Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Rorschach Fight

Here's one I like to use--you can do it over and over without anyone realizing you're doing it if you just change the details:

The PCs come upon two parties (entities, monsters, groups, group v. monster, etc.) fighting. The PCs are either hidden from the combatants or else the belligerents are so busy that they don't notice the PCs.

The Players' three most obvious choices are: join Party A, join Party B, or just ignore the whole fight and continue on their way.

The funny thing is, the party often acts---or at least my players often act--as if they have no choice at all.

They instinctively join in the fight on the side of whichever combatant looks more human. I think part of the reason might be because most of them are semi-new and don't realize that there's D&D in every direction, no matter what they decide to do.

The situation is like a Rorschach test in a very literal sense--sometimes you'll see an ink blot and it's not just like it looks kinda like something it's like you don't immediately realize that anyone else could see it any other way.

The players, in this way, create both the plot and the morality. Occasionally without knowing it.

Mandy's commentary on one such encounter:

Mandy: "After we fought the guy with the weird brain coming out of his head I was like that was the wrong thing to do."

Zak: "Why was that the wrong thing to do Mandy?"

Mandy: "Well he was outnumbered already even before we got there and then we found out later that the dark elves were performing experiments on everybody. But they were dark elves and Frankie is a dark elf, plus there was the language thing like the brain guy was only making weird bug noises we couldn't understand, but the dark elves could ask for help so we're instinctively like oh, lets help them!"

The H Monsters

Continuing the Alphabetical Monster Thing. Monsters that start with "H"...


A big philosophical difference between the epic special-effects bonanza movie trilogy that informed my childhood and the one that informed the youths of children who first started watching movies during the Zeroes is that Star Wars was about a kid who couldn't wait to get the hell out of his tedious rural backwater and out into trouble, whereas the Rings movies are about a bunch of guys who are like "Oh, it looks like we're on an adventure, I don't know about this shit...I sure wish we could've just stayed in our tedious rural backwater..."

I used to have a roommate that was basically a hobbit. When the LotR movies came out we talked about Tolkien. I said how I didn't get why somebody with all that imagination would make hobbits--the most boring thing in Middle Earth--the center of the story. He felt exactly the opposite. His favorite part in all Tolkieana is when Gandalf encourages Bilbo to ignore his fear by "thinking of pleasant things".

Bilbo then lists off the pleasant things:
"A warm library at twilight...cakes."
Can't relate.

The bold and pugnacious urban halfling is by now, of course, a well-established D&D anti-stereotype and also begins with ideas in Tolkien. It works fairly well.

The outright evil halfling has two main possibilites: bad-halfling-as-icy-Machiavelli and bad-halfling-as-creepy-child. The second is automatically intriguing, and the first has possibilites--especially if you can manage to make the scheming overhalfling so austere, commanding, and vicious that it never seems funny. Tall order, as Rorshach would say.


You can call it The Demilich Rule: the less capable of causing harm something appears to be, the more disturbing it is when it starts being evil. For this reason, I've always thought harpies worked much better without arms.

Hell Hound, Hound of Ill Omen, et al.

Much as I am dubious of monsters that exist merely because of synonym-sprawl (or Gegenstandsverdoppelnde Gesinnungsdifferentiation, as they call it in Germany) I feel that there are two different and honest niches for the hell hound and the hound of ill omen/bargehest/black dog/whatever other spooky northern European dog legend you subscribe to.

The hell hound is like this horrible persuing monster that chases you like Rick Moranis got chased out of his Upper East side apartment and chews you up with it's "great black teeth" right there on camera whereas the more low key and spectral hounds appear and then howl and then go away and you're doomed.

Herd Animal

Hit dice: 1-5
Damage/attack: variable
Cop out meets Gygaxian Naturalism. It's kinda like Gygax wanted to say "look every single thing is in the monster manual" but couldn't be bothered to actually do it. Conflicting urges. Technically, you could say that all herd animals ever are in the monster manual as long as you accept the fact that that doesn't mean you don't have to make up the stats for them yourself anyway.

And who are these Whole-Earth-Catalog hippies running from the giraffe?


The part of your brain called the hippocampus is called that because somebody thought it looked like a seahorse. Which is a little confusing.

Imagine how much more confusing it would be if the science of anatomy had taken a little bit longer to develop and that part of your brain had ended up being called "that thing that pops out of Kane's chest".

It occurs to me that this blog's audience is the type where somebody is bound to point out that chest burster was actually made from hog guts so I'll just go ahead and say that for you.


Ingres does a pretty good job of making the hippogriff look not stupid in this picture. (Though you kinda have to wonder whether the damsel is just pretending to be in distress since Roger showed up--the dragon has a kind of "I thought you said he was on a business trip in New Mexico" look on his face.) However, he does it by having the knight's armoured leg sharply divide the horse parts from the eagle parts. If he didn't, the thing might look pretty awkward trying to walk around with those little talons in front and horse legs in the back--like a wheelbarrow with wings.


How's this for lame-on-paper: Last year I played in a one-shot game that was pretty much a one-way only, heavily "storied" adventure (with a moral dilemma thrown in the middle that backfired and didn't take) which turned out to be just a staged set of encounters moving toward what at first seemd like it was going to be a demon gnoll-god boss monster but was actually a giant hippo.

I had a lot of fun anyway.

Moral of the story: play with your friends. It's fun pretty much no matter what.

As for the whole hippos-being-the-most dangerous-megafauna-in-Africa thing: apparently, the deal is we don't have reliable statistics for all the animals in Africa, but that observers all agree the hippo is indeed an irritable and deadly beast and definitely kills more people than lions do.

However, an RPG is not the same medium as rowing down the Okavongo River in a straw canoe, so--in a game--I'm still way more scared of this unicorn-head guy (ice-cream cone notwithstanding) than a hippopotamus.


The militarized hobgoblin--as opposed to the hobgoblin-as-weird-little-magic-sprite-thing is entirely a legacy of J.R.R Tolkien.

You could say the same thing to some degree about other races--elves, goblins--but there are premodern stories in which these creatures had something approaching societies. What gets lost to some degree in the translation from the old ideas of fairy courts and fairy worlds to what you can usually fit in a game without trying is the idea that although they were as sophisticated or perhaps more sophisticated than human socities, they had what we would call these days a completely different technology: They value gold we value gold but one always got the sense that it was for completely different reasons.

The hobgoblin probably moved the farthest post-Tolkien--starting out as an often benevolent (a "hob" is a actually a friendly spirit) magical creature and through Gygax's translation of Tolkien's translation (Uruk'hai or however it's spelled) turned them into goblins on steroids.

Normally, at this point I would decry such grotesque simplification. However, sometime in the last few years Jeff of Jeffs Gameblog posted the really cool Hayami Rasenjin picture of a hobgoblin in full armor which graces the top of this page (thank you Blizack for the image and image credit) which made me decide DnD hobgoblins were fine by me.

The samurai-style hobgoblin in the monster manual is clumsy but I think the idea isn't so bad--a hobgoblin is a thing that actually looks like those crazy demon masks that samurai used to wear. (Putting them in somewhat the same category as gargoyles--a creature inspired by art imitating some other creature.)


The wikipedia entry for Homonculous is one of the coolest things I've read in months. So rather than plagiarize it here I will just suggest you go read it.

I think an interesting idea would be to fuse the old alchemical concept of a homonculous as a sort of reduced magical counterpart to a person with the modern scientific concept of a homonculous as an image of a person distorted to reflect the importance of certain parts of the body from a given point of view.

For example: you could have a homonculous spell which distorts your enemies bodies according to the sins they are guilty of. A greedy person might grow huge eyes an fingers, a gluttonous person might grow a gigantic mouth, etc. Alternately you could have some sort of device which copies you, only smaller, exaggerating the body parts you use most or something like that. The possible combinations seem endless.


Hordlings are to the lower planes what "herd animal" is to this one. A way for Gygax to point to anything in a Heironymous Bosch painting and say "that's in the game."


This message is for any members of my gaming group that may be reading this blog: there are no Warponies available for any price in this campaign.


Since everyone knows already that hydrae are super cool and you should use them at every available opportunity I will instead to address a specific issue concerning the hydra. That is: what does the non-snakey head part of the hydra look like? The DnD hydra has a big quadrupedal lizard body but there are also versions that have a snake body and some that have a big fat fish tail. All are acceptable. However: a hydra with four legs and a tail strikes me as unimaginably tasteless.


