed with a trident vs. the percentage armed with a net might--theoretically--be useful, but not as useful as giving me details that make me care whether one has a trident or a net.

The sahuagin looks like a dumb ape with fins and nothing written in the entry overcomes that. If I mentally change their name to "sea devils" rather than their egregiously pseudo-exotic original name and transpose the finned ape picture with the awesome Trampier salamander on the next page I suddenly feel like a race of cruel sea slavers might might might be worth all the effort and non-dungeoneering it would take to get my players to care about things happening dozens of miles underwater to yet another race of ill-tempered humanoids.

Salamander

Actual salamanders sleep inside logs, so sometimes when you build a fire you suddenly see salamanders crawling out of it. This gave rise to the idea that they had an affinity for fire. I like salamanders a lot (it's probably all down to Trampier).

I like that they come to the material plane for "purposes known only to them". I imagine them surrounding people and hissing and poking them with their strange spears bathed in a wrong glow.

I also like the idea of frost salamanders. Lizards and amphibians usually hate the cold, but in our minds they are cold so somehow it all works out.

Satyr

The modern conception of Satan is a streamlining of the satyr or, more specifically, of the satyr and the satyr-gods Bacchus and Pan. Through an injection of serpent blood--or perhaps simply because of the difficulty of carving curls into stone--the image of Satan often lacks the goat hair on his goat legs. It's an improvement.

Scorpion, Giant

It's hard not to like scorpions, but my heart belongs to the man-scorpion. It's one of the very first monsters in history--Gilgamesh meets them when they're working as underworld bouncers (one of the only jobs available to monsters in those less enlightened times).

"...their glory is terrifying, their stare strikes death into men, their
shimmering halo sweeps the mountains that guard the rising sun."

It's interesting how no matter how much we think we know about the world, the scorpion's sting still strikes us as fundamentally dishonest just because it's on its tail. The scorpion always has to play the bad guy.

Sea Hag

I did not realize until looking at this entry just now that the canonical sea hag had a three times daily death gaze. Anyway...

For me there are two kinds of sea hag, the one with a sense of humor and the one without.

The sea hag with a sense of humor is the one you might find at the head of a lusty pirate crew and the one that turns you into a frog just for fun. The sea hag is mad and reckless and will pretty much do whatever.

The sea hag without a sense of humor is the hag who bemoans her lost youth (what are hags when they are young? Maybe dryads, maybe nymphs?) This sea hag has straight gray hair and turns you into a toad specifically so that you will be as miserable as her. She generally occupies a lonely sea tower and is anti-social.

When there are three sea hags they must all be of the same sort, otherwise the PCs may be able to exploit their differences in disposition. Plus then what's the third one?

Sea Horse, Giant

If you ever go to an aquarium and look at seahorses they're almost unbelievable. Like you look and go "I do not believe that I am seeing an animal that;s real". Not just their shape, which is--granted--very weird, but the fact that they manage to stay upright bobbing like fishermen's hooks no matter what. They look more like they were designed by some rococo theatre-background painter than by natural selection. I find the idea of anything really violent managing to get around to its tactical satisfaction while mounted on a seahorse pretty implausible.

I think the giant seahorse is more made for your underwater annoying magic weirdo types like water sprites or sea goblins. (Mandy opines that sea goblins would ride on these
.)

Sea Lion

The sea lion is ok in a kind of public-swimming-pool-Neptune-mural-gone-wrong-aquatic-Lewis Carrol kind of way. I've got nothing against it as long as it doesn't ask to be taken too seriously.

Shadow

I like to treat shadows like shadows: I like them to be related to some indentifible source (as in the shadow of some object or monster) and I like them to depend on where the light is coming from. I also really like that part of Peter Pan (the only part of Peter Pan I can remember) where he gets detached from his shadow and has to sew it back on anyway, point is the possibilities are endless.

Shambling Mound

The shambling mound is the DnD version of the Man-Thing. The carrot/tuber nose is the giveaway and makes it more like the Man-Thing than the Swamp Thing--who was invented a year later by the roommate of one of the guys who invented the Man-Thing. Both of these, in turn, derive from an older character known as The Heap and The Heap no doubt derives from an even earlier monster which I have no idea what it is but I'm a hundred percent certain that someone in the comments will let me know all about it as soon as I post this entry.

Anyway the point is--in the seventies a lot of people thought that fighting things that were sort of dull green and slow moving and shaggy was a good idea. Was it because they were hippies or because they liked the idea of fighting hippies? Who can say?

Shark

What you'll notice about the Monster Manual shark entry is that it's completely wrong in every way down to the fact that most sharks do NOT have to keep moving in order to survive. The manual also leaves out the coolest fact about sharks which is that they're immune to bombs. According to Wikipedia "In 1957, after a series of shark attacks, the South African government ordered a warship to drop underwater bombs on the sharks, but it failed and the attacks continued."

Although they are fairly predictable as a monster as you'll find at sea (the Rat, Giant, (Sumatran) of marine encounters), I'm not going to be such a stick in the mud as to say sharks are boring. Really, as Steven Spielberg knew, it's the threat of sharks that's great: "Oh look you're in the water, oh look you're bleeding, what will you do now?"

And the megalodon? I don't know how big a megalodon is really supposed to be and I don't feel like looking it up but I imagine it's about big enough to eat a sailing ship or to take a decent sized bit anyway and I imagine it likes to eat wood as much as flesh. Or at least I imagine that's what the PCs have heard.

Shedu

The most interesting thing about the shedu is if you drive to Anahiem from Los Angeles there's a whole bunch of them carved into the shopping mall you can see from the freeway. It's like they were thinking "Wal Mart is stupid, Shedus are stupid, let's just put everything stupid in one place."

Shrieker

I like shriekers. It's odd because I hate car alarms. I wonder if intelligent monsters who live in dungeons get pissed off about shriekers the way the rest of us do about car alarms.

What I don't like is the idea people purposefully cultivating shriekers as guards--or at least I'm afraid of overdoing it. After you do it once or twice, they become less weird and mysterious and they feel like just a piece of technology.

I think the concept of the shrieker could be extended to a great many different creatures: something basically immobile and dumb that explodes in howls whenever anyone comes near. That's what I was thinking when I had that woman filled with spiders that showed up in the third episode of I Hit It With My Axe. Mandy just had an idea--a spell you cast on someone, a curse that makes them like a terrible infant: you shriek uncontrollably whenever anyone (except perhaps some single specific creature) comes near you.

