Thursday, August 27, 2015

Revoca Canton Map

Of late I've been playing in a Hill Canton's game run by Kris of the blog and Hydra Collective fame.  It's a fun setting, quite solidly fantasy, but with a similar level of gonzo as ASE, though obviously without the science fantasy.  As a long established setting there's a lot of accumulated fluff, which is both good and bad, but, thankfully my character, an Eld exile named Tizzird (yes that's a terrible joke) isn't expected to understand things like human religions and political factions.  By the time Tizzird dies from his companion's dislike, his door obsession (all but one of my spell came up door related: hold portal, knock and wizard lock), the hard bigotry against murderous space elves, or his own dangerously violent philosophy (the True Eldish Hedonics (or T.E.H. - he needs to start offering TEH talks)

Hill Cantons has been providing these perfectly functional hex maps of the Revoca Canton, where the current game is being played.  I kind of hate hex maps as player aides, though they are quite useful in there way.  Anyway starting last game and finishing yesterday I drew up this map as a better looking player map for the Revoca Canton.

Revoca Map
As my maps go, it's a simple one and it hasn't had the various post scanning treatments that I usually add, because I think it's rather incomplete (I only have the information provided to the players for this "superdense" sandbox).  I've left a lot of open space and easy to erase lines so I can modify the map in the future.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Monster Archeology - Small Humanoids

Let's give this 'lil fellow a rest

Monsters and Treasure, volume 2 of three booklets, the 1970's box set version of Dungeon & Dragon's "Monster Manual" moves on from men directly into humanoids.  There are five normal sized humanoids, and most get only a line or two of text. They are also statistically uninteresting, lacking even the armor and weapon variety of human enemies and having no real flavor beyond a progression through four classes of enemy with incrementally improving AC, HP and Attack.  As much as battling orcs and goblins is a mainstay of tabletop gaming, and the mainstream of the heroic fantasy, these creatures are totally uninteresting as presented in Monsters and Treasure.  Perhaps they are a blank template to project one's own monstrous expectations upon, but here the difference between a kobold and a goblin is a single point of AC and a hit point or two.  

Orcs, which have a very long entry and which I've discussed previously, are an exception, but otherwise these humanoid descriptions are quite devoid of interesting information.  Kobolds have only a name and some mechanical details, while the entire goblin entry is:

GOBLINS: These small monsters are described in CHAINMAIL. They see well in darkness or dim light, but when they are subjected to full daylight they subtract -1 from their attack and morale dice.  They attack dwarves on sight. Their Hit Dice must always equal at least one pip.

Composition of Force: When in their lair the "goblin king" will be found. He will fight as a Hobgoblin in all respects. He will be surrounded by a body of from 5-30 (roll five six-sided dice) guards as Hobgoblins also.

They're small monsters that don't like the light, that's about it.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

HMS Apollyon Recent Play Reports

Below are smaller play reports from the last several sessions of the HMS Apollyon game, mostly concerned with the party's efforts to explore and loot an ancient industrial node on the Port side of the vessel.  It's always nice to open up a new area, and this one is basically just a dungeon crawl with minimal relation to any overarching setting concerns.


Flashy – (passenger)
Rabut the Frogling – (battlemage)
Price – (academic sorcerer)
Lady Pillar – (officer)
Vonlumpwig – (necromancer)

A huge hatch blocks the way Port from the vault beyond the Rust Gate, the vault where far too many lives were recently lost in both infighting between Sterntown’s factions and the battle against the War Dead Minions of the still unaccounted for “Brown Surgeon”.  The area presents a great deal of resources for whatever faction controls in, and currently the undisciplined bands of the Scavenger’s Union lounge about, still ebullient from the the success of their double cross and mass murder of Thief Taker and Bevard Family forces.  Only time will tell if the Union can hold the vault (also known as “The Buried Vault”, “The New Lands” and “The Mushroom Farm”) or the hamlet in the vault beyond.  Currently the area bustles with scavenger activity as riotous drunken bands strip the former undead stronghold in the hamlet down to its deck plating, carting out huge loads of useful items and a wealth in decorative stone.