A note to any of my players who might be reading this: Trained hyenas are available in most towns in my campaign at reasonable prices.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nephilidian Vampire

So decadent are these creatures that they fear equally the sun, the sea, dry land, and, indeed any surface not hewn by an intelligent hand.

Most prefer never to leave their half-drowned empire of Nephilidia. Inside its tarnished palaces and rotting halls they sit--forever knee-deep in black and stagnant water, with strange algaes stretched like
cobwebs from the surface to the once-ornate walls and crumbling statuary--endlessly elaborating cruel and languid intrigues, attended by salamander men and eyeless fish.

This amphibious species can change into a small, mobile pool of black blood, or take the form of a strange, darting, long-tendrilled aquatic animal resembling a hybrid of a lionfish and a manta ray. If reduced to zero hit points on land, the creature will revert to the former form. Consequently, if sufficiently injured, the Nephilidian vampire often sinks into the soil and becomes hopelessly trapped and intermingled with the earth. If grievously wounded in the water, this bizarre creature will turn into sixteen black stones and sink to the bottom. In either form, a drop of blood from another vampire is sufficient to revive the creature. Due to these vulnerabilites, the Nephilidian vampire prefers to travel via subterranian aquaducts, sewers, or other shallow, watertight, artificial constructions. They despise, but can--with an effort of will--tolerate clean running water.

In their humanoid form, they are distinguishable from ordinary vampires by the gills on their necks and their glassy blue eyes.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Evaluating Your City

What do I want when I buy a city off somebody? I want them to do work for me. Not necessarily work I couldn't have done myself, I just want them to have put in the hours to put a little love into things I myself was too busy with other things to do.

So, scoring your city supplement:


-You get one point for each thing described. An NPC, a building, an item, a unique local custom, a bar game, a legal system, etc. For example: you can say "there's a church" and you get a point.

Clarity at High Speed

-You lose that point if you tell me anything about it that could just as well have been randomized or made up on the spot by anybody with a brain, like: "the church doors are eleven feet high and made of oak."

I can make up generic details myself, I don't need professional game designers for that. More importantly, doing that clutters up the graphic design on the page when I'm in the middle of the game trying to figure out what's going on with your church. This may seem harsh, but the whole point of using someone else's setting is that you have to do less work and if I have to prep and highlight all over the page or rewrite it then it suddenly becomes more trouble than just writing my own thing.

-You lose a point if you explain the function of a thing when I already know what it does. Like if you say "the Cathedral of Chuckles is the center of the worship of the Great God Chuckles" you're wasting your space and my time.

Notice that from these rules the effect is: if you include a church and do nothing but give me generic details about it and describe what a church is, then you've actually lost a point and so you are better off leaving the church out entirely if that's all you're going to do.


-You gain 0 points for putting the thing on a map or otherwise locating it, unless where it's located has some especially distinctive effect on the game or setting, in which case it gets you one point. Telling me the crypt is in the northeast quadrant of the city doesn't get you a point unless that means the graveyard is built on top of the all-girl juggling school. Again, if you're giving me a detail it needs to be a detail that couldn't just as well have been randomized.

-0 points if there's a map that's keyed with only numbers or letters referring to paragraphs spread out across the supplement. Five points if it's keyed with the names of places and/or some sort of distinctive shape telling you what something is just by looking at it. Twenty points if the spread with the map manages to both locate a place and encapsulate most of the important things I need to know about each location.


-You gain a point for adding a descriptive detail that affects the style of the thing. That is: creates some sort of shift in the idea of the thing by its mere presence. For example: telling me the church is shaped like perfect sphere, or an antler, or is made entirely of leather, or is a monolithic grey streaked with long dark stains from centuries of rust and rain. Ideally, You get this point even if it I don't like it--like you say the church is made of burlap and magic lutes.

Adventure Fuel And Completeness

-You gain points for adding distinctive features to things that create playable depth --information, "adventure seeds", mini-challenges--to a thing you've created, according to the following scheme:

-One point for a detail that basically says "There's an adventure you could go on outside the setting" (no matter how lame). i.e. "It is rumored that the priest has a map to the location of a sunken wreck full of treasure." (Assuming the description of the actual wreck and map are not provided in your setting.)

-One point if the adventure being pointed to isn't lame.

-Two points for a detail that points the PCs towards an adventure outside the setting and implies that some person or institution in the setting will be pleased, displeased or in some way affected by completion of the task, and if that person or institution has any identifiable and persisitent personality or role in the setting. i.e. "It is rumored that the priest carries the map because he hopes, one day, to recover the dog collar belonging to his dead puppy, Randolph, who died on that voyage."

-Three points for a detail that could send the PCs out of the setting but which will, if they succeed or fail, create a substantial change in the setting. i.e. "Legend has it that returning the collar to Charneldyne will cause all the madmen in the city to become sane."

-Four points if it sends the PCs out of the setting but also requires or implies that in order to complete the task they must do something substantive within the setting. "The ruined galleon is a mile beneath the waves. It is said there are only a handful of devices and substances that allow one to reach such depths, and a scant few in the city who know how to use them--and they all have been imprisoned by the Baron for either necromancy, lechery, or fraud."

-Five points if the task can be performed entirely within the setting. "The wreck is actually located deep beneath the surface of the Baron's moat."

(Or, to put it another way, the easier you make it for me to run the city just like a dungeon, the happier I am.)

(I'm all for "leavng space for the DM to invent things" but I don't need you to provide that--I know I can create space wherever I want. I'm subcontracting you.)

-Six points if a detail could be of general use to many, most, or all of the PCs activities within the setting. "The priest, like all the clergy in the city, is unknowingly subject to a ancient curse from the Sea Gog, Nykkto, whereby his intimates are doomed to die by drowning."


Five points for each part of the basic premise of the city that is actually interesting. i.e. "The City of Charneldyne is a bustling metropolis at the heart of the orcish empire" would get 0 points, whereas ""The City of Charneldyne is a bustling metropolis at the heart of the orcish empire and is built entirely from the bones of slain foes" will get 5 points.


Twenty points if the setting as a whole is actually interesting. Like Viriconium.

Neither gain nor lose points either way if it's just basically a medieval place.

You lose twenty points if it goes out of its way to be uninteresting, like Stamford, Connecticut.


Divide the number of points by the cost in U.S dollars of the setting.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Rehabilitating The Gas Spore (And Comments On Other G Monsters)

Y'know, the recent controversy...JUST KIDDINGall the monsters starting with G....

Gar, Giant

Wikipedia: Gars are of considerable significance to Native American peoples of the southeastern United States where the gar figures prominently in ceremonial life and music.

You know what? They can have 'em.


Like the caryatid column, the haunted painting, the gargoyle introduces the concept of art-as-monster. A gargoyle isn't just a thing that looks like a demon--a gargoyle is a monster inspired by carvings on churches which were themselves meant to look like demons.

In D&D, it's often suggested that gargoyles actually hang out with creatures from the lower planes--which, on the surface, seems like Bjorn Again actually hanging out with ABBA.

The solution is to suggest that the human artisan's mind has been possessed by some sort of demon, which then forces him/her to carve an idol in the shape of the demon that's whispering in his ear and thus to create a body that the demon can inhabit on earth out of stone.

Oddly enough, this is more or less the theory that medieval writers and artists had about what was actually going on when they made stuff.

When Dante wrote the The Divine Comedy he wasn't thinking "Hey I'm making up a bunch of stuff about Heaven and Hell so I guess I'm risking blasphemy, but whatever, the Church is pretty laid back about these things, especially these days," he was thinking "I guess I want to write about the details of Heaven and Hell because God is telling me through the medium of my imagination what all is in there," only he was thinking it in Italian and in terza rima.

I think the whole idea of gods and demons telling humans to make things so that then these supernatural forces can use those things as instruments with which to make the world more like the one which they'd prefer is a pretty decent one.

Some people--some DMs--go to a lot of effort to create game worlds that simulate real-world-style political intrigues and have those worlds operate according to whatever emergent situation comes from running things that way--other people do it with the weather and create detailed and rational rules for how weather or trade would affect the game world. My simulatory urges tend toward making up rules for gods--assuming the god of x can only do z or y and the god of q can only do b or c unless d, then what would happen? The campaign you're in now is what would happen.

Anyway, point is, gargoyles are cool.

Gas Spore

Another Zak said it first:

"Okay, so a gas spore is a creature that has evolved a reproductive system that relies on fooling hapless adventurers into hacking it open because they think it is one of the most intelligent, rare, and deadly monsters. I see how that could happen."