Now that I think of it, there's really all kinds of shrieker spells you could do, turning someone unwillingly into an alarm system or maybe you could just put shriekers in their food. Alright I'm gonna keep quiet now so as not to give anything away to my players.

Skeleton

Why do the dead hate us? Well like they say in Full Metal Jacket "the dead know only one thing, it is better to be alive" but also, they seem to hate us because they smile. That's really hard to take, I think.

Why are they smiling? Since the idea that they're smiling because they're dead seems to be anathema, we assume it must be some sort of evil glee like they're laughing at us. It's pretty self- absorbed, maybe they really do just like it better that way.

There's also monster skeletons--which are nice because, often, they look like whole new creatures under the skin. An ironic law is in effect here: the kindest animals change their aspect most radically. A snake skeleton has roughly the same aura as a snake--but a cow or a horse turns completely fiendish, and few things look as positively diabolical as an elephant skull.

Once in a while I'll come across a monster in the course of these entries and ask if anybody reading has ever used it. With skeletons I have to ask whether anyone reading hasn't?

Skunk, Giant

I will simply say that the skunk backs up my S monster thesis. People are afraid of skunks. In real life, anyway.

Slithering Tracker

I don't think the slithering tracker has to be boring. It could be a sort of three foot long centipede sort of thing with a gelatinous body like a jelly fish and when it drinks your blood you can actually watch it fill with red before slithering back to it's master.

Slug, Giant

Anything a giant slug can do a flail snail can do better.

Snake, Giant

Like skeletons, snakes are almost too good. Plus there are all these snake monsters with snake parts.

In order to avoid feeling like you're just repeating the same thing over and over, I like the idea of organizing snake monsters into a snakey hierarchy. The Greeks did it: they assumed that most snake monsters were related--as in "had the same parents". My ideas about relationships between snakes and snake monsters are pretty involved and I'm going to keep it a secret for now.

Spectre

Although it's a synonym for ghost, "spectre" is a more ominous word. A spectre is (etymologically) something you see but don't fully understand. Ghost is a kind of harmless-sounding word--it still has something of a person about it (maybe just because of Casper), "spectre" though is definitely bad.

A spectre is not something that you can just ignore, a spectre is a serious problem. There are alternate kinds of ghosts: spooks can be things other than what we think of as ghosts--spirits of single dead individuals. The "egregore" or at least one version of it, is a collective spirit created by a shared emotion--a spectre could be an egregore formed from feelings originating with a massacre or other horrific event something much more complicated and subtle than one dead see-through person. I think a spectre should be a master villain.

Sphinx

The only sphinx that interests me is the gynosphinx (though I will say that the hieracosphinx seems pointlessly close to a gryphon).

I like the idea that they are smart, that they go around collecting information, and that they are neutral. Occasionally a sphinx will pop up in one of my dungeons disinterestedly commenting on the action and possibly willing to trade information.

Of all the monsters with the heads of women-the sphinx is the most catlike and so can combine the fuck-off-ness of cats with the fuck-off-ness of beautiful women. It's a formidably vigorous hybrid fuck-off-ness.

Spider

Completing the scary trio of classic archetypes--with skeletons and snakes.

What is it about spiders? The many legs, the many eyes, and especially the webs suggest intelligence--but a totally alien intelligence. Snakes are just pretty clearly the enemy--they are predators with heads full of poison--but you look at their heads and it has a face that we recognize: clean shaven, but still following the plan.

The spider is something else entirely, even if we don't feel that they're a threat to us, we could see them very clearly being cruel on their own scale in basements and windowsills. Is there any other animal that nearly everyone on earth can say: I have seen it hunting, I have seen a trap it laid, and I've seen, moreover, that they have a continuous and coherent world existing in the margins of our own world.

Plus, spiders can actually kill you. Which seems ridiculous. But obviously something deep in your DNA knew it all along. Spiders are perhaps the smallest animal which the caveman part of your brain still registers as deadly. And it's right. And this is maybe another reason a spider seems crafty. If you find a black widow in the garden or in the garage or--worse--a funnel web spider, part of you will think "this thing's been living in my house for god knows how long and it could have killed me at any time--it's just toying with me."

So: inscrutable, discreet, alien, deadly, crafty, unique, poisonous--and all that even before you make it into a monster.

Sprite


It's hard tot ell a sprite form a pixie but if something has crazy hair sticking out in all directions it's gotta be a sprite.

Squid, Giant

Because of its pointy head the squid seems a little bit dumber than the octopus, but because it's streamlined it also seems a little more malevolent.

Giant squid exist and are still, to this day, mysterious. A 50ft squid will leave a 4" diameter sucker mark on a sperm whale but 16" diameter sucker marks have been found. The corresponding 200 foot squid has not been found but scientists conjecture it may exist.

Cephalopods have a sort of lite version of the unintelligability and craftiness of spiders, but they're a little more relatable. In the mating frenzy male squids have been known to miss the females and accidentally inject their own arms with sperm.

Stag

Stag-headed monsters are scary enough that I can't think of too many reasons to use a regular old stag unless you're doing some kind of chivalrous hunting thing so I haven't much to say on the subject.

But here's a new monster while I'm at it--it's a demon with a body like a man and the head of a stag. Entwined in its antlers are candles made from (something gruesome) its weapon is a long thin brass staff with an ever burning candle at either end. They generally wear long white robes.

Stirge

I have nothing against the concept of the stirge, but the original pictures look like angry sparrows wearing bad halloween costumes. If I want a blood sucking bird I'll make it like a nightingale or something.

Strangle Weed

Aside from being a perfectly decent minimum-wage-utility-monster the strangle weed also has a pretty decent mechanic attached to it:

"A victim compares its strength against the frond or fronds which have entangled it. The difference in the victim's favor is it's chance of escaping, i.e 1 equals 10%, 2 is 20%, etc. A negative difference, a balance in favor of the weed, indicates the victim has taken that number of points of crushing damage, i.e a victim's strength of 18 compared to the 3 fronds holding it, 30, so the strangle weeds inflict 12 points of damage on their prey."

Su-monster


I think the su-monster is supposed to be some kind of pseudo-Asian evil monkey though I'm not really sure what the point is supposed to be. Anybody know? Same problem with the kech.

Sylph

Aside from the wings, the sylph can be distinguished from the dryad and the nymph in that it's both less attracted to-, and less hostile to-, ordinary humans. It can be distinguished from the SILF by the fact that it's not related to you.

