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.

NOMADS: These raiders of the deserts or steppes are similar to Bandits as far as super-normal types and most other characteristics go:

Composition of Forces:
Nomads of the Desert*                     Nomads of the Steppes
Light Horse Lancers           50%  Light Horse Lancers           20%
Light Horse Bowmen          20%  Light Horse Bowmen          50%

Medium Horse Lancers      30%  Medium Horse Lancers      10%

                                                     Medium Horse Bowmen     20%

* Encampments will be guarded by an additional 20-40 medium foot with composite bows

Clearly Nomads are better equipped than bandits, with horses if nothing else, and both their name and order of battle suggests that they are far more mobile as well.  Nomads then don’t really need to stand in for a particular culture or historical model, but rather they can represent any mobile, mounted force: the scouting wing of an army, merchants and guards, pilgrims (though this is perhaps more appropriate for Dervishes), well-equipped refugees, or even nomadic tribal peoples. 

The Nomad entry has an element of historical determinism or even racialism (not racism here, not exactly, but definitely the categorization of humanity into ‘types’) that one finds in early Dungeons & Dragons.  I don’t know if it’s a product of the Wargamming mind, always breaking historical conflicts into troop types, and rarely thinking about the historical context - running WWII conflicts where perfectly affable folks have SS officer avatars (which is fine, I enjoyed Panzer General II in the 90’s without ever feeling sympathy for the depravity of National Socialism, but perhaps there is something “unhemlich” about it) or where the battle of Rorke’s Drift is simply an interesting conflict (really one could replace the Impi with a Roman Legion I think) without the baggage of colonialism.  That is to say there’s an element of using historical peoples without context or consideration and this is why one’s fantasy campaign is stocked with 1960’s central casting sheikhs and Bedouins.  It is something I find irksome.

It’s not irksome because of race, or at least not irksome solely because of the considerations around race, it’s irksome because it’s lazy.  Sticking stereotypical Mongols into one’s campaign – the old (but not entirely incorrect) bloodthirsty scourge of god, steppe raider types, is lazy and boring.  Using Norse berserks in furs that plunder the coasts of your fantasy England (unless it’s perhaps actually a fantasy England) intent on dying in battle to enter Valhalla, when they aren’t carrying off gold altar sets and  winsome nuns,  is lazy and boring.  It is lazy and boring because with about ten minutes of research on Viking or Mongol history and culture on the internet one could find out way to make these clichés far more fascinating and multi-dimensional. Entirely absent from any consideration of why it’s not cool or mentally healthy (for the person doing it I mean) to casually steep themselves in 19th and early 20th century stereotypes while living in a 21st century world, your game will be better if you consider the cultural underpinnings of your subarctic sea-raiders and their goals. It’s even better if you start mixing and matching historical factors…

What if your Berserkers are both a bit Norse and a bit like the Minoan Sea-People that went after Egypt in Biblical times.  They are there because of a volcanic disaster that they ascribe to the wrath of a sea-god whose bovine son they imprisoned in a giant crumbled palace.  They have bronze and use galleys (with mystical beast head prows perhaps). These Berserkers then are channeling the sea-god’s wrath, and use a bull theme.  Heck a few are were-bulls. 

Likewise, what happens when you add a Wild West gloss to one’s nomads - no not the Plain’s Tribes - they become settlers in wagon trains from a distant land, rapacious, but with some new crops and earnest in their desire to peacefully settle and thrive.  They set up towns, but their own arcane laws are badly enforced and they don’t respect the local customs, god or laws.  They have some kind of religious mission to create a string of strange towers or something (let’s not say iron towers or make it a clear railroad reference). If the party or local powers wipes them out or destroys the towers then magically forces of advanced blue turbaned nomad raiders appear intent on waging merciless genocidal war against the locals.  We needn’t make this a heavy handed Cowboys and Indians style thing though, that’s just one idea, but I think the central idea is clear – by stepping past the Nomad or Berserker stereotype one can get back to remembering that one is creating a fantasy world.  By mixing up one’s historical references and combining multiple ones together to create fantastic peoples one can get unique or at least not entirely clichéd ideas.  By actually looking into the real peoples who one is borrowing historical customs and ideas from one can add depth and often unexpected elements that are both strange and fascinating.  Likewise when the GM isn’t thinking of fantasy peoples as stand in for historical ones it tends to allow the fantastic to creep in a bit more and these efforts also seem less likely to leave a bad feeling of stereotyping or  “cultural appropriation”. 