Sure, the gas spore seems like the most re...I mean, the most developmentally disabled--thing ever and obviously one of those monsters Gygax thought up just to fuck with his own personal players that day.

But open your heart: think of it this way--maybe Beholders actually magically manufacture and cultivate gas spores and send them bobbing around their lairs on purpose as decoys and traps.

Alchemically bioengineering a hollow, living, self-replicating simulacra of yourself that's full of poison gas is a pretty decent trap--and way more disturbing than just some dumb illusion. Haha Mr. Bond, that was not the true Blofeld at all!

I'd like to think the gas spore represents the Beholder's sense of humor. These are the kinds of things you can do when you're a fucking sphere.

Gelatinous Cube

I just...I just can't do it. It's just too stupid. I've spent all my professional life trying to destroy minimalism--I'm not going to send it after my players.

And I know Otherworld makes awesome gelationous cube miniatures, but, really, you can buy resin at any hardware store and make one yourself in a half hour. It's this close to making a miniature of a rock out of a pebble on a base and selling it. Where there's a true gap in the market is in the fucking flail snail department. If Otherworld gives me a Flail Snail, I will give them Belladonna's home phone number.


You lost me at "indistinguishable from ghouls". Who themselves lost me at "indistinguishable from zombies". Who themselves lost me sometime around 2004. I'm sure I'll be ok with the walking dead again after the pop-horror-obsession pendulum finishes swinging back to vampires like it always inevitably does, but until then, don't bother me with zombies.


We fear the dead because we fear dying, but also because we fear that our memories of the dead may prevent us from properly living. (This is why cultures have rituals designed to decisively separate us from the dead.) The memory is the fear. A ghost is little else.

You can just say "when you go into the crypt there's a skeleton" and you've pretty much got all the villainy you need to get out of the skeleton--with a ghost, anything less is going to seem like you missed the point of ghosts. And Gauntlet and Ghostbusters made missing the point of ghosts way more fun than you ever will, so you're probably better off figuring out a reason this hooded fuck's trying to magic jar you.

So a ghost isn't a monster, it's a whole plot seed. Other than just writing a ghost plot from scratch, you could let the ghost run itself by writing up a table of factors that would make a victim come back as a ghost (victim killed while sleeping +10%, enemy killed unhallowed ground + 15% etc.) and make it known to the party's cleric, so that the party has to take precautions to make sure they kill things "properly".

This sounds to me suspiciously like something some game's already done. Anybody know if/who?


Ok, one thing I do like about a zombie is my players know what it is. If I say "you see a ghoul molesting Madame Prathentaler on the cricket grounds", I might as well be saying--"As you slide back the trap door, you gaze upon a fiend!".

What a ghoul is depends entirely on what game you're playing. Even D&D has other ghouls--the Newhon Ghoul from Deities and Demigods is totally different. Appropriately, the original Arabian Ghul was a shape-shifter.

If a thing is D&D-specific, then I want it to be visually distinctive in some way--like the lich--to evoke specific ideas--and the D&D ghoul isn't and doesn't. In veteran players it evokes a fear of paralysis, but there's a million other way to do that.

And it's a shame, because ghoul (like spectre) is a pretty good word, and deserves to be something special. My initial thought is that a ghoul has a big gross tongue, but that's about as far as I've gotten with it. I've been a little busy lately.


One of the things that struck me when watching the execrable Matthew Broderick Godzilla was that they'd gotten the scale all wrong, and it mattered a lot. The original Godzilla was big and so had to wade through buildings and power plants and all the works of men. He couldn't move without ruining something. That meant something.

The American version was skinny enough to not only dash between buildings but actually hide. They advertised the movies with these idiotic "size does matter" billboards, but they totally missed the point. Size doesn't matter--scale does. The huge monster isn't interesting because it's huge, it's interesting because of the weird relationship it forces it into with its environment.

I'm not saying giants should be as big as the original Godzilla, merely that the main point of them is the get us to think about scale.

Giant, Cloud

So: Giants are interesting because of the scale disparity, and their massive imposition on the physical world. Putting them in scaled-up magic cloud castles pretty much negates all that. No stomping, no wading through cities, just being up in the clouds and exotic because they're big and...that's it, just big. I can imagine them working in a sort of Little Nemo palace-but it's just not ominous enough. Somebody else can run that one--I'll play in it though.

Fire Giant

Unlike the "frost" in "frost giant", "fire" is not an environment. Or, if it is, the PCs have bigger things to worry about than the giant--namely, that they're in an active volcano, or Hell. When there is a giant, the giant should be the main event. Otherwise you are just wasting a giant.

Frost Giant

Frost giants are extraordinarily metal, and being metal is always good.

Interestingly, slaying frost giants is also metal--even more metal than being a frost giant. And therein lies a great insight into the nature of metal.

Hill Giant

Though it says they live in caves and the picture has him wearing this Fred Flintstone pelt thing, I figure the hill giant is the truly vanilla Mickey-Mouse-as-Brave-Little-Tailor scaled-up-peasant-house fee-fi-fo-fum giant.

Something to practice on before moving up to the major leagues. Unlike dragons, I don't see giants as getting diluted by appearing a few times in a campaign--they're a whole race, after all. Even Oscar Wildes's The Lonely Giant had more than one giant in it.

Cave Giant

I find the prevailing fashion sense among cave-dwelling species appalling and therefore shun them.

Storm Giant

I much prefer the idea that they call lightning down from the sky than they shoot it at you--I figure: they're around, so lightning just happens. I also think the levitating is a dumb out-of-scale afterthought. Despite being probably the closest thing to a god in the Monster Manual, they're surprisingly short-21 feet. So are the other giants and the titan, if you're used to Godzilla movies.

These things aren't built on a modern architectural scale, they're more Rancor or King Kong-ish. They can Harryhausen on over to you and have a conversation, rather than a Magatron-talking-to-Unicron godlike-monologue-altering-weather-patterns-type situation.


In general, I am ok with old-school D&D art, but, man, If I was a gnoll I'd sue early D&D for character defamation. The old gnoll pictures are laughable. It was only when they started making them really look like hyenas that I realized they were actually not dumb but perfect. They giggle and hunch and chew upon you.

Excellent evil humanoid. They'd stalk Bugbears in packs and eat them for breakfast.

Why isn't there a blog called Bugbears for Breakfast?


Do I have to? Our Thai food just got here and Mandy's got that episode of Top Gear where they go to the North Pole on.

Goat, Giant

Look at that, I didn't even realize this was in here. A giant goat--look at that... "5'+ foot tall at shoulder". Ok, that's a big goat.

Goats can be alright--Thor's goats were named Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder. If you were a Viking you could meet some kid at school and his name would be like Toothgrinder and you'd be like "What's up with that kid named Toothgrinder?" and people would be all "Oh, you know, his parents are real religious."


It's a wonderful word--Goblin.

A Goblin Wind. A Goblin Planet. An Empire of Goblins.

The band that supplies the music for many of Dario Argento's horror movies--which are always more about panic than they are about fear or gore--is called "Goblin". They are perfect for the movies and perfect for the name--shrill, piercing, relentless, weird.

Noisms makes some excellent points about goblins here.

What is it, exactly about goblins? Evil glee. Mischief beyond mere mischief. Like the worst children. Children without the redeeming vulnerability and sentimentality of children. The Lord-of-the-Flies butterfly-stomping callow consciencelessness of children taken to its extreme.

The Monster Manual goblin doesn't just look hapless, he looks too old.


The golems are really three completely different monsters, at least in terms of the feel of them:

Clay Golem

The original golem. I think the clay golem is a monster waiting for an illustrator. I've never seen a good clay golem picture( they always seem too oafish or too spry), but I can imagine the basic outlines--it would need to have tremendously dead eyes, a long, humorless, sagging mouth, silently moaning the same moan forever, a huge but unthinking head, hunching limbs barely differentiated from the body, and yet it would still have to seem implacable and murderous. It's hollowness would need to be countered by its inevitability--the way a slow crawling slug seems to not to need to move fast or to think--since it will get you in the end anyway.

Until that picture gets made, and made convinicingly, I won't be able to use a clay golem.

A thought: perhaps I'll be forced to. I am trying to picture Mandy saying "I wanna make a golem". I can see it. Justine would definitely do it if it occurred to her. Hmmmm...