Scarecrow

When I do hex maps I tend to be interested in the cities and the forests and try my best to ignore all that farmland that, in any reasonable facimile of medieval Europe, should be in between.

The only thing that tempts me to maybe stick a farmhouse in is the possibility of getting a chance to use a scarecrow.

Slaad


The key for me to making these demonic frogs convincing is that they aren't all round and bouncy like Mister Toad--their skin hangs and sags around their aging eyes. I always imagine a slaad leaning on a poleaxe, both hands holding it high up on the shaft, its head sinking into its old man neck folds: bored with you, bored with life, bored with your plane of existence. The neutralest evil.

Baudelaire:

But here among the scorpions and the hounds,
the jackals, apes and vultures, snakes and wolves,
monsters that howl and growl and squeal and crawl,
in all the squalid zoo of vices, one
is even uglier and fouler than the rest,
although the least flamboyant of the lot;
this beast would gladly undermine the earth
and swallow all creation in a yawn;
I speak of Boredom which with ready teats
dreams of hangings as it puffs its pipe.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The "R" Monsters

All of the monsters: R.

Rakshasa


The smoking jacket is the key. Without it, it's just one more organic impediment with a zoomorphic head. Strangely, the game often ignores the smoking jacket and all it implies and treats the Rakshasa as just one more high-level nasty. A recent WotC product has a beholder summoning one as a kind of bodyguard.

A quick perusal of the wikipedia finds no mention of the tiger head at all--the Rakshasa is just a sort of catch-all magic cannibal demon. The tiger head,gives the D&D Rakshasa a distinct identity: tigers have both the coiled poise of housecats and the pimpiness of their striped orange coats. Tigers seem to be saying "I know you know I'm right here, and I know that you know that I know that there's nothing you can do it about it. Because I'm a fucking tiger." Ferocity and royal ease. This eastern demon is not a tempter but a tyrant. Shere Khan acts like Shere Khan for a reason.

Ram, giant

Slightly more dangerous and slightly less interesting than Goat, giant.

Rat, giant (Sumatran)

Giant rats appear all the time in dungeons, they're the monster that tells you that you're in a dungeon but you haven't gotten anywhere that anybody else hasn't managed to get yet.

Giant rats do actually exist and--aside from horses--probably therefore qualify as the real animal most likely to appear in Dungeons and Dragons. The giant rats in the Manual are size S which means that they probably aren't yet riding-animal size, but that never stopped people from writing them that way.

What I like about the idea of a goblin or something riding around on a--say--wolf-sized giant rat is the image of the rat getting up on its hind legs and sniffing the air while the goblin scouts around. Perfect thing for going around a dungeon on.

Ray

It's strange how modern rays seem. It's difficult to picture anyone before the Sherlock Holmes era having anything to do with them (except maybe in Japan).

Judging from the Monster Manual, Gygax apparently regularly had need of rules to determine what happens when a PC gets swallowed whole by a giant version of a regular animal. He also seems extremely prepared for the prospect of PCs looking for treasure while they are in there. "The manta ray's stomach is the repository of indigestible items--such as the treasure types indicated."

I catch myself wondering if Gygax's original players didn't spend half the Greyhawk campaign just wandering around temperate salt water biomes hoping to get swallowed.

Remorhaz

A remorhaz is another one of those sci-fi type monsters that you can't really picture properly unless you've seen an illustration. The job with the remorhaz is to distinguish it from the purple worm and (later) from the frost worm. The only thing that really makes it come alive is the original Trampier picture.

When I was younger I never realized it, but I realize now that he had a peculiar talent for defining things. Whether or not any individual one of his pictures was spectacular or memorable, the Trampier picture always etches the substance and the aura--the idea of the monster--very clearly. I can't immediately think of any comparable artist in that regard in all of art history.

With, for example, Ian Miller or Erol Otus' expressionism you always seem to get more mood (or more Otus, or more Miller) than monster--not that this is a bad thing, it's just that they're more about the image than the thing.

Other artists can define a thing, but in the way a dictionary does--they generally rely so much on realism that it ends up looking like the thing has been observed rather than summoned. A Bosch demon, for example, just looks like he just saw that bug-faced five eyed thing walking around in the Netherlands somewhere and painted it. Durer's work looks like every monstrosity he ever drew resulted from careful scientific study of the beast in its habitat or on a dissecting table. Frazetta seemed to be trying to carefully re-create vividly-colored dreams using all the technical tools at his disposal.

Trampier stylizations, on the other hand, seem to be neither expressions or observation--he looks rather as if he has lived with the legend of the remorhaz as did his father before him and his father before him and so when he's called upon to depict it he gives you a sort of codified but still vital representation of this thing--his work is a sort of pulpy equivalent of the eerily specific monster sculptures produced by early Chinese and Mesoamerican artists with a sort of supreme cultural confidence that the monster has a broken tooth right there and a third arm right there and that you have a sort of sacred responsibility to represent it properly.

Anyway, he makes me want to make the girls want to know what a remorhaz is.

Rhinoceros

I can't really picture my campaign including a rhinoceros, although I can imagine my PCs seeing a bizarre print on the wall of the library depicting one and wondering what the hell kind of crazy monster that is and wondering whether there is any treasure in its stomach.

Roc

See Eagle, giant.

Roper and Rust Monster

I would maintain the roper is superfluous and the rust monster isn't.

Superficially, they have a lot in common: both are original to D&D, both are sort of sci-fi-ish, both have tentacles.

But the roper is basically nothing at all interesting without its tentacles--and so many other things have tentacles. And if they don't then you can easily stick them on.

The rust monster, on the other hand, has a unique ability, is less shapeless in the mind's eye (a roper is "cigar shaped" whereas the rust monster is basically a giant four-legged bug), and the rust monster has personality.

It has personality because while the roper is just one more yellowish brown blob trying to kill you, the rust monster has the subtle agon of all insects--it means you no harm, it's simply gross and in your way and wants to eat something you happen to value.

In an actual fight, the roper is going to lash out and try to eat you and if it doesn't then what's the point? The rust monster, on the other hand, has a million different uses: goblins can prod it toward you or drop it on you, it can simply be in your way minding its own business in a narrow tunnel you need to get through, or hundreds of them can infest a town like rats.

Mandy wants to know if--when you drop them--they helicopter slowly to the floor with their propeller tails.