Back to ‘Monsters and Treasure’, where the lack of detail implies that the reader needs to define its monsters appearances, goals and place in the game world. Dervishes are more interesting than Nomads, being both lawful and religious fanatics.  Presumably these guys are somehow a pastiche of cheesy Islamic stereotypes from Lawrence of Arabia.  They don’t need to be! Perhaps they’re the blue clad (the lower halves of their faces dyed by the indigo dye of their turbans - assuming they wear turbans?) killers that come when one disrupts the nomad settler trains or teleportation towers?

DERVISHES: Dervishes are fanatically religious nomads who fight as Berserkers, never checking morale, with +1 on hit dice, and otherwise as Nomads, except they will always be led by an 8th – 10th level Cleric and are Lawful in alignment.

Skeletal Africa Corps?
Really there is little constraint on what exactly your Dervishes are
That’s it, nothing about white burnouses, wild eyed stallions and ivory handled scimitars – just very strong religious types, led by a powerful cleric.  To me they sound less like a group of nomadic fanatics and more like am armed monastic order.

As a random encounter, Nomads are pretty much like bandits, except wandering and not explicitly devoted to robbery, Dervishes are scary.  Sure they’re lawful, but fanatically so, making them a danger to most adventuring parties and their poor moral compass.  What’s interesting about Dervishes as well is that they (with Treants, Golden Dragons, Werebears and possibly griffons and rocs) are the only lawful monsters in “Monsters & Treasure”. This is a great place to ask yourself what ‘Lawful’ means in one’s campaign.

Pirates are inexplicably popular, and this is true in Monsters & Treasure as well. Buccaneers and Pirates are both listed, but they aren’t very interesting.  They are bandits of the seas, and in “Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (Booklet Volume 3) the only ‘Men’ one can encounter on rivers or presumably at sea.   Otherwise Buccaneers and Pirates are bandits, and should have the same sort of leaders.

BUCCANEERS: Buccaneers are water-going Banditsin all respects except composition of their force.
Composition of Force: Light Foot = 60%; Light Crossbow = 30%, and Heavy Crossbow (Chain Mail) 10%, crossbows are heavy.”

PIRATES: Pirates are the same as Buccaneers except they are aligned with Chaos.”

It appears that these two groups are separately listed from Bandits only to describe their equipment, which makes some sense, (they have only a 20% chance of drowning in leather armor) but is really intuitive, and unnecessary. 

Now ships aren’t mentioned for Buccaneers or Pirates, but in Volume 3 of the box set, “The Underground & Wilderness Adventures” there’s some indication of how big a crew various types of ship have in D&D.  The smallest sailed ship has 20, and military style ships 75 (for a longship) to 170 (for a large galley.  Obviously Pirates and Buccaneers can easily have a fleet of several ships, but in all likelihood they will be on a single galley or sailed warship.  Again there’s the distinction between ‘normal’ men (Buccaneers) and men devoted to chaos (Pirates).  The term Buccaneer is used here perhaps because the historical Buccaneers were less sea-borne robbers and more Anti-Spanish auxiliaries operating under dubious letters of marque from England or France in the early-modern Americas.  Now this distinction is mostly pointless, except that the Buccaneers have often been made out to be heroic sorts, rather than evil and bloodthirsty types.

I don’t object to using sea-raiders, but I’m not sure that they are really anything other than bandits.


After the shipless seaborne bandits things get weirder in the list of Men.  Cavemen and Mermen are both listed as types of men , and thus provide the first fantastical monsters in ‘Monsters and Treasure’.

CAVEMEN: Cavemen fight as 2nd level Fighting-Men, armed with weapons equal to Morning Stars. They have no armor but get 2 Hit Dice.  They have-1 morale. Alignment is always Neutrality.

Cavemen are much tougher and stronger than normal men, though they lack class leveled leadership and decent equipment and have a tendency to run away if things get tough.  These cavemen fit the classic stereotype of brutes in spotted hides armed with tree branch clubs, and that’s fine, but they’re so far from the human enemy baseline that they resemble humanoid monsters rather than bandits or other human foes.  Their neutrality is also an interesting inclusion, and many modules have used Cavemen (TSR changed their alignment to Lawful at some point) as potential allies or captives to rescue.  I don’t know that this new stat-line is especially useful for modeling primitive humans, or even Neanderthals as it’s so far removed from normal.  My own inclinations would be to treat bands of Neolithic hunter gatherers as normal humans with a few leveled hunters, leaders and shaman and very poor equipment.  There are reasons that less technologically advanced peoples have been conquered or annihilated by those with better technology (principally numbers), and the Cavemen don’t really make sense in this context.  These creatures are something not entirely human.