Flesh Golem

The Frankenstein's monster. I personally would go for a post-Clive Barker/Tim Burton version gorily stitched together from mismatched parts. And probably have some animal golems, too. Cheap but effective. And it's fun to make the hopeless, plodding, dragging noises.

Iron and Stone Golems

The living statues. Obviously an excellent all-around monster for pretty much everybody but I like them in particular because I can dig up photos of old sculptures I like and go "and it looks, like, THIS...."

The only problem for the DM is casually throwing in enough descriptions of non-living statues (and non puzzle-statues, and non-trap statues, and non-important-NPC-just-medusafied statues) that the party doesn't just go around avoiding statues (or fucking with them) on general principle. Ever had that problem?


What do you do with this thing? A metal bull with poison breath named after the creature that D&D calls "a medusa".

First, change the name. Second, I think, is look up the (possibly apocryphal) Bull of Heliogabulus. This is a torture device shaped like hollow bull, into which the victim is placed. The bull is then heated, and bad things occur.

Perhaps the victim is still in there, and the posion breath is made from the dying breath of the torture victim, or the victims are all long dead and their spirits inhabit the bull. Perhaps it doesn't have to be a bull. I mean, minotaurs are better and kind of hog the slot. Maybe it's a Boar?

Gray Ooze

In the original Manual, some large Gray Oozes were psionic. But were these exceptional individuals wise oozes? No. Animal intelligence. There's something interestingly nightmarish about an unintelligent thing launching psionic attacks on you--forcing you to think ooze thoughts and grasp only what oozes grasp.

Green Slime

More bad goo. I think the implied vivid green of the green slime was an underappreciated psychoaesthetic landmark in the Erol Otus pulp-fantasy aesthetic of early D&D. This wasn't just some brown Medieval Europe, this wasn't just a gray, green, blue, bronze mythical Medieval Europe, this was a version of Medieval Europe where sometimes things were radioactive green. Often, actually, if Otus had anything to say about it.


I wonder how long you could live eating and drinking only at establishments that are listed in the Monster Manual--stagger home from the Griffon to unwrap your takeout from the Gold Dragon, then wake up before work with a cup of coffee at the Brown Bear and a sandwich from the Bachlutherium. There's probably a blog about it. ANYWAY...

I like griffons, but griffons as a riding animal seems unredeemably cheesey. It is both eagle and lion and I, Diomedraxx the Impressive, have conquered it and now bend it to my will! Whatever. I much prefer the griffon the way Lewis Carrol did it--as a fussy but oddly-affecting creature that asks a fake turtle to sing a song about soup.

Groaning Spirit or Banshee

This is basically a ghost with some built-in story (female and elvish and Irish) and with a special power--the save-or-die killing moan. I'd rig it like this: kill someone the wrong way and they come back as a ghost--kill a woman (or Irish woman, or Elvish woman, or some specific kind of woman) in the wrong way and they'll come back as a banshee, and let the players know that's even worse.


Once outside the Monster Manual, there are some interesting "G" monsters...

Gibbering Mouther

A mouthed plasm. In all ways admirable. I think of them as a pretty good lonely-wilderness encounter. You hear some people up ahead--oh no, it's just a blob alone in the woods talking to itself.

Creeping over rotting fungi, layers of dead leaves, all the while speaking in half-sentences.


Cricket-legged fey. More evocatively Midsummer-Nights-Dreamish than their blander cousins. They're the only fairie folk in D&D who consistently look like they might actually be trying to do something. The rest just seem like they hang around talking to bees all day waiting for you to show up so they can annoy you.


Tentacles, good. Brain, good. Beak? Mmmm... I can't decide whether it's worth trying to like the grell on pure gonzo principle considering how many other tentacle-monsters and brain-monsters there are that're worth digging up. Or building.


Completely redesigned it. Now it's just a giant moth with a rorshach-like pattern that causes despair when you look at it. A harbinger of other, more concrete things.


My players have no fucking clue what a Githyanki is. A describability problem. All I can do is show them that picture from the cover of the Fiend Folio and hope it seems to them at age 20-whatever as alien as it did to me when I was something teen.

I've never used them but have some ideas: I feel like the thing of the Githyani is: look at the cover to Iron Maiden's Power Slave and imagine a whole society that was like that. Play Nile really loud. They'll need weird rituals and societal rules. Like some ancient race that was here before men, marooned here. A little Lovecraft, a little Stargate, a little Predator. Could be a pip.

The Githzerai? Irrelevant. It's all about that merciless thing on the full-color cover. The rest is the real fluff.


2-foot treefrog people. I like the grippli as some sort of innocent slave-race for Slaads or otherwise hapless bystanders in the evil-frog hierarchy. I am also a litle afraid that one day one of my players will realize that it is--according to guidelines I myself have laid out--a playable race.

Galeb Duhr

A rock with legs. I figure the original one just sits there and asks riddles, but the new, Kirbyfied version over on the left there actually looks like it could put up a decent--and-interesting--fight.

Am I Playing A Published Game & Don't Know It?

Jeff lists some charateristics of Goodman's upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics game.

-Roll 3d6 in order for six stats: Strength, Agility, Stamina, Intelligence, Personality, Luck
-Stat bonuses work as in 3.x: +1 for 12-13, +2 for 14-15, +3 for 16-17, etc.
-Strength modifies melee attacks and damage.
-Agility modifies missile attacks (and damage? I'm not sure), intiative, Armor Class and Reflex saves
-Stamina modifies hit points and Fort saves
-Intelligence modifies spell casting rolls and Will saves
-Most operations are d20 throws.
-AC is ascending, base 10. Scale mail is +4 AC, chain +5.
-Weapon damage seems pretty much like you'd expect. A battleaxe does d8, a spear does d6, etc.
-Not much of a skill system. Your class and/or occupation broadly cover what you can do.

Aside from luck and the lack of a wisdom stat it sounds a lot like our DIY game. That is: AD&D's relatively rules-light class-based system slightly "rationalized" by the 3.5 bonus system.

Jeff then goes on to say: "...this game is clearly in the same Old School/d20 Hybrid camp as both C&C and Basic Fantasy..."

I don't know much about the retro-clones, but I'm wondering if we've been playing C&C or Basic Fantasy or Dungeon Crawl Classics all along.

So, I'm curious. I don't know anything about the retro-clones but you (collectively) do. So can you tell me--which of those systems looks most like mine?

(Quickly reviewing Basic Fantasy now, since it's free)

To recap, my rules are as above, with the following additions:

-Skills for thieves.

-You can be whatever basic class or race from whatever type D&D you want. (Obviously there are no Tieflings in the clones, but the point is a race/class system.)

-Levelling-up will be as 3.5 (I notice that's identical to a Basic Fantasy fighter). No x.p. for traps.

-A 1 HD monster killed is 50 x.p. (That's 300--as 3.5--divided by 6 players = 50). I notice in Basic Fantasy, it's half that. (I figure the girls are going to level up faster than in AD&D in the televised campaign, for reasons discussed earlier.)

Anyway, am I playing Dungeon Crawl Classics, Basic Fantasy or Castles and Crusades?

If you're familiar with any of those games, let me know.


p.s.--Not trying to convert--why bother? Just curious.

Monday, March 22, 2010

It Gets Good At Episode 5 & Other Show Notes

Some stuff I would like to say about the show:

-In the beginning, The Escapist and I had a difference of opinion about how to cut the episodes. The original cuts were extremely fast, with lots of jokes and confusion and collage and jump cuts everywhere and were, I thought, highly entertaining.

They were like, hold on, slowwwwww down there, guy, not everybody will be able to follow this avant-garde shit and it gives some people in the office seizures. So now the show is more of the documentary-style thing you will be seeing every week.

Because of this, the early episodes are not exactly what I wanted to do.

But, starting with episode 5, I like 'em all just fine. The Escapist's plans and mine meshed, and it all goes smooth.

So. I ask you to reserve judgment until that one. If you like episode 5, you'll like the rest of the series after that, if you don't, then you probably won't. In the four seemingly endless weeks that will elapse between now and then I am going to plug my ears and ignore all comments about the show. I ask that you be a little kind to it until then.

I'd also appreciate it if the people who post angry screeds about how ugly all the girls are will continue to have screen names like Soul_Shredder and Magnusforce864.

-3-4 people started some internet controversy about the show here in the DIY D&D blogs. It was boring but it was enough of a headache for the Traditional Adventure Roleplaying Games Association,(who linked to the show) that it apparently contributed to one member, Chgowiz, taking his excellent Old Guy RPG blog down which sucks and makes it now officially not funny. For the most cogent analysis, go here.