The hatch leading Port is an unknown, opening and closing on some strange schedule known only to the ship itself, it is a giant wheel of 4’ thick orichalcum, designed to stop flooding and locking into place with massive hydraulic driven bars.  The hatch has remained unlatched for several month however and was opened briefly a year or more before by a band of scavengers who reported the area beyond was some sort of storehouse or forge.  Deeming the chance of the hatch sealing again to be small, the band of scavengers once called “The Black Cloaks” seeks to explore the area beyond, expecting it to be full of plunder and rich in industrial supplies. 

With a laudable caution the scavenger gang moves beyond the great hatch and discovers only a small bare room, a few smashed crates, shredded bit of thin metal, scattered about and a large peeling mural of some sort of wrench carrying and hardhat wearing rodent painted on the Port wall.  Close examination and light dusting reveals that the mural welcomes the scavengers to “Port 5S Supply and Fabrication”.  Sternward from the entrance room is a great multi level chamber that stinks of coal and smoke.  A massive forge stands at its center, and a cautious, candle aided exploration reveals hulking industrial machines, lathes, cannon molds and workbenches fill the space.  The forge at the center still glows, but the room is simply too big and too strange to investigate thoroughly and the scavengers decide to retreat and open the door leading fore from the entrance. 

As the door creaks open to reveal a narrow hallway the party is startled to meet a band of four spear and crossbow armed flying monkeys.  The magically transformed simians are clad in red rags instead of uniforms and wear poorly enameled brass buttons and copper electrical wire as decoration.  Almost immediately the monkeys start to demand money and threaten the scavengers and combat quickly commences.  Soon only once monkey survives and he is captured, but the fight has drawn additional flying monkey reinforcements and a true battle begins to rage, with the monkey flank attack blocked by a prophetic use of hold portal and several waves of crossbow and spear armed simians knocked unconscious by magic.  The monkeys pepper the scavengers with bolts and bombard them with firebombs until a new threat emerges – a hulking monkey in a welding mask carrying a flame thrower. The scavengers, out of sleep spells, target this new danger with a variety of weapons, but it is Price’s use a fire magic that saves the day, causing the monkey’s flame weapon to explode.  The detonation kills most of the monkey front line and scorches the scavengers as well, but in the rain of flaming debris and seared fur the battle ends with the surrender of several monkeys.  A truce is worked out between scavenger and monkey allowing the party to explore any area not marked with a red flame symbol and exchanging peace for information about the dangerous “clawed ones” to the Fore, God of Fire aft, and Haunted Offices Port.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Random Appearence and Clothing for HMS Apollyon Characters and NPCs

Below is a table of random clothing and affectations that players wishing to add a little mystery, back-story or description to their new HMS Apollyon characters might roll on.  It's pretty much only for humans of the scavenger class.  Passengers are always in battered suits, Flying Monkeys in uniforms or livery, Froglings often in the traditional harnesses and leggings of their moiety.  The less said about Merrowman fashion the better.

Anyhow hopefully this will provide some of my players amusement.

Feral tribal’s loincloth or untanned hull beast skins.
Impressive facial scarring, either intentional and harmonious or the sign of battle and accident.
The diaphanous fripperies of a burlesque hall performer.
1D8 front teeth replaced with prosthetics of gold or other metal and possibly decorated.
Apocalypse rags and bindings.  Stinking and dyed the same color by grime or intent
Necklaces of teeth, ears or similar savage trophies and corresponding swagger.
Threadbare robe with detachable cowl and several hidden pockets
Bald head, may be shaved, genetic or the product of chemic exposure.
Bright loose shirt and tight dungarees in the style of a Vory tough.
Fastidious in dress and grooming.  Clothing and equipment immaculate whenever possible.
Casual worker’s canvas pantaloons and white undershirt, accented by leather braces.
The cold dead eyes of a heartless murdering ruffian, may conceal kindly soul.
Horizontal Striped sweater and dungarees with too many buttons.
Collection of medals and awards worn on person, may or may not be earned.
Cannery toilers dull jumpsuit and heavy tarred boots.
Face and hands permanently marked by industrial grit that has worked itself under the skin.  
Wool or felt uniform jacket encrusted with rotting braid.
General aura of decrepitude, clothing often disheveled, eyes drooping or red, hair unkempt.
Patched, stained, torn and bedraggled fop’s/pirate’s finery.
Elaborately dyed and coifed hair, fierce mustachio or similar affectation of high style.
Worn velvet livery of vest, knickers, jacket and absurd lacey cravat.
Wears gaudy trinkets and costume jewelry in nauseating profusion.
Fisher’s sea leathers, walrus and shark with bone toggles and Frogling hexagrams
Always wears gloves:  heavy leather, gutta-percha skin or soft velvet pick one.
Brightly patterned sarong and string and shell vest.
Unexpectedly heavy-set.  Perhaps not obese, but large and bulky for race.
Thin leather catsuit, accented with too many buckles and black pigeon feather cloak.
Several novelty tattoos.  Bright colors and lack of faction symbolism mark them as a mere affect.
A good quality clerk’s tweed suit and bowler, cuffs stained with ink.
Monocle clamped firmly in eye. Sneer of cold command on lips.
Black suit/dres of fine dog wool, opera cape, mask and tall stylish hat.
One eye replaced by a magically enhanced shell or stone.  Normal vision, may glow.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Fever Dreaming Marlinko - A Review