Now is as good a time as any to mention that when I complained about the gelatinous cube in the G entry, the nice people at Otherworld Miniatures sent me a very nice deluxe cube and also threw in a pair of rust monsters. I'd like to put a picture of them here but I had a hell of a time gluing them together and I wouldn't want my hamfistedness to reflect poorly on them. Anyway, point is they make some pretty good rust monsters over there at Otherworld.

Rot Grub

I'm sure there's some story about some circumstance that made this incredibly boring kill-your-players-immediately monster seem necessary when they were originally invented.

I feel like if I was an entrepreneurial lower planes creature aiming for Demon Prince of something, there's unexploited psychobioarchetypal real estate in the Lord of Rot Grubs, Cerebral Parasites, Ear Seekers and Other Creatures That Are Ubiquitous, Almost Undetectable, and Almost Always Fatal niche. Why isn't there that guy? He'd be the boss in no time.

Revenant

Classically, a revenant refers to someone who's dead, walking around, corporeal, and still in possession of all or most of his or her faculties. So: not a ghost, not a zombie, and not a vampire (the revenant doesn't necessarily have any special powers).

The interesting thing about this kind of revenant is that if it's still walking around and thinking, then what--in practical terms--makes it dead? For this reason, the revenant asks you to define "soul" in one way or another, in order to define, therefore, what it would mean to be "soulless".

In the medieval mind, the soulless were considered animalistic (thus vampires), in modern pop terms we think of soullessness as almost the opposite. "Soulless" suggests to us something Kafkian--without emotion, without appetites or drives, mechanical. Without the passions of the animal.

Strangely, we think of the soul as the animal and the body as mere machine, whereas early Christians though of the body as the animal and the soul as the restraining mechanism.

At any rate, revenants in a campaign that already has ghouls or vampires would be modern Kafkian constructs joylessly going about repetitive rituals or bureaucratic tasks. Better than ghosts, in my humble.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sew Its Balls To Its Thigh

We're shooting pretty soon.

Filled the house with bottled water and Dr Pepper, moved some furniture around.

This just went up. I like it. Sasha Grey and Kimberly Kane do an amazing Abbott & Costello impression.
Satine remains calm.
Connie is reckless and bold, as is her wont.
Frankie wants to sneak...fast.
And Mandy says things that makes sense, despite having pink hair and boobs.

Also: Cameraman Benny pops up--as if visiting from the 19th century--to fact-check. Perhaps incorrectly.

Where's the TNT from? It's from an alchemists's lab Satine looted during our Thanksgiving game.

I did not expect them to chase the Spider Queen by just blowing through the wall. (And the unexpected is always good.)

As you can see from the sketch map, (with the pink indicating where they went) there's a lot of dungeon they would've had to go through if the Gordian knot hadn't been cut there.

The dungeon was set up so that on the first level down, you could see into a few of the rooms (the horizontal blue box shows which) but you couldn't go into them without going down one more level.

Closing the door was a smart move, all told, since all the monsters they avoided by going through the wall were behind it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Friday, April 16, 2010

2 Decent Monsters Start With Q

"Q" makes for an easy day to do the Alphabetical Monster Thing. One from the Monster Manual, and one from the Monster Manual 2. Which is good, because I have a siege to run this evening...

Quasit


Like the imp, the quasit is a special evil familiar able to go retrieve six answers from Hell. Unlike the imp, it's a little less clear just from the name exactly what a quasit is. I mean, an "imp" is clearly some little mischief monsters. Quasit?

So: is it worth pulling out the Manual to point to this strange picture and say "the creature sitting on Red Vorjoon's shoulder looks just like this?" I think it is. It is a convincingly fiendish thing and its open mouth gives it a hollowed-out post-vomit look.

The imp delights in pushing you over the edge, the quasit sinks its claws into you and drags you down. The imp has personality--the quasit is a frce off nature. You get the feeling the imp will be rewarded and transformed into something bigger and eviller when it's all over whereas the quasit is just a small sucking malice now and forever.

Quickling

Glancing at the DnD 4 Monster Manual I notice that the foppish quickling (a sort of superfast fairy elf) had been turned into a more standardized feral elf/gollum hybrid. I don't like it. (Shocking, I know.)

The new quickling is just another goblin with a trick up its sleeve--the old one suggested an entire lunatic section of forest full of lace clad hyper-Keeblers doing everything fast all the time with fast clocks and fast weapons and fast holidays and fast fasting and fast duels and fast weddings and fast divorces and fast funerals and fast pets.

P Monsters...

All the monsters--P.

Pegasus

I feel like there should occasionaly be a pegasus or at least the rumor, possibility, or threat of a pegasus. However, someone riding a pegasus is a dicey proposition. It's like biting the head off a bat--that's somebody else's bit you're doing and--one way or another--it hasn't made it into Open Style Content. I feel you'd have to make it real weird to make it work again.

The subtext of the modern conception--especially in a DnD context--of the pegasus is a unicorn. You can talk about a unicorn and maybe not remind someone of a pegasus but it's hard not to do vice versa. The unicorn is a clearer construct--it symbolizes purity and untamability.

It seems to me a pegasus should be a much wilder beast. Its mother was, after all, Medusa. The idea of being bit by a unicorn is stupid--I can very easily imagine a pegasus biting someone.

Peryton

"...likely the result of the same sort of experimentation as brought about the owlbear." Would that be experimentation with an x-acto knife, a hot glue gun, and a bag of plastic woodland creatures?

Not quite, the peryton originated either with Borges or with a medieval manuscript he refers to in his Book of Imaginary Beings and, consequently, is way creepier than its fellow mash-up monster. The stag's head adds not only crypto-satanic associations to the bird of prey but also useful weaponry, while the owlbear is just a bear that can see you real well--which, frankly, never seemed to be something bears needed to work on.

Plus, whoever invented the peryton tried so much harder--there's the tearing out human hearts thing, the enslaving people thing, and the fact that it has the shadow of a person.

Further peryton lore from Borges: the peryton is allegedly only allowed to kill one person and then it can kill no more. When it does, its shadow will match its body again. Also the species was apparently "instrumental in the fall of Rome".

Piercer

Should I just make fun of the piercer or should I make fun of what the girls would think if I told them that they suddenly saw a piercer or should I realize that life is short and move on to the Pike, giant?

Pike, giant

What I wanna know is why whoever invented the swordfish and the flail snail didn't bother to invent a pikepike.