-There is a small sub-controversy about exactly how "old school" my game is which will probably only grow once people have a chance to fine-toothed-comb every snippet of DM dialogue that appears on TV, I'll say here what I said before:

We use no feats, no skills, no prestige classes, no battlemat squares, no purchasable magic items, and house-rules everywhere.

I don’t know or care whether my game is “Old School” but I do know that the OSR D&D community is the only one that’ll have me.

It's also the only one that regularly produces stuff I like.

-On that note, I would like to start talking about licensing stuff different DIY D&Ders have come up with to use on the show. Fight on/Knockspell-esque stuff like charts, tables, maps, locations, etc. You will be credited and compensated. I'll give more details after episode 5 comes out, so you kind of know what you're in for and to give me time to map out exactly what kind of back-up campaign materials the ladies have sandboxed themselves into possibly needing.

If I end up getting something from you but not using it on TV because the circumstances didn't arise, you'll still get something. I'm sure you all know the fine and secure feeling of knowing you've got that "Things That Can Happen To You If You Eat Raw Troll Meat" table there if you need it.

-I will now go back to the pressing task of analyzing monsters in alphabetical order.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

F Monsters Are Creepy Sword-And-Planet Monsters

Oh, what a week...ANYWAY--let's talk about all the monsters that start with the letter "F"...

On the surface, the Fs are kinda hopeless. In addition to the Monster Manual's flightless bird, frog--giant and fungi--violet, the Monster Manual 2 piles on the giant firefly and giant fly, then the Fiend Folio brings in the flumph and the flind and some okay-I-guess variants like the firedrake, firenewt, firesnake, and firetoad. But then there's the flailsnail, which not only completely redeems the F's, but clears the way to a finer and truer appreciation of them.

To get us into the proper mood, let's start there:

Flail Snail

Ok so a flail snail is silly but, really have you ever looked at a snail? A snail is fucked.

In a line drawing on a Hallmark card a snail is just a wiggle and a spiral, but in reality a snail is a gross fucking monster from hell. Imagine that slick, slightly pocked, stretching moist slugskin forming the spheres and spikes of a morning-star-shaped faceless-vegetable-like unface and then wanting to touch you with it.

If you still don't get it, watch that scene in Microcosmos where the two banana slugs mate on a rope of their own slime while an aria plays in the backround--a thing like that pounding on you with its own eyeless faces would drive you insane.

See? Ok. Through the lens of the Flail Snail, we can now address the rest of the F's in the proper mindset. Though short on mythic resonance, the F's are long on creepy and weird. The F's demand a little sci-fi or pulp alchemy to properly appreciate...

Flightless Bird

Among the many things Job complains about in the book of the Bible dedicated to him is "I have become a brother to wild dogs and a friend to ostriches." Now I feel that we all instinctively know that when our friends are ostriches things have indeed been going very poorly. However, I read somewhere--and I can't for the life of me remember where--that the point of this quote is dependent upon knowing that ostriches were an ancient symbol of desolation because they made wild cries in the desert night like jackals or something. However, I just spent 20 minutes asking Mandy to look for it and came up with nothing so I think it's just enough to say here that it takes more effort than I'm willing to put in to make a bird, flightless interesting.

Luckily for me, and for my F = Sword + Planet thesis, there's Joust.

Frog, Giant

Frogs always seem not quite as cold as reptiles but somehow smug--like they know what they're doing but they also know it's never gonna come back around on them.

Pretty much the only frog that ever worried about anything was Kermit. Otherwise they're just like "Yeah I ate that fly, yeah I just stuck my tongue out forty feet, what are you gonna do about it? Yeah I'm crawling over the edge of your coffee cup, yeah I'm a symbol of death in several ancient cultures, what are you gonna do about it?" While reptiles look like they never know what you're thinking and they couldn't care--amphibians look like they think just like you except they never feel guilty about anything.

Frogs really balance on that goofy/creepy axis. There's a whole Hellboy story about terrible frogs where the frogs are never ever funny even for a second. In Japanese ghost stories, they manage to be both creepy and funny simultaneously--like happy demons, they're very pleased with themselves for how much they are freaking you out.

In the Golden Bow, Frazier tells about a village in France or Germany where they have a harvest ritual involving putting a frog on trial and then executing it, which I guess proves that no matter how well any animal does creepy/funny, humans will always find a way to do it better.

Also note the Giant frog is, I believe, the first of several entries where Gygax gives detailed notes on what exactly happens when you get stuck inside a monster's stomach.

Fungi, Violet

At first glance--and this includes glancing at the black-and-white picture in the Monster Manual--this looks like a pretty boring monster. Also, considering it can only move 1" per round it looks pretty boring on second glance, too. However, I am taking a third glance and thinking if you look through old fifties pulp magazine covers or episodes of Star Trek you might be able to convince yourself that this tendrilled purple saprotroph is, if not your next archvillan then at least a decent mood-setter for when the PCs need to feel that Cronenbergian bio-horror that the ear seeker just doesn't bring.

Then again, why not make it an archvillain? There you go: scheming, super-intelligent purple fungus. All its minions have a wad of lobed indigo goo growing out of the base of their skull. I want it dead already.

Firedrake, Firenewt, Firesnake, and Firetoad

Ok so these things all sound like they came out of a random-D&D-monster-generator-program, but I still think they're all more fun than your garden-variety fire elemental. I should probably write a table for that.

Giant Firefly

Ok, ignore how it's suppose to be called a "firefriend" and just think about this: half giant firefly/half girl--particularly in the role of victim. Some sort of slave used for an inscrutable purpose or abused prisoner. A Rakshasa or something living in an eternal darkenss that can only be relieved by the grudging light of the firefly women. That's got possibilities, right?

Giant fly

Flies are disturbing, more disturbing than frogs. Evil frogs vs evil flies? Evil demon frogs vs evil demon flies? Damn I just wrote a whole campaign. Hapless PCs become pawns in the grotesque yet subtle machinations of the Slaad/Chasme war. Dibs.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Monsters That Begin With E Are Much Easier To Talk About Than Monsters That Begin With D

Still going monster-by-monster, in order alphabetical. Finally out of the D's...

Eagle, Giant

Let's compare the giant eagle to the roc:

Giant eagles are in the Monster Manual (with their "limited form of telepathy" and their friendship with "certain dwarves and elves") because they appear at key points in J.R.R Tolkien stories and conveniently solve logistical problems that everybody else has been trying to solve for the entire length of the story up until that point.

The roc likely appears in the Monster Manual because of a story in the 1001 Arabian Nights where a guy finds himself at the bottom of a canyon full of gems and suddenly sees the corpse of a skinned goat or cow drop out of the sky onto the pile of coins from above because somebody up at the top of this inaccessible valley thought it'd be a good idea to throw skinned livestock carcasses into the valley so the gems would stick to the carcass because of the blood, and then the roc would swoop down pick up the gold encrusted animal so it could eat it, and the entrepreneurs could then sneak into the the roc's nest and kill it and take all the jewels.

So I ask you: which one of these stories sounds like good D&D to you? Tolkien was an incorrigible railroader.

Ear Seekers

The ear seeker goes into your ear, lays eggs in your brain, and then--90% of the time--kills you. Up there with the cerebral parasite in the I-can't-possibly-imagine-how-this-could-be-fun category, the ear seeker was allegedly designed by Gary to prevent PCs from listening at doors. It's difficult for me to understand how the mind that gave us the beholder and Demorgorgon and the Eye of Vecna couldn't have thought of a million better ways to solve that particular dungeon design problem.


Eels alone are pretty boring, but you can't really match the eel's face for stupid malevolence. I propose the eel as an excellent constituent part for aquatic bad guys. Right now I'm thinking about a marine medusa with eels for hair and a mermaid body.

Mandy tells me her dad's eels used to escape the tank and slither around the basement until someone found them behind the couch or whatever and then dropped them back in the tank or flushed their dead bodies down the toilet. Which somehow seems more disturbing than a snake escaping. What does the eel want?


Top -heavy. The City of Brass is extremely evocative however. A molten-coloured pitiless 1001 Nights/Sinbadish type hell. I'm not sending anybody there until I can think of some better inhabitants for it. I'm not afraid of anything that has air for feet.