MERMEN: Mermen are similar to Berserkers in most respects, but they fight at -1 on land.  They are armed with tridents and darts (50/50).  Armor class is equal to leather armor.

What’s Interesting to me about the Mermen entry is that it suggests that they are both the more dangerous type of ‘Men’ encountered, the ‘Berserker’ who gets some hefty bonuses, and that they are only mildly discomforted by fighting on land.  Clearly these ‘Mermen’ aren’t fish tailed sorts in the service of Neptune.  

Both Cavemen and Mermen present slightly different interesting clues about the White Box implied world.  First the seas are swarming with pirates, entire nations adrift at sea, but below there are Mermen who occasionally stride to the surface for their own unfathomable purposes.  Second there are Cave Men, primate bestial humans in the wilds - stronger, tougher and yet simpler and more easily frightened by adversity.  When combined with the number of dinosaurs that show up in early Dungeons & Dragons there’s also a sort of Burroughs’ Lost World feel.  The world of the White Box has dinosaurs and they are common in swamps, while cavemen appear only rarely in mountains (along with some prehistoric giant mammals.  This brings to mind Howard’s Conan stories where a dinosaur takes the place of a dragon at least once (Red Nails) and which are set “between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars”.


Fan art by Nick Kole for China Mieville's Bas-Lag
'The Scar' is basically the source of this section.
The Ancient Empire had navies as well as its legions - flotillas of stone ships, raised by magic and armed with the flame casters and lightning eruptors as well as the now nearly mythical sakers and falconets.  While the Successor Empire preserved as much of Imperial Navy as it could “the Great White Fleet” was seized and ultimately scuttled at Green Flow Morass off the Eastern coast of the continent among pestilent mangroves claimed by the Resurgent Kingdoms.  The Successor Empire has not been a true naval power since the destruction of their inherited fleet, but this is not simply a result of the loss of naval dominance and the Empire’s profound myopia - the seas are a place of chaos and horror.  Magical sinks of incredible size remain where the sea and island battles that characterized the last stages of the Sundering War were fought.  Maelstroms and whirlpools persist where flocks of Demons and squadrons of Seraphim struggled and died, their arcane infused corpses crashing incorruptible into the waves to sink and forever leach sorcerous radiations.  Worse is the constant run off from the blasted lands, estuaries and currents running dolm, ulfire and necromantic purple with sour sorcery as they twine in the ocean seas.  The taint may be lessening in the molten cities and fecund sorcerous overgrowths that spread across the Old Empire’s heartland, but that is only because every stream eventually runs to the sea, carrying with it the uncanny, malignant pollution of rotten magic on world destroying scale. The sea is now laid bare, open territory for the Resurgent Kingdoms merchant navies of privateers, cunning Imperial merchant captains and even the few ancient warship still afloat and in the Imperial Service or as independent powers.  Sea stories and sorrowful shanties hint at greater forces on the open ocean, refugee flotillas of ancient, slat and kelp encrusted Imperial ships, lost or deserted in the Sundering War, fled from the Empire’s dying cities and laying derelict far South and West of the Successor Empire - brooding, nations afloat, beyond the horizon.  

Of the men found on the seas of the Fallen Empire, a traveler’s best hope is to encounter a naval patrol or a merchant vessel.  The only true naval ships are the few coastal monitors still in service of the Empire and those ships, both the ancient stone ancient and modern wooden hulled imitations of the Maritime Province, a Resurgent despotism founded by the Eastern Squadron of the Imperial Navy and the local reaver princes who suborned them to their causes.  The Maritimes of course claim to be the true Empire and operate a larger navy of ancient stone ships than any other nation in the world from their island kingdom; though the Successor Empire still claims its navy larger, counting in its line of battle those vessels that lie rotten and half sunk in ordinary at its harbors and abandoned bases. The Maritime function on something akin to ancient Imperial naval discipline, and will not kill those these encounter, only ransom them and their vessels under the ready falsehood of tariff.

The distinction between privateers and merchants in the Resurgent Kingdoms is non-existent and while privateers are unlikely to sink those they encounter outright, they are fond of seizing any vessel that they can take by force or threat.  The cargo will be plundered, the ship impressed into the merchant fleet of whatever kingdom or concern captured it and the crew impressed, enslaved or ransomed.  Entire wars, with hundreds of ships on a side have been fought by these privateer flotillas, mostly over the trade rights to the few Imperial ports remaining.

