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.
 After Bandits, Monster & Treasure gives us the cryptic “Berserkers” we don’t know much about them, and they are mechanically similar to bandits:

BERSERKERS: Berserkers are simply men mad with battle-lust.  They will have only Fighting-Men with them as explained in the paragraphs above regarding Bandits. They never check morale.  When fighting normal men they ad +2 to their dice score when rolling due to their ferocity.”  

Berserkers then are some real nasty fellows, though neutral, they also fairly similar to “Brigands” which follow them in the monster descriptions:

BRIGANDS: Same as Bandits except +1 morale and Chaos alignment.

The distinction for me then between Bandits, Bersekers and Brigands is one of intent.  Bandits are robbers and broken men trying to survive in a world gone mad.  They aren’t really interested in murder, even if they are casual about it.  Berserkers are perhaps a bit worse, roving, “mad with battle-lust” and not really caring who they fight.  Brigands though are the worst, these are you “The Hills have Eyes” sorts of communities: backward, cruel, and violent – likely cannibals or worshippers of bloody proscribed cults. The Sawney Bean clan or the Thugee Cult would be Brigands, while Phoolon Devi and her band would be bandits. 

Berserkers then are harder to explain.  Why does the setting have large bands of dangerous soldiers (that +2 is presumably a notation from the chainmail system meaning that each berserk fights with a 1 die +2 bonus, compared to a first level fighter’s 1+1 but only has the normal 1 hit die).  I’d translate Berserker ferocity by having Berserkers fight as 3HD creatures, making them rather dangerous in combat.  Berserkers are obviously still soldiers, not the rough militia of banditry.  They are badly equipped, with no missile weapons and only leather armor.  Combined with their stated madness, I think it’s clear that bersekers are military units gone rogue.  They wander the land like locusts, held together only by a common bond of battle forged trust and see the rest of the world as enemies or prey.  There armor and equipment has become a battered parody of what it once was, useless except to them.  Wild eyed scarecrows, far from supply or rest, Berserkers have a ferocity and madness that feels unholy or supernatural and they no longer make any distinction between sides of whatever conflict they were originally involved in.  Berserkers descend on towns, travelers and military units, looting and massacring as it is the only thing they know.  There’s plenty of historical antecedents for this sort of thing, Napoleon’s army in the retreat from Moscow comes to mind as do some of the Japanese atrocities (survival cannibalism especially) of WWII.

This guy - 16th Century Swiss Mercenary
The decline of an orderly, juridical society is worse than barbarism in its pure form.  The populace still remembers and covets the comforts and stability it has lost, and while some localities are able to hang onto the pretense of civilization and civilized ways, these ways get twisted and reinterpreted by necessity, want and isolation. Without central order, regular trade, or safe travel in the Imperial provinces (even the central demesne a few miles outside the Capital) order has devolved to local authorities, and most are venal and grasping.  Sure the bandit band that waylays the party will be mostly made up of lightly armed peasant levies, but its leaders will be whatever is left of the Imperial leadership in the area.  The aldermen, the town vigils, the local march lords, the priests and acolytes of a monastery or shrine and they will force taxation or fines upon travelers that they think they can take in a fight. This means that most bandits are operating under color of law, and given the overly complex nature of Imperial code, they are likely acting within the law and exercising proper authority. Other bandits might just lure travelers into town and murder them for their wealth, depending on just how insular they locals are, and what the dice say, but I think that the general reaction of rural Imperials is not one of violence, but one of threat and legalistic robbery.

This does a couple of things for both the setting and the bandits:  1) It suggests the importance of good language skills.  The ability to speak either Field Sign (thelanguage of the Imperial countryman) or Imperial Law will likely allow the party a good chance of talking themselves out of either being fleeced, murdered, or committing a massacre.  2) Bandits aren’t really just faceless hordes to slaughter, assuming the players have any care about the setting, killing off bandit gangs actually increases the instability of the setting.  Every local Reeve slain in the act of robbery and every thorpe of greedy bumpkins put to the torch, is another town that will soon be overrun with snuffling owlbears, infested by hive ghouls or reduced to a haunted ruin.  Bandit towns might not be friendly, but they provide supplies and relative safety from the other dangers of the road. 

Brigands though, Brigands are especially bad, representing groups that haven’t adapted well to the decline and have lost all veneer of civility. Encountered in the same numbers as bandits, and as well organized, led and equipped, Brigands represent towns that have gone over completely to aggressive, bloodthirsty self-sufficiency.  Brigands will actively hunt travelers in their region, likely to ad to their larder or use in strange rituals.  The best of them might just be slavers, taking captives and savagely abusing them to work the Brigands fields until they die of mistreatment or exhaustion.

Berserkers come in two varieties, both dangerous.  The most common are roving bands of would be conquerors from the Resurgent Kingdoms.  Hellsman Jarls, Western Cataphracts, or even Vheissuian Fire Soldiers originally marching into the Imperial provinces intent on plunder or conquest the land has worked against them.  Perhaps shattered from a single encounter with some kind of intact and well equipped Imperial force (there are few remaining, but a properly equipped squadron of Imperial cavalry on sky blooded chargers and backed by a couple of walking falconets or stone lungers can tear apart fifty times their own number in conventionally armed forces) or slowly ground down by the endless conflict with feral creatures, ineffective militia and corrupting fouled magical waste these bands have become more bestial and predatory then they ever intended.

Second and less common are bands of Imperial soldiers lost in reveries of survival or triumph, pushed into violent insanity by either the horrors of arcanized warfare or the hostile environment of the Imperial hinterlands, these men are little more than battle hungry beasts.  Some of these ‘lost legions’ hold true to long forgotten orders and have persisted for several generations as the magical compulsions implanted in reluctant soldiers are passed to their children.  Other bands are recent, formed from the scrapping of Imperial jails by ambitious prefects, designed to march once through the avenues of the city to assure its citizens of military protection and then chased into the wilderness wearing cardboard and gilt armor with their brains churning and damaged from botched magical phobias of cities and towns.


  1. "Some of these ‘lost legions’ hold true to long forgotten orders and have persisted for several generations as the magical compulsions implanted in reluctant soldiers are passed to their children."


    This is the direst thing I've read in a long time.

    1. Well I decided a while back that one of the design rules for Fallen Empire was that (rather than horror say) its cheif emotional export should be ineffable saddness.