The elements aren't scary. Oh no some water! What the elements can actually do: storms, wildfires etc. can be scary but we're so used to looking at-, and using-, water and fire and rocks that they by themselves evoke almost nothing. I much prefer it when elementals are represented as being some sort of creature. The salamander for fire, the water weird--the earth elemental can be cool if you imagine it as being enough like a hunched, brooding version of The Thing.

The air elemental is very tough to do, since air is really unscary. Nowhere near as scary as it should be. This concept is well demonstrated here.

"A tornado can drive a three-inch nail into a tree, alright?"
"So it hammers a nail into a tree, big deal..."
"Well that is a big deal."
"I don't see why it's such a big deal."
"Could you hammer a nail into a tree by just blowing on it?"
"That's what a tornado does. It blows on a nail, and the nail goes into the tree."
"I still don't think it's a big deal."
"What do you mean 'why'?"
"Why is it putting nails in trees? What's the point?
"To mark them."

Maybe a creepy kind of bird of paradise that suffocates you by looking at you.

Oh, I just thought of something--in a museum in Darwin there's a recording--audio only--of a hurricane ripping through the city. It's apparently pretty terrifying. Maybe that's what you want for the air elements--just youtube some shrieks and howling winds.


Elephants by themselves are like whatever but if you're a medieval europerson and you see some people riding up on elephants that must of been some fucked up shit. Like, not only do these people have herds of these giant-skulled hulking grey snake-nosed, tusked monstrosities but they're actually used to them. Wherever they're from must be totally fucked up.


What are elves?

They're aristocratic--they have all the qualities aristocrats are supposed to have--in a good way (high elves) or in a bad way (dark elves)--aside from stupidity. They're also highly attuned to the natural world. Not in a functional first-hand-experience dwarfy way and not in a "I'm cute so even badgers like me" gnomey way or in a "we're just a metaphor for humble farm-folk" halfling way. You get the feeling that a baby elf is born and the birds all add a new note to their songs and the air thickens and the patterns on the leaves change.

The elf suggests that somehow the behaviour of the aristocracy--its obsession with decor, ritual, symbolism, tradition, sophistication, and stratification--is somehow consonant or complementary to nature rather than completely artificial. Like it's somehow natural to be skinny and pale and never work and love shiny things. Elves are people that you can hear and see but not touch or smell. They are the way some people look to other people. But not the way anyone ever feels about themself from inside their own body. Never trust an elf.


It seems to me like that second head doesn't help the ettin much--in terms of figuring shit out, I mean. When it tells you that the ettin has two heads and also that it's stupid that's not surprisng.
Why not? I mean, if the cyclops seems dumb because it has one eye, shouldn't the ettin seem extra smart for having extra eyes? (And why is it that the one eye seems pathetic, but the two heads don't. Like the extra head is not an asset but it's somehow the ettin's own fucking fault, whereas the cyclops' one eye seems like a curse imposed from without.)

There are smart giants. We can imagine the regal wisdom of a cloud giant or a titan. I think it seems to us that anything with two heads inevitably must be confused. And the more heads something has the dumber it seems. Like the three-headed thing in Monty Python is a complete idiot and it's almost impossible to imagine, say, a hundred-headed beast as being anything but a mindless chaos. No wonder people were so scared of democracy.

Eye, Floating

Eyeballs are awesome. An eye is a sensory organ and implies something doing the sensing. But, when disembodied, the intelligence it obviously represents instantly becomes mysterious and creepy. The problem here is Gary's already outdone himself. The floating eye is a pretty cool monster but the beholder is way cooler.

EDIT: Rick Marshall just pointed out that the Floating Eye is a Dave Arneson creation, Thanks--please keep doing that, people, I hate being wrong. Anyway, the question now is which came first--floating eye or beholder?

Eye of the Deep

On the other hand, I submit that the eye of the deep is almost as cool as the beholder. Imagine going through a whole campaign and then finding out at the end that the archvillain all along was a bitter little lobster-handed eye guy dwelling deep beneath the waves murkily crafting your demise. The only problem is you can't use both. You either use the eye of the deep or the beholder and that's that.

...they're like a matched set. A cast off pair of eyes from some much bigger divine being. One fell into the sea, one fell into the earth. Both grew bitter and evil, and now they plot against each other.

It occurs to me, contemplating the disturbingness of the disembodied eye, that the Death Star was maybe an eye and the thing in the middle of a TIE fighter, too, and definitely that mandibled mouth in the center of Unicron in the Transformers thing was also both a mouth and an eye.

Eye of Fear and Flame

Skeletons and skulls are always in danger of getting you into Essential Archetype Overload. The way I deal with it is imagining a sort of organized skeletal hierarchy. When the Triumph of Death comes your garden variety skeleton will be the footsoldier, it will be lead by death knights on horseback, and presided over by a lich. And the eyes of fear and flame will whisper tonguelessly into the dull bone curve where the lich's ear used to be.

Eye Killer

The eye killer is either a batsnake or an owlsnake--depending on who you ask--from Native American mythology, although it's tough to say there's anything wrong with it there's about a billion other snakey monsters I'd be tempted to use before I got to the eye killer.

If I was running a Middle Eastern campaign I might rethink it. It seems like the kind of thing that might be laying coiled in the bottom of a stoppered urn deep beneath the City of Brass.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Appendix C: Whores

I know lots of people hate it when I post non-game stuff here, but I figure I just posted a whole thing on all the monsters starting with D today, so I've earned it.

Some confusion has arisen concerning nomenclature, allow me to explain:

Most people decide that they want to have sex with you before having sex with you

Whores decide they don't want to have sex with you before having sex with you,

Porn performers decide whether they want to have sex with you while having sex with you.


Note: Overlap has been known to occur. Some Porn Performers are known to never have any fun, and so are--practically speaking--Whores, while some have other sources of income or fairly high rates and so have the luxury of behaving like Most People.

For more information on porn stars and whores, visit your local library.

D Monsters That Aren't Dragons or Devils or Demons

Did Dragons, Demons, and Devils' The rest of D is cake after that. Pretty much the rest of the alphabet is going to be cake after that...


Lost world? Bluh. Alchemists. I figure dinosaurs are the alchemist's experimental animal of choice. (I tend to go for the crazy alchemist whenever the monster doesn't have any particular mythopoeic resonance but is cool anyway.) So: Up in the tower and summoning beasts from lost time periods into his pentagram and then making like the ankylosaurus have eyeballs where those bumps in its shell are supposed to be or a bipedal triceratops with a 10-foot chain where its neck's supposed to be that it swings around like a morningstar.

Displacer Beast

Speaking of crazy alchemists.... I myself personally feel like the Displacer Beast should not be taken for granted. Like it should not just be like "Oh, a displacer beast is behind that, like, tree over there." For me, this is doable because most of my players are relatively new and have no idea why a puma with tentacles would be 3 feet away from where it appears to be. Or why it's a puma with tentacles,. I can totally have this in the alchemist's basement in the cage next to the velociraptarantula and everyone will be all "Whoa, what's that?" But put it on the Random Wilderness Encounter Chart and it's just some cheap cut-and-paste thing.


Here's my problem with all genie-kind: they're top-heavy. Whether this is because I'm a professional painter or because I'm just insane is not for me to decide.


Oh my god there are too many dogs in my game already.


Fuck dolphins. A dolphin can be a ranger's animal companion according to the 3.5 PHB. Which is like saying "Your campaign can be lame if you want."


These are great, but they are kind of like snacks and PC death, in that they're really largely a logistical challenge for the DM--like you go "Oh, since so-and-so's not here she said I could just run her character like an NPC" and then--dopplegangering happens.

s, et. al

Did 'em.


A centaur that makes sense in a dungeon. Also a thing that's going to probably be the coolest mininature on anybody's tabletop.


Just as the cockatrice suffers because the medusa and basilisk do the same thing but with more style, the dryad will forever be known as the allegedly seductive female monster who appears after the (much better-looking) Succubus, and before the unillustrated (but better-named) Nymph. Anyone who would choose the Dryad with that competition is clearly playing Ren-Faire-Hippie-D&D rather than Metal D&D and I do not approve.

The forest can be creepy though, and so the dryad isn't totally hopeless--rarely mentioned in the category of "screw-your-players Save-or-Die monsters" the dryad will use-her-charm-and-take-you-away-to-the woods forever-power if: seriously threatened (ok, fine) or on any male of 16 or greater charisma. Can you blame people for using Charisma as a dump stat?