The good art starts on the cover

Vornhiem is almost universally acknowledged as a great city supplement, and it is, but the new city supplement from Hydra Press, Fever Dreaming Marilinko, set in Chris Kutalik’s Hill Cantons (what the Grand Duchy of Karameikos should have been) is an entirely different kind of great city supplement.  Where Vornheim, and the old Judge’s Guild city supplements, aspire to offer means of creating ‘a’ fantasy city, Marlinko seeks only to create ‘the’ city of Marlinko, and does so in the form of a set of adventures, personalities and factional rivalries that create a city ready for conflict and picaresque shenanigans.

In some superficial way Fever Dreaming Marlinko resembles the classic B-Series Module “The Veiled Society”, in that it presents a series of small urban adventures focused around the factions within an urban environment.  Marlinko is far better than Veiled Society in that it is not overly proud of its cleverness (nor does it’s cleverness consist of gimmicky cut-out buildings), and it takes the time to make a city that isn’t simply a dull pastiche of fantasy cities.  Marlinko does follow Veiled Society’s lead in making the city a place for adventure far more than it is place for resupply, investment or carousing between adventures, focused on faction conflict that offers opportunity and danger,  but it does so without the B-series stalwart’s dependence on a railroad, or mechanics that force certain outcomes.  

Mr. Kutalik is a good Game Master (I speak from one experience playing in Marlinko with a one handed elderly thief who really didn’t appreciate the murder-hobo nature of the standard adventure, but his written material is uniformly excellent) of the “OSR” or perhaps “open-world” variety: focused on player driven narrative, emergent world-building, random setting enhancing events and the creation of a game world that offers a wealth of potential adventures without any pre-judgment of character and player ability, goals or morality.  Fever Dreaming Marlinko is a worthy product of this mindset, and written with this style of play in mind - there are no overarching plots, but rather plots aplenty, fomented by a variety of factions and ripe for player character participation, and best none are pressing.  This lack of a pressing timeline and the abundance of other potential adventure hooks are what separate Marlinko from a city themed adventure and allow it to be a city supplement, in that these hooks, complications, NPCs and small adventures await multiple visits and returns by the players.  

Memorable NPC Art
Fever Dreaming Marlinko is a setting book in many ways, it lays out the city of Marlinko, a small walled city that acts as a cantonal capital for one of the Hill Cantons and is relatively near to the Ursine Dunes (of Hydra Collective’s recent project).  There is little historical detail in the product, and none of the sort of history and setting backstory that one finds in many older gazetteer style game books.  This isn’t to say that Marlinko  lacks backstory, only that it’s lightly sketched in the basic setting material and only really comes out through random encounters rumors and detail.

  Each of the quarters takes its general feel and purpose from its god: a wealthy enclave (where the characters can frequent bathhouses or engage in tiger wrestling matches), a business district, an industrial slum and the residential district.  Each district has its own important NPCs (usually faction leaders), random encounters and carousing table.  These features, which link well together with rumors, chance meetings and carousing events naturally leading to encounters with, grudges against and commissions from the city’s various important NPCs and ultimately into one of the two smaller adventure locales in Marlinko or out into one of the Hill Canton’s other published (or soon to be published adventures).  All of this detail is very flavorful, eclectically so in the charming, off-kilter quasi Slavic weird-fantasy way that seems the mark of Hill Cantons products. Wizards all have a bit of the insane and preposterous rather than a grave bathos about them, and the random encounters tend to be less dangerous and more charmingly absurd (pedants potentially about theology arguing with an escaped, drugged tiger) but with potential cascades of consequences (killing the sleepy tiger will lead to making an enemy of its owner who runs a tiger wrestling dome).