Pixie

I just now noticed that there's no entry for "fairy" in the Monster Manual or the Monster Manual 2 or the Fiend Folio. Instead we get pixie and sprite (and maybe slyph if you wanna stretch the synonym sprawl a little further). The Manual produces no significant conceptual differences between the pixie and the sprite--they seem to have the same taste in shoes, headgear and weaponry.

So anyway, we might as well talk about the fair folk now. Like elves, they're a little aristocratic and--like elves--it's implied that there's something natural about their aristocracy. On the other hand, they are much more like children and do not necessarily have the grave Tolkien-esque austerity sometimes associated with elves.

Are these just metaphors for the children of the rich as seen by the hardworking people paid to keep an eye on them? Playful, mischevious, demanding, possessed of strange powers, obedient to mysterious but inflexible rules, not all bad but likewise ignorant or bemused by human morality.

These creatures, these sort of assistant gods, were used by mothers to keep their own children in line. "Don't do this or the blue fairies will get you and take you away." If we imagine the standard Christian threat ("Do right or a half naked Jewish king will send you to Hell.") sort of Bowdlerized for the consumption of Victorian children--here's the threat, the fairy folk.

Of course, long before they were scaring children and floating around in lacy dresses they were nature spirits. The implication is not that nature is hostile to us or that nature is our friend but merely that it has a life and a morality that does not intersect our own and which does not acknowledge our own. It is, in its way, a very wise philosophy.

The Renaissance-thru-Victorian idea of fairies is interesting in this way--my off-the-cuff impression is society had passed the point where these nature spirits were considered essential you-must-propitiate-them-if-you-want-shit-done envirospiritual bureaucrats but hadn't yet reached the point where everyone knew they were bullshit. Therefore they were just different than us. They had a parallel world that did not necessarily intersect ours.

I don't feel as though the fairy folk really should have to have any well-defined ideas about people. An adventure involving fairies should be about culture shock on both sides. Your armor and your magic should seem as ridiculous to them as their shoes do to you.

Porcupine, giant

I have never seen any uncute photo of a porcupine. While I'm sure that many of you have harrowing tales of porcupine quills, I'm just not going for it. I feel the girls would probably refuse to fight it on general principal anyway.

Portugese Man-O-War, giant

There's no Jellyfish, Giant in the Manual but there is the Portugese Man-O-War, Giant. So I'll use this as a catch-all for all the variations of jellyfish monster.

I think there's no reason that jellyfish monsters shouldn't be intelligent. They lose nothing by being real villains and they gain quite a bit. Slow and murky and alien.

Eyes are, if not the window to the soul, then at least supposed to tell you quite a bit about the soul, and an animal without eyes can't help but seem sinister. The floating brain in a jar is never a good guy. The jellyfish monster is like the floating brain in a jar adapted for life out in the world--sleek and malleable and with its translucent head full on invisible thoughts.

Pseudo-dragon

See dragon.

Purple Worm

I'm glad that the worm is purple.

Purple is regal (because it is rare), purple is weird (because it is unnatural in animals), and purple is pulpy (because pre-twentieth century imagination rarely dreamed of purple animals). If it were just a giant worm it would just be another gross thing only big. The purple worm has a dignity granted by it's exoticism. In the original illustration it's black (one of the two available colors) which suggests it's the color of grape soda--black for the most part, but a rich violet in the highlights.

Someone will no doubt point out in the comments that it was originally unillustrated and spelled purple wyrm with a "y"and so maybe was some kind of dragon. I imagine that beast as being kind of perfect in its unimaginableness. I'm instead thinking that the Purple Wyrm should never be imagined, visualized, or illustrated, not as a cartoon purple dragon and not as one of TSR or WotC's athletic uber-lizards with a different palette but instead as some entirely literary cousin of a dragon. Like the questing beast or the bandersnatch or the boogeyman, the purple wyrm should never have a miniurature and should be spoken of only in reverent and hushed tones.

Para-elemental

Ice, smoke, magma, and ooze. I've already complained about how boring ordinary elementals are, why not have all of these guys on the chart too--or instead? Magma is good--probably best represented by those big red guys who fought Crystar the crystal warrior and the lava children.

Smoke, ooze and ice, unlike air and water, actually have an emotional meaning.

Phoenix

It it strange that the phoenix didn't show up until the Monster Manual 2. I like it understated--a small beautiful red bird that just happens to live in fire and is also unimaginably important and magical.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ah, The Show

Here's how making the show works:

1. I cut it however I want and send it to The Escapist.

2. The Escapist (without whom there is no show) say they don't like it and want it cut the way they would've done it.

3. The girls (without whom there is no show) say they do like it and want it to stay the way it was in the first place.

4. I sigh, yawn, and re-cut it until both The Escapist and the girls are ok with it.

5. On some Wednesday, the show goes up, hundreds of thousands of people watch it, and 0.05% of them post comments complaining about it and making suggestions about how to make it better that I ignore because I'm not the one in charge.

6. I count my money and remember that, as side-gigs go, it's pretty fun, and does no harm.

___________

I've gotten about a thousand times more static for playing D&D with Sasha Grey while somebody filmed it than I ever did for fucking her while somebody filmed it, but the show does what The Escapist wants it to do and does it a lot, so no worries.

Anyway: today episode 5 of I Hit It With My Axe goes up, which is the first one which comes close to the kind of thing I would've done if I were the only person in charge.

I also feel pretty good about episodes 6, and 7, and all the episodes after that. The Escapist and I started agreeing after a while.

So, my advice: watch episode 5. If you like it, you will probably like all the episodes of "I Hit It With My Axe" yet to come, if you don't, then you won't.

________________

Like Scooby Doo, the idea is to have a different guest-star every few sessions. Episode 7 is the last one with Sasha guest-starring, after that there'll be a chunk of episodes guest-starring Justine Jolie (over there on the left). Due perhaps to Justine's soothing presence, the hacking and slashing slows down a bit and--look at that!--a plot starts to appear.

Guest stars after that include but are not necessarily limited to: Gia Jordan, Bobbi Starr, Caroline Pierce, and Andy San Dimas.
________________

I'm hoping to use the show to give exposure to people in the DIY D&D blogosphere who are making interesting things--I've already cut deals with James Edward Raggi IV, Jeff Rients, and Lee of New Adventures in Fantasy Fiction, and--with luck--the girls will end up sandboxing their way into something they wrote sooner or later.