Dwarf and Dueregar

Dark dwarves never quite worked as well for me as vilians as dark elves. Elves think they're better than everyone else and dark elves are elves that think they are better than everybody despite obviously being evil. Dwarves seem basically like just methaphors for hardworking viking types and just having them be your enemy out of natural self-interest seems both more straightforward and more complex than bothering to go make them a whole race that's always bad.

Also, Dwarves are easy to sculpt at 28mm scale, so the minis usually look good.


A demilich is a skull that sits in a pile of dust in a corner and plots your doom. As totally immobile villains go I think the demilich has it all over Sauron. It's hard to to figure out what the big eye's problem is, whereas one look says what the demilich's problem is with you--you're alive, he's not, and he resents it.

It's funny how certain objects convey a message -- my washer and dryer, for example. They can't speak, of course, but whenever I pass them they remind me that I'm doing fairly well. "No more laundromat for you," they hum. My stove, a downer, tells me every day that I can't cook, and before I can defend myself my scale jumps in, shouting from the bathroom, "Well, he must be doing something. My numbers are off the charts." The skeleton has a much more limited vocabulary and says only one thing: "You are going to die."
— David Sedaris

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Let Their Way Be Made Difficult" or, Dragons

Continuing the alphabetical monster thing. Still in the middle of the immensely difficult D's...

Dragons. It's all so complicated:

-Some people call the typical D&D repertoire "vanilla fantasy". Why use a dragon instead of--say--an undead star-urchin the size of Venus with lasers for teeth? The standard models are interesting because of their primality. Classic mythical tropes are classic because they are things that remind you (the primitive, fearful, superstitious you) of things.

-Dragons are--a few leonine variants in both the Eastern and Western imagination aside-reptiles.

Reptiles are what, then? Try imagining "a frightened expression" on a reptile's face. You can't. You can figure out how your brain reads reptiles by contrast.

Mammals always remind us of ourselves. We see their faces and invest them with personality traits-kinglike lion, the nonchalant giraffe, the stoned sloth, the endless empathic possibilites of dogs and monkeys and the cuteness of all the little rodents built like baby people. Mammals can be disturbing precisely because they seem like us--it is terrifying to watch footage of a dog or a gorilla murdering and eating a large living thing, in a way that watching a shark eat the same thing isn't.

Invertebrates strike us as totally alien and sometimes disgusting. However--the primitive imagination knows they are small and not a fight-or-flight threat (bugs can fuck you up--but if they're going to, they're likely to do it at night while you sleep, so your cavebrain doesn't register them with the do-something-about-this-alarm it reserves for big things.)

Fish and birds generally strike the primitive brain as either stupid, moving food or else as a predator. But your inner neanderthal knows that even the fiercest bird is generally not after you, and human history had gotten pretty far before people were regularly on any kind of intimate terms with predatory fish, and even then it was only in certain cultures, and, in the west, only people with certain jobs. And anyway, if you just remember to stay out of the water, fish are hardly an omnipresent threat.

So then, reptiles...Snakes are everywhere, and are genuinely dangerous. Baby humans and monkeys are actually born afraid of snakes. (Or at least that's what scientists say.) So here is an animal that--like a wolf or a leopard--can actually hurt you and you should actually run from, but--unlike those fur-covered predators--has absolutely nothing human in its eyes. To a human cognitive process that's used to reading human emotion all day just to survive, an angry snake's eyes look creepily nonfunctional--as if something's that's already dead is trying to kill you.

Reptiles--languid, sluggish, hard and angular where you expect curves or fur or feathers--always seem eerily close to the inanimate. Think how the Fiend Folio's Iron Cobra seems just about right, yet "Iron Panther" is strictly a gonzo monster. Robot snake? Sure. A snake is halfway there already.

A robot insect makes sense, but whereas an insect's face seems totally incomprehensible, the reptile face has all the same parts as ours--eyes, nose, mouth--yet has none of the curves and hollows that give mammals their warm, fuzzy (the cliches themselves are an indicator) appeal. The reptile has a body plan and a face that a mammal would recognize, but it is impossible to imagine that it has a soul. The alligator's smile seems like it's just endlessly grinning about a very new and very cruel joke. It's difficult to imagine--despite what our rational brain and neuroscience tells us--that a reptile could be scared.

In the end, it all just boils down to another cliche: the reptile is cold. But--unlike bugs--they seem just enough like us that this seems like a purposeful rejection of the pasionate mammalian way of doing things. You look at a cockroach or an octopus and figure it just doesn't know about "warm"--a snake, on the other hand, seems to have decided against warm.

-Does the often benevolent dragon in eastern myth ruin all this? I don't think so. When good, dragons are, classically, dispassionate--when they have human vices, they are the coldest vices--selfishness and greed. It got into the Manual: "Brass dragons are quite forward and officious, and they love to converse. They are rather selfish and tend toward neutrality because of this." "Despite their love of wealth, bronze dragons are basically of a benificient nature." "They tend to be rather selfish, and thus many Copper dragons are somewhat neutral in their outlook if gain is concerned." It's also worth noting that the Asian dragon has a lionlike and bearded and otherwise extensively mammalianized face.

-Christianity has the serpent, of course, in Genesis, which by Revelations, has become a great dragon with seven crowns. It's easy to see the dragon as a sort of flanderization of the serpent--basically a snake with everything bad attached to it. Fangs, talons, horns, bat wings, alligator legs.

-So the dragon represents the natural world (like all animals do) and the aspect of the natural world that it represents is it's pitilessness. The dragon wants things and these are generally things that you want (unlike the insect-who knows what the insect wants?) however unlike you, the dragon's base desires are not balanced with any "softer" concerns. The dragon is nature but only the scary, inimical parts of it.

-Even failing all that, everybody knows, in the game, that what a dragon means is it's a fucking dragon. You don't just kill it you have to go out there and slay it. Like how you can't just murder presidents, you have to assassinate them.

-This is good and bad news for the dragon in a game: on the one hand it's pretty easy to make killing a dragon feel like it really means something in a game and to set the dragon up as a sort of milestone obstacle to be overcome, on the other hand, since such a big part of the appeal is that the dragon is the primal ur-monster from the deepest murk of the id, using too many of them--to my mind--completely ruins them.

It always seems like a pathetic waste to me when there's talk in a story of a whole "tribe" or "people" or "race" or planet that rides around on dragons or dragons plural are considered responsible, as a group, for anything. Dragons shouldn't be something you can get used to. Do that and it's just the Flintstones, where something like the unbelievable, uncanny brontosaurus is domesticated into a piece of construction equipment.

-The worst part of this problem for me is that--despite the obvious monster-variant-bloat involved--there are an awful lot of interesting different dragons to use. I like the colored ones, I like the metal ones, I love Tiamat, I like the asian ones, I like the dragonne. I like the dragon-turtle, the dracolisk, the dragonell, the shadow dragon, the many eccentric medieval-style dragons, even the faerie dragon. They all seem to have a plausible niche somewhere in the world or the mind's eye.

-One thing I really don't like about D&D's dragons is the symmetry of the original dragon scheme: good metal dragons on the left--evil colored dragons on the right. I think dragons should be completely uncategorizable and unknown. It's a dragon, no-one who's gotten close enough to it to have any idea what it is or does or breathes has lived. I think D&D should've done dragons the way they originally did artifacts and relics--a few basics and then a bunch of empty lines to fill in on your own. Actually, Palmer not only said better than me, he did something about it.

As for the old standards:
-Green dragon: this one needs and implies an ecosystem. I imagine it lives in the forest, and has, over time, slowly made the forest horrible in many ways. It is scaled in clumps and uneven camouflage. The "cloud of chlorine gas" breath weapon seems disproportionate and dainty--why bother with a cloud of gas when you could just rip someone's legs off and eat them?

-Black dragon: The cruelest and most insane one--and the most modern, too, since pre-20th century art generally shied away from the true reptilian black you see in the Alien or in the beasts the Nine rode around on in the Lord of the Rings movies. The black here is not simple negation--it's a deep and devouring black--like a black pit or a black hole. I find the "acid" hard to picture. Maybe: Its breath corrodes the very air. That I can get behind.

-Red dragon: I imagine it being the impossibly rich, sleek red of those crabs that invade the Cuban coast at intervals, or Tim Curry in the movie Legend. This is the go-to dragon for when you want things to get all metaphysical. A black dragon is an abyss, a green dragon is the old legend in the woods predator--the red dragon is a symbolic evil.