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Monster Archaeology II - Nomads, Pirates, Cavemen & Mermen


In an earlier post I considered some the first half of the 1st and longest entry in the 1970’s Whitebox edition of Dungeons & Dragons from the perspective of bestiary as implied setting and with an emphasis on how I would model these foes in my own Fallen Empire setting.  Monsters & Treasure contains several other types of “Men” as adversaries, all in large numbers and all more or less fitting into two mechanical categories the “Bandit” model for an average combatant and the “Berserker” category for exceptionally dangerous types.  It’s noteworthy that the real deadliness of these “Berserkers” is far greater under the original Chainmail rules in that they receive a huge bonus (or extra dice – it’s unclear to me) when fighting normal soldiers.  A band of berserkers can tear through a normal Chainmail unit. This ability is less when facing adventurers, but the danger of a +2 bonus in Original Dungeons and Dragons is not to be underestimated.  There are also cavemen, but cavemen are strange, something distinctly outside the rest of the "men" entries.  Reading this list of human foes I also suspect that the miniatures available to Gygax were a major influence.

Maybe this guy can lead those nomad raiders?

Nomads are an uninteresting addition to the list of monsters in Monsters & Treasure, and like Buccaneers and Pirates seem to be a way of placing bandits on different terrain encounter tables.  Nomads of course are horse focused bandits riding out of the desert or plains. Nothing especially interesting, just another element of Gygax’s “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge” (look it up) approach to monster taxonomy that focus on the weapon mixes of identical enemy units with a wargammer’s specificity. 

Though when thinking about the earliest editions of Dungeons and Dragons and their monster lists it’s worthwhile to remember that the game was envisioned as a variety of fantastical miniature battle and at the time of the White Box fantasy miniatures were hard to come by. Miniatures for Arabian riders, Mongols and bandit types were likely far easier to find, or already at hand.  This lack of fantasy miniatures is taken to its amusing peak in the December 1975 Strategic Review (issue 5) article “Sturmgeschutz and Sorcery” where Gygax provides a plan report and conversion rules for a game involving a WWII German patrol encountering the monstrous retinue of an evil wizard.  Nomads and the general focus on ‘men’ and humanoid monsters as enemies in the White Box are likely the result of this lack of monster models.

However, this isn’t to say that humans shouldn’t be a common enemy in contemporary games.  Most fantasy table top game settings present humanity as very common in the game world, with cities, empires and villages, while monsters skulk in ruins or crouch in the hinterlands.  With the number of humans in game worlds, and their evident power to keep their lands mostly free of monsters it makes sense that a large number of encounters in the wilderness will be with bands of armed men. I personally don’t find that making these encounters fit with stereotyped historical models is especially useful.  Just as not every mob of Berserkers needs to be Norse raider rip offs, not every Nomad has to mesh with Arab or Turkic/Mongol models.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Making a Beast - Making Large Monsters More Effective

One of the things I’ve noticed in running and playing classic tabletop games for some time is how ineffective large dangerous ‘monsters’ are.  Fantastical beasts such as Owlbears and even Dragons are often less dangerous to adventurers under the older dungeons and Dragons rules then a pack of humanoids or bandits. 

HMS Apollyon Diabolic Abomination - A "Starfish" - Beast Candidate
I remember worrying one time about a ‘brown bear’ encounter being the first encounter by a new party in ASE.  There were four adventurers against a bear with 4 HD or so and a couple of dangerous attacks.  I figured it’d be a fairly tough fight.  It took two rounds before 20 odd HP of bear was being skinned and the choice cuts buried to take back to town. The party was smart, they peppered the innocent beast with arrows and bolts while it was standing near its lair and growling – displaying deadly claws (just as the ‘mildly hostile’ roll on the reaction die suggested it might), and then the adventurers charged in to surround the poor injured thing and cut it down before it could attack.  This sort of tactics and results might make sense for big mundane animals like a bear, it’s pretty much how are ancestors hunted the things after all (also with dogs, but that’s a murder hobo staple as well), but it seems awfully anti-climactic for mythical beasts of legend to go down in a couple of rounds, mobbed under by a pack of bec de corbin wielding hoodlums.