________________

Also: if you have any questions about the show or anybody on it, the surefire way to get an absolutely verifiably incorrect answer is to post about it on your blog or some random message board.

Nothing says "My desire to know what I'm talking about is vastly outweighed by my desire to sit in a chair and type" than reading what someone says and then asking everyone but them for clarification. If you want to know how or who or why something is on the show, ask me, I'm right here. If I answer and you think I'm lying, I'll send proof.

I don't often say stuff like this, but I feel like I should go on the record:

If nothing else, this blog is about how everybody, even people who you may have seen taking 3 cocks at once, is an actual person and--like you--they have actual reasons for the things they do--and these reasons may not always be the ones you, in your infinite random-internet-user-wisdom, think they are. So, again: if you want to know something, ask. Because when you assume, you become just one more of those blathering, avatared wwwheads helping make everyone dumber and more boring.
_______

Oh, p.s.


Click here to see it bigger and without the banner ad.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

O Monsters Are Not Like You and I

It's time for the Alphabetical Monster Thing.

Maybe it's just me, but I notice is a faint hint of linguistic family resemblance lurking under the O monsters--O monsters are notable for their otherness. They are more likely to be neutral than evil, but are always decisively separated from humans by some quality suggesting they come from a different world. Odd, other, outside. A word that begins with o is a thing that comes together only after an empty and open moment.

Demons are self-evidently like us--they are us taken to extremes--as are halflings and giants and imps and demon dogs and hellcats and vampires. The "o" monsters suggest the DNA trail is all different--or at least that some point-of-genetic-no-return has been passed. They don't want what we want.

Obliviax

I like the obliviax a lot. It's moss and it eats your memories and turns into you. The best part is the only way to get your memories back is to eat the moss. You can get someone else's memories by eating the moss. This is a great all-purpose plot hook injector especially if you have the kind of players who will put anything in their mouth so long as they found it in a vial.

Ochre jelly


Pick a color, pick a synonym for goo, pick a weakness, look you've invented a new monster! Green slime, gray ooze, black pudding, I'm sick of it. I'm protesting it. Especially since I just got that Lankmar book and got reminded about how cool Cold Woman is. Now that's an interesting ooze.

Octopus, giant

Like a lot of the giant ordinary animals, the entry for the giant octopus has a fairly complex set of special rules--in this particular case, for dealing with the octopus' tentacles. (Many of the other animals have systems for what to do if you are swallowed whole.)

I don't automatically think this is a bad thing, at least in principal. If you are a DM with time to prepare, setting different monsters up as if they are their own special minigame can be kind of interesting--especially if taken to an extreme. Each encounter can be just a whole new thing. I mean, that's how combat is presented in novels--each as a unique challenge requiring the hero to completely re-orient him/herself. You have to be fast to avoid the octopus' tentacles, tough to survive the stomach acids of the giant Slorr, wise to see where the displacer beast really is...

In other news, in case you're wondering, according the Manual, the giant squid is in all ways tougher than the giant octopus though the octopus can squirt ink and camouflage itself.

As for the beast itself, I've spent a lot of time looking at octopuses and I feel there's something inherently round and bubbly and feckless about octopi and other cephalopods such that, despite their weirdness and alieness, they often seem sort of innocent (vampyroteuthis infernalis notwithstanding). I feel like I have to give any octopus I use a toothy mouth on each sucker or some other sinister mutation--otherwise the girls are likely to decide to try to tame it and keep it as a pet, mount, or "friend".

Ogre

Ogres are stupid, ogres are hungry, ogres are lonely. If they are not lonely, then they are in a tribe, and if they are in a tribe the lonely hungry weirdo aspect, which is perhaps the most interesting aspect--falls by the wayside and they just become sort of big bad guys.

So what's the difference between and ogre and a giant--not in D&D terms, but in terms of what you think when you hear them? The giant's hunger and primitiveness seem incidental and perhaps even optional--the giant's theme is bigness and weird scale, giant homes, giant pets--the ogres primitiveness is absolutely essential to its identity--the ogre has to have heads on spikes and giant warthogs for pets and has to be hunched over. (Mandy always imagines ogres as being bigger than giants.) Point is: an ogre is intractable, insatiable, unreformable, irredeemable, uncivilizable, and definitely cannibalistic. A giant isn't necessarily any of those things.

Are ogres unlike us? I think the thing is: we desperately hope they are unlike us. We would like to get away from neanderthality. They make us anxious in a way that monkeys don't. I would let a monkey into my home so much faster than I would one of those wax morons behind the glass in a natural history museum. A monkey is like some cousin you only see at weddings, over in the corner unsuccessfully stacking hors d'oeuvres or knee-deep in cake--they're funny, they've got character, they're harmless. But the ogre? The ogre is like a brother with some tragic, moany, drooly and brutal mental problem. Sitting very close, and very closely related. And we do not want it to be.

Ogre mage

Obviously all that about the ogre makes the ogre magi difficult for me to wrap my head around. Basically an ogre mage was D&D's interpretation of an oni before oriental adventures D&D introduced a monster called the oni (like the original monk and the gold dragon were sort of half-assed stabs at Asian ideas that would get fleshed out later) (D&D 4 has just gone ahead and replaced Ogre Mages with Oni).

Anyway the point is, for me anyway, the ogre mage makes no sense with the western connotations of the word ogre. An oni is a big crazy tusked fat thing kind of like a demon but definitely large and physical and with a face like a face on a samurai mask. The magic use is sort of incidental. This is a big, primal creature or spirit that is more made of magic than it is a magic user. Like the plain old ogre it is wild and insatiable, unlike the ogre it is part of a metaphysical web, often tying it to a specific position within a spiritual hierarchy or to a physical place, and almost always to a system of taboos.

Moreover, the ogre is a metaphor for that which is feral and wild within humans whereas the oni is about the inherent wildness and feralness of nature personified in a semi-human form. I have yet to see any version of the ogre mage that seemed like anything other than a marriage of lexical conviennce between these two profoundly different ideas. The ogre is the idea of a human gone wrong and wild, whereas the oni is about things that are perfectly natural in their wildness yet take human form. Or to put it another way, both are feral, but in the ogre the feralness is a failure or falling away, whereas in the oni, the feralness is to be respected as well as feared.

Orc

Thanks to Peter Jackson, "orc" is no longer merely a term but actually a word. That is: an idea I can refer to via a verbal designation and expect other people who speak English to know what I'm talking about regardless of what they do on the weekends. The other edge it has over "kobold" (despite that word having a more organic etymology) is that "orc" is actually a pretty good word.