-White dragon: Draco Rigidus Frigidus There are several albino and leucistic alligators in captivity in the American South. Go look at one in real life if you never have--a snow-white reptile is an amazing thing to see. The sculpted and artificial-seeming texture of reptile scales looks almost like a living bone shell: anyway, point is: the cold, white dragon is obviously the one most straightforwardly about death. More interesting and frightening by far than the skeletal dragon.

-Blue dragon: The sci-fi one. The whole "lightning breath" thing sounds cool but visually just doesn't work. I prefer it just be the locus of some profound electromagnetic anomaly. Things go all staticky and haywire around it. Iron starts to vibrate at a weird pitch.

-The Brass, Bronze, and Copper Dragons: I imagine them on their hind legs, with small, spellcasting forelimbs up, patiently explaining some simple truth to lost adventurers on a lonely mountain drawn by Moebius. Barely moving, buddhalike, dully reflecting in the sun, textured like Ultraman monsters, they never have to hunt--once a month monks kill something big and haul it to the peak and leave it baking on the rocks. Bahamut seems redundant.

-Silver Dragon: I suppose. Put it next to the unicorn.

(-Edit: Forgot The Gold Dragon. Which is weird because they have the best chicken chow mein in Los Feliz. But, seriously folks, I figure they--like the bard--were just a placeholder until they got into the genuine Oriental Adventures material, like, say...)

-The Asian Dragons: Apparently, they begin life as water-snakes, then turn into newts, then grow into lizards, and then, by stages, become the twisted fantasmagorias familiar from sleeve tattoos all over the world. At each phase they seem to become less corporeal. It's difficult to imagine an asian dragon doing anything in detail. "Grinning, the Mountain Dragon ate the yak," sure, fine, you can say it--but really, the asian dragon is so otherworldy and decorative it's difficult to picture it actually going through all the effort it'd require to do that.

And it's always flying. I can't imagine a properly pulpy combat with something that's always flying with no visible means of staying in the air--not swooping on wings, not science-fictionally hovering like a Beholder, the Asian dragon is just up in the sky as if it's a part of it.

This is the kind of dragon you definitely need some sort of intrigue or mcguffin or pearl or magic joke to get past--just waiting for it to finish conversing with the Council of the Four Winds in the tongue of the 10,000 Blessed Diplomats so you can hit it with your +3 sword isn't really going to cut it, I think.

The Dragonne seems like maybe a decent compromise if you want really want to hit something and you really want it to be kind of Asian.

-Of the lesser, later variants, the Gloom Dragon, with its breath of apathy kind of seems like it has possibilities--especially if it's very small. I imagine this one as being like those dog-sized ones St. George is always killing in Renaissace art. It curls in a cave just outside the walls of your fair city, or in a forgotten well-shaft in an abandoned building, imperceptibly ruining everyone's life just by being there: -3 to that reaction check roll in the bar, -3 to that "make that mince pie taste good" roll, -3 to that "find that sock you lost" roll...

Or, like in the John Gardner story:

Every time there was a full moon the dragon came out of his lair and ravaged the countryside. He frightened maidens and stopped up chimneys and broke store windows and set people’s clocks back and made dogs bark until no one could hear himself think. He tipped over fences and robbed graves and put frogs in people’s drinking water and tore the last chapters out of novels and changed house numbers around so that people crawled into bed with their neighbors.

In other words, an unimaginably petty dragon.

-Shadow dragon: I figure a dragon is like a god. Some are clever, and can detach themselves from their shadows before they die--kill the dragon and let the shadow escape and you get a shadow dragon, which moves ray-like across the walls of dungeons and around the twisting trucks of old forests.

-Dragonnel: Half-pterosaur/half-dragon. Awesome retro-stupid. I like it best if the real dragon is entirely off-screen, like a legend, but its brutal, screeching child is still here, terrorizing this cursed Thundarrian land.

(There is a dragonnel hidden in most episdodes of I Hit It With My Axe--find it and win a prize.)

-Dragon Turtle: Again, works especially well if there's no actual dragon to be found anywhere. I imagine inexplicable disappearances in the dense, Shanghai-like harbor. I see no reason it couldn't be as intelligent as any other dragon. Pirates should fear or worship it. Why are turtles less funny in Asia?

-Faerie Dragon: Small and weird enough that their presence won't dilute the effect of the big dragon, I think the primary function of the Faerie Dragon is to let the party know things have suddenly gotten vintage-psychedelic. Put "Pictures of Matchstick Men" on repeat as they wander into the forest, switch to the Camper Van Beethoven cover when they start talking to the Faerie Dragon, then switch to the Ozzy/Type-O-Negative cover when the faerie folk take advantage of their distraction to start spitting caustic adhesive and jabbing needles into the clerics eyes.
-Pseudodragon: Like Jerry Seinfeld hates any kid that had a pony, I think any wizard that has a little dragon is pretty crap. However, the illustration in the original Monster Manual is really nice--I just looked at it and was slightly surprised to find that the room full of shoji screens, incense burners and lacquered snuffboxes that David Trampier evokes in it is nowhere to be found in the actual picture.

-Wyvern: Ok--it has two legs, so what? Except I'm thinking every dragon should be a unique thing with its own legends and ecosystem and a funny name. So being able to call a local menace The Blacke Wyverne of Crenshing Downes is pretty good. Also good: Wyrm.

-Dracolisk: There's no reason not to just say a dragon has a petrifying gaze or decide that, aside from that one thing, a basilisk is just a kind of dragon, but actually using the word "dracolisk" implies cross-breeding.

In Medieval natural philosophy, half the time the spawn of a chicken and a donkey ends up being a cricket, so the dracolisk definitely suggests thinking about the dragon as a plausible species rather than as just a Monster, so I imagine the dracolisk in a sword-and-planet or crazy-alchemist context. Again, like the Dragonnel, the Dracolisk is a terrible spawn of mythical things you otherwise don't get to see. Also, like the Wyvern it has one of those names that's half-legendary already--fear the Dread Dracolisk of Dreeving Gate...


When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
-Enuma Elish

And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
-Revelations 12:3

When Gary Gygax conjectured that chaos, our mother, was actually a many-headed dragon, he elegantly solved several problems that has been bedevilling philosophers for milennia: Where did it begin? Tiamat. How will it all end? Tiamat. Where do we come from? Tiamat. Where are we going? Tiamat.

And why is there suffering in this world?

Well, here at the start of the Babylonian creation myth in the Enuma Elish, Tiamat and Apsu are trying to sleep but the young gods won't be quiet.

Apsu opened his mouth and spake,
And unto Tiamat, the glistening one, he addressed the word:
...their way...
By day I can not rest, by night I can not lie down in peace.
But I will destroy their way, I will...
Let there be lamentation, and let us lie down again in peace."
When Tiamat heard these words,
She raged and cried aloud...
She... grievously...,
She uttered a curse, and unto Apsu she spake:
"What then shall we do?
Let their way be made difficult, and let us lie down again in peace."

A totally plausible divine motivation there--the gods are not making life hard to get us to do things, they are just trying to make our lives difficult so we'll stop trying and they can get some sleep. So: gods intervene out of sheer laziness. Try telling your cleric that next time she casts commune "Yes, you can have Cure Moderate Wounds if you just promise to shut up."

The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. How many conspiracy theories have we formed in our heads assuming our parents, bosses or governments were sadistic or insane or wanted to exploit us or inspire us when really, the truth is they just did what they did because they were just too lazy to think any harder about it. David McCullough said that's why Truman dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.

So, perhaps: The gods must be lazy. And The Glistening One is the laziest of them all. The Great Sleeping Mother with a basement full of shrieking children, on a Saturday morning that never ends, which we call existence.

They joined their forces and made war,
Ummu-Hubur, Tiamat, who formed all things,
Made in addition weapons invincible; she spawned monster-serpents,
Sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang;
With poison, instead of blood, she filled their bodies.[
game over, man]
Fierce monster-vipers she clothed with terror,
With splendor she decked them, she made them of lofty stature.
Whoever beheld them, terror overcame him,
Their bodies reared up and none could withstand their attack.
She set up vipers and dragons, and the monster Lahamu,
And hurricanes, and raging hounds, and scorpion-men,
And mighty tempests, and fish-men, and rams;
They bore cruel weapons, without fear of the fight.
Her commands were mighty, none could resist them;

After this fashion, huge of stature, she made eleven [kinds of] monsters.

You kids be quiet, or I'll send more monsters down there.

image credits: I have no idea. If you do, let me know.