The ravening power of an enraged mythological beast should be a near unstoppable torrent of violence and ferocity, and even with group tactics the creature should be dangerous, faster, stronger and more tenacious then any normal creature and especially the sentients that have invaded its territory.  It don’t want the giant dangerous creatures my players face to feel like stacks of HP to be whittled down, I want them to be frightening and worthy of respect, requiring cunning to overcome commensurate with the wealth in magical hides, teeth bones and meat that they provide.

Since a beast is something that is not especially intelligent, I would like to make out thinking these monsters the real trick.  Luring them into enclosed spaces and traps for example rather than simply slugging it out with them.  Slugging it out should be very dangerous.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Thoughts on Fantasy Africa


A Current Cover of Saunders' Imaro - Pretty Swords & Sorcery
I recently had a chance to discuss 'bad fantasy novels' with a friend and he mentioned that he was interested in the Soul & Sorcery genre of fantasy, something I had no idea even existed.  Soul & Sorcery is a genre of Sword & Sorcery pulp fiction written by black authors starting in the late 1970's as an alternative to "Western" Fantasy with it's use of Celtic, Norse and Arthurian mythology as world-building tools, and also as a way to counter some of the retrograde racial attitudes and depictions found in Sword's & Sorcery - like those in Conan (which was written mostly in the eugenics obsessed 1930's).  Soul & Sorcery, or at least the Imaro stories I read, doesn't really feel, or perhaps it shouldn't really feel, like a genre of it's own - it's simply a Sword & Sorcery tale set in a mythical Africa, rather then a mythical Europe. 

Soul & Sorcery is an interesting sub-genre of fantasy in that it is both very different from standard Sword & Sorcery and very much the same.  I picked up "Imaro" by Charles R. Saunders - a collection of the first Imaro stories available for kindle and fairly cheap. Imaro seems to have been the birth of the genre, with the first Imaro story published in 1975.  Imaro the character and the stories involving him are very much a homage, reworking or retelling of Conan stories.  The title hero, Imaro, is in the Conan mold - "massively thewed" and a dangerous fighter with a somewhat gloomy outlook and tendency towards anger. Imaro battles sorcerers, their necromantic creations and dangerous animals, but the savannahs and jungles he wanders are very different then Conan's forests and icy plains.  Saunders has taken effort to make Imaro's world distinctly African, and this provides the interest in what would otherwise be fairly formulaic (though quite readable) Swords & Sorcery stories.  Imaro represents a "reskinning" (perhaps that's not the best term here) of Howard and his imitators that is pretty charming because it is different.  I also suspect Imaro is as light on historical/mythological fidelity to it's East African source material as Conan is to it's Northern European, but that's likely for the best given that Imaro is a straightforward set of stories about triumphing over evil wizards.

Imaro is set entirely in a fictitious fantasy Africa, about as closely linked to the real world as Howard's fictionalized Fantasy Europe/Hyboria, where the hero begins in a fictional Southern or Eastern African (seemingly a fictionalized fantasy Masai/Bantu/Zulu) and moves Northward though various African biomes and broadly sketched fantasy version of historical African cultures.  It is interesting to compare Saunder's fantasy Africa to Burrough's fantasy Africa, and note how much more alive Saunders' feels.  Burroughs' Africa is a set-piece jungle and occasional set-piece savannah inhabited by cookie cutter 'savages' of the noble and good or cannibal and evil variety.  Ignoring how these stereotypical depictions are a mark of the era of Burroughs writing and how this aspect of the Tarzan stories might be off-putting to modern readers, I think there's a useful lesson about world building here.  Saunders clearly had more knowledge about Africa the place and historical African peoples then Burroughs did, and it shows to his advantage in depicting a fantastic version of the place (or part of it - part of Burroughs problem is imagining an 'Africa' that is a single jungle filled expanse rather then a huge continent).  Now I'm not suggesting that Imaro can be looked at for any historical facts, any more then Conan will tell you about the Celts, but having taken the time to look at the technology and culture of the ancient peoples he is modelling his fantasy on, Saunders can add context and details that makes sense - the savannah folks are nomadic hunters and herders who live in easy to transport hide domes and value cattle greatly while the jungle people live mostly by fishing and gardening along the riverbanks and reside in conical houses of clay and thatch.  These details, seemingly pulled from historical sources, make sense and so can be readily understood without having to remember a great deal of fantastic vocabulary or world specific oddness. They are also details, and so give the reader a better understanding of Saunders' world building then Burroughs endless villages of huts built around a giant cooking pot.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