So lets look at that word "orc": J.R.R. Tolkien--who invented the word (in its current usage--thanks comments)--was, against his better judgement, a 20th century writer, and "orc" is--despite his best efforts--a 20th century word. It has less magic in it than "goblin": an orc won't be turning a baby into a loaf of bread or live in a river of liquid spiderwebs. Another thing is: orcs obviously grunt. The word sounds like a grunt. Nothing called orc could possibly not grunt.

This subconscious thread ties the pig-faced orcs so beloved of old school fetishists to Jackson's athletic cannibals. Mundane, greedy, shameless--pigs are a 20th century animal: Orwell knew it, as did Hunter Thompson. Maybe Tolkien knew it, too. Snorting and unenchanted--no wonder they hate elves.

Otyugh


Like I said in the entry for neo-otyugh, this thing is fine if you have a decent mini to go with it. The kind of thing that might spill out of the mouth of a vomiter (maybe named after the noise it makes as it comes out).

Owl, giant

The frighteningness of an owl doesn't depend on physical intimidation but on the alien inner world implied by those eyes. "The owls are not what they seem" (Twin Peaks) "It's not an owl" (Paranormal Activity). Making an owl bigger is a little like making Jason in his hockey mask bigger--the wrong trait is being exaggerated.

That said, I like a giant owl much better than a giant eagle, and there's nothing wrong with giant owls as elements of the environment--I just don't want anyone trying to convince me they're extra scary because they're big.

Owlbear

I admit it's fun to say "owlbear" but seriously fuck this monster.

Now Taking Odds For The Assault on The Fortress of Crows



The Set Up
After several days of dungeoncrawling through vampires, wererats, flail snails and the laboratories of a mad alchemist (which I may detail later at some point--things got very complicated once Frankie decided she wanted to get bit by a vampire), the PCs find a lightwell. They crawl up and crawl out and find themselves in the back alleys of an unfamiliar urban maze.

This is the city built inside the Fortress of Crows.

I figured it was sort of like a modern military town--a fort that essentially, over time, becomes a city in itself. Like Carcassone but moreso.

Naturally, its main export is plot hooks:

First, it's surrounded by an army of the undead. This is part of the same army of the undead left over from when Mandy ran Death Frost Doom. It's been slowly moving south.

The fortress has been surrounded by skeletons on hungry horses for about a month and is running low on supplies. Being a fortress, it's well-stocked, so it's still acting kind of like a city.

Defending the city are clerics and paladins of two separate gods, I imagine them, in their cloaks and dented armor, as being basically like these guys. (Thanks, Palmer.)

Grimly they gaze downward into the impassive faces of the unmoving, silent, patient, skeletons--who seem to simply be waiting for the defenders to starve to death.

Meanwhile: seemingly unconcerned by the siege, bearded, be-ringed, Fat Balto walks the streets, eager to wheel and to deal, Brother Thrown and his parade of zealots rails against any and all outsiders every night, and lots of other NPCs wait around ready to do stuff at the first sign that the party gives a shit about them.

What They Did With It

Having spent most of the last session bumping around in the dark basically just trying to figure out what was going on in the dungeon, the players, upon finding themselves in the fortress, yearned for clarity and simplicity.

So: fight the skeletons. After a lot of preliminaries and marshalling of forces (and KK acidentally drinking a kleptomania potion thinking it'd give her the strength of 10,000 bats) the party ended last session by sketching out a battle plan for the beginning of next session.

When putting together the fortress, it was hard to know where to concentrate my efforts, since you never know which direction will catch the PCs fancy or, indeed whether they wouldn't just rather abandon the fortress and its doomed inhabitants and head back into the dungeon. Next session will be a lot easier since I know what's coming: a big fight with lots of skeletons.

Running The Siege

A lot of ink has been spilled trying to figure out how to do mass battles in DnD, however, I think maybe attempts to do so are built on the fallacy that there should be a way to do mass battles--that is, that there should be a system. I mean, a mass battle happens only maybe every dozen sessions at most so why not treat each one as its own thing? The idea that dungeons should always work the same way or that there should be a system for creating puzzles makes no sense, so perhaps one way to do mass battles is to treat each one like it's its own separate mini-game with all new rules.

Specifically--I'm thinking I'll run this one a bit like video games I've played:

Star Wars Battlefront, Samurai Warriors 2 Empires, and a lot of other strategy games use the concept of "command points" or "bases"--key positions. Take all the key positions and you usually win.

They also use the idea that the player controls one individual and uses that person to hack stuff up and mostly the idea is the player's character is pivotal if for no other reason that it's the only thing on the board not being run by an AI. Depending on the game, the actual player has varying degrees of control over friendly NPCs' strategy (take that base, retreat, etc).

Depending on what kind of command and control networks the PCs set up, it seems like I could run the invasion of the Fortress of Crows like this kind of strategy/first person-chopper mashup game. The PCs go and fight--as usual--whatever bony foes are in front of them and, once in a while, they will get alerts from messengers telling them that this or that key position has been taken and that they might wanna do something about it.

The Fortress of Crows is composed of a series of towers linked by bridges and causeways. The skeletons have already overtaken one of the towers and stand in overwhelming odds at the foot of all the others.

I'm going to assume that the mazey streets, alleys and bridges are narrow enough that the PCs (five to eight humanoids) and their foes take up enough space that anyone wanting to take territory which they occupy will have to get though them. That is, if the skeletons are trying to cross bridge B and the PCs are on bridge B then how well the PCs do pretty much determines who gets bridge B (this is not to say that the enemy only has to send five to eight soldiers to fight the PCs, they can send as many as they want).

As for the battles for "off-screen" command points, I think I can rig it like this:

-decide that getting from the ground (where the invading army starts) to any given command point takes a certain number of steps--say five

-each round I roll dice to see if the enemy forces have managed to advance one of those steps. i.e.: if all the dice rolls went their way and the PCs did nothing to interfere, the enemy will have swamped all the outer perimeter command points in five rounds.

The next trick is to figure out how to weight the die roll. Since there are four hundred defenders (five hundred if you count some of the citizens as soldiers) and a thousand attackers, you could weight the odds just based on those numbers, 2 to 1 against the defenders.

However, everybody knows that defending is easier than attacking, especially if what you are defending is a big-ass multi-tiered stone fortress. I'm not sure what the final odds will be (and I don't want to give them away because I'm dictating this to Mandy and she's typing it up for me) but I suspect--in most cases--I'll end up weighing it close to 50-50.