Legends of ghost fleets beyond the horizon are not entirely myths, as in the heart of the corrupted seas dwell nations of fishers and pirates in ships of whale bone, driftwood and magic.  Their capitals are the weed decked halls of ancient stone dreadnaughts, monumental flotsam adrift at the center of Sargasso islands. These pirates are increasingly common and have proven almost universally to be savage half-mad cannibals, still loyal to the Demon Emperors of the fall.    

Worse still then the pirates and detritus of the Sundering War that hunt above the waves, are the remnants below.  Both sides of the war modified men or created man-like things to fight underwater, twisting them with magic: using crude mass vivamancy to add sponge and coral in place of organs, or alchemy to change and transform vat grown thralls into submarine soldiers for the island to island conflict that the war became in its final years.  When the war ended, or at least trailed off into a conflict between the exhausted Successor Empire, the feuding demonic warlords that remained after old Emperor’s death, and Resurgent scavengers come to pick the Empire’s bones, these undersea fighters remained.  Adapted to life in the depths, they simply wandered away from their units, or deserted in mass, finding a paradise only they could inhabit among the reed beds and coral mazes of the blue atoll waters they once fought for, and knowing that their commanders or masters could never really follow them.

Few of these “Mermen” bred true, but some did, forming tribes and villages in concealed inlets of coral islands where the warm shallow waters and plentiful fish provide them a life of ease.  These undersea peoples are of varied form, from crayfish bodied centaurs to men encrusted with poison dart firing corals, but none are truly sea creatures, all have the bodies of men, modified but still fundamentally unsuited to aquatic living.  Mermen often raid and occasionally trade with surface dwellers, offering pearls, coral and relics form shipwrecks in exchange for bronze ingots and ceramics.    


Like Bandits, Nomads and Dervishes in Fallen Empire are simply somewhat mercenary forces of order.  Unlike Bandits, these mobile groups are not usually dependent on a town or localized in any way, the least dangerous represent merchant caravans or pilgrims while the more dangerous are the private squadrons of Imperial or Resurgent nobles.  Most of these groups are likely to be in conflict with local authorities (See the earlier discussion of Bandits in Fallen Empire) and it is very common for especially greedy localities to push a trade caravan too far resulting in small short wars which can include up to several hundred soldiers.  As a precaution to prevent local taxation, levy or toll claims from escalating into open battle, most merchant caravans and many noble’s retinues bring with them at least one scholar of Imperial Law or someone who claims to have broader Imperial Authority.

The place of Dervishes in Fallen Empire is far more warlike then the merchant or even noble bands that ride the Central Provinces.  Recently large groups of well armored religious crusaders in the service of one or more of the pagan religions of the Resurgent Kingdoms have poured into the Successor Empire.  These bands are often terribly destructive, burning out villages and farms and often enslaving those they convert by the sword.  It can take several months or years before a Crusader band runs into an Imperial force (usually a combination of militias and the household forces of several nobles) that is capable of destroying them, as the fanatics will often fight to the last man and almost never follow the languid “rules” of Imperial war.  While feuds are worked out and forces raised to stop such crusader incursions fortune hunters or other mercenaries will frequently be hired to track and harass the crusaders, though this is often of only limited benefit.    


One of the key elements of Fallen Empire is the existence of thaumaturgic factors or factories.  Hive like structures of stone or spun metal that the sorcerer oligarchs of the Empire once operated to produce goods and luxuries far beyond the abilities of contemporary craft or magic.  These factors were inhabited by magically created and altered races of men, though the Empire never recognized them as such.  With most of the sorcerers, their apprentices and bloodlines gone or fallen into decay many of these thrall species, magically changed and twisted, have gone feral.  Many bands of feral thralls or drones still inhabit the crumbling factors, some even continue to produce products that the canny and fearless can trade for, but most have descended into a strange world of ritual and violence.  In most cases the magical infrastructure that created and cared for the factory thralls has fallen with their masters, and without means of substance or direction provided by their creator many have turned monstrous, cannibal or uncontrollably violent.

Some of the less degenerate drone colonies have managed to make their way in the larger society of the Fallen Empire, selling their resilience and strength and intuitive abilities to use ancient machines, others remain in the wilderness, skulking about the ruins of their factors and eking out a primitive existence. Feral thralls of this sort are perhaps recreating a human society and have reached the hunter gatherer level, impressive, considering that they started with only the drives and prohibitions magically implanted as instinct, and intended to make them placid tireless workers. These feral drones tend to be large, strong and very dangerous, but retain some of their inbred docility and will only rarely attack travelers.