REVIEW - DCC 67 - Sailors of the Starless Sea


DCC has pretty sweet cover art.
I have a conflicted relationship with Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) ... I've never really played it, except for a couple funnel games that felt like B/X D&D, and trying to deal with its absurd magic system in a couple of Google+ games.  While DCC seems like a darling of the OSR community for good reasons, I did not have a pleasant experience with my exposure to it, at best it felt like a decent retro-clone that Morgan Ironwolf would be at home in, but at worst it seemed like it had too many finicky and overly complex magic rules and relied on some of my least favorite skill mechanics borrowed from 3e.  Now as regular readers of this blog know I myself am a purveyor of overly complex house rules, and perhaps because of that truism about always hating the things that remind one of one's worst self, I have stayed clear of DCC.  Yet I just keep hearing such good things about it, and really the art, the ideas and the feel of the products seems like it would fit with my personal ethos about table top game play.

In the likely case that I am wrong about being DCC shy I've decided to pick up one of the DCC adventures and read it.  Sailors of the Sunless Sea comes highly recommended, lets see if it makes me as cranky as taking fifteen minutes to figure out how some PC's magic missile works while they hold up the rest of the players flipping through some kind of tome of magic tables. I should mention that I've also played in a couple of games of Perils of the Purple Planet which seems fairly a straightforward Sword and Planet style romp tinged with Carcosa.  I've enjoyed these games, but they have so far been funnel games with little of DCC's complexity involved.

The adventure I purchased is a twenty page PDF that promises "100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you remember, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere."  Now I both like and hate this sentiment - a lack of long winded speeches and NPCs that aren't some kind of indestructible Dragonlance Mary-Sue GM pawn sound good, but "no weird settings ... with monsters you know, traps you remember" sounds a bit pedestrian.  The question then becomes, what part of this opening rhetoric is overblown if any?  Will this be an "Orcs in a Hole" pastiche of early D&D adventures for the sack of nostalgia?  Thankfully the answer to that question is no - despite feeling like an old school style dungeon crawl (Really it's short and linear) from ruined keep to underground temple (a small one) Sailors on the Starless Sea does take some effort to distinguish itself by having unique monsters and interesting content.

The local village has been losing citizens to nighttime abductions and correctly blames these tragedies on a nearby ancient and abandoned keep.  The keep is home to a cult of chaos aligned beastmen and vegetable zombie horrors.  Worse, beneath the keep is an underground lake with temple of chaos at the center, where the beast cult is reviving their ancient patron.

The keep itself is only  a few areas, most of which contain a deadly puzzle.  The design here is clearly in the vein of "the only way to win is not to play" as there are no rewards for negotiating the chaos sinkhole or messing with the chaos well.  The three entrance aspect of the ruined keep is an excellent effort to provide variety and enable player agency, though given the size of the keep these entrances represent about half the content.  The major enemy within the keep are beastmen - yes these are orcs, but they are well done and a table provides a great deal of varied disturbing appearances for the small number of beastmen within the ruined keep.

After rescuing some captives and recovering a small bit of treasure the adventurers - likely fewer and wiser. Can descend into the depths of the keep and quickly find themselves on the shores of a huge underground lake.  A boat floats offshore to cross, but the lake is haunted by some kind of terrible chaos squid with lovely evocative texture.  There are several ways to get to the boat, suborn the chaos leviathan or otherwise interact with the lake, but the adventure still only goes one way - across the lake, up a beast-man invested ziggurat and to a lava pit to fight a reborn chaos champion. The fight over the party gets some chaos armor and flees the collapsing cavern.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Monster Archaeology I - Bandits & Berserkers


There’s a tabletop RPG maxim that monsters determine setting, and while it can be taken too far there’s definitely a bit of truth to it.  The antagonists faced by players and their characters, especially in an emergent game (by which I mean one with a sandbox or where the player’s decisions and interests otherwise largely set the tone and nature of the game’s locales, enemies and intrigues) the players opinions and goals are likely to be at least partially formed by how they feel towards certain early encounters.  The death of a character in the first game to goblins can make the player angry enough to devote several sessions to being goblin eradicators for example.  In a game where the goblins are replaced with bandits, draconians or halflings there will be a very different tone to these subsequent adventures.