So far, here's how it'd work:

-The PCs have an ordinary combat round, then I roll dice to see the skeletal armies progress toward each tower/command point, and mark it in a little box (one of five per command point).

-If at any point all five boxes for any tower get filled, someone will run down the line telling everybody that position has fallen and the battle lines will move.

The first complicating factor is that neither I nor the esteemed death knights leading the skeleton army are idiots, so the skeletons, rather than applying equal pressure all the way up the line, will probably want to concentrate different amounts of force in different areas. This means that the odds for taking any given position will have to change depending on how many skeletons I send.

Since 1,000 is a nice round number and I'm going to assume casualties will be roughly equal--percentagewise--on both sides, I don't think this will be too hard. They get a +2 here, they get a -2 there, whatever. I can write up the battle plan in advance.

The second complicating factor is figuring out what to do when the PCs move or if they split up or if they use any sort of clever tactic that should by rights produce a mass effect. This will take some on-the-spot house-ruling, but I'm reasonably sure that keeping everything in multiples of ten should keep it fairly clean.

Overall, the idea is that the two armies are just two big monsters, they each have a certain number of hit dice and the damage of their attacks is proportional to these hit dice. If the PCs manage to do something (like say, catapult a boulder into the enemy forces) then this will weaken the enemy offensively and defensively in proportion to how effective the tactic is.

Place Your Bets

I want to do this with the gloves completely off. I want to act as though I am the skeleton army's commander and have all the wisdom of the dead and am trying earnestly and with every resource at my disposal to take the fortress.

The rub is: I've read Clausewitz, I've read Napoleon, I've read Sun Tzu, I've read Shelby Foote's three volumes on the Civil War. My players haven't. More to the point: I've played a lot more Warhammer 40K than they have (though Mandy has almost beat me a couple times). I'm not entirely certain if there's any genuine reason to suspect they've got half a chance.

However, they do have concrete advantages: They have the fortress--a fine defensive position-- they have the initiative (the skeletons were just planning to hang out and wait for the city to starve), and they have all the resources (both obvious and hidden) of a whole city at their disposal, whereas the skeletons have only what they are carrying--all of which is plain to see.

So the PCs have some of the advantages of both the defender and the prepared attacker and, of course, the PCs--being PCs--always have the option to cut and run.

If anyone cares to lay odds, post them in the comments.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"N" Monsters Believe In Nothing

All the monsters: N.

N is a dangerous letter. Nastiness, nihilism, nothingness, and the night all start with "N". There are no giant animals, amiable bumblers, or typical PC races under "N". Even the nymph is, as wrtten, one of the deadliest things in the book.

Naga


"Naga are snake-like creatures with good brains and magical abilities". (Good brains?)

In real life, nagas are still very important in parts of India. I find the idea of humanoid creatures worshipping a naga (an "ordinary" naga--not some ethereal naga god) interesting since--assuming the naga has a range of desires and interests broadly equivalent to an ordinary aristocratic human--then a naga is esentially a kind of royal invalid. Unlike a dragon or something, the naga might actually need its worshippers--"Charles, would you mind turning the pages of this book for me, I've dreeadfully tired of these papercuts on my nose"--and risks becoming pathetic without them.

Neo-otyugh

I suggest that the otyugh is a tedious, uncompelling, and redundant monster unless you have a really cool and gross little miniature of it, in which case it can make a very pleasant unpleasant pulp diversion. The neo-otyugh doesn't even have that going for it.

Night Hag

So there's a hag meaning like just an old witch and there's a hag meaning like a sort of stringy gross giantess, and there's a zone in between. Either way the hag is always a GMIWNLF. That thing Jack Nicholson makes out with in The Shining also partakes somewhat in the horror of hagness.

There's some pop psychology quiz where they ask you how you'd react to seeing a naked member of the opposite sex that's 50 years older than you. The answer is supposed to be how you feel about death.

This is thinking about death in a different way than the way the undead make you think about death. The skeleton's about simply being gone--simply not being there any more. The hag is about all the humiliating, pitiless, flabby, gooey things that are going to happen to you on the way to bodily extinction. Horror of age, the body, the skin, physical need. There's a reason they're always cooking.

Nightmare

It is a mare of the night. I feel like the nightmare as presented is a little too big on bluster .

I mean. look at a hell hound--what's it going to do? It's gonna leap through the air with its paws on fire and land on your throat and chew on you. The nightmare? Not so much. And while it is true that horses bite hard, the symbolic point of the nightmare is that it's just something for something considerably more badass to ride around on.

You don't need a nightmare. If you go look at the cover of Death Dealer that guy's just riding a horse. It's a big, black, tough, scary-looking horse but it doesn't have webbed ears. Likewise, the steeds upon which The Nine ride in the movie are just horses.

Horses have inherently understated faces--their eyes are looking down at what they are doing--they concern themselves with chewing up ground and leave the rest to you. Horses with wide eyes or crazy expressions usually just look like they are doing their job wrong. If you really can't do without a flamboyantly menacing transport I suggest a skeletal steed.

Nixie

Apparently "nixies delight in enslaving humans" and also apparently a nixie won a gold medal in the Olympic 40 meter freestyle and had its smiling, waving portrait taken for the cover of a Wheaties box and also apparently a black and white version of this picture graces the otherwise very menacing entry in the Monster Manual.

Since they are supposed to appear in lakes rather than the ocean, the idea I guess is that Nixies are supposed to be frightening aquatic fairy folk of the indifferent-to-human-morality-variety. They need a better pr department.

Nymph

The nymph both has higher standards than the dryad (it takes a male with an 18 rather than a 16 charisma to catch her eye) but she's also less desperate (the dryad steals desirable men away whereas the nymph merely has a chance of being "favorably inclined" towards the person.)

Mechanically, the nymph as presented is little more than a trap--you have a pretty good chance of dying or going blind just from looking at her and if you manage to pass your saving throw she'll probably unleash some 7th level druid trouble on you just for coming near her house.

The nymph represents a common Monster Manual solution to making good creatures interesting, that is: find a way to make them hostile.

It seems like playing a nymph as a Gandalf-esque, charmingly manipulative schemer rather than some sort of fragile woodsy xenophobe is the way to go. And, needless to say, in my campaign they're pretty much useless unless they can get over their strict heterosexuality.