Of the original D&D booklets - tiny ugly things published in the mid 70's - the second is titled "Monsters & Treasure" and contains Dungeons & Dragons ur bestiary, with 68 or so monsters (or classes of monster, it's not always clear).  Reading through these I can't help but wonder what kind of implied setting this set of adversaries make for.  The monsters are not ordered in any real way in Monsters & Treasure, though the idea that they are listed from most common to rarest is a bit appealing, secondly the descriptions of these Monsters are heavy on practical details, such as the weapons mixes of human and humanoid enemies, but sparse on ecology, description or other evocative detail.  It seems interesting to me to take a look at a few of the monsters and to think about how to use, describe and elaborate on the various Monsters & Treasures enemies.  For this I have decided to tie my reskins (minimal I hope) to my Fallen Empire setting (the place where I play around with vanilla tabletop fantasy concepts).  I won’t be commenting on the statistics of these monsters except generally, because OD&D statistics are quite simple and really rather easy to imagine on the fly.


The first entry in Monsters & Treasure is either incredibly monstrous or terribly mundane – Men.  It is also the longest entry and comprises at least seven subcategories (for my purposes Cavemen and Mermen will be separate monsters, but they likely shouldn’t be).  The category of Men includes various dangerous types inclined towards robbery and violence: Bandits, Berserkers, Brigands, Dervishes, Nomads, Buccaneers & Pirates.

This is what Monsters & Treasure has to say about Bandits (I’ve removed excessive mechanical detail):
BANDITS: Although Bandits are normal men, they will have leaders who are supernormal fighters, magical types or clerical types. For every 30 bandits there will be one 4th level Fighting-Man; for every 50 bandits there will be in addition one 5th or 6th level fighter; for every 100 bandits there will be in addition one 8th or 9th level fighter.  If there are over 200 bandits there will be a 50% for a Magic-User [of 10th to 11th level!] and a 25% chance for a Cleric of the 8th level…

[Bandit leaders have a small chance of having magical equipment]

Composition of Force: Light Foot (Leather Armor & Shield) = 40%; Short Bow (Leather Armor) or Light Crossbow (same) = 25%; Light Horse  (Leather Armor & Shield) = 25%; Medium Horse (Chain & Shield, no horse barding) = 20%.  All super-normal individuals with the force will be riding Heavy, barded horses.
Alignment: Neutrality”

Not These Guys - from Dark Souls
Bandits then aren’t scruffy types one encounters here and there a handful at a time, they are legions of warriors, encountered in groups of 3D100 and led by powerful and special NPCs.  Bandits seem to have a degree of military organization and certainly military equipment, albeit not the best, and they aren’t necessarily evil.  My own mechanical inclination is to make the encounter number (for everything in Monsters & Treasure) the number of the monster type residing in a hex rather than a single encounter.  A bandit band of 200 presumably has infrastructure to guard (A camp at least) and not all of its force will be set in ambush (without good reason).  Instead smaller groups of bandits will watch the road, patrol their perimeter and generally act as random encounters, and will warn the camp/fort if they encounter anything dangerous.

What the numbers, organization and powerful leaders of bandits seem to imply is that they aren’t just robbers, highwaymen or thieves, but entire armies of misrule.  That they can roam the countryside (along with their less pleasant offshoots) without interference implies a lack of social order.  In Monsters & Treasure “Bandits” imply two possible things about the setting.  First that there is some sort of rather nasty and titanic war occurring (or perhaps just ended) in the game-world, leaving large bands, full military units up to size of a small battalion roaming the countryside and preying on travelers.  The Second, and perhaps less apocalyptic world building implication from the bandit entry is that the bandits aren’t really ‘bandits’ in the classic sense of highwaymen, but rather the local forces of order outside any sort of legal structure or control.  The local lords, barons, mayor, cult leaders and other leader types have large armed bands of militia or retainers and they tax whatever comes through their domains heavily.